The History of NASA, the National Auto Sport Association

Photography Credit: Chris Clark

Story by Steven Cole Smith • Photography as Credited

 

Precisely 30 years ago, in 1989, sports car enthusiasts Jerry Kunzman and Ali Arsham began discussing a different kind of automobile racing club, one that was perhaps less rigid and a little more inclusive than the Sports Car Club of America of the day.

In 1991, talking gave way to action. The National Auto Sport Association was born in the Bay Area.

Yes, NASA. Of course, there was already another NASA. That NASA was quite busy in 1991, launching six space shuttles and dozens of other unmanned missions that year. After all, 1991 was the final year of the Soviet Union: The space Cold War had suddenly melted, and the U.S. and Russia were forging a lasting period of cooperation in space exploration.

And when the other NASA launched, the space agency wasn’t amused. There were discussions, but the racers were allowed to keep the name. And so the National Auto Sport Association began to prod the sleeping motorsports giant, the SCCA, which had cornered the sports car racing market for so long that it arguably developed some bad habits. Now it would face some competition.

The fledgling NASA–which, at the bottom of its website, admits is “Not affiliated with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration”–was viewed more as an amusement than a serious competitor for the SCCA. After all, how many sports car organizations had come and gone in the decades prior?

But as NASA approaches its 30th birthday, the organization–it isn’t a club, like theSCCA, it’s a for-profit business–is stronger than ever. That said, the SCCA has become more relevant than ever, a gradual process begun by SCCA President Jeff Dahnert, then Lisa Noble, and currently Mike Cobb.

Leaders of the SCCA and NASA aren’t much interested in comparing the two sanctioning bodies, with one executive commenting, “That’s a dangerous question.” But when pressed, both sides admit the other is doing a lot of things well. “I see them as helping create a higher tide of opportunity for enthusiasts across thecountry,” says the SCCA’s Cobb.

In life, business and in motorsports, a little healthy competition often serves to create new opportunities and drive growth,” Cobb continues. “While we are competing motorsports sanctioning bodies, we’re both focused on serving enthusiasts and delivering the best experience possible–and in the end, we believe this creates more opportunity for all. This said, if we get a shot at getting to that next apex before them, we’re going to do all we can to own it.”

The consensus: that a rising tide floats all race cars. That there’s room for both groups, along with the plethora of other clubs and businesses offering track time, driving schools, and low-buck endurance racing. The important thing is to get new enthusiasts into the tent. Where they go from there is their decision. But until they turn that first wheel in competition or find a place to help out a program they like, no one stands to benefit.

The Space Race Begins

Photography Courtesy NASA

Photography Courtesy NASA

It all began, as noted, in 1991, when friends Kunzman and Arsham–and a third associate who moved on rather quickly after being in on the original planning–decided to organize track days for fellow enthusiasts at major motorsports venues. The initial plan was to go nonprofit, but for legal and common-sense reasons they decided to establish it as a business.

One of those reasons: The almost all-volunteer makeup of the SCCA has traditionally made for glacial responses to problems that would be better served by a quick turnaround. To change a rule or a policy, the SCCA president must get theapproval of the geographically far-flung board, which is not given to snap decision making. Former SCCA President Jim Julow, once head of the Dodge brand and its motorsports programs, likened dealing with the board to herding cats. That’s improved in recent years, though there’s still an official process required to make changes.

That’s less true at NASA, which has a reputation for off-the-hip changes. Some find this approach too aggressive, but it undeniably delivers massively quick resolutions when problems arise. NASA might recognize a group of cars that would make an effective class, and voilà, a new class is formed. Similarly, classes that aren’t working can be swiftly broomed. Also, what works in one region may not work in another, so the regions are free to do their own thing, within limits.

In a GRM interview with Arsham in 2000–he has since left NASA but remains in the sport, mostly with the United States Touring Car Championships–he mentioned then-current NASA programs like the American City Racing League, Star Formula Mazda and the American IndyCar Series. Those classes, and others from that time period, are either gone or have morphed into something else.

Speaking of morphing: Perhaps NASA’s single greatest ability is finding the right racing class for just about any safe, prepared road racing car you bring. The SCCA is notorious for its long list of rules per class, per car; NASA tries to determine how experienced the driver is and how fast the car is, then slots the entry into a class where it should be able to compete. In other words: Misfits welcome. Power-to-weight rules are common here.

Indeed, Executive Director Kunzman says inclusivity has always been a watchword at NASA, and a reason for its growth: “There’s always more to do. It’s a never-ending process. But I’m quite happy as to where we are right now.”

In 1993, he and his staff developed a 20-year game plan. They initiated virtually every component ahead of schedule, including the national championship, which came well ahead of projections. “That 20-year plan has come and gone, and now we just look down the road and deal with it as it comes. Overall, the health of NASA is excellent.”

One idea that didn’t work so well in practice? Holding separate East and West Coast championships. Like the SCCA, NASA now hosts just a single championship event at tracks like Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, considered close enough for every racer to attend.

Photography Credit: Hot Pit

Photography Credit: Hot Pit

Photograph Courtesy NASA

Photograph Courtesy NASA

Photography Credit: Chris Clark

Photograoh Courtesy NASA

Photograph Courtesy NASA

The Machinery

So mechanically, out on the grid, what has changed since 1991? Kunzman thinks it’s the type, quality and expense of the average car that competes. Early on it was mostly older Mazda RX-7s or Datsun 510s–Improved Touring-type cars. “And while we still have classes for all that, there’s more high-end stuff now,” he adds.

Plus, the average age, and in turn the average income, of the participants has risen, “and older guys want to drive nicer cars,” he explains. The average age, Kunzman figures, used to be about 34, but now it’s closer to 44–still one of the youngest demographics in racing.

Has the plethora of low-buck enduro series hurt or helped NASA? “A little bit of both,” Kunzman speculates, though it should be noted that NASA is hard at work on its own affordable endurance series. “Definitely some of the racers who started out in those series became more serious about competition and have moved over to NASA. And that’s a great thing for us.”

John Lindsey serves as the general counsel for NASA. When he was at theUniversity of Southern California, his friends Ryan Flaherty (now the group’s national chairman) and an aspiring mechanic named Townsend Bell (now an Indianapolis 500 and sports car veteran) were getting pretty serious about racing. That’s when Kunzman asked if they’d like to head NASA’s Southern California chapter.

The group had about 2500 members then–it’s since topped 14,000–“and we had a reputation as cowboys, which was probably deserved,” Lindsey says. “We were always trying creative stuff to see if it would work.”

As Lindsey became more involved with the various chapters of the organization, the goal was to make NASA regions across the country like McDonalds: “If you showed up at one of our events, you’d find a consistency and you knew what expect. It was hard getting everyone to sing from the same hymnal, but it has been quite successful.” He wanted NASA to be “very welcoming, where there isn’t such a thing as a stupid question.”

He also praises the current SCCA, “which has become much more racer-focused. They’re doing a great job. It’s much different than the SCCA of 20 years ago.”

Now 20 years into his tenure with NASA, Lindsey is proud of the group’s progress. “It’s been quite a journey. We’re pretty happy with where we are,” he says, but adds that the various programs always need fine-tuning. And he’s quite aware of the“graying of the various sanctioning bodies,” as he puts it. He figures kids aren’t automatically gravitating toward cars and performance the way we all used to.

Lindsey recalls that he got his driver’s license on the day he turned 16, ditching school so he could be first in line at the DMV. For many young people today, he says, “the attitude is that I’ll get my license when I get around to it.”

He hasn’t given up on snagging the next generation, though. As general counsel, Lindsey has helped structure the rules and insurance so that a kart-experienced 13-year-old can get on the track in a real car.

Not that many years ago, Lindsey explains, “you had to know a guy who knew a guy to break into racing.” Now, for enthusiasts of all ages, “we have to get rid of that barrier where you are intimidated into thinking, ‘I can’t do this.’ Yes, you can.”

 

Photography Credit: Chris Clark

Photography Credit: Euroimage

Photography Credit: Chris Clark

 

Photography Credit: Chris Clark

Photography Credit: Euroimage

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Comments
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_
_ Dork
1/3/20 10:04 a.m.

Does nasa do autox, or just road racing? I've never really looked into either with them. I just assumed nasa did only road racing. 

ebonyandivory
ebonyandivory PowerDork
1/3/20 11:10 a.m.
_ said:

Does nasa do autox, or just road racing? I've never really looked into either with them. I just assumed nasa did only road racing. 

Don't ever, for any reason, do anything to anyone for any reason ever, no matter what, no matter where, or who, or who you are with, or where you are going, or where you've been, ever, for any reason

bcp2011
bcp2011 Reader
1/3/20 11:18 a.m.

Never been to an autox event with NASA.  All the ones close to me in the Great Lakes region are road course events.  I did SCCA Autox way back, and quite frankly got bored at driving for a total of 5 min while standing in the sun for the rest of the day picking up cones.  

I also went to a driver school two years ago, and upon completion was told that it qualified me for an SCCA wheel to wheel racing license and all I needed to do was apply.  Knowing what I know from a few events under my belt with NASA at the time, I quickly ruled out running with SCCA in any road course racing environment as I was in no way qualified for any wheel to wheel racing license!  

_
_ Dork
1/3/20 12:01 p.m.

In reply to ebonyandivory :

Yeah but the link doesn't work. Maybe they just don't have a great presence here in the PNW. 

SavageHunter11
SavageHunter11 None
1/6/20 9:41 a.m.

N.A.S.A., We're the race guys, not the space guys

Kreb
Kreb UberDork
1/6/20 10:03 a.m.

Admittedly I live and participate in NASA's home region, so can't speak for the rest of the country, but have always been very impressed at how they run their events. 

One thing that happened when I was actively participating was that Jerry thought that driver instruction was getting lax. At which time he decertified his entire instructor pool and made them do a training before he'd allow them to resume their duties. This pissed off a number of guys who felt disrespected, and he lost a few, but that was the price to pay to keep standards up.

I'm sure that there are track day organizers who run a similarly tight ship (I imagine that SCCA does a good job), but I haven't run with any yet. In fact, that's become a little bit of a problem, because NASA makes drivers exhibit skill and/or work through levels 1-3 before they turn them lose altogether, and self-styled hotshots prefer to go to events where they don't have that oversight. This has resulted in smaller event fields, but again, safety.

bcp2011
bcp2011 Reader
1/6/20 11:20 a.m.
Kreb said:

I'm sure that there are track day organizers who run a similarly tight ship (I imagine that SCCA does a good job), but I haven't run with any yet. In fact, that's become a little bit of a problem, because NASA makes drivers exhibit skill and/or work through levels 1-3 before they turn them lose altogether, and self-styled hotshots prefer to go to events where they don't have that oversight. This has resulted in smaller event fields, but again, safety.

I can't echo this enough.  NASA is by far the most organized and well run group in the great lakes region.  The standards are high, and safety drills are run starting in group 1 at random to emphasize safety above all else (e.g, black flag for cars that have done nothing wrong, red flags during a session, etc.).  I am a far faster, safer driver due to the training I've received there. On top of that, a really friendly and genuine group of folks!

Carbon
Carbon UltraDork
1/7/20 5:36 p.m.

I believe way more of what this nasa says than the other one. cheeky

Dave M
Dave M HalfDork
1/7/20 6:05 p.m.

I've loved the folks running, instructing and participating in NASA Mid-Atlantic. They're running a tight, tight ship that is also very friendly and welcoming.

codrus
codrus UberDork
1/7/20 6:34 p.m.

There used to be a NASA autox chapter here, but some kind of internal politics about 15 years ago resulted in it splitting off into another club.  Dunno about other areas -- certainly it's not the same level of focus as SCCA has.

 

 

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