SF Region SCCA Grad Makes it Big... On Talent
By: David Ray, www.hookedondriving.com
It was a fun assignment. Meet one of the top drivers in the Rolex Daytona Prototype race series and get to know him a bit, ask a few questions, and hear his story as an ex SCCA club racer. Researching in preparation was tough. While an avid fan, I’m not the fanatic that follows each driver and team carefully, so Jon was a very familiar and credible name to me, but I really didn’t know much else. Well, the homework was only marginally helpful. If you Google Jon Fogarty, the system thinks that you obviously meant to type in John Fogarty and you are deluged with facts and links about that Credence Clearwater Revival rocker of a similar name. Not being helpful at all, we kept digging – adding references to racing and Grand-Am. Ah, yes he does exist, but mostly as a co-driver for this guy named Alex Gurney who is, yes you guessed it, the icon himself Dan’s son. And that’s how it went. This top level driver who just performs, has no website, flashy or not, and seems to be under the radar of the general public. But ask the real fan, and you find out that he is Mr. Cool behind the wheel, a qualifying machine, has won at every level he’s driven, indicating that there is much, much more to this story. And so was the preparation for our meeting.
It was a hectic race day, with a warm-up for the DP cars in the morning and I snagged Jon not long after. He was still just a bit damp from his run at Laguna, and suited up. He was very courteous when we met – I explained that I was writing for the SF Region of the SCCA, and he thought that was cool. We stepped in to the mammoth GAINSCO Racing transporter and proceeded to stand in the hallway for the interview.
Jon is not a big guy…perfect size for a race car driver – maybe 5’ 6” and 135 lbs….in obvious pro athlete shape. He is not demonstrative, just pleasant and to the point. He has a pretty amazing story to tell, but you might miss it if you didn’t ask. He just does his job, winning poles, races and championships.
Jon grew up in Northern California and lived on property that had dirt roads to play on. With motocross bikes, he learned to slide and push and seemed to be good at it. As he progressed toward driving age, a twist of fate took Jon toward racing and he’s never looked back. His brother Tommy, who was racing Formula Vees in the SF Region was doing well and decided to move up to Formula Atlantics. Big brother was pretty cool about the whole brother thing and suggested that Jon try his FV. And one thing led to another. Jon did well right out of the box – but it was not by himself. Jon points out the critical importance of the team or support crew you have. Doing his homework, Jon chose Colin Cross, top FV team and driver, to teach him the ropes. And here is one of the gems from Jon’s advice: “We not only ran the SF Region races that first year, but we ran every race we could find – probably around 30.” The point here was – get in a good car with a good team – and drive, and drive and drive. He won the SF Region Championship in 1995, qualified 2nd in the National Runoffs, and finished 4th, and the hook was set for Jon to move forward in the sport.
While he had support from his family, he continued to work to complete his studies at UC Davis as he moved forward with his bigger plans. He was tempted, with his past experience of learning to drive/ride in the dirt, to look at Rallying. But the sport of Rally was fading and was discarded as a possible direction. And, as a now successful road racer, he looked at the IRL/Champ Car split and decided to forge ahead toward road racing – pursuing a Formula Atlantic seat with Bob Dorricott Racing – another top team, keeping his plan consistent in pursuing success. He also stayed fresh during this period with stints at Skip Barber, running with their Barber Dodge Pro series and snuck in a 2nd place finish in the national championship. Then in 2002, with the Dorricott team, he won an impressive first championship in Formula Atlantic.
And then Bobby Rahal knocked on his door. It seemed that they had a young driver named Danica Patrick and they wanted a development driver to assist in honing her skill and upping her competitiveness. While putting down baseline data for Danica, she improved substantially, but Mr. Rahal somehow was able to arrange a second car for Jon. And then Jon said: “Yeah, we won the FA championship in 2004 too.” Oh, thanks for mentioning that!
Two FA championships get you noticed. Jon realized he was on his way, and made a conscious decision to pursue the Champ Car path, rather than the oval IRL program. Just in time for Champ Car to move in to a tailspin and the trend toward “funded drivers.”
And then Flying Lizard knocked on the door. A fellow that is very familiar to many of us, local pro, Patron Ferrari driver Johannes van Overbeek called and invited Jon to lunch. And one thing led to another. Seth Neiman’s team was ramping up and Jon was aboard. Johannes and Jon are now “great friends.”
After a successful run with the Lizards, an old friend from the 2002 Dorricott days came calling. His name was Alex Gurney – an up and coming and frankly, well connected young driver who was on the move himself, and had met a guy named Bob Stallings. Bob had run a part time team but was ready to step up, connect with a major sponsor and move forward with the Grand- AM Rolex DP program. And, you guessed it. One thing led to another. Today, the Stallings team, under the bright red banner of GAINSCO Racing, is one of the true success stories in all of professional sports car racing.
Fogarty and Gurney, with the Stallings/GAINSCO team, after beginning as recently as 2005, have already won series team and driver’s championships in 2007 and 2009, and have been on the podium a stunning 41% of their races – this is amazing stuff. Consistency with speed is the goal of every racer and team – and the GAINSCO team has achieved a reputation for both.
Q&A with Jon:
Jon, it seems that you aren’t much of a promoter. You have no website, and you’re a pretty private guy. How have you had so much success with so little public profile?
JF “I’ve found that it’s being good on the track that counts most. I feel that there is more longevity to a career if the focus is on performing rather than selling.”
Have you achieved your goals yet?
JF “Yes, I am very happy where I am. This is a top team of people and a great series. At some point, it would be great to have more technology, but I understand the formula Grand-Am is following and it seems to be working well.”
The GAINSCO “Red Dragon” had a bit of a slow start to 2011, but you are clearly re-gaining momentum. To what do you attribute this?”
JF “We had budget restrictions that dramatically reduced our testing time to almost none. And when the tire manufacturer was changed, testing was critical to start the season on pace. We had to use live race weekends to do our analysis of set up changes for the new tires. There was some learning going on during those early races, but we now feel we’re getting things dialed in. The tires have a bit of a shorter window for top performance and the driver must not overdrive the car on either end. It doesn’t take long, if you’re entering corners hot, to overheat the fronts, and the same with overdriving on exit – the rears can go away. But we’ve gotten comfortable with our setups and the results are showing it.”
What advice do you have for aspiring professional road racers?
JF “Be prepared to fund your start. Pick the best team of people and cars you can afford. Get LOTS of seat time – drive as often as you can. And perform when given the opportunity.”
Do you have any wishes?
JF “While it’s a very good time to be a sports car racer with lots of series, I’d like to see a more unified series that would allow more technology in the cars. This would possibly lead to larger fields and more competition. I’d like to see the 24 Hours of Daytona under one banner.”
What can you tell me about today’s strategy for the race?
JF “We feel that the Riley chassis is a bit friendlier to the tires than the Dallara of the competition, so we may push the pace a bit early so see if this is true. We don’t need to lead early, but we will push the others to see how they handle the pace.”
Folks, it worked. The GAINSCO Red Dragon brought home their first win of the year at this very competitive Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca edition of the 2011 Rolex Series. With Jon, letting his actions speak louder than these words, having qualified the car on the front row, performed a perfect first stint. Alex finished the race while being pushed by nemesis Scott Pruett. But the Dragon didn’t miss a mark and brought home the win without too much drama at all.
Thanks to Jon and the entire Stallings/GAINSCO team for their time and hospitality, and congratulations for this great win!