Imagine being a 15-year-old, with all that implies, while negotiating a racing career on the national stage as your parents, teammates, sponsors, and the media scrutinize your every move. Robert Noaker is handling all of the above, and is still winning races in the Battery Tender Global Mazda MX-5 Cup. Crazy, right?
Like many aspiring racers, Noaker began karting at five years old. His parents, Robert and Katie were aware of their son’s talent early on and became his sponsors as he rose through the ranks. At age 13 he graduated to a full-blown race car, piloting an MX-5 Cup car at the famous 25 Hours of Thunderhill endurance race. At 14, Noaker made it to the MX-5 Cup for the 2018 season. That same year, he won his first race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in July to become the series’ youngest-ever winner.
I met Noaker at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin in June 2018, just weeks before his first-ever Cup victory in Ohio. He was a timid kid whose focus became razor-sharp when talking about his racing performance.
Fast forward to June 2019, Noaker’s second year in the MX-5 Cup. I’m standing next to him in his race trailer. He’s already been at Road America for two days with the rest of his Sick Sideways team, led by MX-5 Cup veteran John Dean II, and he’s anxious to hit the track. We exchange a few words as Katie cleans the MX-5’s windshield lovingly and Robert talks to me about their weekend plans. Noaker steps away to chat with his teammates about the upcoming 20-minute qualifying session, which at a 4.04-mile road course like Road America isn’t a lot of time.
A few hours later I’m again standing next to Noaker, but this time he’s on the starting grid and strapped into his Mazda MX-5 Cup car. Katie makes sure his helmet, Hans device, radio, and other various cables, buckles, and straps are secured. Robert watches from a few feet away. The care and love Noaker’s parents show reminds me of my own racing days in the early 2000s, when at 17 I raced shifter karts, reaching speeds of 120 miles per hour as my parents cheered me on.
Noaker, a high school sophomore, missed close to 30 days of school last year, and his parents say they spent a total of three months or more on the road in 2018. “It’s challenging because you can’t really learn with a teacher,” said Noaker. “[Teachers] just give you the work and you have to do it on your own, so you’re kinda behind everyone. It’s hard to keep up, but next year I will be doing online school.”
After a brief warm-up lap, Noaker, who was starting in eighth place, puts the hammer down and quickly picks off several opponents. I’m standing a few feet away from his parents, watching their reactions. When word comes over the loudspeakers that someone had suffered a nasty hit on turn one, all parents, pit bosses, and spotters scramble to their radios. Noaker is okay. Actually, he’s more than okay; he’s in fourth place.
Despite the strenuous nature of driving an MX-5 Cup car, which lacks power steering or ABS, Noaker doesn’t follow a strict exercise or dietary routine. He simply thrives on his youth and naturally fast metabolism. “I like taking out the road bike and going on long rides, but that’s about the only exercise I do,” said Noaker. “Even then, with as much time as we spend on the road there isn’t much time for that.”
He may not be a gym rat, but it would be a mistake to think he isn’t in shape. “I do more mental training and hand-eye coordination than anything else,” Noaker said. “I do a lot of exercises to improve my peripheral vision.”
After the Road America crew clears the track, Noaker once again puts his head down and gets to work. This time, however, he isn’t as patient as he had been during the first half of the race. He knows the 45-minute heat is coming to a close and he has to make it happen.
“It is stressful. It’s not like NASCAR where you have a backup car,” Noaker says before the race. “Having two races in one weekend, you can’t risk the car early on. Sometimes I have to think about it twice [before making a move] and ask myself ‘do I really wanna do this?’ But then it always comes back to ‘yes.'”
Suddenly, he pulls out from the draft and goes for the pass. His braking technique is flawless, his heel-toe downshifting on point. Suddenly he’s in the lead. It’s worth remembering here that Road America is an unforgiving circuit; a large portion of each lap is spent at full throttle, especially in something small like a Miata. Putting a tire off the tarmac, even just an inch, can result in a big shunt.
“There’s been a couple of times where it has been overwhelming, but I remind myself that I really want to do this and move up,” Noaker added. “I want to race faster cars and race the Daytona 24 or Le Mans. I love the idea of racing faster cars.”
Everyone is on their feet, including me, as Noaker crosses the line and claims his second Global MX-5 Cup win. I hop in my golf cart and make my way to the winner’s circle. By the time I arrive, he’s already spraying non-alcoholic champagne. I squeeze through the crowd and snap some shots of the family celebrating from a distance, allowing them to enjoy the moment.
Everyone is happy on victory lane—especially Noaker’s parents and teammates. With their support and scholarship money up for grabs from Mazda, Noaker could conquer much more in the coming years. But it won’t be easy. The road to success in motor racing is long, uphill, and oftentimes unreachable.
It’s the morning after his second victory and we’re once again at the trailer. Our conversation turns to the future.
“This is as far as we can go, as much as we [as a family] can afford,” Noaker says. “[Now] it’s just getting someone to notice me and my talent and open a door. Hopefully, someone can give me a ride or sponsorship.”
“It’d be really nice to win the Mazda MX-5 Cup championship and get the $200,000 scholarship,” he adds. “Hopefully, Mazda will see my performance and stick me in a prototype [car].”
After spending two days chasing Noaker and others around the track, I say my goodbyes and wish him good luck. The Noaker family is ready to head home for a few weeks and get some well-deserved rest before starting the second half of the season. Needless to say, they won’t get much rest until the season comes to a close.