By Mike Garrison
Welcome to LiveRC's weekly column, "Talk-It-Up Tuesday!" Here we spend a little time talking with industry icons including racers, manufacturers, team managers, developers, promoters, and everyone in between! Sit back, relax, and go behind the scenes as we interview them all!
For this week's Talk It Up Tuesday, we sit down with JConcepts media man Thomas Tran to discuss his early days in R/C, his photography, race coverage, the industry, and more!
LiveRC: Welcome Thomas to this week’s edition of Talk It Up Tuesday! Let’s start at the very beginning. When, where, who, how, and why did you get started in R/C car racing to begin with?
Thomas: Hey Mike! Thanks man, always a pleasure to catch up with you. Ah the basic introduction! So, I’ve been in love with RC cars since I was probably 8 or 9 years old and this love all started when I saw the Tyco Turbo Hopper on TV for the first time. My dad got it for me for my birthday one year and the rest is history. Later, I saved up for 2 years to buy a used AE Team Car and raced from ages 14-18. Then all of a sudden, I took quite a long break and went to college and shortly after moved to Japan and taught English at Junior High and Elementary schools. I returned to RC racing in 2009, when a track opened up just 5 minutes from my house and next thing you know, I was there almost every day!
LiveRC: We first “met” through your own independent coverage of races and blog/news site 2wdMod.com. When, why, and what made you decide to start 2wdMod.com?
Thomas: Yeah that was the start of it all. My personal goal with 2wdMod.com was to use more of my free time and create something I felt was missing in the industry at the time. I knew the Northwest had some fast guys, but we weren’t getting any notice and there was no media coverage in my area. While having a full-time job, I decided to create 2wdMod.com to expose the northwest tracks, drivers, experience, etc. This gave me a way to practice my RC photography and writing skills and create something I felt was new and cool. So, for 2 years, I attended all of the NW races, collected no money for the website, had no help, and did it out of 100% pure love. My end goal wasn’t to become an RC news site though, but to create a more professional, capable version of me. It’s funny, people still ask me about 2wdMod.com and it surprises me that there are people out there that still remember it.
LiveRC: Your incredible photography and race coverage abilities were quickly noticed throughout the industry, and over the years you have freelanced for a number of media companies, race promoters, and others. Who are a few of the various people/companies you’ve worked with?
Thomas: Thanks for the kind words Mike. Through my race coverage with 2wdMod.com, I been fortunate enough to get noticed for my work and the first person to give me a chance was Jason Ruona of JConcepts. I remember reaching out to him out of the blue and asked him about race coverage, media coverage, and the possibilities of having a race team photographer travel with the team. Surprisingly enough, had a keen interest. I sent him over some material to look at like my website, race reports, photos, and about a month later he asked if I was interested in covering the JConcepts INS Finals race at Hobbyplex. It was unreal. I thought it was all a dream. This was the opportunity I was searching for, for almost 2 years.
Since I was still freelance at the time, I was able to later connect with Scotty Ernst and that opened up, basically, the entire world and traveled to international events and got to know the international race community. Also, along my journey in the industry, I was able to work the two big media duo for a few gigs, Brandon from LiveRC and the RedRC crew. Both have been great experiences and I believe has added to my professionalism as a media guy and as an industry individual. I still talk to Eoghain and Oisin from RedRC to this day and still great friends.
LiveRC: You have now settled in at home full-time with JConcepts. When, where, and how did the opportunity to move to Florida and begin a career with JConcepts come about?
Thomas: When it was time, the decision was really hard for me to make because I was giving up a lot to take my current job with JConcepts. I was giving up the opportunity to work with Scotty, have a flexible freelance schedule, move away from friends, family, and home. But deep inside, I knew I had more to give and I wanted to see how deep this rabbit hole goes so I accepted the position and made a big career move. It took almost 6 months for Jason and I to decide on a time that was right for him and right for me. That made the switch even easier. Once I got to Florida, it was butter and the transition was smooth.
LiveRC: Obviously you are most well known for your great photography and race coverage for JConcepts, but what are some of your daily roles at the company when you aren’t travelling to and from races?
Thomas: This is probably the biggest misconception I have with my job. People see me at the big races and think I’m super lucky because I get to go to so many races and trust me, I’m the first person to acknowledge that I’m very fortunate. But it’s not luck that brought me to this point and I’m there to do a job. Most people see me doing the JC media coverage, but behind the scene I’m also balancing my time with race team support. The last race I did at CRCRC, I clocked in over 70 hours for just that one event and then I head back to the office to do my desk job.
A lot of my “desk job” is writing almost all the race reports for JConcepts after the race events. I create a lot of our promotional graphics for our products as well as graphic promos for our upcoming races using photos I’ve taken on my journey. I also work on our JConcepts Events Media Packet that introduces and explains all the different JConcepts events we have throughout the year. I love promoting our team and try to find the time to create something for them weekly with either the Weekly Race Results, How it All Started, and now the 2020 Racing Goals. This year I’ve actively recruited a lot of drivers that I was impressed with and took part in the 2019 Team Driver Applications process. I also create posts and manage a lot of our social media posts for Facebook and Instagram, which is a never-ending task. Oh and probably last thing is being on call 24/7 for random questions about JC products via Messenger.
LiveRC: I truly believe that having a quality photographer at a race adds a tremendous amount of quality to an event. Racers love being able to look back and see photos of themselves, their cars, their friends, and so on. Photographing R/C cars is NOT easy, what are some of the biggest struggles in trying to capture good photos?
Thomas: I think it adds a lot of credibility to the race when there’s professional media presence onsite at the events. The interviews, the cameramen, the commentary, all adds to making the event have that professional feel. Yes, RC photography isn’t easy and very difficult to do successfully. Indoors, it’s a very difficult thing because you never have enough light. Outdoors is much easier, but sometimes you have too much light. I think my pet peeve when shooting RC photos is having artificial light that flicker close to your shutter speed producing some crazy looking photos.
LiveRC: Every once in awhile you still get the opportunity to pick up a radio and judging by your recent win at the Super Cup it appears you still know how to wheel quite well! What are some of your biggest accomplishments as a racer?
Thomas: Yeah, it seems I get to race less and less each year, but that’s okay. I’ve always have tried to balance my racing with my work. If feel if I never race, I will start to lose touch with what’s happening in racing. If I race too much while working, my competitive side starts to take over and I don’t want to let my work suffer. These days, I am loving carpet racing because it’s easy to glue up and go race. Since there’s grip, it’s easy to learn track layouts and I don’t have to put so much time and energy into getting my tires right.
Of course, my best accomplishments in racing came before I started doing media coverage. I placed 6th at the 2011 ROAR 17.5 2wd and through the years I’ve earned the ROAR Region 11 Mod Truck Champ, ECT 13.5 2wd and 13.5 Truck Champion, Cottage Grove Invert 4wd Mod Champion, JConcepts INS Series Mod Truck Champion, 13.5 JConcepts INS 4wd Series Champion, are probably some of the, “not so hurting”, highlights.
LiveRC: With JConcepts you have been involved in some way with nearly every genre of R/C car racing possible. What is your favorite and why?
Thomas: I think it’s absolutely amazing that JConcepts is involved in so many different genre’s of RC. For me, it keeps it fresh and keeps me learning about new markets, products, and what’s trending in the industry. I think Jason has a lot of drive and motivation to do other things and not just focus on race products. It’s a positive thing for the industry.
Of course I’m biased as a racer so I love all things racing, but I’m really diggin’ the No Prep Drag stuff because they look so cool and I love the fact that it’s a true “hobby” and you build and create your own cars for the most part.
LiveRC: Which genre of R/C do you feel is growing the most right now, and why?
Thomas: I think the hot thing for a while now in RC realism and scale. I feel like Traxxas, AE, Vanquish, Axial, RC4WD, have pushed hard to create awesome products that focus on non-racers and it’s big as you can see.
LiveRC: What is the best AND worst part of working in the R/C car industry?
Thomas: The best thing for me about working in the industry is that I never really feel like I’m at “work.” Since I’ve loved RC cars and racing for so long and at such a young age that this feels like a hobby, still. The worse side is some of the politics that play out behind the scenes.
LiveRC: If you could change one thing about R/C car racing, what would it be and why?
Thomas: It’s not really a change directly about R/C, but more about remembering to have fun. I feel that we’re neck deep in racing and people forget about having fun at the track. I know there’s a lot of time and money invested so to justify all that, people are looking for a specific result. But if people focused on the pure simplicity of enjoyment and fun at the track, I think more people would have a better time. It’s either this, or NO sauce allowed at the track!
LiveRC: When you aren’t living the R/C life, what are some of your hobbies and interests that you enjoy?
Thomas: A lot of people don’t know this, but I really enjoy riding my bike and this also sprung on me from an early age. I have a commuter bike for work and a weekend bike that’s basically my dream bike. Both bikes I built up from buying used parts and gathered over a period of time. Once I have all the pieces, I get to build it up and much like an RC car and I get to ride and maintain it. It’s a lot of fun.
Most people ask if I race my bikes and I always say, “No, I have too much racing in my life already.” Cycling gives me peace of mind. I find a lot of clarity on my rides because I get to ponder life, think deeply about certain issues, and try and find answers to questions that are on my mind.
LiveRC: What is one thing most people don’t know about Thomas Tran (besides the fact you are over 40 years old, which I would have NEVER guessed if there wasn’t photo evidence from the Super Cup 40+ podium)?
Thomas: Ha, yah when I was 18, people thought I was 12 so looking young sucked for me back then. But, as I’ve gotten older, it’s been quite the blessing. One of the more interesting things I think most people don’t know about me is that I’ve lived in Japan for 5 years and taught English at Japanese elementary and junior high schools. It was a blast and really opened my eyes to culture, food, differences and similarities. When I lived there, I was heavy, heavy into snowboarding and surfing and made the most of my experience in Japan.
LiveRC: Thank you so much for joining us today Thomas! We hope to see at the track very soon, and in the meantime keep up the great work! Is there anything you would like to add before we let you go?
Thomas: I would like to thank you of course, for having me on as a guest. It’s always to good to reconnect with you and see what you’re up to. I’m surprised we don’t have a “Talk it up Tuesday with Mike Garrison,” haha. I think there are many unsung heroes in the industry and I can’t thank them enough for doing great things behind the scenes.
I’d like to thank Jason Ruona and everyone at JConcepts for giving me a chance and also to Scotty Ernst for guiding me in this entire ordeal of traveling and media coverage.