My last blog left off with me clawing my way back into the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires by winning four races in a row to tie for the points lead. I was able to ride that momentum all the way to the very last race of the season at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. I was starting on pole and had an eight-point championship lead over my teammate Pato O’Ward who was starting alongside me.
With the championship on the line I made a great start and pulled away during the 45-minute race to take the race win and the championship! It was incredible to feel the weight of the stress of the season get lifted right off my shoulders during the cool-down lap, and at that moment I could begin to try and take in the fact that I would be racing a Soul Red Mazda Indy Lights car in 2017! I’ll never forget John Doonan (Director of Motorsports at Mazda) leaning into the cockpit in victory circle to congratulate me and tell me “I know there’s been lots of frustrating times, but, was it worth it?” Yeah John, it was worth it.
After winning the championship I received many congratulatory texts, emails, and Facebook messages, and it was amazing to be able to thank everyone who has followed me along my journey to the top of the Mazda Road to Indy. But I also started receiving a lot of messages of a different sort; messages from young racers also trying to make their way in motorsports who were asking how I did it and if I can help them. These are some of my favorite messages. It’s been incredible to be looked to as a sort of role model and as someone who “made it the hard way,” or “made it on his own,” and then be able to give advice and guidance to help out the next generation of drivers!
Yet at the same time, it feels a little weird to be giving advice when I’ve had lots of help and have gotten extremely lucky to make it where I am. To be honest, I haven’t actually made it yet! If I tell younger kids to “follow your dreams and become a racecar driver,” it’s a little bit like a Powerball winner telling people to liquidate their assets and buy Powerball tickets. That seems a little harsh but it truly does take more than hard work and talent to make it, and if you can’t admit that, then you’re lying to yourself. I remember stressing out last winter talking to my mom about how I wasn’t sure I’d be able to afford to race in 2016. Once I got done ranting she said “You know Aaron, I’m not sure how, but things always seem to work out for you.” This didn’t exactly do much to curb my stress but she had a point. The amount of luck I’ve had to get to this point borders on ridiculous.
First of all, I managed to find a driver coach who not only helped me make the transition to cars but also was able to guide me on how to negotiate with teams and how to write sponsorship proposals. After a year of driving Skip Barber cars on a scholarship, I had no money to move my career on. My funding to drive in F1600 came from writing a letter to a stranger who agreed to meet with me and then fund 90 percent of my season. Seriously, I wrote a letter in the year 2013 to a stranger who apparently opened it, read my ‘Broke, college kid, hoping to make it in racing’ story and figured, “why not?”
Then, riding my wave of pure nerve and luck I called the front desk of Rice Lake Weighing Systems and asked the receptionist if I could speak with the president of the company. She asked who I was and then sent my call through! As lucky it was as getting past the receptionist, the real jackpot of luck happened two rings in when he actually answered the phone. Fumbling over my words and trying not to sound like an idiot I managed to secure a meeting with him the following week and my longest lasting partnership was born.
At the end of the 2013 season I told my “pen-pal” sponsor about my plans for 2014 and if he would continue to support my racing career. He politely replied that he was happy to get my career off the ground but that he would not continue to fund my racing. So there I sat a week before the Skip Barber Championship Shootout knowing that if I did not win the shootout and the $200,000 Mazda Scholarship my racing career was about to stall out before it really got going. But somehow, with the pressure of my career on the line, I won the shootout and the $200,000 Mazda Scholarship along with it.
This did two things for me. One, it got me onto the Mazda Road to Indy without needing to bring a ton of extra funding and two, it gave me a full year to expand my sponsorships to be able to continue racing. After two tries at winning the USF2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires I was facing a serious problem. I didn’t have the funding to move up to Pro Mazda. Then the 2016 Mazda Road to Indy schedule came out, and it featured the most beautiful two words I had read in a long time: “Road America.” I was finally going to have a home race, and along with it the opportunity to get some extra local support. This was a big help but I was still a little short. Enter Rising Star Racing and Art Wilmes. With Art and RSR coming on board I was able to feel confident enough to enter the 2016 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires with Team Pelfrey. But I barely had enough budget to race. If I would have had any kind of a crash, I wouldn’t have been able to afford the whole season. I didn’t let that small detail get to me and the rest is history!
Now we’ve come full circle and I think the biggest piece of advice I can give to any driver trying to make it in the crazy world of motorsports is, when you get lucky, you had better make the most of it and try to survive until your next stroke of luck hits you.
My 2017 season is already shaping up nicely. I’ve had quite a few very productive test days in the IL-15 and will be making my official announcement of where I’ll be driving this year very soon. So stay tuned.
A huge thanks goes out to all of my supporters past and present including, Rice Lake Weighing Systems, Mazda, Cooper Tires, Rising Star Racing, Morrie’s Chippewa Valley Mazda, Styled Aesthetic, Fred Thomas Resort, Team USA Scholarship, Bell Helmets, Sparco, my parents, and a little luck.
And thanks to all of you!
You guys rock,