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John and Jack Houlihan: Building Family Memories

Racing takes plenty of support. Fortunately, this father-son team knows where to find it.

Many families memorialize their summers with souvenir hoodies and selfies taken at the rim of the Grand Canyon. The Houlihans went in a different direction: when their son Jack graduated from high school two years ago, John and Valerie Houlihan decided against a family trip. Instead, they sold their Corvette to finance Jack’s first year of PRO3 racing

The decision turned out to be the right one. Jack raced for a season in a rented arrive-and-drive PRO3 car, and loved it so much that another family project was born: building Jack a race car of his own. 

And They’re Off

Before conversion: that luggage rack had to go!

Soon a 1989 BMW E30 turned up on Craigslist. John and Jack did lots of preliminary work, stripping out seats and wiring, while receiving invaluable help and advice from PRO3 originators (and ProFormance instructors) Ken and Wes Hill

With a project this big (and a Craigslist car) one expects snags along the way, and some serious structural problems did come to light. Under Ken’s guidance John and Jack pulled the engine, got the damage fixed, and handed things off to Racer on Rails, a high performace race car shop based in Renton, to create the machine that would end up being HouliRacing #287.

A Safe Car Made to Measure

Laborious as a custom build is, there are advantages. John and Jack are 6’6” and 6’7’ tall respectively, so they tailored the roll cage to their height. “I doubt anyone under 6’2″ could actually drive the car,” says John.

Jack Houlihan’s made-to-fit car interior.

Another concern was keeping themselves in one piece. “Sometimes safety is on the low end of budget priorities, but we’ve done everything to develop a safe and reliable car,” John says. “We’ve got all our safety equipment: great helmets, fire suits…”

“Racer on Rails did a great job,” says Jack. “It’s a huge game changer to have a car just for my dad and me. We were able to put the seat where were wanted, so I could focus on my driving and not on how uncomfortable I was because the seat didn’t go back far enough, or my head was hitting the roll bar.” In the normal-sized rental Jack’s knee hit the steering wheel with every heel-and-toe downshift.

Once they diagnosed and fixed the standard bugs that plague every new build, the car performed well. 

Racing is a Family Affair

They finished the car last April, in time for a summer racing campaign. ”This was our opportunity to make some long-time memories.” It’s not just drivers and racing who are involved, John notes: “It’s a full-on family endeavor. There’s registering, getting there and home, helping out in the pits, …”

HouliRacing #287 – finished and ready to race!

John decided to join the act, getting his race license at ProFormance and making it a father-son racing team with, he notes, “the massive support and encouragement from Val — my wife and Jack’s mom.” Jack also hails his mother for her unstinting support. “Like any mom, she doesn’t want her kid in danger, but she knew this was what we wanted to do, and she was there for our races, cheering us on, having fun. It was a great way to bring the family together on weekends.”

2021 was Jack’s year as the sole family racing star. In 2022, John says, “Jack was the senior driver, I was the novice.” With fewer than ten races under his belt, John is still learning, and claims to be having a lot of fun even if he’s far from leading the pack at this point.

PRO3 Regulars to the Rescue

There’s a second family involved in this racing story: the PRO3 community, long renowned for the warm welcome and assistance it offers newcomers. “They’re just phenomenal,” says John, “helping us out in the pits when we needed it. Everybody pitched in.”

HouliRacing debuts on the track.

On their first race weekend with the new car, they needed to jump the battery, and the car died on the first lap. Manfred (Manfred Duske, ProFormance Racing School instructor and PRO3 Stalwart) came over with a battery to replace it.

Like others new to the PRO3 circuit, John is impressed by the vast racing knowledge that his colleagues possess. “There’s a lot to racing,” he says, “but for us, the people we’ve become friends with are the best part. I haven’t met a single person in the PRO3 community that I wouldn’t have over to my house for dinner.”

Lessons Learned

“We’d never been involved in organized wheel-to-wheel racing before, so our learning curve was really steep; it was good to go through it together.” John admits that they could have bought a PRO3 car for less than it cost to build a new one, but the family took the harder and more fulfilling route of converting an E30 sedan into HouliRacing #287. “Plus, we added one more PRO3 car to the gene pool!”

After the summer Jack went back to start his second year at the Texas A&M Honors Engineering program, a choice of study influenced by his fascination with the physics behind auto racing. Meanwhile, John raced on his own. Now the car heads to the garage to prepare for next season. With luck, Jack will return to join his father in another season of racing next summer. 

Beyond next season, Jack contemplates a sports car or touring series. “I’m looking forward to developing my skills and see how far I can take myself.”

PRO3 and ProFormance for the Win

The Houlihans are enthusiastic about the advantages of PRO3, which they consider one of the most approachable club racing levels in the Pacific Northwest in terms of cost and support. The latter is key: “There’s no way we could have gotten through it without the help of the Hill brothers and Racer on Rails.”

“In PRO3 you’re immersed in every aspect of racing , from managing the car, managing the driver, figuring out race day schedules, rules, licensing, race craft, race strategy, making sure you drive the car on to the trailer at the end of the day rather than having it towed because you binned it….”

But at the end of the day, Jack says, Don and Donna (Don Kitch, Jr. and Donna Porada-Kitch) have made all the difference. “I’ve worked two summers as an instructor and they’ve just been the best. They gave us advice on where to go with PRO3, how to start a new team, finding a first race car — so much helpful advice, so much time saved because we were able to learn from the experiences of everyone else.
This past season wouldn’t have been as much fun if they hadn’t been there.”

John agrees. “It’s all Don Kitch’s fault! Don and Donna really see PRO3 as the premier club racing entry point for people who have gone through their programs and want to take the next step. They provided the environment of learning and coaching that gave us the skills, encouragement and support to undertake an amazing family adventure.”

The HouliRacing adventure will continue. Watch this space.

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