Jason Rabe never stopped chasing his dream of being a racecar driver during his time as a flagger and crew member at New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville.
Rabe started by getting a job at NJMP in 2009, and initially lived in his car. With purpose and determination, he did his work and got to drive on the track on occasion.
Today in Houston, the 29-year-old turns some of his dream into reality as he makes his debut in the Pro Mazda Championship, an open-wheel auto racing circuit where most of the drivers are in their late teens and early 20s.
The two-day event is teamed with the featured Izod IndyCar doubleheader as part of the Grand Prix of Houston.
"It's a big event and I'm really excited and looking forward to it," Rabe said. "There will be thousands of people watching and it will be really good exposure."
The Pro Mazda Championship is the second of three stages of the Road To Indy Series. The next step is Indy Light, and then finally IndyCar.
Rabe will be driving No. 29, a white and yellow car, for M1 Racing, which is based in Dallas.
He said that the Pro Mazda cars reach speeds of 140 to 150 mph on straightaways and have a fast cornering speed of about 100 mph.
"It's all surreal to me," Rabe said. "Racing is my passion. I'm driven. People have told me 'no' a lot, so I have a lot of motivation. I want it more than these guys. My story is kind of like 'Rocky' or 'Invincible'."
Rabe, originally of the Poconos in Pennsylvania and Morris Plains in New Jersey, still considers Millville to be his home, along with Monticello, N.Y.
But also says his hometown is the track. He's a racecar driving instructor at Monticello.
He said his dream to drive started when he watched auto racing at Flemington Speedway in central New Jersey. He always worked on cars with his father as a boy and raced go-karts.
After graduating from Western Wayne High School, Rabe went to college, but dropped out and went to Bertil Roos Racing School at Pocono Raceway. He competed in the Bertil Roos USF2000 series and won its rookie runoffs.
"I decided to come to New Jersey Motorsports Park," Rabe said. "I got a job basically flagging just to get my foot in the door. I started networking so I could meet people and find rides. I was also wrenching (working on crews) in exchange for driving.
"I was only working two to three days a week at first and didn't have a place to stay, so I lived in my car for a while. I slept in the car for about a month at different parking lots, like Wal-Mart and Target, and sometimes at NJMP."
He won some regional and national Sports Car Club of America races in the Formula Mazda class. He finished seventh at NJMP in his first USF2000 Championship race in the summer of 2012, and was seventh this June at NJMP in an SCCA Majors Tour race.
Chris Becker, the manager of communications at NJMP, is also a former flagger at the raceway.
"Racing has always been Jason's dream, and he did a great job of networking and met a lot of people through flagging," said Becker, a 23-year-old Millville resident. "He's a great friend and I'm really excited for him. I've been texting him, and he's pretty busy where he's at. I'm going to follow him this weekend."
The young racers of the Pro Mazda Championship usually have plenty of financial backing, and many come from well-to-do racing families.
"So many people want to be racers, but you have to get to know people," Becker said. "You have to have some luck and have all things work in your favor. It's impressive for Jason to do this without a big sponsor. He's done it at the grass roots level."
The racing will be on a 1.69-mile, 10-turn street course in downtown Houston. Round 15 (the first Pro Mazda race) will be at 12:35 p.m. today, and round 16 and the Pro Mazda season finale is at 7:45 a.m. Sunday.
"I"m not like a lot of racers," Rabe said. "Most have a lot of money to get the opportunity on the big stage. I'm hoping for a sponsorship next year and hoping to do more in Pro Mazda or anything with wheels on it."
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