Tomas Mejia was a freshman in high school when he competed in his first race with NASA after growing up in karting.
The first race can be a ball of nerves, especially for young drivers like Mejia running in the highly competitive Spec Miata class and facing drivers who have gear that is older than the then 15-year-old Mejia.
“I definitely remember being a little bit scared of being so close to everyone in the cars, and I wasn’t super comfortable with the car,” Mejia said. “After the first race, I quickly got more confident being door-to-door with everyone and being inches away.”
Now an 18-year-old college student, Mejia is part of the youth movement looking to make their mark on the track and in NASA’s Teen Mazda Challenge. Mejia competes in NASA’s NorCal Region, yet attends community college in Southern California.
When school is in session, it’s a delicate balance between racing, traveling and getting an education. Mejia leaves after his last class on Thursday to be on the track Friday for testing. After a weekend of racing, he’s back in class on Monday. It would be convenient to race in the SoCal Region, Mejia’s Spec Miata and race support is up north, including his favorite track Thunderhill Raceway Park in Willows.
“Last year we had a lot of problems with the car just going into the weekend,” Mejia said. “This year we’re focusing on getting as much testing done beforehand and making sure nothing goes wrong and everything is put into place.”
The change has paid dividends for Mejia, who currently sits in third place in the 71-car Spec Miata class for the NorCal Region. Six of the top 10 drivers are in the Teen Mazda Challenge, including current class leader Wyatt Couch.
Prior to joining Teen Mazda Challenge, Mejia started karting at age 5 near his home in Danville, Calif. Mejia found success in SKUSA and routinely finished on the podium. After taking second place at the SKUSA SuperNationals in Las Vegas with a field of 90 karts, including international competitors, Mejia knew he was ready for the next level.
“The goal was always to go into cars as soon as I could,” he said. “When I was around 13, we went to a NASA event and just asked if it would be OK to race because I was only 13. They were like, ‘Go for it. We’d love to have you.”
The Teen Mazda Challenge was designed for young racers from the karting ranks such as Mejia. Open to racers between ages 13 and 20, the program offers them a chance to earn a $110,000 scholarship to race in the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich. Even if a racer doesn’t win the scholarship, they still learn marketing and sponsorship skills, data analysis, networking and media training.
“We’re trying to make connections and branch out in order to be able to progress in racing because it’s not necessarily all about talent,” Mejia said. “I wish it was, but there’s a lot more that goes into it and that taught me a lot of what needs to be done in order to get there.”
Brennan Stammer has been racing against Mejia since their karting days and now in Spec Miata. Both have become good friends and help each other out on the track even locked in a tight points race for Teen Mazda Challenge.
“He’s just a really friendly person when you’re around him and then on the track he’s very serious and does his best to be as fast as he can,” Stammer said. “I’ve personally never seen him make any really dumb dive bombs or anything like that. He’s very patient, very smart and calculated whenever he races.”
While some drivers prefer to wait for their opportunity in a race, Mejia’s goal is to get out front as quickly as possible. Mejia studies data and video for different lines and strategies for the corners, but his goal remains the same.
“The way that I look at it is the longer that I spend time behind other people, the longer that all my interactions are going to drag out and it’s just going to bite me in the butt later on,” he said. “I try to make the moves as quickly as I can and whenever I see an opportunity, I’ll take it.”
Data and video are central to Mejia’s effort to improve as a driver as well as training on a simulator. Mejia uses the simulator to work on his throttling and braking, but doesn’t feel like it accurately reflects his experience on the track,
“When you’re in the moment in the car, sometimes I don’t recognize the mistakes that I’m making and that’s something that I’ve realized, especially after watching the video multiple times,” Mejia said. “I’ll be too far away from the apex or I won’t be using all the track or I notice that I’m losing grip in some areas where I shouldn’t be. That’s something that I notice in the video.”
Stammer said he’ll visit Mejia in the paddock after a race and will often find his friend busy studying video. “He’s pretty busy after each race studying the video and data,” Stammer said. “He wants to make sure he’s doing what he can do to be the best, that’s for sure.”
Mejia plans to transfer to a four-year university after getting his associate’s degree, but he plans to get into professional racing. It’s something he’s dreamed about since he started karting as a 5-year-old.
“My goal is to be in professional racing, but my education is just as important to me,” he said. “I’m doing everything in my power in order to make that work.”
|Racing Class:||Spec Miata|
|Sponsors:||Pledge to Humanity|
|Favorite Food:||Chipotle Burrito|
|Favorite TV show:||(currently) “Peaky Blinders”|
|Favorite Book:||“1984” by George Orwell|
|Favorite Track:||Thunderhill and VIR|
|Dream Racecar:||F1 car obviously, but I’d be just as happy with a GT3 like a BMW M4 GT3. If you’d consider it a racecar, the Bugatti Bolide is pretty rad.|