Junior Open Wheel Talent

News and Views on Drivers Chasing Open-Wheel Stardom

Driver Profile: Joel Miller

by Ryan Stringfield
Posted May 8, 2010 at 3:51 pm Driver Profile

American Joel Miller is on the Road to Indy
(photo: John R. Walker)

Without farm machinery, Joel Miller might not have been introduced to the racing world.  Joel’s grandfather, Bob Burns, had a wide variety of farm equipment situated on his alfalfa ranch in Lucerne Valley, California.  As a youngster, Joel was always impressed with his grandfather’s ability to maneuver the equipment around the property.  When Joel was about five years old, Bob allowed his grandson to operate some of the heavy-machinery.  At first, the routine involved grandpa running the pedals and Joel steering.  It wasn’t that Joel couldn’t operate the pedals, he simply couldn’t reach them and even if he could, he just didn’t have the weight to utilize the pedals efficiently.  At age seven, Joel was finally able to reach the pedals and had just enough strength to push in the clutch – so Bob allowed him to take sole control.  Miller started with a small plow but was soon operating an eight-wheel earth mover, all by himself.  He learned quickly and took the reins without a second thought and grandpa took notice.

Burns had been involved with go-kart racing during the late 1970s.  Joel’s uncles traveled around the United States and competed in various racing series for quite a few years.  After stepping away from the sport for a time, Bob decided to get back into it after randomly coming across a small go-kart shop in Arizona.  He knew that Joel could operate large farm equipment with relative ease, so he figured why not let him try his hand at go-kart racing.  He purchased the kart, loaded it up, and brought it home for Joel.

In the fall of 1996, Joel (8 years old) and his grandfather began making trips to Adams Kart Track in California for testing purposes.  Just like everything else he had ever driven, Joel adapted to a racing kart quickly.  Bob’s intuitions about Joel’s talent were very real.  Less than a year later, Miller entered his first go-kart race, an IKF (International Karting Federation) event in Parris, California.  He finished second.  The very next season, 1998, Joel was crowned the IKF California State Champion at only ten years of age.  It was clear that he had natural ability behind-the-wheel and by this time, he was hooked.  Miller had officially been bit by the racing bug.

“There was no real decision about whether or not I wanted to race,” said Miller when asked about how he got his start in racing.  “It was what I was good at.  Some kids are good at various sports like soccer, baseball, football, etc., but in my case it was driving.”

Joel Miller
(photo: www.otp.ca)

Joel’s championship winning season in 1998 was just the start.  Since making his racing debut in 1997, the Hesperia, California native has gone on to win more than 92 main events behind-the-wheel of a kart or formula car. He has won seven major championships.

Miller’s racing career hasn’t been perfect though.  He’s had his share of ups-and-downs, including a serious accident in 1999.  He missed the first half of the 1999 season after suffering a complete laceration of his liver following a crash at the start of the season.  The injuries were so severe that he was induced into a coma to aide his recovery.  Strangely enough, he continued racing that fall, unfazed and won the 1999 SKUSA SuperNationals in the Junior 60cc division.

In 2002 after earning a few more karting championships, Joel, at age 13, decided to make the transition to cars by training with PR1’s Bobby Oergel in a Formula Ford racecar.  Meanwhile, he continued to develop his craft by competing in go-karts where he graduated to the Senior Intercontinental A (ICA) direct-drive class.  In 2004, he won his first-ever car race in the Pacific F2000 series while competing at California Speedway for PR1 Motorsport.  Unfortunately, due to funding woes, Joel was forced to withdraw, despite leading the drivers’ championship. During this period he remained active by competing in the Stars of Karting series as a privateer, working with his father Jack and tuner Seth Nash.  That winter, he had the opportunity to get back into car racing by competing in the Skip Barber Western Regional Championship event at Mazda Raceway – Laguna Seca.  He won the race.

Tony Kart Factory Driver
(photo: www.joelmillerracing.com)

In 2005, he continued his karting efforts and gained international exposure after being signed as a factory Tony Kart driver halfway through the season.  Red Bull Racing also took notice as Joel was a finalist in the 2005 Red Bull North American Driver Search.  He concluded the 2005 karting season by capturing the Stars of Karting (ICA) Western Division National Championship and subsequently earned the $25,000 Jim Truman Scholarship for outstanding performance.

The 2006 season was a bit of a break-out year for the California native.  Miller continued his dominance in the ICA ranks by winning the Stars of Karting Eastern Division Championship and the overall National Championship.  That fall, he was awarded a fully-funded ride in the 2007 Skip Barber National Championship for his season performance.  He also dabbled in a front-engine USAC Ford Focus Midget by running a one-off Trophy Dash in Blythe, California – he won in his debut.

By this time, at age 19, Joel’s career was really on a roll thanks to all the scholarship support.  He put his Skip Barber opportunity to good use by winning five of twelve events en route to winning the overall National Championship.  Still competing in karts and developing as a driver, he won the 2007 Florida Winter Tour and the TaG-Senior division in the SKUSA SuperNationals. Team USA Scholarship founder Jeremy Shaw took notice of Joel’s performances and subsequently awarded him with the prestigious Team USA Scholarship at the end of the 2007 racing season.  The program took him overseas to compete in the Formula Palmer Audi Championship where he finished 7th.

Miller’s Indy Lights debut at Long Beach
(photo IMS)

Thanks to his performance in the 2007 Skip Barber National Championship, Joel was awarded a fully-funded ride in the 2008 Star Mazda Championship as part of the MazdaSPEED Driver Development Program.  The scholarship was valued at approximately $350,000.  He finished 2nd in the 2008 drivers’ championship – just missing a fully-funded Atlantic Championship ride.  In 2009, he decided to return to Star Mazda with hopes of getting another scholarship.  Unfortunately, he was competing on a shoe-string budget and ended the year ranked fifth.

This pretty much brings us up-to-date (2010).  Joel is currently working hard to come up with the necessary funding for a ride in Firestone Indy Lights – the feeder series to IndyCar.  With the help of several businesses, Joel was able to make his debut in a Indy Lights car at Long Beach.  He finished 11th in his first race with minimal experience behind-the-wheel.  He is now working on putting together enough funding to compete in the Firestone Indy Lights Freedom-100 at Indianapolis.  The event is run during the same weekend as the Indy 500.

Utilizing a unique marketing idea, Joel has created a website entitled JMillerIndy.com which offers fans the chance to donate as little as $10 in order to become a key sponsor – helping Joel get back in an Indy Lights car for the May 28, 2010 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Read the interview with Joel Miller after the jump.

__________________

Joel Miller Q & A

Junior Open Wheel Talent

JOWT:  Joel, thank you for taking the time to do this interview.

JMOf course, pleasure to do so.

JOWT:  You managed to get your start in racing through go-karting.  Even today, it’s not uncommon for you to be found driving a kart.  Can you tell the readers how karting has helped you develop as a driver and why it’s so important?

JM:   Karting is the truest form of the sport in my opinion. Many of the drivers in F1 and Indy Car, that I speak with, feel the same.  In karting, the driver makes the most difference in overall speed.  Everything I’ve learned was built on the foundation that karting created for me. Karting helps a driver understand what it takes to be fast at a young age.  If you look at a majority of the drivers in the top forms of the sport, they started in karting.  I definitely try to get back into a kart whenever possible to race or just to drive.  Everything happens so fast in a kart and it helps keep me sharp, not to mention stay in shape physically.  Right now funding is my limiting factor in getting an Indy Lights drive, so I need to stay up on my game, ready for any opportunity that might present itself.  Karting is the best way to do that.

JOWT:  On your website, you name your parents and your grandfather as your biggest influences.  How have they inspired you both on-and-off the track?

JM Both inspired me on-and-off the track by telling me to never give up and always give 110%.  My grandpa started me in karting and whatever I did on the track – was never good enough, so it made me push extra hard.  He definitely shaped me into who I am today as a driver.

JOWT:  Away from racing you are pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of California, Riverside.  How did you decide on mechanical engineering and what do you plan to do with that degree?

JMFirst, I have always been interested in knowing how to build something that I can physically operate or see work after construction.  From there I took an interest in what it took to actually build the product and why it performed the way it did.  A Mechanical Engineering degree was a perfect fit.  I’m 100%  focused on becoming a racing driver but with the mechanical knowledge and the degree, I know I can bring more to a racing team.  If a racing career falls through, I plan to use my knowledge of the driving side of the sport to stay involved with motorsports in one way or another.

JOWT:  You maintained a 4.0 GPA in high school; earning Salutatorian honors.  It’s obvious that education is important to you.  Can you tell us a little more about that?

JMEducation is a big part of my life as I have always strived to be at the top of my class.  I think I can relate this to always giving 110% in everything I do.  If there is more to be gained from doing something then why not try and achieve it.

JOWT:  You made your Indy Lights debut just a few weeks ago at Long Beach.  Now, you’re pursuing a Freedom 100 ride at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Is IndyCar your ultimate goal in racing?

JM: Yes, driving in the Indianapolis 500 and racing an Indy Car has always been my goal.  If other opportunities present themselves, I will take them because I love to drive.  But, that doesn’t mean I will give up on what I have set out at a young age to do – drive Indy Car.

JOWT:  Funding is always the most difficult obstacle to overcome at this stage of a racing career.  You are working on a unique marketing plan to get you behind-the-wheel in Indy.  Would you tell us a little more about that program and how people can help for as little as $10?

JMThe $10 idea is a way for anybody to help me.  It is difficult for an individual or even large company to write sponsorship checks these days.  With this idea, anybody who would like to see more American drivers in IndyCar can help support one for a minimal expense.  The way to become a part of the program is to visit www.jmillerindy.com, enter your information, and the transaction is done via credit card.  If Indy is not a possibility this year (due to inadequate funds), then any funding raised will be used for a future race on the Indy Lights schedule.

JOWT:  I know that you’ve had a lot of support from local business owners and family friends.  Is there anyone that you would like to thank today?

JMThis could be a long list as family, friends, and local small businesses have been the main source of helping me get into a car.  I would like to thank: Doug Mockett or Mockett & Co., Rancho Motor Company, Carlo and Stacey Berro of Dream Cars Auto, The Mitchell Company, Terry Fowler of Sunset Auto Body, everybody at Sparco Motor Sports, Chris Luna, Joe Phillips, Seers Lumber Co., Karen Shackelford, Eric at Above All Heating & Air, David Dodson, and Emyr Price.

JOWT:  You’ve had a tremendous racing career and certainly deserve an opportunity at the next level.  I wish you the best going forward.  Thank you, again, for taking the time to do this interview.

JMI hope there can be many more in the future, and the next being about an Indy Lights ride!  Speak soon.

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5 Comments

  1. Speedy on May 9, 2010 2:08 pm

    Joel is one of the finest young men I’ve met in racing. His talent level is very high. I can’t understand why Tony Kart doesn’t offer him support in open wheel racing beyond free karts. I am sure he sold many karts for Tony Kart with all the championships he’s won? The problem with karting is that the industry will use these young guys, make money off of them and then kick them to the curb instead of assisting them to get to the next level. TK could utilize Miller as an example of a karter that made it to the professional ranks through their products. It appears that the only karting entity that actually gave back to Joel was the now defunct Stars of Karting when Paul Zalud ran it.

  2. Bob Johnston on May 9, 2010 4:36 pm

    I dont think he is quick enough to deserve a drive in any top series. Two full seasons of star mazda with two top teams and only one win! Doesn’t say a whole lot. Many people have said he is a boring driver.

  3. Ryan on May 9, 2010 9:12 pm

    Bob- I appreciate your input, but I think you’re looking at the stats the wrong way. You are correct in stating that he only has one win in the last two seasons, but that doesn’t really tell the whole story and it certainly doesn’t indicate overall speed. He finished inside the top-5 in 76% of all his Star Mazda starts over the last two years (19 of 25 races). That includes a string of 11-straight top-5s. Last year, he competed on a shoe-string budget and still managed to finish 5th in the drivers’ championship – which, to me, is pretty impressive.

  4. CRGguy on May 10, 2010 9:57 am

    Speedy, don’t expect anything from Tony Kart. The thugs I saw last weekend at South Bend comprising the Tony Team was alarming. That organization has degenerated to a group that can’t help themselves, let alone Joel Miller. I wish Joel luck and hope to see him running the Indy race.

  5. Dick Dixon on May 13, 2010 7:25 pm

    Driving talent is a requirement and talent is not a trained attribute but a gift. Joel brings such to the table but even as important is the chemistry of the focus, the drive, the instilled temperament of overcoming obstacles in the fight to the top. Personal responsibility to being a professional attitude to the track and exhibit such in his personal life is also what the marketing folks observe. Thus, without aiming high with an instilled belief system, Joel would only be just another driver seeking his destiny. But without question, JM is the real deal. It isn’t pretend, its reality, JM has the style of a champion in the making and deserves the corporate look of approval. As for experience, it isn’t about two seasons, its about the complete package. As a family member with two Indy 500 wins, I believe I’m qualified to provide a warrant of approval … JM gets my personal vote.

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