Santa Cruz Good Times

Dec 01st
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Speed Racer

AE_BrookKartLocal auto racer stays on the fast track
In Germany, crowds of thousands flock to the automobile racing star’s hotel just to try to find out which room is his. Back home in Santa Cruz, people who meet him ask his name and wonder what it is he does, exactly.

We sit in Brook Johnston's office on a Friday afternoon. I am lucky I've caught some time with him, as the 22-year-old has just arrived back from a trip to Texas and plans a return flight to the Lonestar state on Monday.

Johnston has lived in Santa Cruz for five years, and has been an automobile racer since he was 14. "I was racing before I was legally allowed to drive," he says with a wide smile.

Johnston has been climbing the professional motor sports ladder for years, and is racing in the star Mazda Pro Championship 2010. He says he loves the sport for reasons many in Santa Cruz may not realize. To a backdrop of trophies strewn across a desk and shelves, he shares that auto racing is an extremely physical sport.  He has a trainer from one of his sponsors, a supplement company called LG Sciences, with whom he works out religiously.

On the track, drivers are up against G forces nearly equivalent with F1 fighter jets, and lose about seven pounds of water weight each time they race.

“We basically have to go through pilot training,” he says. “I've gone around corners and broken my ribs just from the G-force inflicted on me. It's physically demanding. You have to be upper body strong, it's a lot of cardio work, and it's a lot of weight training.”

The sport is deeply rooted in business, science and technology, and is tremendously popular in Europe. The Formula 1 Racing faction of the sport, which Johnston says he’d like to get back into, is the second largest sport in the world, next to soccer.

“It is the most watched, highest monetary sport, and a huge influence,” he says. “However, the American involvement has been really low in comparison to other countries. Auto racing is important because it’s a really big step towards new technology. That’s been a really huge thing I’ve seen as the sport has grown. It involves so many computer electronics people don’t realize. There are digital dash displays, shifting electronics, and engine temperature monitors.”

With cars traveling more than 200 mph, aerodynamics is key to the safety and success of a racer. Johnston said his team has worked in person on aerodynamics with engineers straight from the NASA space program.

Johnston says a big reason he continues to be inspired by racing is because it is a family sport. He realizes, however, that many in the area may not be inclined to take up automobile racing merely for financial reasons. The equipment required for automobile racing is slightly more expensive than, say, a soccer jersey and cleats.  However where there is a will there is a way.

When Johnston was only 7 years old, he knew he wanted to try racing but his parents insisted they could not afford to get him a go-cart. After begging his father repeatedly, the two struck up a deal. If young Johnston could find someone to buy his father's old jet ski, his father would double the money and use it to buy Johnston a go-cart. Seven-year-old Johnston sold that jet ski in a single day to the father of a friend from school. Thus began a career in entrepreneurship that would fund his automobile racing future.

Johnston advises aspiring young racers to look for sponsors and strike up business connections as soon as possible. The majority of Johnston's funding comes from sponsors, like his primary racing sponsor Roaring Lion Energy drinks, and more of Johnston’s time consists of dealing with sponsors and contracting business agreements than it does actually racing. In addition, Johnston also has a show in the works with MTV.

Johnston’s parents always took a firm ‘school before racing,’ stance despite his success in the sport. He received his bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Cruz in business management. While in school he continued auto racing, taking classes from 8 a.m. until noon, then race from noon until dark. On the weekends, he would fly out to Europe on Fridays and come back to Santa Cruz Monday mornings for class.

“It’s a crazy life,” he says. “I’d have roommates telling me ‘Brook, we partied this weekend. How was Europe?’” Johnston says with a light laugh. “This lifestyle is something that many people aren’t used to, but I grew up on it. I enjoy it.”

Speaking of crazy, he says that before the year is up, he plans to be fully inverted, upside down, mid-air in a car. Inspired by motocross star Travis Pastranas’s New Year’s 2010 publicity stunt in which he jumped off of a pier in a rally car, Johnston’s team is working on engineering the never-before-seen feat for the coming New Year’s celebration.

“People tell me, ‘You have the best job in the world, you're a race car driver, you just gotta race all day long and make money,’” he says. “Well not really. It's a really educational sport. It's not just based upon talent, it’s also based upon knowledge of engineering, machinery, and you really have to know business well. I think that's an important thing for people to know around here especially.”

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