By Air Force Staff Sgt. Angelique N. Smythe
65th Air Base Wing
LAJES FIELD, Azores, Nov. 14, 2013 – When Air Force Staff Sgt. Joshua VanHorn arrived two years ago with a car that was the only one of its kind here, he quickly gained the attention of car enthusiasts both on and off this mid-Atlantic base on the island of Terceira in Portugal’s Azores archipelago.
VanHorn, a 65th Medical Operations Squadron medical technician, loves cars of all sorts and enjoys upgrading and personalizing his own cars.
"I love fabricating parts on cars; I love making it my own," he said. "Ever since I got my first car in high school, I realized having the same car as everyone else was kind of boring to me. … If you're a car guy, then your car represents your personality."
Now VanHorn is living his dream. He races cars in the Azores while building friendships and host-nation relations in the community. His Portuguese landlord, who is a professional driver, connected him with a few new friends, who then introduced him to some of the island's racing events.
"I joined the Air Force to travel, to see the world, so this has just been a great opportunity for me," he said.
Although he'd always loved racing, VanHorn said, his first opportunity to race didn't come until after being stationed here. He first participated in rally cross and autocross racing here last year.
"Rally cross is wheel-to-wheel racing; I have to focus on driving with all the other cars around me," he said. "Autocross is a timed competition on a planned course. Only one car goes at a time, and it allows me to just really focus on my driving."
At first, VanHorn said, he was the only American visiting the Olavo Esteves Competitions track in Praia da Vitoria. However, he added, he was welcomed by the Portuguese people there.
"They embraced me," VanHorn said. "They love seeing Americans here. The more I come to these events, the more other Americans come, and they're usually people I've invited. I love spreading the word about the track, because it's so close to base, yet no one really knows about it."
As for his rally car, VanHorn recently purchased a small European vehicle from a Portuguese friend and continues to customize and upgrade it for races. The car is equipped with complete safety measures, such as a full roll cage, bucket seats with racing harness seatbelts, and a fire extinguishing setup. When he’s racing, VanHorn wears a full fire-retardant suit, gloves and a helmet for personal protection.
On the outside, his electric blue two-door Nissan Micra displays several logos of local sponsors as well as an American flag with his last name on the rear driver's-side window.
"As the only American out here representing the U.S., I have the American flag on the side of my car," he said. "That kind of makes me a target during competitions -- a friendly one. When we're on the track, it's aggressive and competitive. But off the track, these guys will do anything they can to help me compete. It's all just for the fun of the sport."
VanHorn, who said he knows enough Portuguese to get around, added that he usually enlists the help of his friends in translating.
"It's fun to just hang out, show off your car, talk about cars -- new cars, old cars -- cruise around together and just show off your personality," he said. "It's all about the love of cars, no matter what language you speak or where you're from. I have an amazing Portuguese rally mechanic that I trust with both my everyday car and my race car. He translated to me, 'I don't know what you're saying, but I know cars.'"
VanHorn considers himself an adrenaline junkie and said he feels great adding race car driver to his resume, which includes being a certified scuba diver and personal trainer and being a registered emergency medical technician for the Air Force.
"When I first started out at Lajes, I worked in ambulance services," he said. "When the phone rings, I'm excited; I get pumped. I'm not afraid of emergency -- I'm confident in my job, and I've literally had people's lives in my hands before. It's almost the same with racing. It's just an adrenaline kick. You get in there, and you're surrounded by other drivers. The light turns green, everybody goes at once, and the dirt starts flying."
Some of VanHorn's co-workers said they enjoy attending the races because it allows them the opportunity to interact with local people who are interested in the same things.
"Sergeant VanHorn is always accepting a challenge," said Air Force Senior Airman Hannah Meza, a medical technician. "At work, he's a great leader, and I think it's great that he's building such great relations with the Portuguese. Sometimes [they] seem surprised to see Americans [at the track], so we try to talk to them, even though they don't always understand us. But it usually works out one way or another."
Olavo Esteves, who has been a rally driver for more than 16 years and has owned the track for four years, said VanHorn has become a good friend since they met a year ago. "It's always nice to have Americans racing here,” he said, “because they're very respectful people and they do everything by the rules."