At this weekend’s Petit Le Mans in Braselton, the Minister of Defense Procurement in Great Britain’s House of Lords will be in attendance.
His name is Lord Paul Drayson, and he’ll be driving an Aston Martin V8 Vantage, appropriately numbered “007.”
For the past six months, Drayson has been driving across America in an RV with his wife and five children, taking in the sites and racing in the American Le Mans Series.
“We’ve seen 22 states and been home schooling the children in the RV,” Drayson said. “We’ve been able to spend enough time in America to feel as though we’ve seen it from the inside.
“It’s provided me the opportunity to see some of the most beautiful sites I’ve ever seen.”
One of those being Road Atlanta.
“The first thing that strikes you is how beautiful the place is, and how big,” Drayson said, “and how undulating and complex. It takes a while for you to sort of get a three-dimensional picture in your head of what it is your just about to take on.
“And then when you go out on the track for the first time, and you drive over these blind crests and you think, ‘Am I ever going to be able to go fast over these?’, and then you do — it’s great.”
Drayson, a staunch supporter of the use of bio-ethanol fuel, decided to leave his government position and race in America when the ALMS decided to allow bio-ethanol cars for the first time.
“When I heard ALMS was going green for 2008, I really had to be a part of it,” Drayson said. “I spooled up the courage to go see the Prime Minister (Gordon Brown) and say, ‘Excuse me, but I’d really like to take a year off to go motor racing,’
“He was brilliant about it and understood that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Drayson, a self-described “car nut,” began racing in 2003 at the age of 43 after a life-long love affair with motorsports.
In 2007, he teamed with Jonny Cocker of Guisborough, United Kingdom for two wins and a second-place championship finish in the British GT Championship.
His race wins at Snetterton and Thurxton were the first in a British national series for a bio-ethanol car.
“People thought we weren’t serious about racing, and had gone all tree-huggy because we converted an Aston Martin to cellulosic E85 ethanol fuel,” Drayson said. “When we won, fans thought it was great that we had this beautiful car that was more enviromentally friendly that could also compete.”
Drayson is of the mind that the two issues facing this generation are climate change and dwindling energy resources.
He is also of the mind that “all walks of life can make a contribution to helping this,” including motorsports.
“People say racers shouldn’t be allowed to race around a track wasting fuel and polluting the air,” Drayson said, “But I don’t agree with that.
“I think that motor racing can have a really positive impact on change in two ways: It can encourage manufacturers of cars we use to be more innovative and make being green cool and exciting.”
Drayson grew up near Brands Hatch Grand Prix in Kent, England and it was there that, while idolizing drivers such as Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart, his love for cars and motorsports began.
He got his undergraduate degree in engineering and worked for a car company straight out of college.
“I discovered early on that some of the really interesting, hot technology that was going on in car manufacturing at the time was in robotics,” Drayson said. “In other words, using computer controlled mechanical systems to do things in the manufacturing process.”
As a result, Drayson went back to school to get his doctorate in robotics.
“I studied the design of robot systems and, included in that, their applicability to other manufacturing processes, including food manufacturing,” he said.
Drayson opened his own food manufacturer, using the robotics learned through his doctorate studies at Oxford University, and grew the business for seven years, selling it when he was 30 years old.
“I had a great holiday in the South Pacific,” he said.
Not ready to retire just yet, Drayson went back to work, this time in biotechnology with scientists from Oxford University.
“Using helium as fluid technology, they were able to create a very small supersonic jet, essentially the size of a cigar, in something they could use to accelerate very fine particles at very high speeds,” Drayson said. “We found we could use this device to accelerate particles of drugs, medicine, and deliver them into the skin painlessly.”
Using what he describes as a “very high speed puff of air,” as its tool Drayson and his cohorts developed the company PowderJect.
At first, the said puff of air was used mainly on children who needed a local anesthetic prior to a surgical procedure.
Then the company expanded to vaccines.
“There’s a very specific type of immune cell in the top layer of the skin,” Drayson said. “Inside the epidermis are T-cells which are very important in providing immunity against certain types of viral infections and diseases.”
Over the course of 10 years, PowderJect grew to the sixth largest vaccine company in the world, and as a result, became the target of animal rights’ groups not too fond of the company using its technology on animals first.
“I had been a lukewarm, slightly lefty type but was never really into politics,” Drayson said. “Up until some of our scientists began being threatened.
“I got involved in the Labour Party and ended up being a spokesman for science and technology issues.”
It was as the company’s founder and CEO and Labour Party spokesman that Drayson was approached by then Prime
Minister Tony Blair and appointed to the House of Lords.
In the 2005 general election in Great Britain, when fellow Labour Party member Brown became Prime Minister, Drayson was appointed to the Ministry of Defense, where he was responsible for the country’s defense equipment.
“It was a huge honor (to be appointed),” Drayson said, “and a fascinating job.”
Drayson’s ideological view of motorsports played an integral part during his tenure at the Ministry of Defense.
Before his leave of absence, Drayson reformed the way in which Great Britain buys and manages its equipment in an effort to make the process more responsive.
“We’ve were up against people in Iraq and Afghanistan who were changing tactics very often,” Drayson said. “We needed to encourage industry to be much more responsive.”
To do that, Drayson turned to his passion for motorsports.
“I knew from my own experience racing that the motor racing industry is absolutely brilliant at fast prototyping and fast development of new ideas,” he said. “I set up a collaboration between the motorsport industry in the UK and the defense industry in the UK to try and get defense to learn how to do fast prototyping.”
The collaboration, spearheaded by Drayson’s collaboration efforts, worked almost immediately.
“We were able to develop a new vehicle and get it to Iraq for our troops in six weeks,” he said. “The process normally would have taken nine months.”
Drayson has, by all accounts, been a rennaissance man in the first 48 years of his life and, admittingly, will view his time racing in the American Le Mans as one of his life’s great accomplishments.
“You have in America the greatest range of tracks anywhere in the world,” Drayson said, “and I think it’s brilliant.”
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