The High Road
Apr 25, 2018 07:49PM
In life’s journey, there’s always some crazy young man or woman who takes the loneliest and most dangerous road, the impossible route through the remotest mountains, the darkest and bleakest forests, throwing all caution and common sense to the wind. Some dreamer who insists I don’t need a wrench to fix my car if it breaks down in the wilderness. I’ll use a tree branch if I have to.
His name is Derek James, and he takes that road at a hundred miles an hour. That road is 119.4 miles of Tioga County’s best twisting, turning, climbing, descending dirt roads during one of the world’s roughest, toughest rally races. It’s the forty-first running of the legendary Waste Management Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally, set this year for June 1-2. Against considerable odds, Derek, who works as an oil field security guard in Potter County, is one of the racers, competing against some of the country’s most famous rally race car drivers, including Travis Pastrana. Derek is twenty-one years old and he’s living some darn-fool dream. It’s working out. He’s making it.
Derek grew up in Westfield, Pennsylvania (pop. 1,190), about as far from the Indianapolis 500 or Daytona 500 as a human can be. But he had a tradition. “It was me and my dad’s tradition,” he says. “My brother always went Black Friday shopping with Mom, and I got to go the [STPR] rally with Dad. It was our big thing.” (His brother, Matt, of Bloomsburg, is now competing against him in the STPR, having declined Derek’s pleas to be his co-driver). For his senior project at Cowanesque Valley Junior Senior High School, Derek volunteered as an intern-gopher for STPR.
Then he went to college to study race car driving. He recently graduated from the Alfred State College program in Motor Sports Technology. Becoming the program’s first rally driver was “the whole reason I went to Alfred,” he says.
He built his first rally car in college. It was his first “big project car,” an old Ford Focus that already had a rally car’s heavy duty suspension and steel roll cage, as well as serious engine issues. Love is blind, and he fell hard at first sight. “Dad, this is the car,” he said. He bought it and rushed the repairs in two weeks for his first rally, the Empire State Performance Rally in Narrowsburg, New York.
He didn’t have a co-driver, or navigator. He put out a request on Facebook. A twenty-four-year-old engineer from Baltimore, a rally fan with no racing experience, said, “I’ll be your co-driver.” Derek met him at the race, and recalls, “I wasn’t even sure it was him.” Other fans, students from a technical college, served as his pit crew. He started out with big hopes, and the fuel pump died. The engine kept stalling out. The pit crew used a tree branch to straighten out the suspension and put it back in the car. But Derek, a freshman in college, finished fourth. He was really hooked now. He learned in his college class a philosophy to carry him through life.
“That’s the thing about rallies,” he says. “You press on regardless. No matter what happens, you press on.”
Derek has competed in the STPR twice. If he was your son, you wouldn’t have wanted to see it either time. The first year, early in the race, “I lost brakes and hit a tree, which was a very just a bad situation,” he recalls. The second year, he made it nearly to the end of the race, and “the fuel pump goes.”
“I did nothing wrong. Stuff breaks,” he says.
At the Waste Management Winter Rally in Wellsboro, “we were doing very well,” he continued. “I was right there. I was very close to winning it.” That is, until right near the end when he “pushed it a little too hard and hit a tree.” It was devastating. Winning the STPR was his biggest dream.
But recently, he made a leap toward an even bigger goal: to make a life around the smell of the racing oil and the roar of the crowd. Derek in March announced that he had accepted a position as a fly-in mechanic with Carlin Racing for the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series. “JAMES SIGNS CONTRACT WITH VERIZON,” said the headline in the Westfield Free-Press Courier, his hometown paper. On Facebook, 264 people said they liked his news, and dozens made comments: “Keep the pedal down, my friend, you have a great future ahead...Your grandpa would be proud of you...you’re so lucky to be living your dream.”
“My mom and dad have always been huge supporters of my passion for motorsports, and I can’t thank them enough,” Derek says. “Alfred State College did a wonderful job getting me the technical training I needed to work in such a professional environment.” He thanked “my good friend Tad Uzzle” for introducing him to Carlin “and speaking so highly of me.” Derek says he is “very excited,” and that “this will be nothing shy of an adventure.”
Meanwhile, “this certainly will take away from Rally,” he adds, “but I still plan on doing events when I have the time.” You’ll see him in June racing a black 2011 Ford Fiesta. He fell in love with this car, fell hard, at first sight.
“I found it wrecked and completely built it as a rally car from the ground up,” he says. His goal racing this beauty is “to get to the podium” with a prize, or at least to “finish every rally” he enters.