As a teenager living in a mobile home in Sulphur, Louisiana, Aaron had a dream since he was chin-high to a wheel arch: to become a racing driver. Only problem? He had no money, and Louisiana isn’t exactly the centre of the racing universe.
Instead, young Aaron threw all his talents and resolve into video games which, after some years, led him to Project CARS where he discovered a passion for open-wheel racing and the challenging, narrow and picturesque circuits of the UK.
Using Project CARS and Project CARS 2 as his only training tool, Aaron and his family skimped and saved and turned the unlikeliest of dreams into reality—Aaron is now competing in the UK in Formula Ford against tomorrow’s F1 and IndyCar stars and carving out a career that could well see him go all the way on the Ultimate Driver Journey, from sim racing in his mobile home to global stardom.
His story validates the status of sim racing as a cheap way to chase the dream of becoming a racing driver.
First of all, tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get involved in motorsport?
Well, it was a tough start to be quite honest! From a young age, I always had an interest in racing. I had a PlayStation 2 console and when I was five years old my parents bought a NASCAR and Formula One game, along with many other games that other kids enjoyed. The racing games were always my favourites though. Years went by and I always wanted to be like the drivers I looked up to, and when I was about ten years old, I began to question why I couldn’t become a racing driver for real. My parents were divorced and I lived with my dad. We weren’t poor, but we didn’t have the money to race, and he had a full-time job that wouldn’t allow him to commit to it anyway.
My bitterness toward the sport unfortunately grew by the time I was 15, and I knew if I didn’t get started in racing it would soon be too late for me to ever have a chance to make it.
What made it more frustrating was that I wasn’t old enough to work a proper job. That changed at 16, and I worked at restaurants to save money, with no set plan or anything. When I was nearing 17, a local dirt oval kart track opened a couple hours away from us in a small town called Turkey Creek, Louisiana. My dad and I checked it out and I thought maybe this was something I could afford. A local guy informed us he was selling a kart for $1,500. My dad said if I worked hard to fund it, he would help, and for the next year we competed locally, winning a track championship there.
I knew, however, that the longer I continued in this, the slimmer my chances would be to make it in NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA, F1, or any top level. With NASCAR being the initial goal, I picked and clawed to get my name out there, emailing, messaging, friending anyone I could on Facebook and talking to anyone that would listen. The most common answer I got was “you can’t go straight from dirt oval karts to NASCAR, go drive in dirt cars first,” which I knew would delay the process, plus I couldn’t afford it. Anyway, I begged everyone I could at the local dirt tracks just to have 5 laps in their car hoping they would want me as a driver. I was called a bum, and got told to get out and work for it like everyone else there. But I knew, being 17, that I couldn’t wait forever.
At 18, I got a job as an aircraft mechanic at Northrop Grumman, making more money than I ever had. It helped with my budget, but I still didn’t know what to do. I came across various SCCA series that, while cheap, were still beyond my financial means.
My friend and I purchased Project CARS on PS4 around this time, and my grandmother bought me a wheel. As we played, my cousin noticed, “dude, you’re like really quick… that’s scary” and he proceeded to tell my dad I’d be the best driver in the world if I ever had the chance, which is a ridiculous and funny story but it really happened.
What led you to focus on open wheel cars?
One day I noticed that the Skip Barber race school was doing a half-off deal, and I decided to do that in October 2016, and save up for an SCCA series for 2017, but it wasn’t until, after asking tons of people for advice, that someone recommended the Lucas Oil Race School and series with its ties with the Team USA Scholarship.
I then decided, even if I could only afford one race weekend, that it would be worth it. I told my dad I would have to go win for someone to notice me and for things to happen, and he thought I was insane for even thinking that could happen.
In my first ever race weekend, after only completing a Skip Barber 3-day school and playing Project CARS, I led in my first race, and was victorious in race 2 of that weekend against 15 other drivers.
My dad then decided he would do anything he could to help, and I had a few other people wanting to help as well. Although it was a struggle, we managed to make the 2017 season happen.
It doesn’t get much more challenging than your driver journey. To leave home at a young age and come to the UK from the US to compete in our National Formula Ford Championship. What inspired you to seek the next steps of your career in England, rather than back home?
What inspired me to further my racing career in England were a few variables, one being the price and deals, two being the sentimental value it has from driving these same tracks in the Formula Rookie on Project CARS.
It has been a great experience so far. Although I’m not living in England, I’m spending a lot of time there, and I’ve gotten to learn how to work on the cars in the shop and really be part of the team, plus I love the food!
You’ve spoken often about the financial challenges of motorsport, and even crowdfunded some of your costs for the trip to the UK. How have things been since you took some time out and then returned to the sport?
Since taking 10 months off and returning, I’ve been able to come back with a much calmer and more focused demeanor, knowing that all I can do is my best, and we’re never guaranteed another race. I no longer carry the stress of, “if I don’t win this race I’ll never race again” because that never helped me as a driver.
Do you have any advice for other young drivers from a similar background when it comes to finances and sponsorship?
It’s unfortunate but for the most part, who you know could be the most important thing. I came into the sport knowing no one, and I think what has helped me is not being afraid to show personality and make people laugh. Treat those with money as normal people because they are, and that’s how you build a good relationship with them, because at the end of the day it’s about everyone enjoying being involved and part of motorsport.
How has Project CARS 2 helped you to prepare for the Formula Ford car and the UK circuits?
It helped with techniques quite a bit. Having only done dirt oval karting before, I credit my instant speed to talent and time on the game alone. From the beginning, it really helped me understand lines and apexes. I could hop on for some sessions and watch real life on-boards and actually relate to them. After purchasing higher quality brake pedals with load cell braking, I was able to test threshold braking in the game, and learn to attack the brakes in brake zones.
I did some races online on Project CARS 1 but nothing super competitive. I mostly raced against the AI set to max difficulty. It helped me a ton with driving off the racing line to make passes and charge through the field quickly. Driving off the racing line to establish racecraft is huge in the level of racing I am in, and in my first race ever I was able to make a two-car pass from third to take the lead, as I had previously done in the game.
However, I think what I benefited the most from was going from track-to-track on the game to practice getting up to speed and learning different tracks quickly. This has been something I’ve never struggled with in real life racing. At every track I go to, I can get near the pace very quickly.
As for track accuracy, I’ve done a handful of different simulators now since I started racing, and the Project CARS titles are on the top tier with some other very accurate sims. The elevation and visual aspects are very well captured compared to lots of other sims that struggle with this. I think the only improvements to be made as far as the tracks go are to make sure all the curbs and runoff areas are updated in the next version. Also, having a semi-slick tyre for the Formula Rookie would be great too.
How are you finding the UK circuits compared to what you’re used to back home?
Arriving at these tracks in real life for the first time was so cool, they were such new places but reminded me of back home as well because it looked the same as doing it in the game. I also felt as if I had driven the tracks before, which was very nice. I love the circuits, the weather is a no-no though—way too cold!
How have the local teams and drivers responded to you since you’ve been in the UK?
The local teams and drivers think it’s cool to have an American here, especially guys who are from the dirt oval karting crowd.
What are your favourite car/track combinations in real-life, and in the game?
My favorite both in real life and on the game is the Formula Ford/Formula Rookie at Donington Park National.
Where can our fans find you on social media?
Aaron will be doing a full season of the BRSCC FORMULA FORD 1600. You can follow the series and Aaron here.