The decision to migrate from your homeland can be an extremely difficult one, especially if the new country is far different from your own. Throw in a language barrier and one might feel less like “An Englishman in New York” and more like “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” English rock star references aside it takes courage, tenacity and the desire to not only give your family a better life but the best you can possibly provide. Red Bull Global Rallycross competitor and team owner, Nur Ali, knows quite well.
He was only six months old when his parents left their home in Pakistan for Germany but they were not destined to stay in Europe. Some years later, another leap of faith brought the young family to this side of the Atlantic Ocean where they found a lasting home on in the great state of Texas. Although he was quite young, life in Germany had impacted the young Nur. To this day he speaks fluent German in addition to Urdu, the language of Pakistan. However, it was in Germany what his lifelong love affair with motorsports began with the granddaddy of them all: Formula 1.
In the years that followed, Ali juggled the pursuits of education and motorsports. He went to Skip Barber Racing School after attaining a BA in International Relations at American University. Then what we’ll jokingly call a hand-on Master’s degree in multi-tasking as Ali achieved success in the business world but never gave up on racing. He has two Legends Car Championships and two Formula Mazda Championships, competed in the A1 Grand Prix – World Cup of Motorsport; in addition to NASCAR Xfinity Series and ARCA Racing Series races.
His relentless pursuit of the motorsports dream has taken him to twelve countries on five continents. However Ali’s interests lie beyond merely (yes, merely) racing cars. He’s building a legacy for himself and his family. That doesn’t mean he’s getting ready to put his helmet on a shelf. If perseverance and exuberance are anything to go by, Nur Ali – the racing driver, was just getting warmed up.
MLAS: When did the love of racing start?
Nur Ali: I was a toddler. I remember around the age of four, five years old, living in Germany. My first memory about cars or racing cars was actually a combination of two things. One was growing up in Europe, in Germany. Formula 1 was huge. So I remember you know the glancing or the visions of F1 on TV. You know whenever the TV was on at home or where my parents took me. So I remember seeing those beautiful cars while running by as a kid, but that’s one of the memories, that I remember seeing those cars; and the second one was, as you’re aware Germany has the Autobahn, which is like our interstate system over here. My father used to travel constantly on the Autobahn for his business. He was in the clothing business at that time and would be from one point in Germany (we were in Hamburg) to another city in Germany, and vice versa. We were constantly on the Autobahn so the speed of the Autobahn and the glimpses of the Formula 1 cars are what caught my attention. You know watching the cars on TV was great but then physically feeling it as my Dad was driving 120, 130, 140 miles per hour. In Germany, that’s where I think I caught the bug of racing. I did not know what racing was at that time but just the feeling of it.
MLAS: That feeling of going fast.
NA: Yes, that feeling of going fast at the age of four, five is what got me going in auto racing in the general sense or the love of cars at that time.
MLAS: There comes always that moment when being a fan isn’t enough and you want to get behind the wheel of the car and drive. When did that happen for you?
NA: (excitedly) I think that happened also anywhere between the age of four and eight. I used to collect a lot of die cast cars. I used to collect and play with slot cars. You know that run on little tracks, remote control cars? I was in love with it, fascinated with cars, so for me just being in love with the cars and focusing on wanting to play with the cars just was…it’s tough to explain as a kid. But for me that’s where I fell in love with it, and I remember my father, we didn’t have a lot of money back in Germany but I remember him taking me to amusement parks and carnivals, and putting me in the bumper cars; and getting the feel of pushing the gas pedal with the right foot and using the left foot to brake because that’s how they were at that time, and using the little steering wheel! I fell in love with driving itself and I think that point is when it hit me that I want to race cars and I want to become a race car driver. I knew what race car drivers were and what racing was because I was watching Formula 1 a lot and still of course getting the feeling of driving fast or being driven fast by my father on the Autobahn. So I think at a very young age is when I wanted to get into it and it wasn’t just a passion. Hey I want to race cars or whatever. I think I really had the burning desire of wanting to race cars at that very young age.
In a fortunate way I see it in my son now who’s only seventeen months old [in June 2015] and besides saying the words, “Mama” and “Papa” he says the word, “Cars!” He recognises my GRC car. He recognises other cars on the road and is just a fanatic about it at that very young age. So I’m just imagining wow, when I was young was I like this? So I’m seeing myself in my son a little bit at this point. (chuckles) I’m just rambling on and talking but I’m just passionate about it. So it started at a very young age.
MLAS: It’s not rambling. (chuckles) You talk about what you love and we talk about this all the time. (Nur laughs heartily) You mentioned that your Dad worked in clothing, a self-employed businessman presumably?
MLAS: So you’re the first racer in the family?
NA: I am the first racer in the family but I’m not only the first racer in the family, I’m actually the first racer in my community and from Pakistan. I’m the first driver at any level of professional racing from my part of the world. No one’s done it before and thus far there’s no other Pakistani race car driver at this level. I consider myself a Pakistani-American but my ethnicity is still Pakistani. To this date there isn’t anybody racing at any professional level. There’s a lot of amateur driving and drivers all around the world whether they’re in the US, or even Trinidad and Tobago, or in India, Pakistan. You know there’s those at the SCCA level or the amateur-style classes but any driver at the level that I’ve race at? To date, I’m the only that has done it. It’s humbling and I’m very blessed in that sense, and it’s very humbling in my perspective.
MLAS: Indeed and having a rudimentary understanding of the culture as a result of my background, saying you’re going to be a race car driver when most people from Pakistan probably want to grow up to be the next Imran Khan (a Pakistani cricket legend). How did your family, your parents respond to that? Were they supportive of this?
NA: Both my Mom and my Dad were very supportive at a young age. I’ll give you a small story. My Dad told me and my younger brother when we were young and you know, he kept on telling us that we till were young adults basically and it’s something that I’m going to pass onto my son at the dinner table when he grows older and he understands. My parents were very supportive of what I wanted to do of course. That being said and I’ll explain that in more detail in a second, we, when I say “we” I ‘m talking about me, my family and my culture in general, as you’re aware and you know it was all about cricket in Pakistan or in India and that part of the world, not auto sports or racing. So we didn’t have a blueprint or background in motorsports. The only thing that I had was passion – did not understand the business side of it, did not understand the motor side of it, didn’t understand any of that. The only thing that I had was passion at that young age; and my parents were very supportive. We were living in Germany as I mentioned. We did not have too much money. We were not well off or anything like that but my father believed in one thing for certain, and that’s another reason we moved to the United States, was to get the education and the opportunities that this country offers.
But at the dinner table every night almost my Dad used to tell me and my brother, “Look when you guys grow up, your Mom and I will support you in whatever you want to do as long as you get your education. Once you have your education, you want to become like Nur (my Dad used to tell my younger brother). He wants to be a race car driver, so be it. We will support him. We don’t know how to do it. We don’t know how to go about it but we will support him in that.” My younger brother wanted to become a lawyer. (laughingly) He was good at arguing so my Dad said, “I think you’ll probably go to law school and become a lawyer” and that’s what he ended up studying. But he [Dad] said, “Look whatever you guys want to do.” I remember him specifically saying, “If you guys want to become a driver or the person that picks up garbage and drives a truck, I’m okay with that as well, as long as you get your education.” They were heavy proponents of education and I did that. I got my education and it’s something that I believe in and want to pass onto my son as well.
You know he’s around cars. He’s around me saying the word, “Cars” recognising cars, playing with cars; but if he decides to do something else in life, I’m all for it as long as he gets his education, is educated, has a world knowledge of things, is smart, is not ignorant, is culturally affluent in that sense, meaning he understands not only his culture but the culture that he’s living in, where his roots are from…as long as he’s an all-rounder I’m all for that. That’s the way I was brought up and my parents (going back to your main question) were very supportive of what I wanted to do, as long as we got our formal education. You don’t find parents like that.
I can tell you that as you are knowledgeable in the background of our culture in some sense, as coming from India or Pakistan, it’s all about getting an education and having a normal life, meaning getting a job or going and becoming a lawyer or becoming an accountant or becoming an engineer. That’s where a lot of our folks have their backgrounds from, but I just wanted to be different and wanted to race cars; and you know I’m very blessed that my parents were supportive of that. I don’t think I would have been successful or where I am today if my parents hadn’t give me the support, because I don’t think I would have made it this far.
MLAS: Do you come from a big family?
NA: No, my immediate family is just my Mom and my Dad and my younger brother. It’s just the four of us. Of course, now I’m married and have my own son. But the original Ali gang back in 1974 and the ones that were in Germany and when we came here? It’s just the four of us. Of course, my parents had a big family. My Dad had a bunch of brothers and sisters. My Mom had a bunch of brothers and sisters. But my immediate family that’s with me from day-to-day and living under one roof it’s just the four of us – a very small family in that sense of it.
MLAS: Motorsports people tend to wear many hats and there’s a fair amount of hustle involved with running a team especially since you’re the Nur Ali in Nur Ali Motorsports. However some folks have a “day job” and race on the weekends. Do you fall into that category?
NA: I’ve got both and I’ll tell you I do have a day job. I do have responsibilities and I also have the weekend responsibilities of being a race car driver, currently in the GRC Lites program. When we started off in racing seventeen years ago, we only had passion for racing, didn’t know the industry, didn’t understand the business side of it…had to learn the business side of it and the industry quickly, because if we were going to make it and if there was any successes that we were looking for, it was going to have to be that, hey we have to understand this business. Seventeen years in we understand the business, in fact all of motorsports: the sponsorship side of it, the ownership side of it, the non-ownership side of it, just being a driver, being contractually obligated with the team with sponsors, responsibilities, etc. etc. etc. We understand all of it. With that being said, I’m self-employed with my family. We own and operate several businesses here in the state of Texas; but the number one passion and the number one business for me has always been motorsports. My goal has always been where I’m running not only as a driver but even as a team owner in some sense or vice versa, just as a driver; for it to be a profitable business.
You know I meet a lot of people in my community that have in the past and still do from time-to-time think it’s a hobby. For me it was never a hobby. I wanted to get into the motorsports business as a driver and later as an owner or whatever; but I’ve always wanted to be where it’s not a hobby. It’s another business entity out of our other businesses. If you look at Hendrick Motorsports, if you look at some of the other larger names and owners, they don’t own just motorsports entities. They have other businesses and for me having learned and matured and you know been educated in the industry in some sense, we consider motorsports as one of our entities. So I do have a day-to-day job and responsibilities with my family, but I’m blessed in a way that with the racing season, I get to fully focus on my racing.
My daily responsibilities have been handed over to my counterparts or other employees in our companies, and I just look at the emails and the numbers that are coming and going; but fortunately I don’t have to be there on a day-to-day-basis at this point. With the season that started in May, running all the way till November I get to fully focus on GRC: working out, eating right, being able to do appearances for my sponsors, etc. etc. etc. Having that whole program and be fortunate enough to build this whole program because GRC Lites that we’re doing, whether for a year or two or three or whatever it is, our goal is to eventually move up to the GRC Supercars, and it is a business. We’re working on bringing more sponsorships on-board. The program itself is paying through the sponsors and so we’re blessed with that. We are one of the only, I think or one of maybe two teams in GRC Lites that have full sponsorship. The only one I can think of would be the DirtFish car, would be the only other sponsored car in the Lites program that is in some sense fully-funded. So for us and for me personally, it’s another business entity but the entity has to profitable at the end of the year. So I think we are blessed in that sense that I’m able to focus fully for the next six, seven, eight months. In the offseason I get to continue working on trying to bring more sponsors on-board with my agents and my reps and my partners I have: but I do have another life where I’m a family man and I have other responsibilities, but I’m fortunate enough to be self-employed. I can pass those responsibilities on and focus on my racing career.
MLAS: What are the best and worst aspects of being your own racing boss?
NA: The best aspect is that I control my own destiny. I control exactly what I want to do when it comes to racing or bringing in partners or sponsors on board, hiring or being with the right team. I get to choose all of that because I’m my own boss. I bring in my own sponsorship and I get to run my own team and sometimes we’ll partner with another team. The negative side of it is that you do have this responsibility. Unlike being just a driver: you show up, you do your races, you do your interviews, you do your stuff with the sponsors, you go home and just live the life of a race car driver; and don’t worry about it until the next race. The negative side of it is that you have the responsibilities of making sure the cars are running right or the cars are being transported right, which I don’t have to worry about because we have partnered up with AF Racing so they’re handling that. But from the Nur Ali or the Ali Motorsports side of it, I have to make sure that my guys like Dave (Carapetyan) who’s coaching me, he’s my spotter. We’re representing him as a brand ambassador and his school. I’ve got to make sure that Dave’s on a plane, Dave has an airline ticket. My agent has an airline ticket. You know in that respect I’ve got to worry about it, but you know what? It’s not a big deal. So I think the pros have more of an advantage than the cons in that sense. I’d rather have the control of my destiny and my program versus giving that to somebody else’s hand.
MLAS: It’s an unfortunately rare occurrence where drivers successfully handle both the driving aspects as well as the business aspects of running a race team, and like you have a solid support system in place.
NA: Yes, I do and I’m glad you brought that up. I do have the support system in place because as an entrepreneur and as a businessman, I understand the business side of racing. As a race car driver, I fully understand the racing side of it. So with those two in play, you’re right – there are lots of drivers and it’s a rare occurrence nowadays, where the racing side of it does not mix the business side of it, with a person or a personality. I was thrown in that seventeen years ago. I wanted to go in as a race car driver but unfortunately at that time, but now I’m fortunate about it, because I was young at that time, I’m mature now. I’ve learned fortunately now, the last seventeen years the business side of it.
I went in as I said, as a race car driver with a passion of racing but I did not now the business side of it and I had to learn from scratch, from the ground what the business side of it was. So in my sense of it, I see myself as having an advantage. Can I separate those two? Yes, I can; and how do I separate those two? I put a good team around me. I’ve got a great team this year. I, as a driver, I focus on the racing when at the race weekend. Prior to the race weekends, I focus on studying the tracks, watching videos, etc. etc. etc. I do all that as a driver. From the business side of it, I have my agent. I’ve got a great guy that’s working and representing me. He’s handling all my sponsorship, all the intricacies of the business side of it, where we want to get more funding, having appearances set up and at race weekends, he handles all my guests. For the public relations side of it, I have Craig Bailey who’s handling the PR side of it, my website, my social media. I’ve got Dave who is working with me, coaching me on how to drive the car on dirt and spotting me at the race track. I’m fortunate that I’ve surrounded myself with good people.
I’ve got my wife, Naureen, that shows up to the races. She’s a big part of my program, my parents, my brother – they’ve been there since Day 1. My brother’s a lawyer so he handles all my contracts whether it’s for the team, for the sponsors, for the appearances. He handles all that so I’ve surrounded myself and I’m very blessed with the right core people; and it’s been successful cause as you could see, we’ve got great sponsors and great partners on board this year for a program we just started. We’ve got Valvoline on board, that’s one of our core partners. We’ve got Tweaker Energy Shot. Adidas came on board as a clothing partner and Rally Ready as you’re aware of is working with us, Dave and his group. So I’ve surrounded myself with good partners and good people. Why? Because I’ve learned in the last seventeen years to be successful you have to. If you want to have a good successful program in any racing series at a top level, and GRC Lites and GRC itself is a top-level program, you have to surround yourself with a good set of people; and I believe I’ve done that, and I can appreciate that. A lot of drivers can’t. I’m fortunate enough to appreciate the racing side of it and the business side of it.
MLAS: There are drivers who have successfully switched from being racers/owners to completely owners like Richard Childress, Michael Andretti and others. Would you like to do that someday?
NA: Yes, yes! (excitedly) You saw how fast I answered that question? Yes, and I’ll tell you why. I want to drive as a driver as long as I can for a couple reasons. One is as long as I’m having fun and I am physically fit I want to keep driving. One: I want to continue driving as long as I have good partners and sponsors on board, I’m going to keep driving. So it’s a combination of things as a race car driver: as long as I’m having fun, as long as I’m physically fit and as long as I have a good funding program with corporate sponsorship and partners, I’m going to keep racing.
When would I transition over from a driver only to a full-time owner only? That (pauses) I don’t have a time table on that. I want to drive for as long as I can. Can I do both of them? I think I can! As I continue to grow older and wiser and enjoy driving as I just mentioned, etc. etc. etc. with the corporate sponsors still being on board with us. If my son wants to race, I’m going to transition him over into racing, again started with go karting etc. etc. with the ladder system in and at that point I think I would transition myself more of an owner but I would still keep driving.
When I fully finish with driving, for which there’s no specific day or age on that, and until I do that, I will be fully focused as a driver. My goal is down the road, as I mentioned to you a few minutes ago, that the racing side of it is another business entity and like you said, Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick and all these guys, motorsports is always going to be one entity of our businesses. So we want the motorsports to grow as strong as, you know I’ll be open and honest with you, I want to have a program one day where my son is going through it and I’m still racing on and off if that’s happening and as long as I’m having fun, and having other drivers come through our program.
Yes, I want to be like a Richard Childress or a Rick Hendrick one day whether it’s the GRC program or any other racing program, because we’ve learned a lot about the business. So yes I think I would love to transition over as an owner down the road where my son goes through the program, if he’s wanting to in that sense; but yes I do want to be an owner one day because I want to keep our foot in the door in the motorsports industry. One: because we’re lifers and two: I enjoy that like my brother said, it’s the best, most fun property that we own out of all our other businesses.
MLAS: Of all the racing series you could have become involved in, why did you choose Red Bull Global Rallycross?
NA: When my agent and I went up to our sponsor partners that we were negotiating the 2015 program for, we had presented them our racing format and at that point the partners sponsors basically told us, “Hey we want to go after a new type of racing consumer.” And we said, “Okay, what are you looking for?” and they say, “We want to go after the millennials.” And they explained it to us and you’re aware of what millennials are like and with the shorter attention span, more about gadgets and technology. We of course understood that and immediately my agent and I internally discussed it; and re-presented our 2015 program to our partners and our corporate sponsors with the Red Bull GRC program, Supercars and the Lites cars in general and explained to them what that was. Our sponsors fell in love with it.
One: they wanted to be in that series or wanted to be part of that series, so we presented that (opportunity) to them and number two: personally as a driver, of course I knew what GRC was. It’s a new series that came about three, four years ago. I’ve watched it a little bit, kept up with it, the stars that are in there: Ken Block, Scott Speed, Nelson Piquet Jr. so I’ve been watching that series and keeping an eye on it. And for me it was like wow! They run at the X Games, this is cool! I was ecstatic about it, so was my agent about it. So for jumping into GRC Lites was not only new but another challenge and I am all about challenges and new things in life. I’m actually having a blast! Out of the seventeen years that I’ve driven I think the most fun I’ve ever had in racing thus far has been in GRC.
I’ve been fortunate enough to do one NASCAR race. I did A1 GP for a year or so. I’ve done a bunch of Star Mazda, Formula Mazda, won championships in that, but most fun I’ve had in racing I think has been Global Rallycross. So in that sense, I’ve got to thank our partners and our sponsors Valvoline and Tweaker who wanted to go after a consumer base and I’m glad we were able to present them with this program. So that is one of the reasons that we are in GRC Lites, because our partners and sponsors wanted to be in there.
MLAS: On a more personal level how did your very first win feel?
NA: My very first win happened in a Legends car in around ‘99 I remember that race specifically. I was racing at Texas Motor Speedway on the short track outside the speedway and you know, even though I went to racing school at Skip Barber and I’ve got a little bit of knowledge, I did not have coaching. I did not have the funds to have a great program. I was just another guy, another kid wanting to race you know, didn’t have a lot of sponsors.
Family was supportive enough in putting some money on board and we got corporate sponsors in later. Budweiser was one of them early in the days, but you know winning that first race was very special for me because it gave me the confidence that wow, you know, I had this childhood dream of mine. I am lucky and blessed enough to fulfil it. I’m competing against other teams that have more money, had better equipment and I was at least able to win a race that one night, and that gave me a confidence boost in saying that hey I think I’ve got something special and if I focus on it and materialise it in a positive way, I think it could be a good outcome for me down the road.
Of course I didn’t know I’d be in it seventeen years later but that first race. I remember it as [though] it happened yesterday. I mean it’s that clear and my first championship – the same thing. That was in my Star Mazda car. I remember my whole family and friends, it was a local race here, in 2001 out of Fort Worth that we ran; and I remember winning that race, going in third in points standing that weekend. For me to win the championship, I had to win the race and I was blessed enough to win the race and the championship that weekend in my Star Mazda car for the regional championship and that was very special to me as well and that was only a few years later and that gave me more confidence that, hey, I know what I’m doing. I know what I’m doing and if I focus on the racing and just become smarter on the business side of it, I think I can turn it into a nice program for myself and my family.
MLAS: As you were talking earlier about being the first professional race car driver of Pakistani descent, do you feel an added pressure to succeed?
NA: I think I did when I was younger, when I started my career I did but where I am today I don’t see it as a pressure because I’ve learned over the last seventeen years or so that if I keep that pressure on my head, I’ll lose the program and the fun that I’m having. The racing business itself from the business side of it and the racing sides of it are already pressure-full, why add another pressure of trying to make it where I need to prove to my community or my ethnic background that hey, I’m the first one doing this and I’ve got to make sure I’m successful. Yes, I did think about that when I was younger but I don’t think about it as much today as I did back then because I want to have fun in racing. You know, I want to enjoy what I’m doing. I’m having a great year.
As you’re aware, I’m originally from Pakistan but I consider myself as an American and the beauty of this country is that it’s a melting pot, so we come from everywhere. So that pressure I think I had it when I was younger but not anymore as I’ve grown older and wiser in some sense if you want to call it that (smiling) because why put that pressure on yourself? You know there are so many other pressures out there.
Having that added pressure of hey I’ve got to do well because I’m a person from my part of the world? I no longer worry about that. Is it in the back of my mind? Yeah I think about it once in a while, but do I let it get to me anymore? I did when I was younger but now any more.
MLAS: Do you have any advice for someone who is like how you were, who might be reading this?
NA: Whether it’s somebody reading it that’s a young person from this country or somebody that’s reading it from my country, wanting to become a race car driver? What I would tell them is first and foremost: follow your passion. Whether you want to be a race car driver, you want to be a musician, you want to be an artist, you want to be a businessman, an entrepreneur, a lawyer, attorney, whatever you want to be – follow your passion. But I would recommend that you do get your education, because I am one in a million.
Let’s just say, that I’ve been fortunate enough to make this into not only a business but a successful business. That does not [just] happen and I’m seventeen years in it, so it’s taken time; but I do suggest to all the young readers out there – get your education because this world’s becoming very competitive. Forget the racing for a second, because you have to have your education to be able to land a good job and have a good life and have a good career.
The job market is very slim out there and it’s getting tougher and tougher as the world is becoming smaller and smaller because of technology. You know now we’re interconnected with different nations. We can send messages in an instant. We can get messages back in an instant. We can do video conferencing and etc. etc. So this world becoming smaller in that sense but more advanced technologically so my suggestion is that you get your education. I’m a big proponent of that and do follow your passion.
If somebody wants to race cars? The main thing is I would suggest to them is to understand the business side of it because you’re coming in as a novice like I did seventeen years ago, then you have to learn the business side of it because without the right partners and corporate sponsors, unless you are a big name in the racing industry that has family history, it’s tough for a newcomer to do it on their own but it is possible because I’ve done it. We’ve done it, but to be mindful that it is difficult but it is not impossible because I did something that I thought was impossible at that time, became a possibility for me and my family, and has now become like I said, another business entity of ours.
A Final Word
Months of blood, sweat and tears have come down to this. Tomorrow’s the last race of the 2015 Red Bull Global Rallycross season. Supercar and GRC Lites champions will be crowned beneath the Las Vegas lights in what will likely be a night of fantastic racing. If you can’t make it to Nevada, don’t fret because the finals will be streamed online on Red Bull TV from 10:00pm EST.
If you own a Fire TV device, download the free Red Bull TV app from Amazon so that you can watch all the action on your HD TV. Both races will be broadcast on the NBC Sports Network so set your DVRs for Supercars on Sunday November 8th at 7:30pm EST and GRC Lites on Wednesday November 11th at 4:30pm EST.
As always Red Bull GRC’s social media links are the best way to go for real time updates, although be warned for spoilers during the race. We congratulate Red Bull GRC for another exciting season and we can’t wait for what’s in store next year!
Official Website: http://www.redbullglobalrallycross.com/