In the midst of a racing renaissance, Jesse Love has learned to blend man, machine and his Silicon Valley roots.
Photos by Philip Wartena
After just 12 laps at Sonoma Raceway, Jesse Love’s fireproof bodysuit is soaked through and heavy. That’s not unusual. Roasting in the driver’s seat, he can lose up to eight pounds of sweat before he crosses the finish line. His pit crew — all adults — also wear fireproof suits and perspire in the heat, blazing through cigarettes as they watch the empty track and listen to their race radios, waiting for his car to whip around the bend.
When it finally does, they run to the vehicle, hoist it up on a jack stand and start pulling off metal panels. Jesse stays in the car, which the engine has turned into a furnace at 135 degrees. The heat is unrelenting throughout the race — up to three hours of sweatbox torture — and he endures it as he weaves around other cars at 200 mph, taking corners so sharp he feels up to 3 g’s, the same acceleration astronauts experience when they’re launched into space.
For a 16-year-old, this is a lot of pressure.
And Jesse doesn’t merely race under these conditions—he wins. Jesse is the youngest NASCAR champion in history, a distinction that comes with challenges. His competitors are all more experienced, and at many points in his career, he’s been told no — he’s too young, a car is too big, a track too advanced. Even in the racing community that applauded his early talent, many veterans weren’t ready to see a 10-year-old driving a full-bodied car, or a 13-year-old breaking records set by racing royalty.
But Jesse rarely pays attention to the naysayers, because he’s not interested in the status quo. Born in Menlo Park, he is the product of a Silicon Valley childhood. He was raised in the belly of ambition where college dropouts founded Facebook and high school seniors are CEOs. A key part of his prodigious success lies not in his physical skills, but in his academic work ethic, his pre-race research and his insatiable appetite for data analysis. With the help of new racing tech, Jesse Love is turning his racing career into a science, and he’s just getting started.
On a different track
Jesse’s parents still remember his first time on four wheels. His father, Duke Love, spent his own youth racing at local tracks with three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon, and the day Jesse turned five, Duke eagerly purchased his first racing car, a 200-pound go-cart like vehicle.
At San Jose’s dirt track, the owner spotted Jesse instantly. “That kid can see the lines,” he said to Duke on Jesse’s first day.
Even at five, Jesse showed not only a natural ability, but a dogged determination to win. “The training that normally takes a couple of months took him about a week and a half,” Duke says. “He got in the car, won his first race, and I think by the time he left [the youth division] he’d won over 300 races or something to that effect.”
By the time he was in fifth grade, Jesse was traveling the country to race junior late model cars — stock cars almost as large as those you see on professional NASCAR circuits. With age restrictions barring his entry and racing decision-makers convinced he was too young, Jesse got waivers to participate, but even then people were skeptical.
“Everyone out there has pumped tons of money into this passion, this thing they love doing,” says Dustin Edge, Jesse’s driver relations manager. With such a high price to pay for mistakes, competitors and race organizers alike viewed young drivers as a dangerous liability. “Imagine being an adult out there — you work all week; when you get off work, you go home and you work on your race car in your garage. And then you go out on the race track, and some 12-year-old wrecks you and destroys all your stuff.”
But Jesse didn’t wreck. He won the first time he was ever in the car.
Jesse’s mother, Elizabeth, was watching from the stands that day. “I look at my husband and he looks at me, and we’re like, ‘Holy cow, did that just happen?’ And then he won the second one. And then he won the third one. And then he won the championship.”
But as Jesse started earning respect in the racing world, back home in Menlo Park, most friends and neighbors were unsure why a 10-year-old was missing so many days of school and spending every weekend and holiday at race tracks out of state.
“It’s not like we’re living in North Carolina,” says Elizabeth. “Out here, in [the Bay Area], not only is [racing] virtually unknown, but for a kid to be doing it, right? It was hard to explain to people why it was that we were choosing this path for our kid,” she says. “Aside from the ‘Aren’t you scared, isn’t it dangerous’ — all of that stuff — there was like, a bunch of questions about, well, what about college?”
As it turned out, preparing for college was the easy part.
Only room for essentials
The Peninsula was certainly an unusual place to be a young race car driver, but it was the perfect place to raise a young race car champion.
“I think there’s so much to be said about growing up here, especially for an athlete, just because there is so much drive and ambition in this area,” says Jesse’s older sister, Vivian, who attends college just an hour from the race track where Jesse trains. “A lot of it has to do with the work ethic … what Silicon Valley’s kind of known for.”
As Jesse transitioned to online school in ninth grade — essential if he wanted to reach higher levels of racing while still completing pre-college coursework — he began treating racing itself like an academic discipline. He developed systematic, annotated catalogues of his races in encyclopedic notebooks, which he studies in depth before every race.
“When you go to 50 different, 60 different race tracks a year, it’s hard,” Jesse says. “They all have their different characteristics … you can kind of forget sometimes … so you have to be able to keep a notebook on the changes that you made to the car, changes that you made to yourself as a driver and just the track in general.”
“The notebooks,” laughs Dustin, the driver relations manager. “I don’t really go through them too much because they’re almost in another language, to be honest with you.” In Jesse’s notebooks, which he updates obsessively, there are notes on every variable affecting every performance at every track. He has maps of raceways; diagrams of corners; and annotations detailing how the roughness of the track, or air density, or temperature affected the grip of his tires on a particular day.
The details help him concentrate when he’s out on the track. He can’t afford to be surprised as he slips between two cars with just inches of clearance, so the preparation is an essential part of his strategy. His car, too, is all business, no frills. From afar, it can look like a normal sedan from a dealership lot. Up close though, Jesse’s is bare, stripped of everything but the necessities. There are no airbags, no AC, no reverse gear, and the headlights are decals. Inside there’s no place for passengers, no seats at all except for Jesse’s — a cage of soldered metal plates.
This is the environment in which Jesse thrives: a car, a race track, a life with only room for essentials, where the smallest distraction can end a race, sometimes end a career.
Jesse’s notebooks are thorough, but they’re only one element of a data-driven scheme to be number one. The culture and principles of the tech-obsessed hometown he left behind fuel his daily attempts to out strategize his opponents, and he mercilessly exploits any edge he can find.
“Jesse is a data freak,” says his father. “About a week ago, I was walking through the house, and I walked through the living room, and Jesse was sitting at the table with graph paper writing equations on something. And I looked over and I said, ‘Oh, is that for school?’ And he said, ‘No … These are track bar load weighting equations, and I think I have a different way to attack this, and I want to share it with my crew chief.’”
Even in Silicon Valley, Jesse’s commitment to studying his craft and taking ownership of his career is remarkable for someone so young. “I feel like I was a professional when I was like 10 years old,” he says. “When you’re around racing it’s really serious, and you run the risk of getting hurt or even dying … You have to kind of up your maturity level at a young age.”
One benefit of taking on exceptional responsibility has been the opportunity to experiment with exceptional technology. At Toyota Racing Development in North Carolina, Jesse now trains in a state-of-the-art race car simulator that gives drivers the chance to virtually test out any track in the country from a single room. At a track in Virginia last year, Jesse and his team used a combination of sensors, GoPro cameras and a GPS device to not only monitor his every move in a car, but to feed the data points into a computer, graph them and compare them to those of veteran drivers.
“Jesse was literally sitting down and he was looking at all this with the team owner and the guy analyzing it all, and then he would get back in the race car and he would go tremendously faster,” Dustin says, adding that after a single session of interpreting the graphs, he shaved full seconds off his time.
In the motorsport world, even 1/1000th of a second makes a difference, but not all drivers utilize the myriad figures recorded every time they strap into a car. It puts Jesse at a huge advantage, and recently he’s compounded that by trying to master the fundamental mechanics of race cars, too.
“Most drivers are just like, ‘Oh, the car’s a little too tight here,’ or, ‘It’s a little too loose here,’” Dustin says, describing typical responses after a driver comes back from practice laps. “Their crew chief has to take that very vague information and kind of take swings at whatever they want to do to make the car better.”
But Jesse isn’t daunted by thermodynamics, mechanical engineering or software simulations, and on his quest to become the best driver, he’s teaching himself the basics of being a crew chief. Crew chiefs are the ultimate experts on race cars, carefully choosing car setups and making late-race pit strategy decisions. Once glorified mechanics, many now have training in physics or other hard sciences. By 2015, nearly half of all crew chiefs in the Daytona 500 had at least a bachelor’s degree in engineering, and the proportion has only increased. In a sport that has long been dominated by street smarts and measured in grease under fingernails, science and academia are encroaching, and Jesse is ready.
“Jesse can jump out there and he can say, ‘Hey, it’s loose, but it’s loose in the back of the car, specifically the right side of the car. I think that shock needs to be adjusted, and the spring rate could go up another 500 pounds,’” says Dustin, who accompanies Jesse to every race — a necessity since he is still a minor. “It’s just insane that he can say that, because most drivers don’t even know what adjusting a spring rate will do to the car, let alone be able to recommend a change.”
That’s what Jesse wants — a leg up on competitors. In the top tier of NASCAR, all drivers are talented and they all log long hours. The only way to beat them is to outwork them, and Jesse knows that most of that happens off the track.
A racing mind
It’s easy to forget that underneath the calculations and high-octane exploits is a 16-year-old boy still navigating his adolescence. Jesse has mentors and teachers, veterans he admires, but none of them can give him a roadmap to success. His approach is unique and on the cutting edge of the sport. It’s exciting and unprecedented, but it’s also consuming, and it takes a toll on Jesse and those who love him.
His friendships are strong but scarce, which is something he’s come to terms with. After all, in racing, every friend is eventually competition. “Whether you want to admit it or not, as a driver you kind of think of that when you’re on the track,” he says. “I try not to have a huge circle of friends, especially racing friends. If you want to have a friend on the track, you can bring your dog.”
It’s all worth it to him though, because it’s made him a champion — his research, his notebooks, his commitment at the expense of all else.
“The mindset is so much of an athlete’s performance,” he says. “Is there really something about Tom Brady and how he was born that makes him way different? Makes him the best quarterback of all time? Probably not.”
Jesse taps his temple. “It’s all pretty much up here.”
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