Still a year before he can drive a street car, Newark Memorial’s Jaden Conwright is a rising Formula Car talent and on the fast track to success.
Steve Brisentine had a hard time believing what he was hearing.
The 53-year-old San Ramon-native had come to renown World Speed Motorsports at Sonoma Raceway to talk about the logistics of beginning a driver development scholarship program.
He had recently purchased a Mazda FormulaSPEED2.0 race car and wanted to sponsor a driver for one season of the Formula Car Challenge West Coast Series. World Speed was more than encouraging and happy to sign on as part of the project.
Then the talk turned to how to find a driver. That’s when World Speed president Telo Stewart caught Brisentine off guard.
“He said we’d need someone from 14 to 18 years-old,” said Brisentine, a long-time representative for a Livermore-based electronics company who was only just beginning to immerse himself in the racing world.
“I said, ‘Really? I’m naive to all this, but you want to put a 14 year-old in a race car?’”
As it turned out, after a month’s worth of promotion, 35-plus applicants and a test day between four finalists, it was a 14-year-old who emerged as the most qualified candidate for the driver scholarship.
While Brisentine was finalizing the purchase of his first race car, Jaden Conwright was in his first semester at Newark Memorial High in Fremont.
He was still more than a year away from even being able to visit the DMV and test for a learner’s permit.
But Jaden Conwight could drive the heck out of a go kart!
Conwright began racing with Quarter Midgets when he was 7 and moved to karting a year later by attending the now-defunct Jim Russell Drivers School at Sonoma Raceway.
By the time he was 12 he’d already won an International Karting Federation (IKF) Junior 2-Cycle national title.
“I don’t know where it came from,” Kim Lee-Conwright said of her son’s passion and natural talent for racing. “We came across a test day for Quarter Midgets and let him try it. He got in the car and the rest is history.”
And despite his meteoric rise and development in kart racing, nobody could’ve predicted how naturally he’d transition to an actual car.
The Mazda FormulaSPEED2.0 cars are Indy-style open-wheel cars designed and built by World Speed.
They feature a 195-horsepower two-liter engine, which is essentially the same engine that can be found in a Mazda Miata. The car weighs about 1300 pounds when adding the driver and can top out at speeds close to 130 miles per hour.
Making things more daunting was the fact that his young age prevented him from doing any on-track testing before the race weekend.
“When I finally got the scholarship, I was relieved,” Conwright said. “Then I found out that I had no practice or anything, and (Sonoma) was the track I was afraid of the most out of all them. I had to come out to the track I was most nervous about with no practice in the car hardly at all.”
And he won.
The Formula Car Challenge races feature three classes of formula cars all on the same track at the same time in a timed 30-minute race.
The Pro Formula Mazdas are the fastest, followed by the Formula Mazdas and then the FormulaSPEED2.0 cars. They are ranked together in qualifying, but are only measured against their own class once the race starts.
Conwright was the fastest of the three 2.0 cars in that first race at Sonoma on March 15. He was leading the group the following day when he suffered a blown tire and was forced to pit before finishing third.
“I remember thinking,‘How well is he going to be able to drive a car because he can’t even drive a street car?,’” said Kevin Harrison, the World Speed team manager who worked with Conwright during that first weekend. “He definitely surpassed any expectations that I had for the first time.
I was like, ‘Wow, he’s got it. Just like any other sport probably. Like in football when you see an elite quarterback and you say wow, that guy, he’s just got it.”
In the four race weekends which have followed, Conwright has taken first in six of the eight races.
Three wins came at Thunderhill Raceway in Willows in April and May, one came at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Salinas in early June and he swept both races at Portland International Raceway over the Fourth of July Weekend.
“He’s got tons of talent and tons of car control — more than I’ve seen out of a lot of karters, or any drivers at his age,” World Speed mechanic Max Martin said. Martin has been with Conwright through all five race weekends, acting as both mechanic and his radio contact during the races.
“They could’ve got someone winning the sponsorship who didn’t progress as much as he’s had. He’s really done a great job of taking care of the car all year.”
Conwright has already locked up the points title for the 2.0 class with two races left in the West Coast series. The final two races happen Sept. 13-14 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
Because he doesn’t meet the age requirement to participate in test days at Sonoma or Laguna Seca, Conwright keeps his driving skills sharp by continuing his kart racing during the gaps in the Formula Car Challenge schedule.
He currently sits fourth in the Red Line Oil Karting Championships standings despite racing in just three of the first five faces.
For all intents and purposes, Conwright’s scholarship season with Brisentine and VMB will conclude with the September races in Salinas.
Harrison, and fellow team manager and engineer Jan Trojan, both believe he would be ready to move up from the 2.0 to Formula Mazda class in 2015. He could do so with World Speed, but it’ll be a matter of whether the Conwright’s can find the financing to do it.
The first step would be a car.
World Speed may be able to provide a car, but it’s unclear at this point. Brisentine said he may also look into purchasing a second car to help keep the VMB racers in the series after the scholarship ends. But even if a car is available, the cost of one weekend of racing usually starts around $2,000.
“There are so many talented kids who want to become race car drivers but just don’t have the financial resources for it,” Brisentine said.
“It’s not like going to sign up for soccer or baseball and playing $400 for a season. … So that’s the frustrating thing. If we can go out and get sponsors to help defray their costs (for the next season), that’s our goal.”
Conwright, who was an honors student during his first year at Newark Memorial, is determined to have a career in racing. He’d like it to be a driver, but is interested in the engineering side as well.
“I’ve always wanted to race,” the young driver said. “We’re always going to try and consider ways (to move up). It’s just a matter of coming up with the money, because it’s such a big investment.”
But if the professionals at World Speed are right about Conwright, there could be a time soon enough when it will be a third party investing in the young man’s talents.
“He has a jump start,” Trojan said. “There’s a lot of fast drivers out there. But for his age, he’s definitely three to four years ahead of most people.
“There’s really no limitations for him.”