Driver Profile: James Kovacic

Every athlete, regardless of their idiosyncrasy, has a defining moment in life that draws them to their sport. A spark, if you will, that says, “I want to do this, I’m good at this.”. That moment came for Australian race driver James Kovacic at a very young age. James had been watching the go kart drivers run laps at Forrester’s Beach for a few years before he was able to get behind the wheel himself. Despite repeated attempts to drive the karts, James was turned down and told, “You aren’t tall enough.”. Eventually, when James was 8 years old, he was given the chance to get behind the wheel of a go kart. No, it wasn’t a racing kart, it was a rental kart. At the time, it didn’t matter because James just wanted to drive. He had finally attained the proper height requirement to participate, but he was still too short to reach the pedals and to see over the steering wheel. The track attendants at Forrester’s Beach Go Kart solved that problem by placing six cushions underneath the youngster.

He started out racing against his dad, Valentino Kovacic. And if you ask James, Val didn’t offer much of a challenge. I’m assuming Val might have a slightly different story, but for now, we will go with James’s story. His defining moment had arrived. He was fast and he loved driving. Val quickly picked up on his son’s enjoyment of the sport and inquired about purchasing a rental kart. As expected, the track declined to sell a rental. Determined to find a true racing kart for James, Val decided to do some online research. It wasn’t long before he found a kart for James and presented it to him on Christmas morning, about one-year after his first karting experience at Forrester’s Beach.

James and his family decided to join the Newcastle Kart Racing Club in nearby Cardiff. He won his first four races on a provisional license--- a feat that opened quite a few eyes. The fifth race, which was his first official race, offered a different result, something the Kovacic clan wasn’t familiar with… a seized engine. It wasn’t long before the engine was repaired and James was back on track.

His success continued. In fact, he was undefeated throughout his entire 2003 campaign in the Cadet class. He followed up his club dominance with several other championship titles. In 2004, he entered the “rookie class”. That season he won 82.1% of his races, while adding several more championships and rookie honors to his resume. In 2005, at the age of 11, he entered the junior ranks. He won his first race in Junior National Light. In 2006, he became the youngest Australian driver to win a Junior Clubman State Title. The championship trophies continued to pile up as James found more and more success behind the wheel. He made it very clear to those around him that he would like to pursue a career in racing. His parents decided to look into a few options for car racing. After evaluating a few different avenues, they decided on Formula BMW as it offered great competition and international exposure.

This has been a year of development for James as he made the transition to the car ranks in the Formula BMW-Americas series. I might add that watching his progress this season has been very enjoyable. His average finish in his first four races was 5.75. His average finish in his last five races has been 3.80. I fully expect to see even more development out of this young Aussie. If his karting results are any indication of his future success in motorsports, it goes without saying… this kid is one to watch.
James Kovacic Q & A
Junior Open Wheel Talent

JOWT: First of all, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Secondly, congratulations on your recent success in the Formula BMW Americas program.

JK: Thanks for noticing. It has been a very exciting transition period for my career. I felt that a lot of the hard work by the team, myself and my family has led to the results at Lime Rock and it’s a good reward after such a great effort by the team. It is especially difficult coming from the other side of the world, with very little pre-season testing and having to deal with a completely different type of racing compared to what I was used to. I think I am getting the hang of it though and hope to keep improving.

JOWT: You are an avid karter. On your website it states that you have been competing in karts this year (along with your car endeavors). I noticed that you have even had success in a dirt kart this year. How has karting helped you make the transition to cars?

JK: Karting has helped me understand everything about competition and discipline. It involves immense concentration and is physically demanding, which in turn has helped me for car racing. The competition on the track is very close. It has helped me learn to handle the pressure in open wheel cars. Basically it is the same as open wheel racing, however, the dicing is a lot closer. As a matter of fact, I used all of what I learned in karts when I was holding my 3rd position in the Formula BMW 1st round in Mexico earlier this year, and subsequently got my first podium. I drove the dirt kart for the first time to have a bit of fun and a new experience. It felt fantastic and to come away with a win in my debut dirt speedway race made it all the more pleasing.

JOWT: You made your senior class (karting) debut at the 2008 SKUSA SuperNationals and had a very impressive drive that put you just outside the top-ten (among some of the best names in the business). Can we expect you back in 2009?

JK: Yes! It was also a lot of fun in 2008. As a matter of fact we didn’t even have it in our plans to do the race. My father and I were in Las Vegas meeting up with Richie Hearn as I was going to test one of his Formula BMW Cars. As it was – we were there during the same weekend as the SKUSA SuperNationals. Richie put us in touch with Mike Manning of Mike Manning Karts and we were able to lease a kart and engine from Mike so that we could have some fun while we were there. We didn’t even have tools! I had never driven the senior category before. I had also never driven a street/parking lot circuit before. It was definitely an eye opener! It was a very impressive event, with drivers such as Dan Wheldon, Jamie McMurray, Buddy Rice and other top drivers all racing in the class I was competing in (TAG Senior). The kart and engine package were new to me and we missed most of the practice due to brake failure. In qualifying – I was quick (5th fastest) until the tyre deflated and this occurred twice. I qualified 10th in my group. Once all was fixed, I managed to do overall fastest lap in 3 heats – All was good until the engine expired in the Pre final while I was in third. Mike loaned us another engine from a customer of his for the final, and I had to start from the rear of the field (43rd position) due to the DNF. It was very interesting starting from the rear and I waited for the dust to settle before giving it a hot go. I managed to pass Mike Manning’s other driver and fellow FBMW Competitor Michael Lewis at about the half way point of the race and proceeded to pass Dan Wheldon – That was a lot of fun and it put me into 11th position. Unfortunately, the lead pack of 10 karts were a little too far away and I ran out of laps to catch them. In a way I was a little disappointed as I felt I had a really good chance of winning the race if I’d had a better grid position. In any case, we hope to make it back. It is the best racing and I love the atmosphere in Las Vegas.

JOWT: When you started evaluating your options for the transition to cars, how did you decide on Formula BMW? Adding to that, how did you decide on Formula BMW-Americas?

JK: In 2007, while competing at the Australian National Kart Titles, A FBMW Team called “Team Meritus” awarded me with a free test in one of their FBMW cars. I went to the Sentul International Race Circuit, Indonesia and attended a two day test. They were evaluating options for drivers for the 2008 Pacific Series. I had never driven a car of any type before and especially never a manual shift vehicle. In any case the test went very well and I was quite quick. I was 13 at the time and the youngest Aussie to test a FBMW car at that point. Due to my age I was not permitted by the racing association to get a car racing license. So, I had to wait.

My father and I were very impressed with the class. However, we were not that impressed by the way the car preparation was handled and found many things that should be improved. We still considered FBMW to be a better option than Formula Ford in Australia as it offered International exposure and had a world final, so we looked into the Americas as the other option available.

We then got in touch with David Hunt of Team Apex USA and arranged a test in February 2008. We tested at the ‘No Problems Raceway’ circuit in New Orleans. The test went really well and I met Rod McLeod and Martin Bates at the test. The team did a great job running the test. The Team Apex cars were very well prepared and I immediately felt comfortable.

After the test, we decided to race in the Americas series. An important factor was that I felt the competition level was very high and it would allow me to improve as a driver against the toughest competition.

JOWT: Obviously a lot of aspiring drivers look to make Formula BMW a two-year stop. With the recent announcement about the demise of Formula BMW-Americas for 2010, will you look to continue your program via the Europe or Asia series? … or do you plan to pursue other options?

JK: It is extremely disappointing that FBMW Americas was cut. It is very tough at this point to just change your plans. We have invested a lot of time and money into racing the series and planned on racing the Americas FBMW for two years and it has all been ripped away by the BMW announcement. There was no indication of this happening and I believe that the series in the USA was of the highest caliber. At this point, I’m committed to competing in the Singapore F1 Round of the FBMW Pacific Series. I am pretty sure that I will also race in the Macau Round. On the 21st of August –(1 week after the 12th round of the FBMW Americas) I will be testing with ‘Bill McAnally Racing’ at the ‘All American Speedway, California’ in a 2009 Toyota Camry Nascar (Late Model). It is all for gaining experience. I am currently in discussions with several Star Mazda teams for next season (Including Team Apex). I really enjoy racing in the USA. That said, if we cannot secure a suitable deal, we will definitely continue racing in FBMW next year. – At this point I am not sure which continent we will be on.

JOWT: Behind the scenes this has been an extremely tough year for you with the unexpected passing of your coach/manager Graham Watson. How did Graham impact your career?

JK: Graham worked really well with me. He understood what I wanted in a car and he was an excellent teacher. He was more of the ‘old school’ style as he rarely used ‘data’ to set up the car. He trusted me and made adjustments to the car after I gave my feedback. We had a good understanding of each other which made it very easy to achieve our targets. He respected me and believed in my abilities, which gave me confidence. The respect was mutual, I trusted what he said and with his experience, we always found a solution to what was needed. His death has made a huge impact on my career. Not only did Graham engineer and train me, he was also very well connected in the motorsports world. He had worked and helped the career of drivers such as David Brabham, Mark Webber, Scott Dixon, Will Power, Jonny Reid, Brendon Hartley (all of whom drove for Graham) and many others. He is impossible to replace. Thankfully, Team Apex and the guys have done an excellent job and I have found them to be fantastic. It is very sad that Graham could not still be with us. With his passing, I have had to try and re-establish everything that I built up with him.

JOWT: What are your long term racing aspirations?

JK: My intention is to continue racing in open wheel cars and the USA. Ultimately, my first goal is to continue improving and getting good results. It is definitely my goal to race at the top level of the open wheel world. At the moment, this is F1 or the Indy Racing League. However, the landscape of this sport changes very quickly, so you cannot really plan too far ahead.

JOWT: You recently won your first Formula BMW race and in the process became the first rookie driver to win a Formula BMW-Americas race in 2009. Not to mention the fact that you are the first non-Eurointernational driver to win a race this season. The victory came on the weekend of your sixteenth birthday. Can you tell us a little about that experience?

JK: We decided to arrive a little earlier to this race meeting as I have been suffering from jet-lag in most of the other rounds. Hence arriving in the USA on Sunday really helped me to settle in. The track was fantastic and I found a good rhythm in the practice session, even though my times didn’t reflect it. I was a little disappointed in the qualifying runs as I could not get a clear run in either of them. I was confident I had a good car underneath me though. The team and I managed to get a really good base point for the car at Putnam Park a few weeks before Lime Rock. In the first race (Round 8), I felt as though I could take the win. However, the safety car near the end of the race caused my tyres to cool off too much and subsequently, I was not able to get the same pace out of the car after the safety car pulled in. In the second race, the car felt perfect and got quicker throughout the race. It felt really easy to drive and as my close friend and pit crew (Mitch Biner) would say, I felt I could not drive slow enough! Meaning going fast felt easy. It reminded me of driving karts back home. It was a very nice birthday present. It was especially exciting coming from 5th and passing all the top runners to take the win. The most satisfying part was the fact that I managed to be the fastest driver in both round 8 and 9. The progress we made was very satisfying after all of the effort that we put in this season. I felt that we were knocking on the door at VIR in April. It was good to finally put it all together and walk away with the result and reward the team, my supporters and sponsors with such a great result. They have all put so much effort into supporting me and the race car.

JOWT: Thanks James.

JK: Thank you for showing interest in all of the Junior Open Wheel Drivers racing around the world. I thank you for this opportunity. Cheers.

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