Cars in the blood: Fast and furious James Roe driven to succeed

Business backers row in behind ‘very skilled’ Irish driver in pole position to make the grade

James Roe:  ‘My dream is to be the first Irish man to win the Indy 500.’ Photograph: Dara MacDonaill/The Irish Times

James Roe: ‘My dream is to be the first Irish man to win the Indy 500.’ Photograph: Dara MacDonaill/The Irish Times

 

As James Roe grew up, Sunday afternoons were spent watching Formula One hero Michael Schumacher driving his Ferrari.

“Those are definitely fond memories,” says the 20-year-old.

Cars were in his blood from the off and he recalls spending time in his father James’s car-repair shop in Naas, Co Kildare, “ever since I could walk”.

“My brother and I would rally the cars around the fields near our house when I was six,” he says.

I arrived in Chicago with two bags and soon realised I needed to figure things out very quickly

After graduating from Newbridge College in 2017, Roe could have studied mechanical engineering but instead crossed the Atlantic to pursue his motor-racing dreams. His ambition is to star in IndyCar racing, a motorsport followed by millions of people in the US.

“I arrived in Chicago with two bags and soon realised I needed to figure things out very quickly. It was a different world,” he says.

In his first year competing, Roe finished second in the F2000 series, with three race wins and seven podium finishes.

He recently competed in the Formula Three America Championship before 60,000 fans, finishing fifth. Strong performances are essential to gaining and maintaining sponsorship which is key to progressing a young racing driver's career.

Irish businessman John Campion is one of Roe’s backers. Campion made his fortune supplying electrical power for big concerts, having started out as a roadie for the likes of Michael Jackson and the Rolling Stones.

I saved up and put all my money together to get my first racing car. I saved everything – confirmation money, wages

He set up Team Ireland three years ago to help identify, support and coach young Irish drivers to make the grade in international racing. Roe has been part of Team Ireland for two years and realises sponsorship is not just about putting a logo on a race car.

“It’s a business-to-business opportunity that can be created and a results-based industry at the end of the day,” Roe says of his experience.

Ray O’Connor is another sponsor impressed by Roe’s driving. O’Connor left his home in Kildare for Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1983 with just £500 in his pocket and now leads the Japanese-owned international surveying firm Topcon*.

Roe, who spent many days as a boy watching races at Mondello Park in Kildare, says he always wanted to get into motor racing but did not have the resources while growing up. “I kept nagging my dad and my uncle, saying ‘I wanted to start racing’. I saved up and put all my money together to get my first racing car. I saved everything – confirmation money, wages.”

James Roe ‘arrived in Chicago with two bags and soon realised I needed to figure things out very quickly’. Photograph: Dara MacDonaill
James Roe ‘arrived in Chicago with two bags and soon realised I needed to figure things out very quickly’. Photograph: Dara MacDonaill
James Roe’s need for speed: in action on the track.
James Roe’s need for speed: in action on the track.

Eventually it all came together.

“My first racing car was a Ginetta Junior. My uncle and my dad ran me in it and I raced it in the Ginetta Junior Ireland series. We had success straight away and one thing lead to another.”

Soon afterwards, Roe broke the Ginetta Junior lap record at Mondello Park and progressed to Formula Ford 1600 before becoming the first Irish man to compete in Formula Four.

“James is a . . . very skilled driver and although at the early stages of his racing career, it is clear he has enormous potential,” says Rob Wilson, who has coached Formula One drivers such as Kimi Räikkönen and Valtterie Bottas.

Roe says he is “pretty laid back” even when driving before 60,000-strong crowds. “It’s about how you use that pressure. If you use it as a way of focusing, it actually becomes an advantage.”

So what is the ultimate goal?

“My dream is to be the first Irish man to win the Indy 500. But for now, you just focus on one race at a time,” he says, packing his bags before leaving Kildare to return to action in the US.

*This article was amended on November 11th 2019