Brian Graham, one of the most successful team owners in Canadian motorsport with a roster of alumni that have raced with his Brian Graham Racing team is a man who you could forgive for bragging. He has literally “been there, done that” and has the championships to prove it. But as I sat down to interview him during the 2019 Canadian Grand Prix it was quickly apparent that while he is proud of his accomplishments, he is the typically modest Canadian guy who just loves racing.
In our chat we touched on numerous topics including the continuing relevance of Formula Ford/F1600, the role of parents as a karter moves to cars and what kind of driver he is looking for with the Team Canada Scholarship.
Motorsport Prospects: How did you get involved in motorsport?
Brian Graham: I grew up at the racetrack with my dad when I was a kid. I always loved racing. My dad raced sports cars at the beginning and then switched to Formula Fords in the early 70s and I just fell in love with the category. When I started racing, I knew it would be in a Formula Ford and it was. The absolute best spot for the young guys and girls to get started because it’s a real race car, its tuneable, there is so much to learn and its similar but so different from karting. You need to learn a different approach and the racecraft that comes from racing in a car as opposed to a kart. At Brian Graham Racing (BGR) we have had young drivers who have fantastic karting resumes but for some of them it takes them a little bit of time to learn how to properly race the vehicle. The size and weight take some getting used to. For some it’s as natural as anything and they get it from the get-go while for others it takes a bit more time, but it is definitely the place to learn.
One of the things that is great about this class is that It is relatively affordable but of course still expensive as is all motorsport. When I was racing Formula Ford, I was one of the guys who slept in his truck and didn’t stay in hotels because that was money I could use to go racing. That has carried through to my race team and quite honestly, those experiences have enabled me to be able to develop our program and build my assets (bigger trailer, new cars and all the things that goes along with that). I worked very very hard to get to where I am and it’s those early years of racing that taught me how to be frugal with my money and where best to spend it.
I certainly made plenty of mistakes on the way, but it took years and years of hard work and complete dedication to just racing to the exclusion of almost all else. But it was what I wanted to do. I did have a full-time job as a courier for 19 years which allowed me to race but eventually, I got to the point where people started to ask me to prep their cars which sort of happened by accident. In 1998 I had moved to F2000 and won the championship but it was about half-way through that year where I realized that it was well beyond my means to race in that class but I had made a deal with myself that I will finish the year and do what I can to win the championship which basically put me in debt. So this deal with myself was that if I wanted to continue to race I would need to find some way to make money in another venue to help fund my racing because you would work 52 weeks for 6 weeks of racing and still be in the hole at the end of the year.
In 1999 I was not racing and I stopped by the track one race weekend and was asked by somebody why I was not racing and I told him that I could not afford it and will try to race every other year. He asked me if I would be interested in looking after his car and this is exactly what I did since it would allow be to stay involved in the sport. From that point on I started prepping other cars and it just sort of grew from there. As this started to grow, I realized that this money I was making from outside of my regular paycheck would allow me to continue to go racing. I raced one year on and one year off while still prepping other racers cars and from there the idea to start my own team was born.
In 2005 I had a customer that was running a fairy current Van Diemen which I then bought from him at the end of the season. That fall I met Kyle Marcelli and we made a deal for the 2007 season and at the same time I figured out a way to get a second car which Conor Daly raced for part of that season until he did a full season the following year and it just grew from there. Kyle was my first F1600 champion and Conor barely missed out on the championship the following year, primarily because he had to skip an entire weekend to race in the Skip Barber series which he was also racing in.
It all started from that. I was very fortunate to have a succession of very good drivers and it sort of fed itself. I didn’t struggle to find drivers as they were coming to me. For sure there were lean years but for the most part I have had an amazing group of drivers racing for me and the fun part has been getting to watch them moving up the ladder and racing in the Indy 500 for example. It has been amazing.
(Editor’s note. Here are just some of the drivers that have raced with BGR over the years: Zacharie Robichon, Dalton Kellet, Stefan Rzadzinski, Spencer Pigot, Kyle Marcelli, Conor Daly, Roman De Angelis, Ben Hurst and more. A more expansive but partial list can be found at http://www.briangrahamracing.com/index.php?page=bgr-alumni)
MP: Why do young drivers come to you?
BG: One of the reasons is that I don’t sugar coat things. As some of the drivers will probably tell you, I do not spoil or coddle the drivers. What amazes me is how professional the young drivers that are serious about the sport are and how they accept my approach. Our guys seem to treat it like a job which is important since, while some of them have sponsors mostly it’s their parents or their parents’ companies that pay a lot of money for these kids to go racing so you want them to put their best effort in and for the most parts the kids racing under our tent do.
MP: BGR is primarily involved in F1600. Do you think that F1600 is the best training ground for young drivers graduating from karts? If so, why?
BG: The reason is that it is perfect for building racecraft, it is cost effective, you get a lot more racing for less money and the grid contains a mix of young guns and veterans.
Being in a car with no downforce or slicks eliminates what is sometimes a false sense of security that is found in some of the other slicks and wings categories. Racing on treaded tires with no downforce means you learn car control and you learn how to race close to each other. There are on average more green laps of racing in F1600 than you will find in a series like F4. F1600 gives you an amazing amount of track time for the budget. It’s ironic that as you move up the racing ladder you tend to get less and less track time so the more you get early the better.
Economically it is about half or a third of the budget of the next level up like F4 for example.
Another thing it teaches the kids coming up in our series is how to learn from more experienced drivers. Our series consists of young kids coming up from karts as well as more experienced drivers who have stuck around because they just love to race Formula Ford and they were once those young guns themselves. The kids learn from these older drivers because they have the experience behind them and really know how to pedal a car. That is considerably different from F4 for example which consists almost exclusively of young kids coming from karts who are also just finding their way so as a result there a lot of crashes, mistakes and yellow flags. Our senior drivers know how to race a 1600 car and there is almost nothing they have not seen and so when you get to race with these veteran guys you get the benefit of their experience. They will not hesitate to come and talk to a young driver if they are not happy with something they see on the track and the kids tend to listen to them because of their experience, which is not always the same situation in other series or in karting where there is a lot of yelling and no listening both by drivers and parents, something I make sure does not creep into my team.
MP: Do you ever race in the United States either in an American-based series or in SCCA?
BG: We did for several years and we do it on and off as customers request it. We’ve won races at Sebring and Homestead and the Winter Nationals and usually a customer requests it so that they can get some additional seat time since our season starts so late. There is some value to it, but it is strictly budget driven. We will definitely go if we have the means to do so.
MP: Have you had any desire to expand to another class?
BG: Yes. A couple of year ago when the new USF2000 car was introduced we purchased two cars and prepped them and built a blueprint and a team which I believe would have been quite successful. I recruited one of the top Canadian engineers with years of experience. We had everything in place, and we needed to find drivers. We had one driver that made a last-minute change to Porsches instead and that kind of put the brakes on everything. We had a second driver that just never materialized, and it was a huge expense and a little bit outside of my comfort zone to tie that much money up with equipment. You can’t just have $200,000 -$300,000 worth or race cars just sitting there doing nothing so when an opportunity came up to liquidate them I took it, especially in light of the escalating budgets the series was experiencing. Another issue is that as a new team, unless you have a fully funded driver ready to go everyone else from the outside looking in will tend to overlook your new team and go to one of the established teams. Unless you are fully funded as a team in that you can pick and choose your drivers of which we were not in that position you are going to struggle. Unfortunately, in the last 3 years I have seen 2 or 3 very good USF2000 teams that are just sitting at home and it’s a shame as they have a lot of money tied up into those assets and equipment and they are not at the racetrack. So, there was a point where I just pulled the plug because I am happy where I am and what I have. Certainly, there are times where I have had a young driver that I would have liked to keep and run them in the next series up the ladder, but I am happy and comfortable where I am.
MP: What are you looking for in a driver?
BG: I want someone that’s driven to succeed. Someone that is really dedicated and will work hard. Usually I will talk to drivers and research them a bit and make the effort to go to some karting events and to get to know them. You get a “feel” for some drivers where you know whether they will be a lot of work or that they have real potential. Usually we will try to do some testing to try to get a read on them and take it from there.
Another big part of it is the parents. Teams may not like to talk about this, but I will. If you see that the parents are going to be an issue, then they will be. With the drivers I have worked with, the one thing that all these young drivers have had in common is that the parents know when to step away. It is very difficult for the parents to do this and I understand that. In karting the parents can be very involved but when their kid comes to cars they need to step away. In hockey, once the kids get to Junior A for example the parents don’t get to sit on the bench with the players. They get their ticket and go sit in the grandstands. You have to have it that the parents are willing to allow you to do this. That is as big a part of it as is the kids themselves.
MP: I have noticed a family atmosphere in the team. Is that important? Is that something you consciously do?
BG: It’s a natural thing. When I raced it was my family, my mom and dad and my brother and sisters were all part of the team, so it was a family environment. Under our awning I want it to have a family atmosphere and for the parents to know that we are doing everything that we can for their kids in the most cost-effective manner possible. Part of this is that I am very careful about spending other people’s money. We do our budgets and it’s all in, other than damages as no one can predict that but I don’t want to give like to give parents surprises. If a driver is particularly hard on the equipment for sure we will talk to the driver and parents about that but other than that everything is included so they are not going to get any surprises. I want them to be comfortable that we are doing everything we can to give the best car we can and that I am not going to just throw money at problems that can’t be fixed by money. Some problems are things you can fix with money, sometimes these problems are more mental than technical and it’s not money that will solve the problem but a modified approach to perhaps the coaching or the engineering in order to get to the root of the issue.
There is all sorts of work that can be done with the driver and not just with the car itself. It’s not always easy but we work hard focusing on all the issues confronting a driver.
Another benefit is that when I was racing, I made every mistake you can think off so with a brand-new rookie driver, by 6 months in they have the benefit of my 15 years of experience and of how I corrected for those mistakes. These are often little detail things that may not necessarily affect them here but one or two levels above this they will do something one day and they will remember “Oh ya, this is what Brian was talking about!” I have been involved in a multitude of different series and in every one of them I have learned, and I bring that back to my team and my drivers get to benefit from that information.
MP: What is the single most important piece of advice that you would give a parent went evaluating a racing team at this level?
BG: Never base your decision strictly on a website or marketing brochure. Contact drivers who have worked with teams and talk to them. If you talk to the drivers who have driven for the team you will get an unfiltered view of the pros and cons of the team. Do your research and arrange for a test or two first before making any decisions. Talk to people who have been involved with teams and not just those currently involved with the teams but were involved with them in the past.
F1600 is in a good spot right now. It has not lost its relevance in teaching racecraft and can be used as an ideal springboard to other classes. You can do one year of F1600 and then move on and you will be competitive in your first year wherever you may go as opposed to spending 2-3 years struggling to learn the racecraft you need to be competitive in a class that requires a larger budget. You can go somewhere and spend 200K or more for your first-year racing and your second year you will be competitive. Or you can spend half that for one year in F1600 and then move up to that other more expensive series and you will be in exactly the same place but having only spent half the money.
It also gives you the opportunity to evaluate yourself as a driver to determine whether you have what it takes to make this as a career. Racing is expensive and with parents often footing the bill, a frank evaluation after 2 years of F1600 should be made to decide whether it makes sense for them to continue to fund your motorsport career. It sometimes makes for some uncomfortable situations where you need to have a conversation with the parents and try to suggest in a professional way that their son and daughter should consider something else but ultimately that is the right thing to do. Whether they listen to you or not is a whole other story! On the topic of parents, in addition to what I mentioned above I’ve experienced parents who have basically worked to undo everything I have done with the kids from a coaching perspective and in that instance, I have no problem suggesting that may be we are not the best fit for them.
For every driver that comes through my tent, some will just not make it as a pro driver for a number of reasons but because they love racing, they will be committed amateurs racing for fun regardless. The sad thing and one I could never understand is that some kids will get frustrated after 2-3 years for whatever reason and never sit in a race car again. If you love racing that much, just because it cannot be a career does not mean you have to stop racing.
MP: Tell me a bit about the Team Canada Scholarship Program and what kind of things you look for in potential drivers?
BG: Again, you have to have the drive to succeed. Speed is important obviously, but they need to be career minded and involved in their own program. We look for young drivers at beginning of their careers. The scholarship is a stepping-stone to a motorsport career, and they need to be serious about it. It is not aimed at the veteran driver who has already won national titles. Age does come into play, but it is not critical. We also need to get a sense that this driver can go far, that they can make a career out of it. Again, it is not based solely on speed. We want an alumni list that is notable, that demonstrates its effectiveness in launching motorsport careers.
Behavior on and off the track is also very important. Being really young is a big opportunity to change and improve themselves and this gives drivers the opportunity to learn and grow but they have to be racing in cars as we don’t consider karters for the program. They need to be in cars and preferably in single seaters. The drivers need to be ready mentally, skill-set wise and budget-wise.
MP: Any final thoughts?
BG: F1600 is a lot of racing and a lot of fun.
You can get more information on Brian Graham Racing by going to their Motorsport Prospects listing page here.