Four Wheels and a Stick-Shift: Pro-Racing like an Amateur
-- As reported in "Racing Digest" by Edward Laing.
In racing circles, there are those who call him the Sunday Driver: looking at him and considering his record, it's easy to see why. His lackadaisical attitude to actually showing up for races, his appearance -- now that could be a whole sub-essay in itself; in a world that prizes short, practical haircuts, his looks like he decided to be a grunge rocker and changed his mind half-way through the enterprise, his insistence on wearing that same shirt to every race (it's lucky, he insists), his age, and his voice; he speaks in a light (some would say piping) tenor, there are those (yours truly confesses to having been one of them) who've described him as the pro who makes amateurs look good.
Except that amateurs don't beat the pros. And that's something the Sunday Driver is very, very good at.
Sitting across from Jason (he has a perfectly serviceable last name, but he insists that I, like everyone else who's had cause to refer to him, deal with him on a first-name-only basis), I can't help but notice just how. . . composed he is. The inevitable shirt is spotless as are the white jeans, amazing for a person I insisted on interviewing right after the race. He's been known to promise interviews and then disappear. 15 minutes, no more.
He sits with hands resting lightly on his lap, never fidgeting and waits for each question. He never volunteers information. We started out with fairly innocuous questions: like what started him out racing.
Jason: Getting to spend a week with a friend whose uncle worked on the track, just general supply and we tagged along. I thought it was boring_
I interject: Boring?
Jason: If you're not focused on anything in particular, it's just cars going by and people running around.
Myself: But you weren't bored long.
Jason: I was hooked by the third day.
Myself: When you decided to take up racing, did you have any idols in mind?
Myself: So you eventually did so and entered -- and won -- your first race the day you got license.
Jason: Eight days after I got my license, to be accurate.
Myself: Hey, I'm the media. Making things sound good is part of our job.
I was joking, but Jason was not amused and I was forced to drop that line of questioning.
In my 25 years of journalism, this is one of the most challenging interviews I've done. I've worked with a variety of hostile subjects -- and he is definitely not hostile. What makes for the challenge is that almost the first rule of interviewing is that you determine the direction of the questioning and here, it's not always so clear who's leading the discussion. There are questions he has no intention of answering and those he bats away, rather than get defensive about them. Girlfriends? "Next."
What he thinks of Terence McGinnis (currently ranked #2 and his greatest detractor)? "Next."
About why he keeps so few sponsors: "I don't like the walking billboard look." This particular point was a bit of a disappointment for me; I had really been hoping to learn more about why he turns down practically every sponsorship and endorsement offer (ironically, this reticence has led to his becoming unusually desirable -- some ridiculous offers have been made, and refused). That said, he's been at the vanguard of a trend for private sponsors to start taking an interest in racing teams without necessarily demanding space on a chassis or jersey.
Talking to him, it takes me a while to realize that the intense stare he bestows on me each time I ask a question isn't a belligerent statement daring me to doubt his answers, just his way of giving me the kind of focused attention he feels I deserve. It doesn't comfort me much, but it does demonstrate the attribute that made him the third-ranked racer in his first racing season and has put him in good stead for the number one spot this year: intensity.
Jason, from the moment he looks down the track to the moment he crosses the finish line, is nothing if not absolutely intent. A perfectionist, he's notoriously hard to please: it's a credit to his pit crew that not one of them has quit yet. "I can't stand dead wood," he says, unfolding his arms to slice a hand through the air. "If you're not gonna give it everything, why even get started?"
Why indeed? He appears to exercise a certain selectiveness when it comes to racing: with the smaller races he pulls out of nearly half of them, showing up the bare minimum of times needed to maintain his ranking. He's better at the big races, pulling out of only a third of them, but big or small, Jason comes onto the race track with only one thing in mind: winning.
Which is the other reason for his moniker: the stereotypical Sunday driver is supposed to have scant respect for the normal rules of traffic and while Jason is a very talented driver, there's more than a little truth to that image. But there's method to the madness.
Terence McGinnis: "He's not reckless -- he's ruthless. Finding yourself in front of that kid is just the most miserable, nerve-wracking experience ever. He looks for any kind of opening and if there's one he'll be half a length ahead while you're still wondering what he saw. What I hate is the way he pushes. . . pushes to test your nerve, your reaction time, your calmness. There're some drivers who let him by and think they can catch up later. It never works."
He's not invincible: he's failed to take first spot all of two times this season (as to why: "At Astor, I just wasn't the best driver that day, but Campagn was a stupid mistake"), but as one racer puts it, the best way to win against the Sunday Driver is to pray he doesn't show up.
And with that we're back to the original reason behind the nickname and want to know most. When I ask him about why he doesn't participate in more races, he looks almost apologetic. "I'd like to, but I just don't have the time," he explains.
Coming from anybody else, it would have sounded arrogant, but there's an earnestness to it that disarms the sentence. I ask him what he does when he's not racing then. "Well, I take part-time courses when I can. The rest of the time, I try to make myself useful."
Myself: As in helping little old ladies across the street?
Jason (almost smiling): If that includes taking them several blocks while I'm at it, then yes.
Myself: You chauffeur?
I have a last question: why it'd been so difficult to get an interview out of him. (I only got this after rumors started about him moonlighting as an agent of some sort, and I got it happened on the understanding that it would not be syndicated to a wide audience). He smiles outright. "Why not? My life's nothing special, but I'd much rather not share it with the world."
And with that the interview's over: and with it some of the mystique of one of racing's more idiosyncratic drivers. It doesn't change the fact that he's a living phenomenon or that we still don't know too much about him.
One other thing. When I asked him about his chances for ending up World Champion this season: "I can't see the future, but I'll tell you this: I intend to give it a good, hard try."
Watch out, racers. One way or another, the Sunday Driver is here to stay.