At the 2019 NASA Championships Presented by Toyo Tires, James Wheeler scored the fastest lap in Friday qualifying, won the qualifying race on Saturday and the Thunder Roadster GTR Championship on Sunday. In that race, the top four drivers finished within 4.8 seconds of on another.
Not bad for a guy who just got his NASA racing license this year.
Of course, Wheeler had begun building his skills long before he got his comp license, starting with hill climbs and karting in his native U.K. He’s also driven his Caterham 7 on track for many years with Porsche Clubs and NASA, and has since entered competition in Thunder Roadster GTR in notable fashion. Wheeler took seven race wins, three track records and several pole positions in 2019.
Wheeler, 48, is married with two children from a previous marriage and he now lives in Powell, Ohio. We caught up with Wheeler to ask him about his latest accomplishments.
Q: You had a pretty dominant performance at the NASA Championships at Mid-Ohio this year. What was that like?
A: Pretty unbelievable, to be honest. Although I had done the August NASA Great Lakes event at Mid-Ohio and set a new lap record, and took my first wins, I knew the competition would be close for the NASA Championships. Everything seemed to go right for me, though from Friday when I drove seven laps better than my lap record. One of my closest challengers, Brian Bohlander, had an engine issue and his replacement engine didn’t have the same pace, and several of the other fast drivers didn’t know Mid-Ohio as well as I did.
Jason Oehler and I had a plan to try to work together in the qualifying race and the Championship race to get a gap from the rest of the field and then battle it out between us, and apart from the pace car periods, that plan worked well. Jason pushed me hard, and but for his one minor mistake, the finish would have been even closer. I felt like I almost dislocated my shoulder with all the fist pumping in celebration when I held on for the win. Just incredible!
Q: You only applied for a provisional license in June of 2019, and yet you beat a lot of genuinely quick Thunder Roadster drivers. What are you not telling us?
A: I have been a car addict from when I was very little, always reading car magazines, watching racing and my dad taking me to F1 races. He even nicknamed me ‘Joe’ after Jody Scheckter, the last Ferrari world champion before Michael Schumacher. My dad was chairman of High Performance Club in the UK, which teaches safe high-performance driving on the road, so some of that rubbed off on me, and the karting and hill-climbing taught me about the limit and basic car control.
Ross Bentley’s “Speed Secrets” book is my bible, and a lot of time driving on track, especially within NASA Great Lakes has given me the knowledge and the experience to hit the ground running. There are a lot of very talented drivers in the Great Lakes region, and they are always there to offer advice and suggestions when you need them — an extended family, definitely!
Q: You drove the car that won the Thunder Roadster Championship at Circuit of The Americas in 2018. How large a role did your car play in your 2019 Championship?
A: It’s funny, when I bought that car from Gary Tinker, who won in 2018 and builds these cars, everyone said “Well, that car won the Championship last year, so if you’re not fast, we know it’s you!” So, there was some pressure with that. The Thunder Roadster GTR series is a spec class, which is what I wanted. I didn’t want to lose to someone who had a bigger budget to develop the car. Gary is an exceptional driver, though, and I talked with him about how the car handled, what the good points were and how you needed to drive it to get the best out of it. I then practiced that during the season, gradually getting more competitive. Mid-Ohio is my home track, and I now know how to get the best out of the car, so everything came together for me, luckily!
Q: You’re also an instructor for the Great Lakes Region. How does that experience inform you as a racer?
A: You’re always learning, and the best part about NASA Great Lakes is that there are no egos. People are always willing to discuss anything to do with driving and racing. I instruct in HPDE3, and the program that has been developed by Robin Burnett, Eric Meyer, Jay Andrew and Jeff Henderson really teaches situational awareness, driving close to other cars, mock starts, flag drills, how to use data and how to improve lap times through braking techniques and high roll-speed corner entry. I get to spend a lot of time in the passenger seat with some incredibly talented drivers, and that all helps immensely! It also meant that when I did competition school, I was ready for the drills and not over-awed when I started racing.
Q: You mentioned that your wife encouraged you to race at Mid-Ohio. What was her reaction when she found out how well you did?
A: Susan was my biggest supporter at the track, jumping up and down like crazy when I won. She knows how much I love this sport and just wanted me to be happy — she got her wish! I also had another motivation to win: I lost my granddad in August who passed at the grand old age of 100. He would have been so happy, I really wanted to dedicate it to him, too.
Q: What attracted you to race a Thunder Roadster?
A: I’ve driven Caterhams for many years. They’re very light and rear-wheel drive, with no electronic aids of any type. I wanted something similar to that, and the Thunder Roadsters seemed to fit the bill. I also wanted a spec class, which narrowed things down. The guys that race these cars are incredibly helpful and so much fun to be around. It was a no-brainer for me, and I’m very happy to see the class growing pretty quickly as other highly-skilled drivers join us, which thanks to Brian Bohlander and Dave Standridge’s efforts, is now a national class.