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It’s a common tale among new racers who are looking for setup tips, but are often afraid to ask veteran drivers and instead listen to chatter in the paddock.
Tommy Lo has seen it too often, and that’s why he’ll freely share his setup advice with anyone who asks. He believes freely sharing information will help grow the sport and increase competition on the track.
“People keep a lot of secrets close to the chest, and I think that actually works against them,” said Lo, who races in NASA’s NorCal Region. “I have run across a lot of people where once you start sharing, you learn a lot from other folks, and it really accelerates everything you want to do.”
That’s why Lo launched a driver-mentoring program for the region, and if successful, he hopes other NASA regions will adopt it. The program helps drivers improve their car’s performance and learn the basics of building a successful race team.
Larry Moore of Reno, Nev., was the first student to go through the mentoring program. He filled out a questionnaire and talked with Lo on the phone with the focus on braking and tire management, two areas Moore wanted to improve. At the track, Lo and Moore reviewed data and looked at the Spec E30 setup. With some minor changes, Moore shaved 1.5 seconds off his qualifying time.
“I thought it would be beneficial for an intermediate person who is looking to get better and race a little more competitively,” Moore said. “They were willing to share information to help me understand setup a little bit better, help me understand the dynamics of my car a little bit better, and tire management was definitely key.”
What makes the 38-year-old Lo qualified to lead a mentoring program? Lo has been racing since 2003 and over the years has competed in RX-7s, Spec Miatas, Honda Challenge and now in Performance Touring, finding success every step of the way. He’s even built — with help from teammates — some of the cars he’s raced.
Lo’s interest in racing started as freshman at the University of California, Davis, where he joined the school’s Formula SAE program. Putting his mechanical engineering major to use, Lo and fellow students designed and built a Formula car to compete against other universities around the country.
“A bunch of us graduated at the same time and realized how bored we were after we graduated, and we were looking around to do something with cars,” said Lo, who returned to the Bay Area and lives in Sunnyvale, Calif.
He volunteered for the group that did timing and scoring for NASA, and was part of the stats team for the first 25 Hours of Thunderhill. His group developed LED light packs to replace the flags for better nighttime visibility.
Starting out in racing, Lo and his friends Paul Ko, John Hu and Mike Stocklin formed a collective in which they could share parts, provide setup knowledge and paddock together.
“Early on we realized that we can’t outspend the established folks that are winning the races,” said Lo, who is an engineering program manager for Northrop Grumman, designing and manufacturing naval propulsion equipment. “We had to leverage what we had—engineering backgrounds, so we had to rely on our technical background.”
The group built cars with parts from scrap yards, not just to keep costs down, but for the challenge and for fun.
“People look at racing on TV and say wow, ‘I really need a six-figure budget’” to go racing, Lo said. “But at a grassroots level it’s really how you maximize, I think, your budget and your creativity.”
Lo will do practice sessions at a track weeks before racing with NASA, and always makes sure his car is prepped and ready to go before a race. The hard work helped Lo earn a National Championship and a spot in the 2015 Mazda Race of NASA Champions, where he finished eleventh.
“My mentality is if I’m going to war, my knife is going to be sharp,” he said. “I’m not going to shortchange myself. Racing is a big investment where I don’t think you’re maximizing the opportunity if you’re not prepared.”
Friend and racer Albert Butterfield says that Lo sets a high standard at the track but also is willing to share most of his secrets to success.
“He will push you,” said Butterfield, who competes in TTD. “He will challenge you from the engineering side to the driving side, and to me that’s what the spirt of this whole thing is about.”
Lo calls his time out on the track “therapy,” and credits his wife, Kristi, and 6-year-old daughter, Isabelle, for giving him the time to pursue racing. Racing was one of the few bright spots for Lo when his mother, Stella, was fighting cancer and eventually lost her battle. He turned his grief into a fundraiser for cancer research at a NASA race later that season.
Teammate Jack HoSee said that Lo experiments on the cars and frequently makes changes to improve performance. Lo’s philosophy is that racers spend all this money on adjustable parts, so why not take advantage of it?
“I think having a teammate is great,” HoSee said. “We both help each other with work on the car, transport, fees, etc. Of course I probably benefit more because I’m able to learn from his driving at every opportunity and he has years of experience in setting up the car. Most of the time I jump in and just concentrate on driving.”
Lo feels it’s important to give back to the sport, and credits fellow racer Barry Hartzel for setting the example on sharing setups.
“He was a perfect example, where he was just a wide-open book,” Lo said. “He was ready to share and I thought that was just mind blowing. It was just a good example for me to follow.”