Koch with Jim Swintal after his title print last year. Photo courtesy of IMSA

IMSA: Kenton Koch goes for another title after a balancing act year

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BRASELTON, Ga. – The driver who once compared himself to “Gumby” can wiggle his way into a fifth consecutive championship in sports car racing at this weekend’s Petit Le Mans.

If Justin Wilson was considered IndyCar’s “gentle giant,” then Kenton Koch is well on his way to being sports car racing’s version of the man who balances his lanky frame, incredible talent and even more incredible humility, all at the tender age of 22.

Most drivers who would be in Koch’s situation this year would have struggled to comprehend why they aren’t in a full-time ride.

Instead Koch, to his credit, did not let it get him down publicly and has maximized his limited opportunities throughout the 2016 season.

“It’s definitely difficult being in the position I’m in, but, I also have to be so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had,” Koch told NBC Sports. “I’m here driving a racecar, and I get to try to have other opportunities like this for a full ride next year.

“Brent (O’Neill, Performance Tech Motorsports team principal) helped me a lot on this. It’s cool to have someone like this in your corner. They just got the ‘Extreme Spirit’ award; he’s a super good dude, and they worked hard to get me in the car.”

He looks to complete the quintet of titles after driving for two different teams this year, JDC/Miller Motorsports and Performance Tech Motorsports, in the Prototype Challenge class as he goes for a Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup crown.

In 2013, Koch firmly “arrived” on the sports car scene after making selected Mazda MX-5 Cup starts in 2012 and winning the Mazdaspeed Challenge class. He won the Skip Barber/Mazdaspeed Pro Challenge class that year, and for good measure, added an overall win in the rain at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park while in the class.

A year later in 2014, Koch advanced into the primary class of MX-5 Cup with Alara Racing and edged the driver who he’d lost the Mazda club racing shootout to in 2012, Patrick Gallagher, for the overall title.

In IMSA’s Mazda Prototype Lites presented by Cooper Tires (then called Cooper Tires Prototype Lites presented by Mazda) in 2015, Koch controlled the season with 11 wins in 14 races en route to his fourth straight title.

Koch seemed a natural, then, to follow in the footsteps of Tristan Nunez, Sean Rayhall and Misha Goikhberg as a full-time Prototype Challenge driver in 2016. Instead, Koch was only confirmed for the opening two races in PC with JDC/Miller Motorsports as a third driver alongside Goikhberg and talented South African teammate Stephen Simpson.

Koch was immediately on pace and despite an incident at the Bus Stop at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, was trusted enough with the car to bring it home to the finish in his race, series and class debut.

It was mission accomplished, and his win was one of the most emotional of 2016. It came just more than a year after in 2015 his mom, Karen, had undergone a heart transplant and was on site to witness the achievement. His dad, Chris and girlfriend Dani have also provided support at nearly every race along the way, as well.

Koch’s two IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship starts since ended fourth with JDC/Miller at the waterlogged Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, and then second for Performance Tech with Kyle Marcelli and James French at Watkins Glen International in the team’s No. 38 Oreca FLM09.

Koch leads the PC points standings, 34-32 over the PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports trio, heading into the fourth and final round of the Patron Endurance Cup. If he can secure the title, he’ll follow in the footsteps of Cameron Lawrence and Al Carter, who were last year’s GT Daytona Patron Endurance Cup champs while doing an endurance-only schedule.

All the while, Cal State Fullerton business student Koch has maintained a presence at the track in the races he’s not driving, doing a mix of either testing the new Global Mazda MX-5 Cup car, driver coaching, or providing color commentary for the Mazda MX-5 Cup races with IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam.

“The Mazda ladder system has helped me in that, there are other things than just trying to go fast in a race car,” Koch explained. “There’s a lot more involved than meets the eye from an outsider perspective. Being a part of that has helped me see things from a different perspective.”

Koch accurately predicted who’d emerge victorious in MX-5’s crazy photo finish at VIRginia International Raceway in the form of Nathanial Sparks, even though Sparks wasn’t leading out of the last turn.

“It’s just what happened in the corner before. ‘Sparky’ was there sitting pretty. There it was! I was like oh, ‘He’s gonna do it!’”

Few drivers pack his combination of pace, poise, maturity and humility at once.

And to be able to be on the verge of a title while driving for two different teams, with two different sets of teammates and setups, speaks to a true talent who’s as adaptable and bendable as his 6’4” frame.

3-time NHRA champ Larry Dixon gives back to save lives on the streets

Photo courtesy Larry Dixon Racing
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Three-time NHRA Top Fuel champ Larry Dixon is a man on a new mission: to save lives on the streets and highways as perhaps the fastest driving instructor in the world.

Because he’s not currently hurtling down a dragstrip at 330 mph on the NHRA national tour, Dixon is at a point where it was time for him to give back and help youngsters the way so many individuals helped him in his own life and career.

Much like when he became the protege of mentor Don “Snake” Prudhomme – first as a crew member and then as Prudhomme’s hand-picked choice to replace him when he retired as a driver – Dixon is now imparting some of his vast knowledge behind the wheel upon thousands of impressionable teens and young adults around the country.

Dixon recently signed on as an instructor with fellow former Top Fuel champ Doug Herbert’s nationally renowned B.R.A.K.E.S. (Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe) driver safety training program. Since Herbert formed the free, non-profit program in 2008 to honor the memory of sons Jon and James, who were both killed in a tragic car crash, B.R.A.K.E.S. has trained over 35,000 students across the U.S. and five countries to be better and safer drivers.

MORE: Drag racer Doug Herbert turns son’s deaths into program that has helped over 35,000 teens

After putting two of his own teen children through Herbert’s program (with a third child to go through the program soon), Dixon was so impressed with the training that his kids received that he told his old buddy he wanted to become involved with B.R.A.K.E.S.

“I’ve known Doug since we were in high school,” Dixon told NBC Sports. “We both worked at a chain of speed shops in Southern California, Doug at one in Orange County and me at one in the San Fernando Valley in Van Nuys. We came up together racing Alcohol cars and Top Fuel cars kind of along the same lines. That’s how long I’ve known Doug.

Photo: Larry Dixon Racing

“I ran my son through the course a couple years ago when it came through Indianapolis (where Dixon and his family now live), and then my daughter signed up for a class a couple months ago, and that kind of got the talk going because I’m not on the (NHRA national event) tour now and I’ve got more time and the conversation just snowballed and here I am.

“I obviously believe in the deal if I ran my own kids through the system. The program is very methodical but still personal. When you put the kids in the car, you’ve got one instructor and three students, so they’re getting taught one-on-one almost.”

Even though he’s been driving for nearly 40 years, Dixon, 52, readily admits with a chuckle, “I’ve even learned things from the program already, which shows you’re never too old to learn.”

In a more serious vein, Dixon said from his perspective as both an instructor and a parent of two of the program’s graduates is how parents are so vital to the program’s impact.

“It’s mandatory that when you’re running a student through the program that at least one parent or guardian is also there, so the message you’re teaching the teens, you have to rely on the parent to not only be on the same page as what we’re teaching, but to also drive that message home for the rest of their lives.”

Dixon isn’t teaching students to drive 330 mph or to become aspiring drag racers. On the contrary. Dixon is right at home giving instructions on how students can avoid incidents or accidents on streets and highways at speeds typically between 30 and 50 mph.

“It’s more impactful as far as your legacy,” Dixon said of his motivation to teach. “Obviously, I’ve won a lot of races, but what I have to show for those wins are trophies but they’re in the basement, and if you don’t dust them, they get dusty.

“What I’m doing with B.R.A.K.E.S., you’re making a difference for people hopefully for the rest of their lives, and that’s bigger. I remember when I first got my own racing license. The first day I had my license, I was a race car driver but I wasn’t a great race car driver right away, I just had a license. It took a lot of years and a lot of runs and laps down the racetrack to be able to be good.

“It’s the same thing with a driver’s license. You go through the driver’s education course and such and they hand you your license, but that doesn’t make you a great driver. It takes a lot of road time to be able to get that experience. And the great thing about this course is you’re trying to ramp up that experience and put the teens in situations ahead of time so that when they’re in the real world, they’ll know how to react to them.

Larry Dixon is interviewed recently during his debut as a driving instructor for B.R.A.K.E.S. Photo courtesy B.R.A.K.E.S.

“These cars nowadays have so many safety features on them, but they don’t get taught. When you go through a basic driver’s education course, they don’t teach you that you can slam on the brakes and if you have an ABS (anti-lock) brake system, let alone how to use it, so that’s part of what we’re running the kids through. It lets them speed up and then slam on the brakes and feeling what ABS does and that a car isn’t going to spin out or flip over like you might see in a ‘Fast and Furious’ movie. Most people don’t know what you can do with a car and how great cars will take care of you as long as they use the tools you’re supplied with.”

Dixon has already taught three different classes in the last month, with five more sessions scheduled primarily in the Midwest in the coming months. You can immediately hear the passion and self-satisfaction he’s getting from being a teacher.

“I really do enjoy it,” Dixon said. “You get to see the difference you can make in someone’s lives. When you get them on a skid course and they’re learning how to get out of a spin or slide, they’re having fun but also learning a valuable lesson.

“After they’ve taken the course, they have a bounce in their step and know and understand cars better and have a good time doing it. That’s what Doug has done, out of his tragedy, he’s really making a difference in other people’s lives. We’re not trying to turn the kids into Mario Andretti or anything like that … just to be better and safer drivers.”

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