Time Out With James Brown

James Brown helps Hannah Grisham settle into his Morningstar Racing Spec Miata at Willow Springs International Raceway in March.

NASA SoCal’s James Brown started as director of the Teen Mazda Challenge in 2018, after TMC founder Ron Cortez died suddenly last January, and the program has grown in 2019 to include more regions and more benefits to the young drivers who participate.

Brown got his start in racing in karting with his son, Nova, who advanced into the Teen Mazda Challenge in 2012 and picked up his first win at Auto Club Speedway in 2013. Tragically, Nova was killed in a motorcycle crash his hometown of Ventura, Calif., in September 2014.

James began racing Nova’s car in 2015 and 2016, but in 2017, he stepped out of the driver’s seat and began mentoring a young driver coming out of karting, Hannah Grisham, and renting her a car to campaign in the Southern California Region. Grisham also took her first Spec Miata win at Auto Club Speedway in 2018, and just picked up two more wins at Willow Springs in March 2019. We caught up with James to find out more about the Teen Mazda Challenge.

Q: You’re the national director of the Teen Mazda Challenge program. Why did you take that on?

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A: My son and I had started competing in the TMC program about nine years ago when the founder Ron Cortez was running it. It was a key part of our plan and attempt for Nova to become a professional driver. Notice that I used the word “plan.”

A great dynamic of the TMC program is that many of the teams are father-son teams. Being with my son and working together with him is why we got into racing in the first place. For me, there was nothing better than the feeling of working with a young driver and watching them develop not only as a good drivers, but also as business professionals.

That experience was not unidirectional. These young drivers have taught me so much and have added color and vibrancy to my life. After the passing of TMC founder Ron Cortez, I was worried about the future of TMC. I didn’t want to see this wonderful program come to an end, and I know Ron would have been disappointed if we as a community let it end with him.

So, I offered to take the role as director and work on the details of continuing the program under the NASA structure. It turns out that I didn’t need to be worried. There were many people that Ron touched in his life that were driven to see TMC continue.

Q: How do you explain to someone that the program wasn’t designed to “steal” people from kart racing?

A: The people most worried and interested in that question are the karting organizations. The karters coming into sports car racing never even consider it. What I would say to karting organizations is to look at drivers and racing as a funnel with karting being at the top of the funnel. These young drivers dream of racing F1, LeMans, IndyCar, NASCAR, German Touring Cars, and all sorts of open- and closed-wheel racecars. That path usually starts with them taking the wheel of their very first kart.

Through a variety of factors, that funnel narrows as they work their way to that dream of becoming a professional driver. Some drivers will never move past kart racing. Sometimes it will be because of economic and other logistical reasons, and sometimes it is because they just love the pure unadulterated experience of kart racing once they become involved in it. But some will continue to move through that funnel toward their dream.

What karting organizers need to consider is that it is the dream of driving the races of their heroes is what swells the karting ranks, and that only a percentage of that influx of new drivers will move on to other forms of racing. So instead of resisting the lure of sports car racing they should be promoting it with the understanding that they are creating desire to race in young people across the country, and thereby growing their own ranks.

We wonder why there are so many more European drivers that fill F1 and other series seats than American drivers. The answer to that is European adults love racing! They have grown up watching it with their fathers and the love of it was passed on to their kids who then dream of doing it themselves. That dream swells the European karting ranks, which then produces bumper crops of talented young drivers. If we inspire the love of racing, then the karting community and all other forms of racing will thrive in America as it does In Europe. Advancing to car racing is part of the cycle, not the end of it.

Clockwise from bottom left: James Brown reviews data at the NASA Championships at Circuit of the Americas in September 2018 with James and Dennis Holloway and Hannah Grisham.

Q: NASA has done a lot of communication about Teen Mazda Challenge, but what do you think are the most important points of the program?

A: First, the opportunity and support that Mazda provides with the TMC program is unmatched anywhere else in the United States. Not just one, but many TMC drivers will be given the chance to take that first step up on the ladder to becoming a professional driver by competing in the Mazda Road to 24 Shootout. The MRT24 shootout winner earns a scholarship to compete in the Battery Tender Global Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires.

Secondly, something that has been very important to me is to create a ladder system that is sustainable by the drivers. Too often drivers win a scholarship to move up and, unless they win immediately in their rookie season, they find themselves unable to continue their progression and ultimately move back down or become so discouraged that they leave the sport.

I think it is unreasonable to expect every good young driver to step up to a new platform and immediately begin winning against drivers that have many seasons with that platform. Mazda has done a great job in mitigating that with their rookie of the year award that helps the driver come back and race another year. All they have to do is beat other rookie drivers that are in the same boat as they are.

NASA has also stepped up in a big way to help with their driver advancement program. The top placing TMC driver in each region is awarded free entry fees for the following season in their region. This allows the TMC driver that was the regional champion to come back and try again to win the big prize of the MRT24 shootout if they are not selected as the winner of it.

Q: How much time should young drivers plan to devote to the Teen Mazda Challenge to achieve at least some measure of success?

A: That depends on the driver’s definition of success. The typical TMC driver has multiple years of racing experience driving karts when they first become involved with TMC. Some of drivers have many more years of competitive starts than most of the adult Spec Miata regional drivers. This experience quickly allows them to have a modicum of success in driving a sports car. But becoming a professional sports car driver that represents a brand such as Mazda requires so much more than being a great driver.

The work off the track will quickly eclipse the amount of time they spend behind the wheel if they want to be successful. To be successful, they will need to develop relationships and business opportunities that will support their racing career. In this aspect of a racing career, the amount of time you put into your program will be directly proportional to what you get out of it and ultimately how successful you are.

Going back to the driving portion of the question, though, Spec Miata is the most competitive racing in the country. Some of the finest drivers race this series. It takes time even for talented drivers with many years of karting experience to learn how to flow speed on the track with these momentum cars. In my experience, a driver will be with the TMC program for two to three years before they are ready to move up to MX-5 Cup racing.

Q: Can you point to something that has surprised you since becoming the TMC national director?

A: I was surprised long ago by how mature and professional the TMC drivers as a whole are. You would think that after eight years or so of being surprised by young drivers that I would be used to it and expect it. But every year I am still surprised by these drivers. I can’t imagine myself ever having the composure they have on and off the track when I was their age.

James Brown coaches Hannah Grisham at the NASA Championships at Circuit of the Americas in September 2018.

Q: What would you say to racers who might not want teen drivers racing with them in Spec Miata?

A: As I mentioned before, many of the TMC drivers have years of racing experience that probably exceeds the experience of many of the adult drivers you enjoy racing today. Their adaptability and pure driving talent is startling and, if you give them a chance, I believe they will impress you in the same way they have impressed me.

I would also say that the older drivers have an opportunity to mentor and help develop these drivers and that in doing so their own lives will be enriched by the experience. The TMC drivers are on a journey to become professional drivers. That does lend a sense of urgency and mandatory aggression to their development programs and driving that can be disconcerting to some. But that urgency and aggression is needed because they have very few years in which to achieve that dream. We are seeing F1 drivers as young as 17, with many of them being groomed for it before they are teenagers.

A great mentor will be able to see the need for urgency in their programs, but temper that urgency with the wisdom and experience that many of our NASA regional drivers possess. If an adult driver is concerned, I would challenge them to get involved with the drivers and address the concern and help them reach their goals and dreams that we as adult drivers once had or wished that we had.

Q: What has been the most interesting thing you have learned since taking on this program?

A: I guess the most interesting things I have learned are things I’ve learned about myself. We as adults are tasked with raising our kids to be good people, but for me, the process of trying to do that has resulted in them teaching me how to be a better person. And this happens for me not just by the interactions with the drivers but with all of the people involved with the program young and older alike that have taught me so many things about them and myself that I am very grateful for.

Image courtesy of James Brown

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