(note: this item ran as the First Gear column in the November 2011 edition of SportsCar Magazine).
The young, slender man stepped from his fluorescent orange Formula 1600 in impound, as if emerging from a dream. A faint bemused smile played on his face as he stood beside the car. Wyatt Gooden simply couldn’t believe it. In his first ever formula car race, he had bested a field that included numerous national champions.
He would repeat the feat the next day in the second race of the F1600 Championship Series. He hadn’t competed in a racecar since last October when he tested a VW GTI with a Grand Am Continental team. A front drive sedan is a long ways from a formula car.He had first driven a formula carjust one weekprior, in a test day at Hallett, in Oklahoma. Who is this guy?
In the spring of 1974, music critic Jon Landau famously claimed, "I saw rock and roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen”. I’ve watched a lot of racers in my day and this 22 year-old kid from Cleveland stands out to me like the Boss did to Landau. He is quiet and confident, not cocky. “Going into the test day at Hallett with Quantum Racing Servicesin Oklahoma, I was pretty concerned. I thought that maybe I’d forgotten how to drive,” Wyatt laughs. “At Mid-Ohio, I just hoped for a good result and not to wreck the car.”
Wyatt was first exposed to racing when he went to the Cleveland Grand Prix with his father. At age 10, he began to race go-karts.“I felt that I was pretty good at it but I wasn’t special.” His parents were supportive but car racing was out of the question. In 2004he discovered the world of simulator racing competition. He honed his virtual reality racing skills and in 2009 entered and won the first of its kind international iRacing competition, besting 1163 other competitors from around the globe. The prize was a season-long ride in the 2010 VW TDI Jetta Series. He had created his racing opportunity out of whole cloth. “I knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime,” he says. “It was my one and only shot to prove myself in the real world.”
Wyatt only ran one season of the Jetta TDI Series. A steep learning curve hardly describes it. “I did $4500 worth of crash damage in my first weekend at VIR. I wondered if I should be doing this. It was a huge risk for me but if you want something bad enough, you figure a way to make it work.” He won two races, finished third overall in points and was named Rookie of the Year. VW had filmed a promotional video of the 2010 series titled “Rookies to Racers.” This was to be his ticket.
Wyatt didn’t wait for the phone to ring. “I saw that Chris Miles was making an effort to promote minorities in U.S. open wheel racing. TheVW video opened the door.” Chris’s company, Starting Grid, had a relationship with HondaPerformance Development. And Honda motorsports public relations representative Dan Layton owned a 1998 Van Dieman/Honda F1600. They plugged in Wyatt for a test day just one week prior to the Mid-Ohio F1600 weekend. “It had been so long since I had driven anything. I was afraid I would suck.”
It was a 104 degree day at Hallett. “I had seriously underestimated how physical these cars were. Everything is so much slower in the sedans; you have to wait for the weight to transfer. But oddly, the sedan experience helped me be smooth. Not everything in karting translates to formula cars. Quick hands can burn down tires.” Wyatt was mentally sharp but another surprise quickly emerged. “After just 20 laps I was so overheated it was scary,” he says with a laugh. When he got home to Cleveland he began riding his bike 20 miles a day to get ready for Mid-Ohio. “It really helped but the heat and humidity at Mid-Ohio still kicked my butt.” But all his dreams came true.
Dan Layton says, “When Chris Miles came to me and suggested we run Wyatt, I made some calls and did some research on his background and experience. After talking with Chris and Wendell Miller, Quantum Racing Services owners, we agreed he was worth a test. It quickly convinced us that Wyatt had the speed as he got down to competitive times immediately. The next question was did he know how to race, as that’s a different skill set from just diving the car really fast. Well, that Mid-Ohio race weekend convinced us all: he’s the real deal.”
In the past his parents had worried about him spending so much time on the computer. But without iRacing, Wyatt says, he would never have been able to race. “A lot of people underestimate it, they think of it just as a game but it is incredibly realistic. You may not get the same adrenaline rush as in real life but you learn your way around.Most people don’t understand how much mental focus it takes to drive a race car faster than your competition.”
“Competing is my favorite thing. I like to find ways to be better than others. It wasn’t until I got serious about karts that I realized how far you can push yourself.”He had to make the most of the Mid-Ohio opportunity as he had nothing else going on. “Iknew I was going to have to do something big at Mid-Ohio to stand out.” In the three days of practice and qualifying,Wyatt was either first or second on every timesheet in a strong twenty-nine car field.
Wyatt is finding good partners and making his opportunities count. He has his feet on the ground and is self-aware. He blogs for a Cleveland newspaper and iRacing runs his race reports on their website. “I have a lot of followers through iRacing. They can relate to me. I’m a simple person. I haven’t had it handed to me.”He is impressing the right people.Marc Sours, the General Manager and Chief Engineer of Honda Performance Development, Inc. was at Mid-Ohio. "He’s fast, but I was also taken with the maturity that he displayed in the paddock. He seems to have more poise than most young adults who are in their early 20s. Couple this with the speed that he demonstrated on the track, and you have an impressive young man."
Wyatt Gooden is a comic book action hero come to life. He has stepped off the pages into his dream. With only iRacing and his home computer, he literally went to his room and turned his fantasy into reality. No doubt there are many talented young drivers out there. How many have created their own reality? When the inevitable career plateau comes along, this kid is going to figure out a way to surmount it. You are what you think. “I know I’ve got what it takes,” he says quietly.