Breaking Into Formula 1; Best bring the check book

Written by J.K. Kelly on January 3rd, 2019

One might think that after decades of significant accomplishments in just about every form of motorsport that our company name would get us anywhere we wanted or needed to go. At VP Racing Fuels we knew just about everyone and vice versa, or so I thought.

When word came out that a new F1 team was being assembled, one with roots in America, I thought it made the greatest sense that an established, reputable American company should provide the race fuel for their efforts.

Looking back, as VP founder Steve Burns got his foot into the dyno rooms of big name drag, oval track, and motorcycle racing engine builders, they knew he was bringing something to the table. That would make their engines produce more power and last longer.  VP offered not just the finest quality fuels but the reputation meant that the quality would be the same drop after drop anywhere it was sold.  Having one of the smartest, most interesting fuel men on the planet, the self-taught Steve Burns, standing alongside the engine builders and tuners, was invaluable.

For me, working a good deal of the U.S., Canada, and Europe was easier year after year as the VP name and red, white, and blue logo became more and more familiar just about everywhere I went.  Fueling the NHRA drag racing championships at home and FIA Pro Stock titles in Europe helped a lot. Having powered NASCAR Grand National and Modified titles,  AMA Supercross, MX, road race championships, Isle of Man TT wins, Trans Am, Indy Lights and Toyota Atlantics titles did even more.  So now back to taking the leap into F1, or at least trying to.

After contacting the new American team’s ownership, I was put in touch with their engine provider in Europe.  They both seemed interested in working with us. Ownership would get free fuel in return for our small decal in front of millions of global consumers.  The engineers would get to work with some very smart people at VP who knew how to make power. Not just power on a dyno, but the power that would maximize performance and allow the engine to stay in one piece longer than the competition.

My experience with FIA technical specifications and fuel testing procedures to determine their compliance with the rules was extensive. Fueling the FIA Asian-Pacific rally championship a few years back gave many of us at VP quite an education and also got many more of our phone calls returned and many more dyno and meeting room doors opened. We had now made fuels that met the highly technical regulations so all we needed now were technical partners interested in development programs with us.

That’s how Burns had done it so many times before. Show someone you knew what you were doing, could do it better than most, and then have at it.  My offer to the engine company seemed to make sense but there was one glitch. To prove we knew what we were doing, that we had a fuel that could provide an advantage and maintain engine health and longevity, we’d have to not just send a large volume of free fuel to their facility but also wire 300,000 American dollars to them. Wait, what?

They explained that the funds would cover the running of three F1 race engines for full cycles and also pay for their complete evaluation and rebuilds. My expectation had been that they’d have taken our fuel samples and run them on a “dyno mule” – an engine build to test new parts and pieces – one a dyno operator could run the heck out of without hurting or blowing up their best, most expensive engines. The VP reputation usually got us VIP access. “But that’s not how it works here,” they explained. Maybe I was naïve, a stranger in a new land. Maybe not.

Yes, welcome to the really big leagues Mr. Kelly.  Well, I had about as much chance of getting the $300k for the budget as I did walking on the moon. We didn’t have that sort of money laying around and in hindsight, it worked out for the best. Turns out the new team never got to take a single lap, the fuel or the funds never left the U.S., but the VP reputation continued to grow as it does today.  That got my counterparts and me through many more doors in other parts of the world just as it had been doing and going forward allowed me to sign more and more contracts with tracks and series in North America and Europe.  We signed IMSA, Watkins Glen, Sebring, Road Atlanta, Lime Rock Park, Laguna Seca, Santa Pod, and the Isle of Man TT to long-term agreements that really ticked off our competition and established even more VP flags, and credibility, on the map. I signed Rally America and eventually walked into M-Sport and that led to so much more.

I’ve never been to Kansas. Maybe someday. If you want to take a deeper dive, a behind the scenes look at how that young man from Texas assembled a group of dedicated people and took on some Goliaths in the exciting world of motorsports give my latest book, FUELIN’ AROUND, a ride.  Did I ever get any further with F1? Well we’ll just have to see….


"A truly riveting read from cover to cover." - Midwest Book Review

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