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American Le Mans Series

Lord Drayson has become Lord Racin'

ST. PETERSBURG

Five months ago, he was Lord Paul Drayson — a respected British defense minister in charge of a war budget equivalent to some $32-billion to arm British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today, with far cooler moves than Austin Powers ever mustered in his 1967 Shaguar, Lord Drayson has become Lord Racin'.

You can find him behind the wheel of his environmentally friendly Aston Martin, steering through an improbable new course in life — one that brings him today to St. Petersburg to compete in the American Le Mans Series event at 1:30 p.m.

For two years, Drayson presided over matters of national importance in the House of Lords, roughly the equivalent of the U.S. Senate. Thursday afternoon, the lean, 47-year-old Brit with thick gray hair and an engaging smile held court in the Renaissance Vinoy Resort Hotel, joining marquee IndyCar names competing in Sunday's Grand Prix.

"It's so exciting, it really is," he said between TV interviews.

While more people may have known Helio Castroneves and Dan Wheldon, it's safe to say he was the only driver in the room with a Ph.D. in Robotics who recently procured Typhoon fighter planes for Great Britain's war effort.

And he was the only one who, when talking about his injection system, meant the vaccine company he founded in 1993.

Not to mention the only one who met former Vice President Al Gore 12 years ago at a bio-tech conference — and hopes to run into him in the States to talk about the bio-ethanol "green" fuel he has been championing.

"He's an inspiration and made a huge difference around the whole climate change issue," Drayson said. "You don't know if he's a race fan, do you?"

Given the amazing life Drayson has led to date, a chance meeting between the two former government leaders to discuss the environment would be par for the racecourse.

• • •

Consider this: One day, he was an entrepreneur-in-residence at Oxford University; the next he was appointed to the House of Lords in 2005 by former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

One day, he held the equivalent of a presidential cabinet position; the next he submitted a letter to new Prime Minister Gordon Brown expressing his intent to pursue a lifelong dream of racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

"A number of special circumstances have now presented me with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take my racing to the next level," read a portion of his letter.

Drayson officially requested a leave from the House of Lords, which many people considered the same as taking a leave of his senses.

But Brown was well-aware Drayson had developed a passion for weekend racing four years earlier. He knew this was no midlife crisis in the making — only the desire of a man with a track record for cramming high-level careers and experiences into his life.

"I quite understand you must do this," Drayson recalls Brown saying. "'Sorry to see you go, but you must do it Paul, and come back when you've done it.'''

His team adviser, two-time Le Mans Series champion manager Dale White, loves the enthusiasm and dedication he sees in Drayson, who more than held his own at Sebring in March before a crash ended his race.

"He's so happy to be racing in America, I can't tell you," White said. "At Sebring, he was overcome with emotion at one point to be here, after basically quitting his day job. He's so appreciative, and that's one reason I signed on to this deal."

On Friday, Drayson's Aston Martin, competing in the GT2 class, qualified 28th in the 29-car field for today's race and was more than two seconds slower than the next car to complete a time. Still, will he become a Lord of the fliers and hold his own?

"He'll be competitive," White said. "He hasn't driven with the faster cars, and that's hard to get a lap time when you're watching your mirror. It's a little intimidating. But he's taken to that really well. I think he'll do really well."

• • •

The improbable journey has roots in Drayson's childhood. He grew up near Brands Hatch Grand Prix course in Kent, England, and he idolized Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart.

But the sport in which he made his mark was fencing. He used natural boldness and quick instincts to excel — and honed traits that would serve him well in business (where he made a fortune in pharmaceuticals) and later in racing.

Drayson didn't take the wheel to race until 2004 at age 43. He progressed to a Formula Palmer Audi and in 2006 placed sixth in the GT3 class of the British GT championships.

Without realizing it, a perfect storm of factors were forming to propel his dream forward. Last year, Drayson became immersed in the climate change issue and potential of bio-ethanol fuel. "I'd begun to champion it as a green fuel in GT races and developed a unique Aston Martin that runs on bio-ethanol," he said. "We became the first to race in the UK with that and to win."

Two victories in 2007 were the first ever in a British national series with a bio-ethanol car, and Drayson added five other podium finishes. He finished second for the season and qualified for both the American and the European Le Mans Series. At the same time, he heard the American series had decided to "go green" for 2008.

"The timing was perfect — I had already got 18 months experience of driving a green car," he said.

But that alone wouldn't have been enough to make Drayson hit the brakes on his political career. He and his wife, Elspeth, have five children, ages 11, 10, 8, 6 and 4. "We were thinking about the kids' education," he said, "but we figured out that 2008 was the only year where we could take the kids out of school for a one-term break and it wouldn't affect their education, because there weren't any important exams."

That iced the decision. The Draysons were coming to America, all seven of them, on the adventure of a lifetime. They flew into Orlando last weekend and visited the Kennedy Space Center and Disney World before driving to St. Petersburg. After today's race, they will travel the Le Mans circuit in an RV, sightseeing as they go.

At each stop, Drayson will promote the virtues of green fuel.

"I studied the issue of climate change as a scientist-engineer — and it is real, we need to take action," he said.

Drayson says racing is an ideal way to make an impact:

"One, motorsports has always been an engine of innovation —people trying to win by coming up with technology solutions. So I believe motorsport racing can be an engine for green innovation, where the manufacturers develop and test new ideas."

Drayson hopes his travels will lead to his dream of driving in the 24 Hours of Le Mans next year in France. Until then, his day jobs remain on hold — from chairing the Oxford Children's Hospital to the seat in the House of Lords he plans to reoccupy one day.

"I'm a firm believer that we only have so much time on the planet so you have to make the most of it," he said. "I'm trying to do just that."

>>FAST FACTS

What is a Lord?

The House of Lords, one of the two houses of Parliament, has about 750 members. Ninety-two are hereditary peers, drawn from nobles who inherited their titles. More than 600 (including Drayson) are life peers, who are nominated by the prime minister. In 1999, legislation abolished the right of hereditary peers to inherit a seat in the House of Lords along with their title. Ninety-two hereditary peers were allowed to continue serving until further reform was completed.

World Book Online

Lord Drayson has become Lord Racin' 04/04/08 [Last modified: Saturday, April 5, 2008 12:40am]

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