This guy's on the fast track

Sunday, March 21, 2010 at 10:57pm
jademn.jpg
Buford / Jude Ferrara photo

He didn’t let it get the best of him. Or maybe he did.

When Jade Buford got a gift from his parents to attend the Porsche Sport Driving School three years ago, he was admittedly nervous when he first hopped into the car.

“Terrified,” he said, laughing. But that feeling didn’t last long.

Buford, who went to David Lipscomb High School and lives in Brentwood, liked fast cars. Yes, the thought of driving them for a living one day certainly crossed his mind when he was younger. But up until three years ago he figured he would be fixing them instead of driving them. That is why he was pursuing a mechanical engineering degree at Auburn University. In fact, he was a member of Auburn’s Formula SAE Racing team.

So all paths seemed to be leading to working under the fast cars. But then Buford got in one and he got hooked.

“It was fun. If you are good at it, and you can do it, then just do it,” he said. “It is an opportunity a lot of people wish they would get that will never happen. So if you get the opportunity then you just got to do it.”

Three years later, it appears Buford is taking his own advice. He is no longer at Auburn, no longer working on cars. In a couple weeks, the 22-year-old will find himself at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama, behind the wheel of a 2010 Ford Mustang Boss 302R going as fast as 180 miles per hour, racing in the Grand Sport (GS) class of the Grand-Am Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge Series.

This hasn’t come as a surprise to Jade’s father, Mark, who has always thought Jade had the natural talent to drive at this level. But three years ago, Jade saw his future going another way. But he certainly isn’t complaining about what path he is on now.

“I really like road racing,” he said. “This is what I want to do.”

On a different team

Buford last year decided to leave Auburn to focus strictly on racing. His career goal now is to become a driving instructor and race professionally on the weekends.

In 2008, he competed in several Porsche Club of America (PCA) races. He enjoyed a successful season that was capped off with a first-place finish at Virginia International Raceway — just his fourth PCA race. He earned the Worker’s Choice award for being the outstanding driver of the weekend and the Novice Award for best young driver.

That solid race car driving start earned him a position with the three-car RSR Motorsports Team in the Street Tuner (ST) class of the Grand Am Continental Tire Sports Challenge Series. The series' focus is on endurance racing and Burford was a co-driver of a Mini Cooper S along with Owen Trinkler, who was Buford’s master instructor at the Porsche Sport Driving School.

He ended the season strong, taking fourth at Barber last July. Buford once again caught the eye of many, including Racers Edge owner Jon Mirachi. After a test with the team, Mirachi offered Buford a spot with his team.

“This is huge,” explained Mark Buford, who is an accountant. “This would be comparable to if you had a son who got drafted in the NFL and became a starting quarterback for the New York Jets. I mean this is huge in sportscar terms — this young.”

In his current car, however, Buford is actually the veteran driver. His co-driver, Manuel Gutierrez is 19 and lives in Texas — so the two usually see each other only on race day but keep in touch via email.

To complicate things a bit, the nearest track that Buford can practice on is more than a 100 miles away in Decatur, Ala. When he does practice, it is usually in his go-cart — the team’s cars are kept in DeLand, Fla. He says the go-cart helps and has aided a lot of the drivers as they move up the ladder.

To compensate for the complication, Buford has a driving simulator in his basement. By hooking up his simulator — which comes with a car seat, steering wheel and gas and brake pedals — to a website (iracing.com), it allows him a chance to “practice” on virtual courses. And you can't get anything but your confidence hurt.

“You’re able to familiarize yourself with the track,” said Buford, who also works out at D1 Sports, a training center in Franklin. “How accurate [the simulator] is really impressive.”

Nothing like the real thing

But nothing beats the real thing and the new young duo of Buford and Gutierrez have already tasted success together. The pair debuted on March 6 at the Homestead 200 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. They were as high as fifth at one point in the race and finished 13th out of 70 cars.

That was the second GS race of the season for Buford, who occasionally competes in the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series. He races in the Gran Turismo (GT) class which also fits into the endurance racing category.

Last September, Buford was one of three drivers of a Mazda RX-8 for the Racers Edge Motorsports team that competed in the Utah 250 at Miller Motorsports Park near Salt Lake City. A throttle cable snapped, however, and the team completed just 43 laps.

Buford experienced more bad luck in another GT race just a couple months ago, in January, when he was a part of a four-driver team that competed in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“The biggest [challenge] so far pressure-wise was definitely the 24,” Buford said. “That was an entirely new experience for me. I had no idea what to expect.”

Buford expected to at least get on the track but that didn’t happen. As the name of the race indicates, the race is 24 hours long but his team’s car died after just 69 laps — the top two cars in the race completed 755 laps.

Even though the sport can have its share of disappointments, Buford remains upbeat about the possibilities. So do others involved in racing. Most of his races are televised on the Speed Channel and during one of his recent races, commentator Leigh Diffey said he thought Buford would continue to make a “rapid rise to the top.”

Buford, though, will not read too much into comments such as that.

“It is all up in the air,” he said. “I don’t know what is going to happen. They see something. I just try to do what I am supposed to do. I don’t put a lot of thought into it. I just always find it funny that they still call me, ‘young Jade Buford.’”

But, hey, at least they know his name.