Humaid Al Masaood only began racing in the American Le Mans Series earlier this summer. Already a race winner, he tells Osman Samiuddin how he aims to build on his impressive debut year
The first time Humaid Al Masaood sat in a car for the sole purpose of racing was three years ago. He had not taken the usual route budding racers take, no karting or slogging it as a junior driver. If attention is not paid it could be concluded that he arrived accidentally, that he meant to play tennis but somehow ended up here. This is not so.
Much has happened since, but this summer in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) has been potentially a pivotal one. Al Masaood formed Oryx Racing less than a year ago, got invited to the ALMS, finished third in his first two races and then won in Baltimore, to stand on the top step of the podium in only his fifth race in the championship.
With two races to go in his debut season, even the logical endpoint of such circuits - participation in one of endurance racing's most prestigious events, the Le Mans 24 Hours - is on the horizon, a dot but unmistakable.
"We had a plan," he says, before explaining this wasn't it. "We formed, said we're going to do Dubai 24 Hours and the Speed Euro series.
"In our first race we met someone from AER Engine who recommended we discuss our plans with USA's Dyson Racing."
Dyson invited him to test and Al Masaood spent two days pounding around New York's Monticello circuit to see whether he had the ability, whether man and machine understood each other and whether the teams could be partners. Initially, he was nervous.
"Once you get driving, you stop being nervous. You can't. It's not like standing and trying to make a putt where you're thinking, 'Aaargh, can I make it?' Here you have no time, you just go. I was more nervous playing tennis because when you serve you worry about a fault. You have time," he says.
Al Masaood impressed Dyson Racing with what he did in that test. "We changed our plans, went to America and stepped it up. It was not the original plan when the year began to be racing there."
Profiles of racers draw from a common well. The breed is no monolith, but there is outward similarity about the prominent. They are well put together, but because of the nature of their pursuit, are jagged, too.
They wear their globe-trotting without the sanction the rest of us concede: dark circles under the eyes, unkempt hair, bad skin, jet lag.
They have also been comfortable in the worlds of celebrity, business and sport much longer than other athletes, smoothly slipping through sport arenas, catwalks and boardrooms.
Al Masaood doesn't look out of place in this, especially not while he discusses the Dubai film City of Life, urban crime and economic growth in the region. He is 31, well-rounded and articulate and currently in the midst of "the most amount of travelling I've done". He has just returned from the US and is soon to fly back, a 15-hour jaunt to Los Angeles. And he is still involved in the family business: the Al Masaoods are a large, diverse business group. And he looks, of course, as fresh as a daisy.
From early on, travel and racing shaped a rough arc of life. He went to study in the UK when he was nine and then to the US when 15. Briefly the arc was disturbed.
"I was a junior tennis player in Florida," he says. "I wanted to become professional but it's very difficult. I was good but not pro level."
Motorsport had a firmer hold. "I went to the British Grand Prix when I was six. I've been to many events through my life, like the Indy 500, as a spectator. I've always had a passion for it and the opportunity came up where it was accessible back here."
A brief, necessary detour: with boxers, the mind of racers ranks among the most compelling for outsiders.
"Lotta people go through life doing things badly," says Michael Delaney, Steve McQueen's character in the cult racing movie classic Le Mans. "Racing's important to men who do it well. When you're racing, it's life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting."
Racing has no time for the conceits of other sports. It isn't football, where a draw can be a win, or tennis where one can win more points than the opponent yet lose, or cricket, which has many contrarian objectives. Not that it's simple; it is a deeply layered, tactical exercise, reliant on innumerable variables, not least that flimsy human acquaintance, technology. But the competitive edge of all sportsmen feels stripped down to its barest level in racers: being faster is just such a definitive way of being better.
"Like anything, if you love doing it, it's hard to question," Al Masaood says.
"You find something you enjoy and it becomes very little effort. I like competitive sports, I like competition. But then I'm not super-competitive in other things. I enjoy driving cars. It's a very rewarding experience when you get it right."
Neither is there, as is a common, lazy assumption, some hidden death wish. "It's fun going quickly, but it's not a thrill-seeking mentality. I don't have any desire for bungee jumping. That stuff, I don't feel the need for. I enjoy driving because it's competitive, I enjoy the speed, the challenge, the environment.
"You really want to go out and go for it, but it requires thought. The most successful drivers make things work because they can take the situation, know how to deal with it and then do it. It's not the same as other sports.
"There is a big mental aspect to it and technical angle. Knowing different tracks, explaining how a car feels to engineers so they can better it. Being able to translate the way you feel driving. There is a process."
Three years ago, he began with Gulf Sports racing. For a novice, there was guidance but mostly he is self-coached. "When someone says they've done this for three years, it doesn't necessarily mean it's an intense programme. You could do six events annually which isn't that much. But I did lots of test days. I was entering races and series here. Then I would go race abroad and spend time testing and practicing. It was intense."
The route has worked because, by any measure, it has been an exceptional debut. The first season is about to end. Two races are left, both gruelling, at six and 10 hours in length, with the first one at Laguna Seca, taking place tonight. Much has been accomplished, much remains.
"I knew I could manage the car this season, that if I stay out of trouble, it'll work. Our initial races were challenging because the fear was of not finishing. We were very glad for good results because you expect to not have success in a race - that's just how racing works. You have to go for it but if you don't … there are so many variables, elements that can go wrong … the pit-stop, the second driver, so many."
The team has been vital. During a race Al Masaood drives alternatively with Steven Kane, a former British Racing Drivers' Club young driver of the year and a circuit veteran. The pair met in Dubai and, says Al Masaood, hit it off immediately. "He's a good personality, relaxed. He's very competitive and a very fast driver but not a prima donna."
The rest, always unseen and less-celebrated, are a combination of full and part-time engineers and technicians. "We've got a great group," Al Masaood says. "No matter how good the driver, if the team sets the car up wrong, you only drive to a very limited level."
But it is Al Masaood at the forefront. Two Americans who work in Abu Dhabi recognised him at a race. "They'd been following me in The National," he says.
More will do soon. Motorsport is not given to nationalist sentiment but with the region becoming a significant destination, his rise dovetails with that of his land.
"It's great to represent the UAE, it's excellent that they're building motorsport. But when you're there, you're just there as a competitor. Hopefully, one day there will be UAE competitors. If we go to Le Mans 24 Hours, the long-term goal is for a two-car team with Emirati drivers. It's not a country sport but it'd be good to have more."