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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Jay Howard didn't have the pedigree or cash most young drivers have coming up through the ranks, and his look isn't conventional either.
By BRIAN SUMERS
Published March 31, 2006
As she spoke with her instructor, Macie Wyly discovered she couldn't disappoint the good-looking race car driver with the sweet British accent and Rod Stewart haircut.
Even as she cried after finishing behind the pack in another cart race, Jay Howard's soothing presence convinced her she could someday win.
"It was like, "Oh my god, how can I quit?' I'm stuck in this," said Wyly, 15.
For himself and the four teenagers he tutors in Palmetto, Howard insists every race is winnable, even without the fastest car.
The 25-year-old proved it last season, winning nine of 12 races in the Formula Ford 2000 series, breaking the circuit's single-season victories record set by current Indy Racing League champion Dan Wheldon.
Howard's success earned him a ride in the Indy Pro Series, IndyCar's developmental series, and the St. Petersburg resident will drive Saturday in his adopted town.
Wyly will be there, flying from Houston to root for her teacher and confidant. The two work together at least one weekend a month and she recently earned her first pole position.
Howard calls teaching rewarding because he remembers starting as a 7-year-old carter in England. His upbringing, though, was different: he didn't always have the money to compete.
When his father, Paul, lost his courier business in the recession of the early 1990s, Howard's development suffered. He didn't race at all in 1995 and 1996 because money was tight.
Now, as an instructor, he meets parents willing to help their children no matter the cost.
"If I say we need a new set of tires for $200, there is not a question," Howard said. "When I was doing it, it was, "We can't afford that."'
Howard's upbringing taught him he needed to win to keep driving. With his father spending so much money, Howard knew the family couldn't afford second-place finishes.
Since, Howard has won at every level.
"I can count a lot of times where I'm in situations when I'm not faster than anyone else," he said. "It comes down to who wants it more badly."
Howard claims he is not bitter, but he hopes he will soon earn enough money, perhaps by advancing to IndyCar, to subsidize students whose parents can't afford carting.
His past makes him suspect about other top-level drivers, many of whom cultivate friendships with their competitors. Sometimes those friendships spill onto the raceway, with one driver helping the other.
"I'm not out there to help anyone else's career," Howard said. "Some people say that's really arrogant, but that's how it is. If I help someone else win, how does that help me?
The apparent arrogance sometimes goes beyond the track. At a drivers meeting last season, he received a veiled complaint about his fashion style, with someone objecting to drivers who did not dress professionally.
Howard likes wearing fashionable clothes, but sometimes his jeans and T-shirts have strategically placed holes. And then there's the haircut.
"It's probably 15 years out of date," friend Ira Fierberg said with a laugh.
Fierberg, an FF2000 driver, watched last season when Howard signed a pornographic Web site as a new sponsor. The series sponsor wasn't pleased, but Howard did not care.
Distractions aside, Fierberg said Howard outdrove everyone.
"The cars are all the same," he said. "Don't forget, Jay had a teammate with the identical car and set up (Chris Guerrieri) and he beat his butt all year."
Though Howard can be brash with other drivers, his racing students worship him.
"He doesn't put himself above us," said John Mossey, 16.
Wyly first approached Howard in the Jacksonville airport after a race, because "he was so hot," and since then the two developed a friendship.
She chides him because he takes longer to style his hair than she does. And no one was happier than Howard when she qualified on the pole on her birthday.
"If I have a boyfriend, Jay has to approve of him," Wyly said. "We have a connection much deeper than mechanic/driver."
She's never watched him race, and she can't wait until Saturday.
"You'll probably hear me screaming over everybody else," she said.