My Mazda Road to Indy: Joel Miller
The competitive racing world knows Joel Miller as the driver of the No. 70 Mazda Prototype in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. But outside the car, the 27-year-old Californian acts as the Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda driver coach and mentor, helping to train the series’ young drivers on what it takes to succeed on the Mazda Road to Indy and beyond.
Though he drives now on the top step of the sports car Mazda Road to 24, Miller honed his skills on the open-wheel path, earning numerous karting titles before the age of 19, including two SuperNats titles and an ICA North American Championship. A Team USA Scholarship recipient, Miller won the Skip Barber National Series in 2008 and a scholarship into the Star Mazda series (now the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires). Miller kept in close contact with Mazda as he explored his options over the next few years, and the manufacturer tapped the young Miller to join its factory sports car effort in 2013. He advanced to the IMSA sports car series’ top step, the prototype class, last year. Along the way, Miller earned a Mechanical Engineering degree from the University of California, Riverside.
Here, Miller talks about his long-standing relationship with Mazda, exactly what his duties as series driver coach entail and what young drivers can do to stand out from the rest as they aim for a career in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
How did your relationship with Mazda begin?
Before I switched to sports cars, I was on the Mazda Road to Indy at every level – USF2000, Pro Mazda and Indy Lights. But once I got to Indy Lights, the funding stalled. But Mazda didn’t forget about me. It was years later, but they remembered me from the open-wheel days and knew what I’d done so when the factory diesel program started in 2013, they called me. They explained to me the long-term goal and that’s how I ended up here.
What was most important about that is the fact that I continued to cultivate the relationship, even when I wasn’t in a seat. It’s amazing how quickly people will forget about you, so you have to stay in view. John Doonan (Mazda’s Director of Motorsports) will remember not only what you did in the car, but out of the car.
If a young driver wants to start in racing, what should he or she do?
Mazda does a great job of tapping into their various programs. Drivers are always asking me how to be a part of this program and I tell them – get on either one of the two ladder systems, either the Mazda Road to Indy or the Mazda Road to 24. At Daytona and Sebring, we had Spencer Pigot driving for us, who came up through the open-wheel ladder. On the other side, you have Tristan Nunez and Tom Long who came up through the sports car ladder. Mazda pulls from both ladders to their pinnacle spot. It’s great to be a part of that and I enjoy seeing drivers like Spencer who make it work and you think ‘yep, that’s how it’s supposed to be done.’
How did you become the Mazda Road to Indy driver coach, and how has your role evolved?
I drove for Dan Andersen in Pro Mazda and Indy Lights so I knew everyone and had a great relationship with Dan. He is such a special person in the sport; it’s great working for him. The staff is fantastic, so it was almost a seamless transition.
In the beginning, it was just coaching for USF2000 drivers. It was a two-fold concept: coaching them on the track and in how to get around the track faster, but it was also a mentoring role. They are on the first rung of the ladder, so I coach them regarding what to expect from an officiating standpoint as they climb the ladder. Sometimes, I’m mentoring the parents as much as the kids in what to plan for the future. I’ve been at every level and now I’m on the sports car side, which is really taking off, so they have a ton of questions. That parlayed into a role in race control, helping (USF2000 and Pro Mazda race director) Scot Elkins and working with IndyCar race control. Now I know everybody upstairs which is another thing I can add to my resume.
How does the coaching work?
Some of the kids are pretty raw, straight out of karting or a school series. It’s all about that first day and building from there. Before the weekend starts, I’ll talk to the teams and we’ll choose a “hot topic” corner that I’ll watch during practices and qualifying. I go to every transporter after every session, knock on the office door and ask if they want my feedback. Sometimes, they just want the quick split times but with some, I’m in there for as much as an hour while we go over data – so I’m more like a coach. Dan believes this is an important service to offer, to be able to collectively tap into a driver coach. It helps build a better base. But I even have Pro Mazda drivers asking me for help.
From your perspective, what is the most important thing a driver can learn while on the Mazda Road to Indy?
We want to teach them now the things they’ll need to know as they get into Indy Lights and IndyCar. If they can learn it now, they don’t have to learn it later. From a racing standpoint, it’s about teaching them the bigger picture and how to pick their battles. For example: today, you might want to finish second because you’ll extend your point lead, because it’s all about winning the championship. If you finish second in the championship, that doesn’t do anything for you. That’s what Spencer did: he came up the Mazda Road to Indy ladder from the beginning, so he knew what he needed to do when he got to the final rung. I’d like to think he learned how to win a championship. Every step prepares you for the next one and you learn something at every step.
What makes a young driver stand out to you as someone who can make it to IndyCar?
At the USF2000 level, you’ll pick a group of three drivers to keep an eye on. Then one breaks through in Lights and you can say “yes, that kid has what it takes” because he or she has been successful in all three rungs. But you can tell at an early point.
There are a lot of ways you can stand out. While I was still in open-wheel, I achieved my engineering degree because I needed something to set me apart from everybody else. So for a program like Mazda’s that was looking not only to develop an engine, but a chassis as well, it was an asset. That showed something to the people who were choosing the drivers and it allowed me to communicate with the engineers on their level.
You know the drivers well. When you’re in race control, do you bring an understanding of the mindset of some of the young drivers?
When I’m in race control, it’s exactly that. I’m there to be a liaison to the race director – I’m not an official, I’m a steward to the officials. I “read” what the drivers do on the television screen and interpret it to the race director and he makes decisions on penalties. If a driver gets a penalty, it’s my job to go back to that driver and explain some of the reasoning on how the penalty went down. Maybe I had input, maybe I didn’t. But having a driver up there is important. Scot knows racing but sometimes five different things are happening so it can be up to me to decide what is a racing incident and what isn’t. I’ve learned so much from everyone in race control – they should tape the sessions up there and show the drivers what they do, because it’s so overlooked. So many things are happening at one time and it’s fascinating to watch. Now, when I’m in my race car and I see something happen on track, I think ‘oh, I know what they’re going to do now!’
What is the most rewarding part of coaching young drivers on the Mazda Road to Indy?
It’s nice for me to be able to give back to the young drivers. Jonathan (Bomarito, Mazda teammate and 2003 USF2000 champion) and I talk about it all the time, how much fun those days seem now. Working with these kids really brings me back to that time and that’s a lot of the joy of it. It was serious, because you wanted to climb the ladder, but it was fun because of what the series embodies.