Catching Up With Jay Howard
 February 13, 2019| 
  • Series News
Jay Howard Catching Up With

Jay Howard has a plan. Or, perhaps more accurately, two plans.

Howard’s short-term goal has been to mentor young drivers as they begin their racing careers, helping to prepare them with the skills required to succeed. Now, he returns to the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires ladder that gave him his start in America, bringing his eponymous Jay Howard Driver Development program to the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship.

But always in the back of Howard’s mind is the long-term dream: to see a young driver advance through his in-house program, from the beginning of his or her young career all the way to the top: the NTT IndyCar Series.

Growing up east of London, Howard remembers sitting with his dad and watching Nigel Mansell race in the Indy 500, which piqued the youngster’s interest. Beginning his own racing career in karting then junior formula racing, Howard seemed poised for a rise up the English and European open-wheel ranks when the idea of racing in America took root.

“There was this unique group of seven of us kids who all grew up karting with each other, then getting into cars at about the same time, and going in all different directions – Formula One, sports cars, IndyCar. Dan Wheldon had come over here and started racing USF2000 and I thought I wanted to do that. I felt there were more opportunities to become a professional in the U.S. than there were in Europe. Also, my grandparents took me to Florida on vacation as a kid, and I fell in love with the USA. I think this might have helped with the decision to make the move.

“It’s one of the things that makes the Road to Indy so unique and special,” Howard continued. “You win the championship, get rewarded by receiving a scholarship and you keep moving up. People tend to gravitate towards you and want to help you, no matter what your background is, or who you are. I had been promised many drives in Europe but they never materialized. So the U.S. seemed to be the right path for me, and I jumped in with both feet. But that’s my nature; when I decide to do something, I’m all in. I left for the U.S. and never looked back.”

Howard joined the USF2000 series (then the US Formula Ford Zetec Championship) in 2004, winning the championship in 2005 with victories in nine of 12 races. Midway through that season, he began to look toward what was next. A mutual friend introduced him to Sam Schmidt, who had won the 2004 Indy Lights title with Thiago Medeiros. The introduction proved to be a pivotal moment for both Schmidt and Howard.

“I met Sam, pushed him hard – I really wanted to drive for him. I won the first six races in USF2000 and, after that, he gave me a deal for the following year. It was good timing, as the Indy Lights series was going from an all-oval series to a 50/50 split with road courses. The Schmidt team was looking for a road course specialist driver to help on the road course side of things, as the team specialized more on the ovals, so it was a good fit for all of us. We won the pole in the first race, which really confirmed the decision to go straight to Indy Lights. I matured so much that year – the wins and the podiums are fantastic, but the days that were not so good, being able to salvage a fifth-place finish, those are the days that won us the championships. It was a good season for us all as a team.

“I will never forget that, as I came down the pit lane at Chicagoland Speedway, when I won the championship, Michael Andretti leaned in to congratulate me and told me what a good job I did. I was surprised that he came over and said that, he didn’t have to; that’s when I realized what we’d accomplished. This proves that IndyCar team owners are watching the Road to Indy series races. I got picked up at the USF2000 level, and that was back when the series only ran a few races with IndyCar. The program that’s in place today is even better, because you’re in front of the team owners every week. Drivers and teams now have so much opportunity.”

Howard brings the knowledge gained from over 30 years of racing to the next generation of drivers, mentoring them on what to do – and what not to do – as the voice of experience.

“I do think that’s what differentiates us from some of the other teams. I can pass on that knowledge. There’s no promises that what happened to me will happen for one of our drivers today, but this is the only place I see it happening at all and that makes it the best place to be.”

Howard was still pursuing his own driving career when he made the decision to form Jay Howard Driver Development in 2012. The decision came from a desire to coach young drivers, to assist their development and to pass along his knowledge. Having begun coaching while still on the karting level, Howard decided to formalize his vision of what parents needed in the way of support as they helped their sons and daughters move up the racing ladder. To the top, if possible.

“Karting and cars are so close as a sport but two totally different worlds. It’s a tricky transition. I decided to start a karting program, then take kids into cars and make it a smooth transition in terms of continuity and guidance. You only get one shot at this and I hate for people to make a wrong decision and hurt their careers. My long-term goal, in an ideal world, would be to take someone from 4 or 5 years old into IndyCar in-house. That’s my grand plan, so we’ll see!”

Sam Schmidt continues to be a part of Howard’s program, continuing in a mentoring role as his program grows. Howard hopes that maybe someday, the hoped-for IndyCar team might take shape in association with Schmidt.

“Sam is an inspiration on a day-to-day basis –  to everyone he comes in contact with. He remains a part of everything I do and his mentorship is much appreciated. I help him however I can; I am very appreciative of what he has done for me. I would never have had a career if it wasn’t for him believing in me; it’s a long time friendship. I love what he’s built and there’s much to be learned from what he’s done, and who knows if maybe one day, our internal ladder leads to Sam’s program. It’s one of many possibilities.”

Howard has announced young Louisiana native Christian Bogle to what is expected to be a three-car effort in USF2000 this season, with the team planning extensive testing from now until the season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla. Howard has plenty of expectations for the season, with confidence tempered by the understanding of the magnitude of the endeavor.

“Honestly, I’m not sure what to expect. I expect to be fast and I expect the drivers to do a good job, and I expect to be as prepared as we possibility can. We’ve worked hard this off season to make sure we are. I’m confident in the drivers we have lined up and all the faith in the world in the team. I expect to win – there’s nothing easy about racing and there are some very established teams in the series, but I feel that the people we have, the drivers we have, and the effort that’s been put in – I don’t see why we can’t win, and be title contenders. I’m not into the ‘learning year’ idea, I believe in hard work and getting the job done.”

The immediate future is the primary focus for Howard and the team, but as Howard says, there are always two goals at any given time: the immediate and the long-term. The immediate goal is to be ready for St. Pete and to be competitive, but the long-term goal is a bit loftier.

“When I started on the ladder, I had a dream of going all the way through and into IndyCar. That was the long-term dream, but my focus was on the task at hand. It’s the same now, short-term plans versus long-term goals. I love helping drivers, even if it means a driver moves outside my program if it’s best for them, and I’ll help and guide them. But maybe one day we’ll have every step of the ladder, and that would be pretty amazing.”

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