The road to big-time racing is paved with long, pothole-laden chicanery. OEM manufacturer Mazda has tried to smooth that road for a few talented up-and-coming drivers through their scholarship program known as ”The Road to Indy”. Drake Kemper will soon become a name that race fans will be hearing for many years to come; the 23-year old hot-shoe from Toluca Lake, CA just won his first race at Sebring—in the first race of the season in his first start in the Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup, an SCCA sanctioned Pro racing series.
Since pro sports have become an aspiration for youngsters everywhere, pee-wee leagues have signed up millions of prospective football, hockey, baseball and basketball players. Motor racing, unlike its stick-and-ball counterparts, has seen explosive growth in last 30 years. In modern times, World Champion hopefuls start karting, practically at the same time they learn to walk. This is now the accepted ladder to success in the sport—that and a very fat wallet, of course. Names like Senna, Schumacher, Vettel; they were all karting champions before leaving primary school.
Rarely comes a champion without this type of background, and Kemper is one of these exceptions. He didn’t get started in racing until he was 16, and even then it was in a street-legal, race-prepared Porsche Boxster that he ran in Porsche Club events. Amazingly, his natural abilities came through. He attained his racing license over a period of three years and was surprised to hear you could get one in as little as five days at Skip Barber. Drake’s interest made him a student of the craft, which has brought him forward rapidly. The faculty of Skip Barber were so impressed, they offered him a job as an instructor.
“My family was more into extreme sports than racing," Drake says, "My dad was a professional skier (and later a ski instructor), and my brother and I were into rugby and skateboarding.” Incidentally, Royal Rugby, a manufacturer of rugby shoes is one of his sponsors and its logo appears on the doors of his Sick Sideways Racing MX-5.
Clearly, racing was not his first option, stating, “I grew up in the Pacific Northwest near Portland. In 2004, we moved to Los Angeles so I could pursue a career in acting.” He landed several gigs as a child actor, appearing on episodes of Hannah Montana, iCarly and CSI Los Angeles, and even had several small parts in movies. Drake has since moved his priorities full time to racing, but that doesn't mean the acting skills haven't come in handy. In fact, they've helped quite a bit. According to Mazda Racing spokesperson Dean Case, “He has a real easy way with people and a talent for being in front of cameras.”
Kemper won the 2014 MazdaSpeed Pro Challenge Championship winning five of the 12 season's races. Divided from the MX-5 Cup cars, they run in the same race at the same time, however, the cars themselves have a notable difference. Both MX-5 Cup and Pro Challenge cars have the same power plant yet, the Pro Challenge runs different tires and suspension from the Cup Cars - which by design have a three-to-four-second handicap on any given lap. In claiming last year’s championship, Drake’s prizes included a $75,000 scholarship from Mazda for the 2015 Mazda MX-5 Cup, entry fees for the 2015 Mazda MX-5 Cup and one set of racing slicks per race.
In taking racing seriously, fitness naturally must also become a priority. Since the end of his season in 2014, the affable 23-year old has lost 45 pounds! “Everybody knows that the way to get fit is to eat right and exercise, but the biggest challenge is to stay with it,” he quips with a laugh. It certainly has its advantages. “In the driver being lighter, you can adjust the ballast weight in the car versus just having it all in the driver’s seat.”
The MX-5 Cup Series is serious business for most taking part. Drake funded his own ride last year, earning the scholarship that he has now. The prize for this year’s championship is more money and help to advance a driver’s career. In most forms of motorsport, because of its monumental costs, drivers need either gobs of family money or a sponsor willing to shell out the funds to make it possible. Last year’s MX-5 Cup Champion, Kenton Koch has advanced into the Tudor United Racing Series Prototype Lights division with Mazda backing. “There is no way I could do this without Mazda’s scholarship,” explains Koch. He won his maiden race in the series weeks ago at Sebring certainly in hopes of keeping it going.
Koch has been spending a great deal of time with Kemper, coaching and just being a friend in the highly competitive vocation. Kenton chuckles, “The first time I met Drake was when I scared the crap out of him while he was sitting shotgun in an autocross, and since then we've become friends.” Then with a tone of seriousness, “I've coached him a bit in the off season to help him win this championship. I think it bode well for him since he did pull a dominant victory in Race 1 at Sebring. His talent has developed into something and I feel he is one to be reckoned with.” Their respect is mutual as Kemper aims to follow Kenton's footsteps into sports cars. What will be interesting is how they battle each other once the visor goes down in a couple of years.
The Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup Series lives up to its history of Miatas being raced in SCCA. The banging and rubbing might make even the toughest NASCAR drivers wince. Competitors use each other's bumpers for brakes and competitive doors to gain an advantage through the corners. “We sometimes finish with only one side mirror, if you're lucky,” says Kemper. However, racing that hard has it’s added costs: “I try to stay as clean as possible—I would prefer to run seriously close without contact—because I have to pay for the damage!”
A major manufacturer racing scholarship from Mazda, an ongoing diet and fitness campaign, starting racing late in life compared to his rivals and winning despite all the odds against him. Drake Kemper seems to take it in stride. He may just give the rest of us hope.
(Images courtesy of Myles Regan; special thanks to Dean Case at Mazdaspeed)
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