By Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)
UCLA International Institute, June 20, 2018 — This past weekend, graduating International Institute students donned commencement caps and gowns and bid farewell to UCLA as they prepared for life after college. While many will go on to attend graduate school, travel abroad or enter the professional world, some students will find themselves on less conventional post-graduation paths.
Ken Fukuda, an alumnus of the International Development Studies (IDS) Program, has forged one such unique path in pursuit of his lifelong dream: race car driving. After receiving his B.A. from UCLA in 2009, Fukuda spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia and then moved to Oakland to work for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). All the while, his dream of race car driving persisted in the back of his mind. Five years ago, he left his work in the public sector to pursue racing full time.
A lifelong dream
Fukuda has dreamed of being a race car driver since the age of 10, when he stumbled upon a scale model of a Le Mans-winning car at a mall. He started working and saving money at 12 and by 15 had purchased his first car, which he would drive on Bay Area back roads while his parents were asleep. At the age of 17, Fukuda attended his first racing school, where he was invited to participate in a race to win a substantial motorsports scholarship. He declined, opting instead to use the entry funds to attend UCLA.
“It was $15,000 for a potentially life-changing scholarship or $15,000 towards a degree in a field that I also cared deeply about,” says Fukuda. “I chose the degree [at] UCLA and without it I wouldn’t be where I am today, racing or not,” he said. His time studying Swahili and development theory in the International Institute's IDS program led Fukuda to apply to the Peace Corps, which placed him in rural Liberia as part of the first group of volunteers to return to the country following 14 years of civil conflict.
In Liberia, Fukuda helped high schools students increase their exit-exam pass rate from 18 percent to 56 percent, received a U.S. Agency for International Development grant to construct the school district’s first science lab and was invited to meet President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. After returning home from West Africa and starting a new job at the VA, he seemed set on a career path angled toward government and development work — but he kept reflecting on the conversations he’d had with his students about his passion for race car driving.
“So many of my students were incredibly gifted. Yet in Liberia, there was very little economic opportunity for them," he says. "If I asked any one of my students, ‘If you had the chance to go after your dream, would you do it?’ I know in a heartbeat that he or she would say, ‘Yes, Mr. Fukuda, go racing,’” he explains.
He eventually quit his job at the VA, determined to take his shot at a professional race car driving career. Fukuda received additional confirmation of his decision on his last day on the job. “I remember shaking hands with some of my colleagues and seeing tears build in their eyes as they told me how they had wished they had gone after their dreams when they were younger,” he said.
Ken Fukuda worked with high school students as a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia. (Photo: Ken Fukuda.)
Experience (and expenses) behind the wheel
“Race car driving is unfortunately very expensive, so my career trajectory has been different from those of other racing drivers, many of whom come from families with more financial padding,” said Fukuda. “On the rare occasions that I do get to hop into a race car, I’ve had to rely heavily on my ability to study and learn quickly — lessons that UCLA taught me,” he relates.
Fukuda first worked as a racing mechanic apprentice at the Bridgestone Racing Academy in Ontario, Canada, in exchange for driving time in the school’s open-wheel formula race cars. After acquiring more experience behind the wheel, he returned to California and trained with go-karts — a cost-effective way to refine his driving technique. In 2016, he was offered a position instructing at Simraceway Performance Driving Center in Sonoma, CA, where he’d began his motorsports career 10 years earlier.
“I was definitely the most inexperienced racer there among a staff of seasoned pros,” remarks Fukuda. “Yet the school still took a chance on me. It was extremely confidence-inspiring and I will be forever thankful for their belief in me,” he says.
Video of Ken driving.
In order to advance to the next stage of his professional racing career, Fukuda threw a gala event in February 2017 and launched an online GoFundMe fundraiser. The fundraiser ultimately raised $16,000, allowing him to finally purchase his own race car. With help from Oakland-area sponsors and his pit crew of friends, Ken competed in the Hoosier Super Tour and the Sports Car Club of America’s Majors and Regionals races. He concluded his first season with a 100 percent top-5 finishing rate, 66 percent podium finish rate and 33 percent win rate.
Fukuda moved to Germany in January 2018 to break into the European race car driving scene and began training multiple times per day to remain prepared for whatever racing opportunity arises next. At the same time, he continues giving private racing lessons.
Soon after arriving in Germany, he competed in a race organized by the Association of Nürburgring Endurance Cup Organisers at the famous Nürburgring Grand Prix race track, driving a BMW M235i Factory Race Car in the Cup 5 Class. Fukuda did well, placing as the highest finishing American driver in class (7th) and 67th overall.
Ken Fukuda gets in precious practice time at the Bridgestone Racing Academy in Ontario, Canada. (Photo courtesy of Ken Fukuda.)
IDS lends perspective to passion
“Do I regret the 10 years spent volunteering, serving abroad and studying international development before focusing on race car driving full time? Absolutely not,” said Fukuda. “The perspective I gained has been applicable to so many aspects of my life,” he reflects.
In addition to inspiration and perspective, this Bruin's development experience has proved to be an advantage on the job market. Fukuda was told that he was hired for a job as a driving instructor at a Nürburgring racing academy because his IDS degree and time in the Peace Corps demonstrated adaptability and problem-solving experience.
Fukuda encourages graduating UCLA students to pursue their passions, whether they fall within their disciplines or seem to come out of left field. “Represent your alma mater well and go forth," he says. “For the graduating class of 2018 — Bruins are everywhere, killing it [while] doing incredible things.”
The IDS alumnus offered a final word of advice to the Class of 2018: “Don’t get too caught up in others’ career paths. Many greats took sharp turns. The quality of work produced as a result of doing what you love as opposed to doing something that you no longer care for is substantial.
“Whatever your passion may be, whether you think it ‘helps’ others or not," he says, "it can become a marvelously beautiful and inspirational product that you would be robbing the world of if you only do what others want you to do.”
To keep up with Ken Fukuda’s race car driving career, you can check out his blog, Griffey Dreams, or follow him on Instagram, @griffeydreams.