What started with a sketch in a U.S. Army officer’s notebook in Kuwait 10 years ago has advanced to a patented sphere brake technology that is expected to surpass the performance of disc- and drum-brake systems and revolutionize the automotive industry.
And one of the lynchpins to its success is 22-year-old NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Jianna Salinas, who has caused True Disruption of her own on the racetrack.
The 12-year Army officer has morphed into civilian Aaron (A.J.) Lewis, who has earned a master’s degree from Penn State University and settled in Erie, Pa., where he led several business operations for G.E. Transportation while developing Sphere Brakes, LLC. His automotive-industry start-up is one of only 25 tech firms chosen in October to participate in the 2019-2020 Endless Frontier Labs project in New York City. As such, he’ll benefit from the advice of mentors, serial entrepreneurs, and corporate leaders gathered under the umbrella of New York University’s Stern School of Business.
To fuel the revenue pipeline for his brake company, Lewis established the True Disruption clothing line, partnering with Jianna Salinas to launch his national campaign during the Dodge Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He sponsored the rookie racer for that event, and she competed with True Disruption livery as she won the season-ending NHRA Finals at Pomona, Calif., in genuinely disruptive fashion. She had won just two elimination rounds all season in a crowded field of veteran colleagues but survived the down-to-the-last-day battle among three championship contenders – eliminating each of them to earn her first trophy.
That certainly was a bold step forward for her NHRA career, but it also underscored her choice as the perfect partner for Lewis’ endeavor. Not only does Lewis mesh perfectly with the values the Salinas family represents with its Scrappers Racing and other off-track companies, but he recognizes the significant role drag racing can play in the evolution of his product.
Tami Powers, director of business development/operations at Alan Johnson Racing/AJPE, introduced Lewis to Melanie Johnson, Alan Johnson’s daughter and public-relations representative for Scrappers Racing. Lewis said he asked Powers, “Who can I sponsor?” And when he met Melanie Johnson, he told her who he is and what he represents, she replied, “I represent Team Scrappers and Mike and [daughter] Jianna. They’re just disrupting racing. They’re trying to create an opportunity for a younger generation to come in and be relevant in the sport.”
Lewis said, “And honestly, I flat out told her – because I knew what it would cost to sponsor a big team versus a smaller team – ‘I don’t have a big budget. I’m a small company.’ But I said, ‘What I can do is do a weekend for Jianna. I can handle that.’ And it’s just more fitting than anything because she’s in my generation – actually she’s probably a generation younger than me – but we’re in the young generation. She’s a minority female rookie trendsetter. She’s building the hype. She’s got a great attitude and everything. And she’s good people and it’s a good family. I came from nothing.”
He said he can relate to Mike Salinas’ now-well-documented hardscrabble rise through the business ranks.
“True Disruption really is a celebration of inventors, entrepreneurs, trendsetters, trailblazers in any industry, whether it’s politics, education, sports, racing, in anything in which there’s a big movement. You’re disrupting the status quo – and it’s for a good thing, not disrupting as a bad thing,” Lewis said. “I’m protective of the brand. We’re going to quietly bring about what it really means.”
Jianna Salinas said, through Lewis’ True Disruption website (https://www.truedisruption.com/), said she can relate to Lewis’ vision. She wrote, “The freedom that comes with writing riding a two-wheeled vehicle without a seat belt was the first thing that inspired me to race in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class. Being a woman of color in a male-dominated sport drives my passion to push the boundaries of fear and self-doubt. Failures are learning experiences and fuel to continue blazing the trail for more young women to embark on this journey. Successes are not just wins. They include the disruption of status quo. There are no longer standards for who or what you need to be to experience the thrill of racing motorcycles, and I will continue to help that trend stay alive.”
But Jianna Salinas might not have made an altogether quiet impression when she disrupted the Pro Stock Motorcycle championship chase in the final weekend of this Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season Nov. 17 at Pomona. All eyes were on leader Andrew Hines and his two closest challengers, Jerry Savoie and Matt Smith. All have been class champions, and Salinas was a rookie who had only two elimination round-wins to her credit. She had persevered through six non-qualifying efforts and even a high-speed fall from her bike just after recording her first round-victory, in a weekend when she posted her first six-second elapsed time and everything looked so promising. And there she was, starting the final day of the season against the five-time (and about-to-be six-time) champion.
But she ended up beating all three top riders, as well as non-Countdown racer Steve Johnson, who had come on strong during the playoffs with two final-round appearances and two other semifinal finishes. And she said that surprised even her, making her presence in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class a true disruption, in an envigorating kind of way.
(By the way, she isn’t the only Pro Stock Motorcycle racer to win four rounds on race day because of every opponent’s mistakes. On the way to his 2003 championship, Geno Scali took the trophy at Atlanta, thanks to the red-light starts of Chris Reuter, GT Tonglet, Shawn Gann, and Antron Brown.)
Salinas said, “I mean, on Saturday morning, I was just fighting to qualify, and I never would have thought that I would be able to pull this off. I came into [Sunday] saying, ‘You know, whatever happens happens. Win or lose, I get to end the season on a high note, but just to be here right now in this moment, it’s just– it’s not something I ever thought would happen too soon.
“It’s race day, and I know I’m new at this, and I’m so fresh, but . . . it’s race day. You can never go against anybody and think anything can happen – and just it happened,” she said. “Not a single run I made today was a spectacular run. The final round, that was probably one of the worst runs I’ve made all weekend. But it got the job done, and sometimes consistency is all you need to win,” Salinas said. “It’s never really bothered me who’s in the other lane, and a lot of that’s because I’m so new at this. So the worst that can happen is I lose. But to me, just to be able to qualify is a big deal. I’ve never really been bothered by who’s in the other lane. I’m just there to race my race and focus.”
She said, “It’s been a rough season. I’ve had really good runs, and I’ve had really bad runs, which I’m sure everybody’s aware of. But just at the end of the day, there’s just nothing but support from my family.” However, she said, “I would have said you’re crazy [if she had been told she would win the Finals], because honestly I didn’t even think I could do this. It’s so overwhelming just to think that, to struggle as much as I did this season and to come back from the crash. I’m just happy to be able to qualify out here. I mean, this class is so strong. You have amazing racers out here, and I’m just fighting to be able to hang out with them. So I definitely would not have expected this at all. So I’m truly blessed. I owe all of it to my crew and to my family, to my sponsor, True Disruption.”
Salinas teased a bit that the most profound lesson she said she learned in her rookie season was “how to lift? Definitely” but said, “really, just never give up. Just keep going no matter what, no matter what anybody says. I have to believe in myself, most importantly.” Winning, she said, “feels so good, honestly. Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of people out there to say some nasty things, but I mean, people have said bad things about my family and I since Day One, since we entered the sport. And we’re just here, doing our thing, enjoying it, having a good time as a family.”
So Lewis, like Salinas, keeps believing in himself and his product and is proud that compared to the status quo, he is progressing and making inroads.
“I think what is probably a key takeaway from this, more so than just the brand itself, is you look at all the big sponsors on these cars and they’re billion-dollar companies. We’re not. We’re small. And the NHRA gives us an opportunity to get on a national stage with a very reputable team and a great family who all stand by the same values. And that is what I feel true sponsorship should be, where everyone wins,” Lewis said. “Promoting the race team and what they stand for, promoting the sport and also the youth, like bringing in, having an ability to bring in, the younger generation. And then hopefully we get the sales from that. And then when people go to our site, they learn about Sphere Brakes.
“Every move I make I ensure that Sphere is present and relevant, the brake technology, because that’s what I’m focused on right now is growing Sphere Brakes,” he said. The True Disruption clothing line simply helps make that possible financially.
He, like Salinas, has to block out advice and comments that might take him nowhere productive. For instance, people have asked him, “Why don’t you put Sphere somewhere on the clothes?” But Lewis knows what he wants. He told those folks, “Well, who is going to wear a Sphere Brakes shirt?” He has a sense of his mission and his method for getting there. He said, “True Disruption stands for something bigger and more meaningful, and it brings a lot more people together than an auto shirt. I can have an Olympian who sets records wear True Disruption, and now I’m bringing Olympians to auto sports, or auto racing, or heavy trucks, or, you know what I mean? I could start cross pollinating all these industries with True Disruption.
“Racing affords us the opportunity to get in where people care about high quality and safety and everything that we need to launch the product smartly or effectively,” he said. “From the day that I invented the technology to today, everyone’s always like, ‘Well you should throw it in this market’ or ‘You should throw it in that market.’ It’s like yeah, but it’s not the right market for it. Yes, sphere brakes should replace every single brake in every single vehicle. When you think about that for a minute, it’s a whole new industry is what we’re doing. But that’s not the smart play. The smart play is to go where your product delivers the most value now so that it can deliver portions of those values later in very price-crunched markets.”
Like Salinas, Lewis has turned a corner from frustration and disappointment.
“The reason that I launched True Disruption the brand, there were several reasons. As in any business, the struggle is real. You have major wins and you have major losses. We were actually working on a new bike brake for E Bikes. E Bikes is the new rage. Ride share companies, electric bikes and scooters and stuff. We developed a new brake for bikes and motorcycles. It was all at our expense, but they backed out,” he said.
The company went with a product that doesn’t offer the strong features that Lewis’ Sphere Brakes does but had been in the market for 20 years. So it went with what was familiar.
“I was angry. I said, ‘No more. We’re going to take control of our destiny. We’re going to build leverage,’ Lewis said. The impetus for his big push for True Disruption, he said, “was coupled with the event of the ebike company saying no and me being fed up with the ‘no’s.”
He said the name ‘True Disruption’ grew from a remark someone made about his sphere brakes product, and it stuck in his consciousness. He had been wondering what name to put to his now-two-month-old clothing line and said he figured it needed to be “something that’s cool, that captures something much bigger than us.”
He said he knew that getting Sphere Brakes into the marketplace in a significant way would take revenue: “So I said, ‘Man, how do we make money today?’ We can’t make money with brakes today, because you have to certify and jump through barriers and everything else. And you can’t spend government money on anything else. Government money is government money, and so I can’t like pull funds from the government to fuel civilian stuff. So I’ve had an idea for launching a brand, a clothing lifestyle brand, for awhile.
“Honestly, it didn’t cost us much to launch the brand,” Lewis said. “We intentionally did not want it to cost a lot to launch it. It was like we just need to get it up and get it going in fourth quarter and see how the fourth quarter goes. We’ll re-evaluate going into 2020 and then see what 2020 holds in store for True Disruption and make sure that through the brand, we’re generating enough revenue to pop into our technology to get to markets faster or to get into markets, just leveraging that brand that we own to our benefit. A win-win-win whoever we’re talking with. Racing is the best multi-win scenario, because you have so many stakeholders involved that you can really can do so much for so many people. It’s quite extraordinary.”
What Jianna Salinas did at the Finals at Pomona was extraordinary, and they did it together, she and Lewis.
“They helped us kind of get in the door. It was just ‘What do we need to do to get our technology into the sport of racing and NHRA?’ So the conversations revolved around ‘Let’s create a safety device, not a brake – a safety device that is activated under certain conditions,” Lewis said. “So let’s say the driver’s hands come off the wheel or the Top Fuel car gets out of control or the parachutes don’t open, or the car’s going so fast at a certain point down the track. So there are several conditions where there’s an out-of-control situation. This brake can override and come on. It’s like a redundant safety system.
“There were some concerns about packaging and this and that, but we finally came to a solution that everyone is happy with, the teams are happy with and we’re happy with. Just a matter of now I partnered with Penn State University with help from their mechanical engineering team and their electrical engineering team to really build a product,” he said. “Come May 2020, we’re going to have the very first sphere eddy brake for a Top Fuel car that’s not going to be on a car. It’s just going to be a bench-top prototype, because we have to go through NHRA’s four-step safety-component-acceptance process. This, what we’re in right now, is Step Two. So it’s a deliberate sequence. We’re messing with a lot of critical parts in the car, so we and the teams want to ensure that we’re doing everything right and safe. It’s nothing that’s going to happen overnight.”
Lewis outlined the laborious process: “We need to make sure the technology’s safe first. That’s No. 1, make sure the technology’s safe. And then at the end of Step Two, we actually present in partnership with teams to the NHRA. We’ve got a solution, and these teams are signed up to help test. Once Step Three happens – Step Three is production and testing – so you hand the NHRA the drawings, you hand them the prototypes, and you say, ‘OK, we want to make this and put them on cars.’ And they say, they look at the team and they look at the manufacturer and say, ‘OK. We’re good. Everyone’s good. Let’s move forward to Step Three.’ So that’s when we go into production and make a bunch of units. We give them to the teams to test, probably in like Arizona, whenever the annual testing is. Or maybe on a Monday after an event weekend where testing is allowed and put them on the cars and maybe do a 100-foot pass, then a 400-foot pass and then a full run and just make sure it performs the way it’s supposed to perform.”
Tim White, NHRA director of engineering, said, he has a working relationship with Lewis, although it’s in its beginning stages. White said Lewis “has presented his concept, and we have requested that he work with a team(s) to further develop/verify that he has a valid concept designed and capable of functioning in the nitro category. His next step would then be to submit his product by following the NHRA Accepted product process.”
Jianna Salinas and Aaron Lewis both know that perfection takes time. Both believe in themselves and their own individual commitments.
She said, “This class is an amazing class. Everybody out here, they know how difficult it is to be able to do this. Just to get the bike down the track from Point A to Point B is extremely difficult. And not a lot of people realize that. So every single rider in this class has been extremely respectful, extremely supportive, and they’ve never tried anything [tricky]. And that’s why I love this class so much.”
Lewis, an Army veteran (with military-Intelligence, field-artillery, infantry-officer, and Stryker-unit-commander experience) and former furniture designer as a college student, knows nothing happens overnight. He said, “We disrupted the military with these fundamentally different. We took our brake technology and developed a kit for freight rail cars. We designed a new sphere brake that promotes safety and reduces total costs.” And then he met such NHRA influencers as Nicky Boninfante and the Kalitta Motorsports group, as well as E3 Spark Plugs’ Rob Fisher, a contact he called “open” and “welcoming.” Lewis said, “He had a similar story. They used the NHRA to launch technology on the consumer side. Now E3 is a dominant force, but it’s still a small company. That’s what I love about it.” And he knows his methodical approach will pay off.
“We’re going to build leverage within our company, within our products, within our brand to make people say yes. They can’t say no, they’re going to say yes. And it’s not going to be in a deceptive way. We’re always going to come with respect and integrity in any environment with any relationship. Because relationships, that’s the only thing that matters,” Lewis said. His business plan, he said, involves “lots of layers of long term. This is all long-term stuff . . . lots of layers of very long term, strategic positioning and relationship building.”
His partnership, through the True Disruption brand, is the keystone to it all.
Sometimes you have to see the bigger picture. The bigger picture was all the inspiration Chad Head needed. Battling the flu, and filled with the congestion crud, Head miraculously was healed for 3-seconds at a time. #DragRacingNews #nhra #DragRacing – https://t.co/PZ7TYs82OI pic.twitter.com/a6CbfaEB4y
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) December 2, 2019