Born to a successful amateur racer and car collector, Steven Aghakani started with the right circumstances to pursue a career in motorsport. No well-heeled dilettante, Steven has taken full advantage of his opportunities and progressed from an eager, starry-eyed kid to a capable racer able to run in the big leagues in the span of just a few years. At just 15 years old, he’s still a youngster — but now one with experience in a variety of demanding racing cars. But I digress.
Steven’s racing career started when his father, Armik Aghakani, decided to hang up his own helmet. Back in 2009, a horrible crash gave Armik pause — flipping 15 times in a Porsche 997 GT2 can do that to a man. As his father put his racing ambitions aside, he took notice of young Steven’s burgeoning interest in speed in general. The young lad was fond of cars, an avid indoor karter, and someone who lit up whenever he sat in one of his father’s cars. Soon, Armik was living vicariously through his son, who took to karting like a duck to water.
Indoor karting quickly morphed into shifter karting; the foundation so many racing drivers have built upon. Within the course of three years, then just 11 years of age, Steven had moved into full-sized street cars! Obviously, this foray into fendered machines was conducted on a track — he was still four years shy of driving on the public road — but he managed to master them quite quickly.
The next step featured Willow Springs as the setting and Formula D champion Michael Essa as the guide. Within just six months, Essa had guided the eager Steven with bi-monthly lessons through the essentials of managing a heavier car — a modified BMW E46 M3, in this case — with more power and slower reactions. “Essa taught me general car control, how to drive comfortably with lots of slip angle, learning how to let the car take a set, and tire management,” Steven elaborates. The skills aren’t as relevant in karts, which naturally handle quite differently. Essa was laying the foundation for the next step in Steven’s racing career.
Though a potent car, the M3 was a far cry from his first proper, slicks-and-wings racing car: a Gallardo Super Trofeo. Hard to fathom an 11-year-old turning the wheel of a mid-engined Italian exotic car-turned-racing car. Fortunately, the all-wheel drive helped deploy its 570 horsepower with less fuss, but learning the idiosyncrasies of a focused racing car took him for a loop.
Learning to get the tires up to temperature was the first challenge — Steven learned cold rubber and cold carbon-ceramic racing brakes are about as useful as cinder blocks in stopping. Fortunately, he just managed to avoid putting the Gallardo in a ditch.
Steven started running regular track days at Buttonwillow and Willow Springs with the support of U.S. Racetronics. Interestingly, Steven never saw wheel-to-wheel action in this car. It was another training stallion which prepared him for door-banging competition in something even quicker and less friendly.
In 2014, a 13-year-old Steven and his father decided it was time to graduate to door-banging action in a current car. What would be more appropriate than the natural successor to the Gallardo, the Huracan Super Trofeo. With less weight, more power, and a lack of front driveshafts, this car would challenge Steven in ways that its predecessor never did.
“The first thing I had to learn in the Huracan was how to modulate the throttle,” Steven says. Even though the Huracan’s 620 horsepower is delivered more progressively than the Gallardo ever did, it only drives the Huracan’s rear wheels. Discounting from the obvious wheelspin Steven had to contend with, there were some on- and off-throttle characteristics which changed the game considerably. “If you ran off the driving line, the Gallardo’s all-wheel drive could pull you in towards the apex with a light application of the throttle. This made it good over dusty surfaces [a common problem at Buttonwillow], but I never liked the heavy front end,” Steven elaborates.
The Huracan, much more responsive at the front with broad 305-section front tires, forced Steven to be tidier with his inputs and more accurate with some of his lines. The tire stagger is minimal with 315-section tires at the rear, and too much steering input could induce a massive slide — which is near-impossible to recover from. “There’s a narrow window between gripping and slipping,” Steven says. “It’s hard to manage, but sometimes, you can get the car to rotate just off the corner exit, and the feeling is sweet! When I learned how to do that, I found so much time,” he recounts with a broad smile.
Happy with the balance and character of the car, and comfortable enough with dancing it on a knife’s edge, Steven began running quick laps at the aforementioned tracks with other Huracan Super Trofeos; dicing and simulating passing maneuvers with Bryce Miller, a sportscar champion in USCR, ALMS, and Grand Am. Comfortable running in close proximity to another carbon-clad racing car, he was ready to test his abilities in sanctioned competition for the first time.
At the age of 14, Steven commenced his wheel-to-wheel career in an entire season of NASA Southern Region GT1. During his first race at Willow Springs, he squabbled with seasoned racers in Porsche GT3 Cups and Mazda Elan prototypes, and yet, he took Second and Third place on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
Being young means being a sponge for information. Over the course of the season, Steven racked up wins and podiums. Much to his rivals frustration, he eventually clinched the title even with a one-race absence, and the telltale rookie sticker decorating his back window. Wafting along on enthusiasm, he and his father decided, once again, to set their sights higher and continue climbing the ladder.
Traveling north to Laguna Seca has become a once-a-fortnight affair for Steven this year. Whittling away at his times, he’s been able to snag consistent laps in the 1:26-range; that staggering pace helped him comfortably win the SCCA Regional Championship there several months ago. However, he was only using that as a launching pad for what was, thus far, undeniably the most challenging race of his career.
One step of the Pirelli World Challenge, the California 8 Hours was Steven’s first professional race. As part of the sole team in the GTC class, Steven’s load was lightened slightly, but he still had his hands full. Sandwiched between brimming GT3 and GT4 classes, he had to adjust to the setup changes needed to make the Super Trofeo a GTC car.
To squeeze the most juice from this unique position, Steven set a few reasonable goals: bring the car home in one piece, mix well with the harder-driving pros, and manage the slower GT4 traffic. His prime goal, above all the aforementioned aims, was to outrun the slowest Huracan in GT3: a car with 100-additional horsepower and 190 pounds fewer to carry around.
Steven’s load was lightened somewhat with the aid of two talented co-drivers to guide him: Richard Antonucci and Taylor Proto — two Super Trofeo aces. The three had to alter their approaches slightly; they were no longer running a sprint format. Fortunately, they brought in a strategist to help them adjust their inputs to make the most of the tires and the fuel over the full eight hours.
As the GTC rules call for a higher ride height than Super Trofeo spec, the pitch and dive were different, and the 38mm restrictors dropped power to somewhere between 510 to 520 horsepower. The setup had to be changed to find their target lap times which changed the behavior of the car considerably. This, combined with a greater need for tire longevity, forced Steven to be a bit smoother with his inputs. Still, the drivers — used to pushing constantly in a sprint format — managed to run consistent laps in the 1:30-range.
Steven was able to achieve his goals, though it was a close call. Taking the last stint, Steven snuck ahead of the target car: the PPM Huracan GT3. They’d suffered an accident two hours before the checkered flag which put them some eight laps behind Steven. So, for the last couple of hours, with the GT3 nipping at his heels, Steven was tested like never before. “I had to keep my head calm and avoid pushing the tires past their prime,” Steven notes.
The last hour felt like a day, as the PPM car loomed larger and larger in his mirrors. All the while, he had to avoid the faster GT3 cars who were pushing like mad in the last laps. “I had to plan my locations to pass, or be passed, well ahead of time to not lose time in traffic; a pack of six GT3 cars once passed me in one corner!” Steven remarks. Still, with icy reserve rarely seen in kids that age, Steven kept his nose clean and finished just four seconds ahead of the GT3 car. Achievement unlocked.
Steven’s first professional race taught him about the increase in pace, the traffic challenges, the challenges of an endurance race, and the frustrations of being a mid-fielder. Now a class winner in a professional race, Steven is no longer an amateur, and will be getting his FIA license next April, on his 16th birthday.
To complement the new license, the foray into professional motorsport motivated Steven and his father to look into another upgrade: a Huracan GT3, in which he’ll run select races for the 2019 Pirelli World Challenge. At this rate of ascension up the ladder, we can expect big things in this talented young man’s future. We wait with bated breath.