Every time we hear the name Sylas Montgomery, it sounds like a fictitious confederate army general from an antebellum novel set in the Deep South.
In reality, Sylas Montgomery is a NASA NorCal member and a standout Spec E30 driver with two podium finishes at the Western States Championships, a second in 2017 at Thunderhill and a third in 2014 at Sonoma Raceway when he was in his freshman year at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif.
Since graduation, Montgomery has put his business degree to use as a consultant and financial analyst for companies inside and outside the automotive industry.
All that changed in January of last year when Montgomery took a job with Sonoma Raceway as a driver concierge at the racing school the track started with assets from Simraceway. And, of course, all that changed again when the coronavirus altered the world as we know it.
The raceway reduced staff from a team of 15 to three, one of which was Montgomery, who is now the operations manager for the school. He works with a shop manager and a kart track manager, and handles “everything that doesn’t have to do with wrenching on the cars.”
We contacted Montgomery initially for another story, but due to deadlines, that didn’t pan out. When I heard about what he was up to, nabbing a dream job like running a racing school, we had to find out more.
Q: Let me back up for a minute. You said you do everything at the school that doesn’t have to do with wrenching on cars. Are you one of those annoying drivers who’s devastatingly quick, but doesn’t know a thing about turning a wrench?
A: I am always the first to admit that I am not as mechanically inclined as most others in the paddock, including my brother who has been a fabricator on a couple of NASCAR teams. I guess he took all the mechanical talent in the family. I classify myself as more of a crew chief, knowing enough to help set up the car and diagnose issues. However, when it comes to making those changes, I would rather be looking over data than looking over the engine bay. I know my strengths, and tend to stick to those.
Q: So, how’d you even get the job at Sonoma Raceway’s school to begin with? Was it advertised, or did you have an “in,” so to speak?
A: I had been trying to get my foot in the door at Sonoma Raceway since I was in high school, volunteering for the raceway’s charity, Speedway’s Children’s Charity, and shadowing the marketing team during NASCAR and IndyCar events. I developed relationships through those years and always kept my eye out for any positions that might open up. The original position that I applied for was actually in the marketing department and for one reason or another, I wasn’t the right fit. However, Steve Page had pulled me aside, knowing my background in racing, and sold me on an entry level position at the racing school they were starting from the assets they purchased at the end of 2019 from a closing Simraceway. Trusting Steve, as a smart person does, I put myself on the ground floor of an exciting opportunity.
Q: The school uses the KTM X-Bow R for its courses. What are they like to drive? Are they the real deal?
A: The KTM X-Bow R is an absolute blast to drive! The best comparison I can make is that they feel like a car-sized go kart. With 300 horsepower, a curb weight of 1,700 pounds, and inboard suspension, they rip around Sonoma Raceway. Having such impressive capabilities, but user friendly controls —paddle-shift DSG Audi transmission — they can entertain the most experienced drivers and still cater to beginners. It truly is a Swiss Army knife of a track tool. Once you drive one, you will be itching for more track time just as I do every day as I sit in my office.
Q: What are your students like? Who takes the course? What kinds of experience levels do they have?
A: At the Sears Point Racing Experience, we have a wide range of programs, including performance driving schools, corporate experiences, racing schools, and even go karting. With this, I see a wide range of drivers, everything from the wide-eyed first timers to those getting their competition license to join club racing.
Q: Have any of them surprised you with the quality of their driving? Bear in mind of course that quality is a neutral noun, so it could be positive or negative experiences.
A: There isn’t a single driver that stands out but I am always surprised by the quality of driving from the next generation. I guess I shouldn’t be as surprised, because I was one of those young kids not too long ago getting into motorsports as well. So over time, I have become less nervous about the younger drivers that come through the school, but I still keep a close eye on the 40-something-year-olds that think Roger Penske is in the stands looking for his next driver.
Q: Is the school worthwhile for someone with, say, a NASA comp license or a HPDE3 level experience?
A: Absolutely! I would recommend joining us for a KTM X-Bow Experience. It’s a great chance to drive/experience a phenomenal track car that most people only know from Top Gear or the latest Gran Turismo video game.
Q: How does your racing help you in your job and vice versa?
A: The biggest benefit of having a motorsport background is helping those who are completely new to getting into track driving. It is definitely the most rewarding part of the job as well, because you convince someone to join the rabbit hole that is motorsports. It’s also convenient that I am able to jump in as an instructor anytime we need the additional help. Plus that’s not a bad way to get out the office and ignore email for a couple of hours. Given the current situation, I am not able to get in a car as often as I would like to, but hopefully I will get to enjoy the perk of being so close to the track soon.
Q: It looks like you did pretty well at the races you attended last season, with a second place and a win. What are your plans for this year?
A: Even though last year did not have much racing, the last-to-first race I ran at Sonoma is one of my all-time favorite races. I don’t plan on running a full season, but a very close race with Ethan Wilson at the Thunderhill season opener makes it hard to stay away. The No. 71 Race German Spec E30 will definitely make an appearance at a handful of NorCal events, at least enough to qualify for Championships. This year, I have more of a focus on instructing other racers, including my brother and father.
Q: Can you make it to Daytona for the Championships?
A: Plans to join the Championship race at Daytona are not finalized at the moment, but discussions about drafting partners have already started. If I won’t be there in a car, I will be there with a headset supporting my father and brother.
Q: Multiple-time Spec E30 national champion Sandro Espinosa says the secret to his speed is scaring the daylights out of himself at least once every time he gets in the car. What’s your secret?
A: Composure and consistency. It is difficult for someone to get around you when you don’t present them with an opportunity to do so. Also keeping a level head helps keep the car on track, that’s usually a pretty good strategy. My driving style has always been more like playing chess than a bar room brawl. I enjoy the strategy element of racing, collecting data on other drivers to be ready when an opportunity presents itself.