Thomas Johnson: Money, money, money — automakers and wealthy families decide everything in Formula One

Interview with the American 'commercial pilot' who races for the Kazan team-champion in Russia

Thomas Johnson: Money, money, money — automakers and wealthy families decide everything in Formula One Photo: Ilya Repin

AG Team, a motor sport team from Tatarstan, has recently celebrated the leadership in the Russian Circuit Racing Series in Kazan. A week before the event, Realnoe Vremya sports department had invited the most unusual member of the team — 49-year-old pilot-sponsor Thomas Johnson, who in his youth raced in the United States in the analogue of Formula 3, for an interview. The complicated story of the driver's move from Florida to Kazan, the vicissitudes and intrigues of the Russian circuit, big money and the reasons for the fall of spectacularity of Formula One — read in the interview with the American racer to our publication.

''It is like taking a reptile out of the heat''

Thomas, how come you to be here, in Kazan?

My wife is from Kazan but she was living in the US, where I met her. We became boyfriend and girlfriend. Actually, my first visit here was in the summer of 2011, and I've been here at least for some amount of time every year since then.

What was your future wife doing in America that time?

She first came in the US on Work and Travel program. She met other Russian girls on the same programme, and some girls said, ''We think we wanna stay in the US.'' Actually, I think it was her decision from the beginning. She worked in the hospitality industry for larger hotels, like in New York City she worked for W, for Marriott. She was mostly in that until she started to help me with my business, which was trade. Especially if I did this business in Russia because obviously I can't speak Russian. Her family know people in Kazan and I used these contacts. Most people assume that she got the US citizenship through me. No, she did it on her own, she was a US citizen before we get married. With lawyers, nine years and all these stuff.

Usually it is women who move to the country where their husbands live, but your case is opposite – you followed your wife to Kazan. How did it happen? Did your wife make you?

I am from Florida, I met my wife in Florida, we moved to New York City for two years. Then we came back to Florida. My business is foreign trade and it depends on currencies. My wife wanted to move back to New York City, but I said, ''The ruble has crashed. You have contacts, I think we should go to Russia.'' This is how it happened. But I think my wife wants to be in New York City.

You know, I met Anvar [Anvar Tutaev, the co-pilot – editor's note] in October of last year. It was about one month before we went back to Florida. We'd already discussed, ''Ok, we are going to go back to Florida or we are going to move back to New York.'' That was the plan. Then this racing thing happened. ''Oh, I wanna go racing, I wanna try racing in Russia.'' So we are back.

I am sure that if when I was walking down the street by myself if I had a microphone, I am sure I would be talking to myself ''This is crazy, what am I doing.''

You was born in Florida, it is sunny and hot there all year round. How do you survive the weather in Russia?

All these wrinkles – they are mostly from the sun, it's terrible! (laughing) You know, it is very difficult in Russia for me. It is like taking a reptile out of the heat. But the big problem is that in the summer, which we have six months, its' hot from April to October. In the middle of the summer it is so hot, but I am ok, it doesn't bother me. But my wife hates it. She turns pink like a tomato, she doesn't like it.

So you have never lived here in Russia in winter?

I have. Twice. I was here for the whole winter for two times. I was here for two full winters. Amazingly, I am still alive. I am sure that if when I was walking down the street by myself if I had a microphone, I am sure I would be talking to myself ''This is crazy, what am I doing.''

''Then I told them – you be careful in the US''

When you decided to move back to Russia for more time, what did your relatives and friends say? Did they say ''be aware of mafia, bears, vodka''?

Most of it, it is the mafia. When Americans think of Russia, they think of the 1990s. That's all. Maybe it is so because of the Cold War. I think it is because of Hollywood movies. A Russian guy in a Hollywood movie is a gangster. So this is in their head — ''be careful, be careful''. Crazy things are now happening in the US. My friends always tell me ''be careful''. Always. But I was in Russia while in my city in Orlando we had about 3 years ago the largest killing, 50 people killed in a nightclub in Orlando. Then I told them – you be careful. The whole world is dangerous.

As I understand it, you don't really speak Russian? (the interview was conducted with the assistance of an interpreter – editor's note)

No, I'm lazy. I want to. I would love to. I don't know if I am lazy, here's the trouble. With the racing and some of the business I try to do in Europe in Russia, I start maybe at 8-9 a.m. and then you get to 4 p.m. and then I start with Canada, New York, until 11 p.m. So when am I going to do it?

So you communicate with your wife in English?

Yes. She calls me some names in Russian, I don't know what they are. When she is upset, she calls me ''zhopa'' ( laughing).

There is a custom in the sport industry — when sportsmen come to Russia, they first learn Russian swear words. Have you already learned them?

Like every-language people do this. I know some words but I am not going to say them.

Everyone I've met in Kazan, in Russia has been incredibly nice and welcoming to me, Russians and Tatars. Everyone has been so nice I can't really see the difference, but if I hear the name – I know. I would say by coincidence, it is only a coincidence really, I probably have more Tatar friends than Russian friends

Do you know anything about the Republic of Tatarstan and do you know who the Tatars are?

Yes, I do. The Mongols, the Turks, I know the whole this thing, I've read about this.

Do you see the difference between the Russians and Tatars?

I don't' know, because everyone I've met in Kazan, in Russia has been incredibly nice and welcoming to me, Russians and Tatars. Everyone has been so nice I can't really see the difference, but if I hear the name – I know. I would say by coincidence, it is only a coincidence really, I probably have more Tatar friends than Russian friends.

''If you learn this when you are young, you do not have the fear''

As far as I know, you raced in Formula 3, right?

It was in the US. At the time we called it Formula 2000. It is the equivalent back then of what Formula 3 was. I started in this but quickly went to Formula Ford, which is a smaller series. Because it was more affordable. It is called so because it was sponsored by the Ford company, we had Ford engines.

What were your results?

I was very good when I was young, from 18 to 23. My career got stopped and my parents did not tell me this until I was late 30s when I decided I was not racing any more. Once stopped, they told me. My mother never wanted me be in Formula cars. It was dangerous, especially when I started. I was getting quicker and quicker and quicker. Some business people in Orlando said, ''We should get people together to send him to IndyCar.'' My father had a good friend, and his son, a little older than me, went Indy. Then he had killed. My parents went to the funeral and they looked at each other. Every time I had a meeting, for some reason, nothing happened. But they stopped. They did not want to tell me but they stopped it. My father kept pushing touring cars, but I said, ''I don't wanna race this.'' But then I said ''I'm done.'' I was 32.

Do your parents know that you are racing here in Kazan?

Yes, they watch every race live. They get up early to watch because of time difference. They don't mind touring cars. It is much safer. But I never had such fears. I think every racer has some strange justification in the head. I know one of my father's good friend was killed in a Porsche. He was burned very badly and in hospital for about ten months, but he is still racing. It is ridiculous but when we hear about an accident, we tend to think that the car was not right. I think if you learn this when you are young, you do not have this fear. I have some friends of mine, when they were forty, made some money and got a Porsche, they said ''I think I wanna start racing''. But it is too late, you can't. It is like jumping off the top of the diving board. If you've done this since you are 10, it's ok. But the first jump when you are forty… You won't do it.

After experiencing the American level of racing and organisation, how do you feel about the level of racing in Russia? Don't you find it boring?

No. The top 10 drivers can be top 10 drivers everywhere. Usually the guys who are not in the 10 are not in the top 10 everywhere. The organisation of the Russian Circuit Racing Series is no less organised than in the US. It is the same. It corresponds to FIA, which is the European standard.

It is ridiculous but when we hear about an accident, we tend to think that the car was not right. I think if you learn this when you are young, you do not have this fear

''I wish my engineer told me 'You shut up''

How do you assess the 2018 season for AG Team?

For AG Team – great, for me – not so good. For some reason it took me a long time to understand that front-wheel drive is very different and I never raced it before. Foolishly, I tried to get my engineer to set up the car like to feel more like a rear-wheel drive. My car, out of 24 cars on the grid, mine set up different. Twenty-three are set up the same, mine – strange. I did this all the way through Kazan, four stages. In Kazan – I give up. I told Dmitry, ''You set it up, I just have to figure it out.'' Then, all of the sudden, Moscow, night, Sochi, the sixth — I don't play around with these shocks, all this craziness. So I have spent more than half of the season trying to be an engineer, which I am not. Dmitry, my engineer, he was too nice to tell me ''You're wrong''. He wanted to make me happy. He should have said, ''You're wrong, you're an idiot, stop.'' I wish he told me ''You shut up, you drive the car, I am the engineer.'' ( laughing). I've learned my lesson.

Your team is far not the richest in the racing, but you are the first, all of the sudden. It dispels the stereotype about racing that is it ''the sport of pockets''.

The results of AG Team are really impressive. You can have the proper funding, e.g. Toyota, Endless. They were in the Formula One, for I don't' know, ten years, but they gave up. They could not perform. So money is not everything. There is, I don't know what it is, but they system they put in, I think it was a well-funded team. I don't mean Anvar. Anvar knew some guys, he said we need Pavel. Anvar put these things together, in rally cross and in circuit racing. Both of these are the first full seasons for AG Team. And they won both championships. It's impossible. My friends from Europe, who are racers, and my friends from the US, they see all this, how AG Team represents itself. They say they have such high level, it is very impressive.

''I have the most fun with AG Team''

The team's plan for the next season is clear — to defend the title. But what is your personal goal? Maybe to enter the top 5?

It depends on which class I am racing. The goal, of course, like every driver in Russia has, including me because I am racing here, is to race TCR because it is the highest level, that's the goal. But it costs a lot of money. It's four times more per car. I am trying out to get American company is Russia looking for sponsorship. Getting sponsorship is not the easiest thing. If I get sponsorship, I'll race TCR. It would be very exciting, I wouldn't expect to be the top 5. If I break in the top 10 I would be happy. If I don't get money for that, I continue to race national division, it is also exciting for me because I know all the circuits now. When I came here, I didn't know any of the circuits. I think I should be top 5 in every circuit, I will be very disappointed if I am not. Because I've just started to get quicker, I figured it out. Two different goals, depending on which division.

Can you leave AG Team?

I really don't want to race for any team other than AG Team. It is like a family, really. I don't want to leave them.

Are you upset that you are not number one driver in your team? What could you say about Pavel Kalmanovich, the leader of the team?

It's impossible. Pavel is a better driver than me. But even if he was the same driver as me, it's impossible because he knows every circuit. You can't come in in the first season and win, you can't go quickly. Every circuit I get to on the first day, I look at the track map. Your race lap time should never be quicker than your qualifying time. Because of the way you do tire pressures and all that kind of things. Very often, my lap time in race number two is my quickest time of the week. That means I am still learning the track. Pavel's quickest lap time, and everyone else's who is fast, is in qualifying. They already know the circuit. Next year I have no excuse.

I have the most fun with AG Team. It is what I prefer. Of course, every driver has to look at money, unfortunately. It is not basketball – you buy your shoes and you go. If someone says, ''You know, you race for AG Team and it cost this much, or you race for this team and it cost is nothing.'' I don't think I am ever going to have this option. No one is going to ever tell me ''you can race for free''

''Bragin clearly is a top driver''

What can you say about Dmitry Bragin from TAIFMOTOSPORT?

I've been at their facility. I know Dmitry a little bit, I don't think I can have a fore conversation. He is always nice to me. I race against his drivers. Clearly, he is very impressive, he won the national division at least once, probably more than this. He is a top 5 driver in Russian TCR. He is clearly a top driver. It would be interesting to see Pavel next year in TCR. TCR might be a little more complicated for the team. There are some tricks. We will see. But Dmitry Bragin is a top pilot.

Are you considering other cities apart from Kazan? Maybe you have offers from Europe or America?

I have the most fun with AG Team. It is what I prefer. Of course, every driver has to look at money, unfortunately. It is not basketball – you buy your shoes and you go. If someone says, ''You know, you race for AG Team and it cost this much, or you race for this team and it cost is nothing.'' I don't think I am ever going to have this option. No one is going to ever tell me ''you can race for free''. I always have to bring money. So if I bring money, I want to bring it to AG Team.

In Formula One, there are pilots who earn money and pilot-sponsors. So you are sponsor, am I right?

Yeah, sheer I am old ( laughing). Gabriele Tarquini raced Formula One long time ago. He is 56. He just set the record in the world touring car, WTCR, the big one, all the top drivers. He won the first three races. He is the oldest guy who ever do it. He is the goal. He probably has no wife and no children. He sleeps with a gasoline can (laughing).

In Russia, without money even children cannot get to the motor sport, even most talented ones. What is the situation in America?

It is the same in the whole world. There are very few exceptions. Michael Schumacher was an exception. His father owned a go-car track. He wasn't a very wealthy guy but he got to race cars for free. Go-carting can also be very expensive. Lewis Hamilton is also one of the few. But if you look at most of these drivers of Formula One, Indy Car, they come from families with a lot of money and they can pay for their skill. They can have skill. But if you don't have money you can never show it. That's the problem.

Today there is more technology, which actually makes the car much easier to drive. It is just as difficult to win because everyone has a technology but the technical aspect of driving a race car is far easier today than a TCR car. It is like a go-cart. Difficult to win but easier to drive. I also think that drivers in the past were more interesting, really

''Today it is more technology, which actually makes the car much easier to drive''

Let's talk about Formula One. The races of the times of Schumacher, Coulthard, Barrichello, Mansell and Senna were less technological, but they were more interesting. What do you think about this?

Today there is more technology, which actually makes the car much easier to drive. It is just as difficult to win because everyone has a technology but the technical aspect of driving a race car is far easier today than a TCR car. It is like a go-cart. Difficult to win but easier to drive. I also think that drivers in the past were more interesting, really.

For example, even when I started in Formula Ford, it was hard to describe where transmissions are. Right now, anyone, you can get in a car and you know that up – on the right, down — on the left. No clutch. In the Formula One cars of yesterday, ordinary person could not go from third gear to second. If you put a camera on the driver's fit from 1970s and today, you can see which one is more complicated.

Do the FIA or motor sport organisers have plans to limit the technology development of the cars to give drivers the opportunity to compete, maybe you know something about this?

Unfortunately, the opposite is happening. Formula One looks like they make the rules but they do not make the rules. They are heavily influenced by the manufacturer. But the manufacturer wants to display the technologies they put in the current day cars. So, it won't become more technical for the driver. It's going to become less. Even now Formula One's rating has gone down because of the sound. They used to break the windows almost. It was exciting. But today all manufacturers produce small silent engines to make no noise, sounds like a vacuum cleaner when it goes by. That is not exciting but it is what they are selling. That's the problem.

Maybe it is because of crazy Russian pilots — Petrov, Kvyat, Sirotkin – they appear in the racing but fail to show good results. Maybe it is because of Russian mentality, the races are too technological for them?

Kvyat is a talent. I remember watching his first race with my father, we always watched Formula One together. It was in the rain. In the rain, it shows talent. Because the cars that are better they can't use it as much. It makes them more equal. Kvyat in his first Formula One race had huge pressure. It is so easy to make a mistake. He finished ninth in the rain. My father said this kid has talent. Petrov is ok, but Kvyat… I heard Kvyat will be back.

What about Sirotkin?

I don't know what to say about Sirotkin. Williams is no good this season. His teammates are not doing well either.

Racing is new, exciting, have a lot of money. I do it for three years. Then it's not new anymore. Then he begins to think, ''Gosh, I've spent how much money on this… I like boats.''

''Lance's father bought Force India formula one team. Money is very important''

On the other hand, Sirotkin is only 23 years old, but he is already a sponsor.

In Formula One you look at Sirotkin's teammate — Lance Stroll, Canadian. You know why he is in Formula One? His father is a big garment guy, multibillionaire. When Williams needs money, his father is just here as long as he is sure that his son stays in Formula One. His father bought Force India formula one team. He bought it. Lance is no problem.

What a dream. No pressure, no sponsor. Whatever. You know, pressure does a lot. It was my dad's team or a friend of my father's that I knew since before I could walk. So if I did well, great. If I didn't, there's no pressure. For the first time I felt the pressure at AG Team. Nobody put it on me. I put it on myself because if I don't finish well in the US I just let myself down. But he arrives feeling as if letting everybody down and it affects you a little bit.

Why does Russia still not have its own Formula One team? There is money, big money.

You had. You had Marusya.

Where is it today?

I don't know. I think maybe because Formula One is not so much the culture. For example, I'm just thinking like a Russian oligarch. Maybe racing is interesting to him but hockey is always going to be interesting. Maybe he buys a hockey team. Then you look at the cost of Formula One. You see many wealthy people get involved in racing, not just Formula One. Racing is new, exciting, have a lot of money. I do it for three years. Then it's not new anymore. Then he begins to think, ''Gosh, I've spent how much money on this… I like boats.'' And he switches to boats. People who have money they are switching all the time. Maybe that's it, I don't know.

Do you like other sports? We have hockey, volleyball, basketball in Kazan. Have you attended any of them?

Yes, I have been to three Rubin games and I have been to three Ak Bars games. I choose Ak Bars. It is faster, I like it. In Florida, we do have hockey. But I think most people who go to these games are from New York that retired in Florida. Because it is hockey up there. I like watching hockey. Football is a little too slow. If I watch sport other than motor sports, I probably would watch American football. Of course, I never played ( laughing).

By Artur Khalilullov, Alexander Norden. Photo: Ilya Repin
Tatarstan