Jay Howard (Interview – Mike Hayden, May 2014)
Jay Howard – A Champ in Progress
To be successful in motor-sport, unless a driver (with skill or often without) is lucky enough to have a wealthy backer pushing them along, then the budget-less driver needs to have what I refer to as ‘The Nigel Mansell Syndrome’. In other words, get out there and do whatever it takes. In Mansell’s case he overcame a broken back, re-mortgaged his house, and faced bankruptcy, but then succeeded on sheer drive and talent alone.
Karting can be important to a driver career, but being a British Champion means little when the bottom line is expressed in £’s and $’s. And as CV’s go I looked at Jay Howard’s, and the information I had suggested that here we had a young driver who took 17 British karting titles, and at one stage took 21 consecutive karting victories… A grin from Jay would bring the memory flooding back, with a simple “Yep, sounds about right. It was in Junior TKM when I won 21 races back to back.” As a junior karter Jay Howard was one of the best, if not the best, and yet mounting the motor-sport ladder has not been easy, even for someone of his ability. Nevertheless as the Indy 500 beckons, this is his story.
When Howard was going about his winning ways, I was covering most of the British Championships back then, at a time when Karting Magazine ended each report with “Winners Words”. Successive Howard victories usually put me in a quandary, because trying to get him to offer any words of wisdom was… difficult. “I suppose I was quite shy back then and it was a matter of having to learn the ropes, so to speak. I find young drivers struggle to speak to the press and this is something that a lot of younger drivers need to work on.” (As an aside the F1 and sports car driver, Anthony Davidson, was also the same when he was winning races as a young teenager, and now he is a respected commentator on Sky F1 HD).
For me one of the more crucial events around this time took place at Croft at the end of the 1997 season. Six championship winning karters had been nominated to compete for a Formula Ford scholarship with ADR Motorsport, in a line-up that included Jenson Button (Euro FSA), Tom Sisley (Euro FA), Phil Charles (100 TKM), Gary Catt (100 TYKM), Justin Edgar (100C), and Jay, also from 100 TKM. At the final reckoning Button withdrew from the competition, but my thoughts were on Jay, as part of the ‘test’ was an interview, where I was asked to ‘chair’ the decision making panel with representatives from Motorsport News and Autosport.
The Karting Magazine report showed nearly all the drivers used notes to help them, but “Jay Howard did it the hard way, using ‘free speech’ and no notes to assist him, in what was a highly commendable effort from the talented youngster, when at times he had seemed to be lost for words during the year when on a Super 1 winner’s podium”. He was so good he almost got my vote there and then.
Whilst Gary Catt won the competition, Howard had been the least experienced of the entire group, with his single-seater experience restricted to just three laps on the Silverstone Stowe circuit a few weeks earlier, when the clutch failed. What did he remember about the Croft test? “I wish I had done some car testing like Gary did prior to the try out! I am certainly not shy of cameras now. I remember I was back then though! Now I am totally relaxed and I am always fooling around on camera; the last thing I want to be is a robot, and I need to try and entertain.”
Some years later Howard started to look after Tiffany Chittenden, when he undertook the role of team manager when he ran his own kart team, before he was given a late deal to race at PF International. As always the budget remained tight. “Yes, the budget was very tight. I did Formula A in 2000 and had a 3rd at ‘0’ Plate. If I remember correctly, I don’t think I qualified outside the first two rows all year in Formula A. I also did the ICA ‘0’ Plate, in 2001 where I was 3rd and set the fastest lap, but I simply ran out of laps to win. I suppose that was the only significant sort of success we had running under my own team. 2002 is when I got my first real taste of cars, when I did two races in Formula Ford, prior to signing with Martin Donnelly (ex-F1 driver with Lotus) in 2003.
It was an impressive debut year where Howard immediately showed his pace, ending the FF Zetec championship with four wins and seven pole positions, before going on to win the UK Formula Renault Winter Series. With that added pedigree the future should have looked solid. “I was then supposed to do full year of Renault in 2004, but with no money, it fell apart and so I left for the USA!”
It was the ‘Mansell Syndrome’ moment. All alone, armed with only his self-belief, Howard realised things had to change if he was to succeed. “I came to a dead end in the UK, and any budget was out of reach, so I packed my bags and left for the USA with hopes of living the American dream! I was solo, just me and two suitcases! “I made a phone call to a guy called John Baytos. He owned the US F2000 series at the time, and he pointed me in the right direction, and one thing led to another. I worked very hard, I also had a little extra drive due to the majority of the motorsports community in the UK was saying my career was over. I was determined to prove everyone wrong. I felt I deserved a chance and had proved I was worthy of a drive in IndyCar; I just had to make it happen.
“After winning the first six rounds of the US F2000 Championship, I was offered a paid ride with Sam Schmidt Motorsports in Indy Lights. Obviously I was over the moon and signed the deal! I went on to win the US F2000 Championship, breaking all records of most wins, and most wins in succession,” which sounded familiar. “I did a one off race in Star Mazda, at the time it was somewhat a rival championship to US F2000, and people were questioning how good I was, saying the competition in Mazda was harder, with the likes of Marco Andretti, Raphael Matos, Graham Rahal, James Hinchcliff, and more of the current IndyCar drivers were in the series at the time. So, Sam organised a race for me with Richie Hearn, and we won the race by several seconds. This was one of my most memorable and favourite races ever and I had proved everyone wrong who doubted myself and the USF2000 Championship!
“I then went to New Zealand to do some Formula Toyota, which was a great experience, I got some poles and won some races too, but I didn’t do the full championship. I then raced with SSM (Sam Schmidt Motorsports) in Indy Lights, won ‘Rookie of the Year’ again, got some pole positions and won the championship too. I have been told by a couple of people that I might be one of only a few people to win championships on my debut year, year after year, whilst progressing up the ladder. Most people have a ‘learning’ year, but I never had the luxury of a budget to do this, so it was a case of win and move on… or my career would come to an end. I thrived having that pressure on me!”
After winning the Indy Lights Championship, which Jay described as “a GP2 equivalent.” He continued to make an impression, it was perhaps inevitable that an IndyCar test would follow, and it did with Forsythe. “The Forsythe test was in the old Champ Car, and let me tell you, I still can’t believe how fast that machine was! I’m smiling whilst thinking about it now. I guess it was as close to what something my hero Ayrton Senna would have driven back in the day. No traction control, about 1,000BHP, big down-force, big brakes, sequential gear box, very heavy steering – I mean extremely heavy! It was hard on the body, but it was an amazing couple of days testing, and will never forget it!” A drive with Forsythe in Champ Car looked promising, but things at Forsythe were not looking good for the future, rumours of the team closing down. At this time was when Roth offered Howard “a three year deal, which lasted only 6 months before the team fell closed it’s doors!”
Confusion then interrupted Howard’s progress a little in 2010, when he signed with Sarah Fisher Racing (SFR), and the racing Howard so desperately wanted to maintain momentum, was sadly lacking. “I signed with SFR in 2010, but we did not have the team or equipment to compete. 2011 was much better when I got the opportunity to sign with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, this is a team that are exceptionally good, well structured, great people and mean business, which was like being in heaven for me. Bobby draws on his experience from running the Jaguar F1 team back in the day. I enjoyed every minute with the RLL team, I would love to drive for Bobby again some day.”
The worst moment of his career though was on the horizon, when Howard was involved in the multiple car shunt at Las Vegas, which claimed the life of his friend, Daniel Wheldon. “I was OK with the exception of a broken rib, torn muscles, and some bruises. Post race day through that following week, that was by far the worst time of my life, words can’t even begin to describe how I felt. The funerals and tributes to him were amazing, but horrible at the same time, I can’t begin to imagine what Susie was going through. Still to this day I can’t believe it happened, no words can describe what it was like being at the trackside hospital in the middle of that disaster. I’ll never be able to explain the feelings.
“Dan always wanted Sebastian (his oldest son) to race, and I hope he follows in his Dad’s footsteps, because he has the right genes! He recently got a kart and has done laps down in Tampa, FL, so things are looking good for another Wheldon in motor racing!
“The tragedy has not changed my outlook on the sport, because as drivers, we all know the dangers, and that is something we signed up for at the very beginning. It has changed my outlook on life though and I think about Dan, Susie (Dan’s wife) and the family everyday. Dan was an inspiration to many; he was great for our sport and no one will be able to replace him. We just continue to race for him.”
Meanwhile, life continues to move at a fast pace, and the Indy 500 for 2013 had been almost set in stone. “Yes, we have plans,” Jay said at the time, “but nothing is signed yet. I anticipate I will get signed quite soon, assuming everything goes to plan. I am very excited about the team I will be working with, great cars, capable of winning, and just great people. It will be a very special day when I sign with these guys. At this point, probably just an Indy 500 deal, but we are working hard to turn that into more races.” This was said before it all turned sour. The deal never materialised, with Howard even trying for a last minute effort to get out onto the track on ‘bump day’, but sadly it was not to be.
In spite of the 2013 disappointment though, Howard remains positive, and stays on the calling card lists of the people who do matter. “The one nice thing is the door is always open with the IndyCar teams, I continue to work hard not only trying to raise money, but train harder than anyone. If I get the call, I am fit and ready to go. I don’t know any other drivers that train six days a week to be ready just in case the call comes, most give up after a few month’s… Not me, I’m as determined as they come!”
So, what does a driver do who has been messed around two years on the trot? Most would probably give up and go away to find new pastures, but the Howard ambition still burns brightly. “I do not give up that easily. I was at the track at Indy (in 2013), in the suites, going to dinners, and I continue to pursue a racing career. I’ve come too far to give up now and I have unfinished business! I am hoping my persistence will pay off, there are some very good things in the works, so let’s see where it goes from here, but 2014 is looking good compared to the last couple of years!
“Sitting in the suite watching is so painful, but I let that anger build up and turn it into determination to get back in the seat. I know when I do get back in the seat, I won’t screw up and I will take advantage of my opportunity. I realise the opportunities are few and far between, I never take anything for granted, so I will always make the most of the opportunities that come along. Let’s hope I can get my face on that Borg Warner 500 trophy!”
Some things though are still important to him, and one of those was being awarded a ‘Rising Stars’ with the BRDC? “It was a great honour to receive this award. I explain to people that ask, because it is important, how it is the equivalent of being capped for the National England football team. Something I am very proud of.” A lot of young drivers have F1 ambitions, usually because they have good backing, or are part of a driver development programme, but did Howard’s career path in the United States of America, make him concentrate more on what that country had to offer? “I just wanted to be a professional driver, so yes, F1 would have been awesome, but IndyCar is my passion, and there is nothing in the world like the Indianapolis 500. None of the F1 races come close. 500,000 people in the facility, watching the race, 220mph+ for several hours… no, there is nothing like it!”
Racing at the Indy 500 permitting, Howard is now happily settled with the lovely Courtney, who offers her whole-hearted support, keeping his skills sharp. “Yes, I have a beautiful wife, and I am very lucky! She is a born and raised Indiana girl! I met her back in 2006 when I drove for Schmidt, just prior to that year’s Indy 500. Married life is good, and she is a saint to put up with my crap. I would much rather be racing with her in my corner than racing without her, and that goes for life as a whole. We are a team, and being a team is better than being single, I am very lucky to have met someone so special!”
Karting, however, stills runs strong in the Howard genes. The Jay Howard kart team Stateside used to be called ‘Screaming Talent’, although it no longer exists as such. “The team is still around, but runs under Team MDD (Motorsports Driver Development). I LOVE karting, it’s my passion. Dan (Wheldon) and I have always raced regularly together over the past five years in various kart races, so we got to spend some quality time together talking about old days. I think that is what I will miss most about Dan, because we used to work together to try and keep up with the young kids!
“I am due to go to FL to do some testing with my pilots! It keeps me in good shape, keeps me sharp, and I use this as my main tool to help my drivers improve. Lead and follow, day after day, is the fastest way to get the drivers up to speed. We cover everything from lines, braking, race craft, the complete package.
“You definitely need to come over. When I sign my 500 deal, let’s talk; I would love nothing more then to have you trackside working with me! Like old times!”
Now there is an offer that cannot be refused!