Joel Karns
Joel Karns

I started with NASA doing HPDE in Mid-Atlantic in a ’94 Accord EX with a good ol’ fart can and intake — they add 100 horsepower according to my butt dyno. It wasn’t until I moved to Kansas in 2007 where I bought an old rusty H5 Civic that was formerly in Sam Myers’ stable.

However, options to race were limited unless I ran something else, so I went with a 944 Spec car where I could run locally with Kansas City PCA and NASA Midwest. I got to know the Midwest 944 Spec crowd and built some great friendships over three years running with them, including my first Nationals where I finished seventh. Then I had to make a quick change as the Central Region started right out of Kansas City and was looking for help, so I joined as their inaugural Race Director and Spec Miata Series Leader after selling my beloved “Lisa” to Dan Piña — however in less than ideal condition as a result of my first “incident.” I built the Spec Miata with some help from friends and local shops. All in, that Spec Miata was a $10,000 car and I was happy with being able to take second and fourth place in consecutive years. I also made some great friendships with Matt Rivard and Bryan Cohn while I was there.


Q: You recently moved from Kansas to New Jersey. Can you describe your experience transferring from one NASA region to another?

A: The move itself was very, very difficult. I had just started to build one of the first race chassis Exocet’s in the U.S., and little did I know my wife had a job offer we could not refuse, but it was in New Jersey. So, I had to stay behind and prep our house for sale in a saturated market, live with two mortgages and travel repeatedly back and forth from Kansas to New Jersey. Once I got settled in, I shot Joe Casella an email introducing myself and signed up for an event in the Northeast. It was at Watkins Glen in August in 2015, so I put up a tent, ran my stock BRZ in TTD and offered to help out in any way I could. That led me to being the head grill chef and driving the pace truck.


Q: What differences were there between how NASA Central runs things and how NASA Northeast does them?

A: I’m a NASA guy through and through. As an ever-internal economist, I’m for efficient ways of getting things done and thankful for how NASA has a fast and familiar process applied to all regions. However, the best part is each region can cater to their customer’s wants and needs, making them unique in a real-time fashion.

For instance, in the Central region, we could run the events with fewer staff and volunteers because we started small. Then, as we grew, pretty quickly I might add, we trained and added more. As a Race Director, I was also able to do some fun stunts with my drivers such as blindfolded autocross event, a “drag” race, and Heartland Park’s first ever midrace track layout change: two pace laps, and we reverted to the configuration we ran the prior day.

In the Northeast where the region is more established and the events are much larger, we rely heavily on Series Leaders more and have lots of volunteers — the yellow shirt brigade — but still get to have fun. I set up a chase-the-TTF-car, which ironically was a stock Subaru XV Crosstrek that drivers had to catch within a four-lap period. Each car released by a time that should allow them to catch the TTF car by the finish line.


Q: You’re also a race director and now a TT series leader. What has that been like?

A: I also came on as the Time Trial Series Leader in 2015 and focused on running each session like a race with proper impound procedures to make sure drivers were in compliance. Going from a Race Director to a TT position also adds a lot more complexity than I would have ever thought. Racers get maybe one or two races a day, whereas TT has four or five sessions a day and each one is like a race with full impound, but cars pit in early and many of the drivers may also volunteer so they can get back to their students or other duties. I try to make it easy to comply and work around their conflicts and make a happy medium.


Q: You’re building an Exocet. What has that been like? 

A: At first it was depressing. The move shelved the build as an unfinished project. I neither had the funds, the time, and the space, nor knowledge of my friends to help me finish it. I tried to get help from others, but was frequently let down. So I saved up money and brought it to a local shop because I would never make any real progress unless it came back to me running and driving. I cannot thank MT Fabrication enough from Little Ferry, N.J. Small shop, but excellent fabricators and easy to work with.


Q: What’s it like to drive one of those cars on track?

A: I have not driven it in anger yet, except up and down my street. The car will be at the New Jersey Motorsports Park event on April 15-17 running TT3. As for why I went with the Exocet, I loved my Miata and felt like Mazda was always there to help amateur racers like me. I wanted something exotic but familiar, so it was a no brainer. Just think – an Ariel Atom-style car for a fraction of the price with Mazda reliability.


Q: You’ve been trying to persuade Mazda to include the Exocet in its contingency program. How’s that going?

A: I’m currently in contact with Mazda Motorsports Development and Exomotive to get the Race Chassis recognized as a Mazda. I hope to hear back from them soon. The Exocet is unique because when you remove the unibody of the Miata and bolt on — only 10 bolts to remove and install — the Exocet frame, you remove some 400 to 600 pounds. The Miata is a blast because it’s so light. Taking out a quarter of the weight then transforms it into something else entirely.

Image courtesy of Joel Karns

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