Jon Lee, head brewer at the UBC, stands with his Devastator race car. Photo: Jesse Anderson
Jon Lee is an adrenaline junkie and self-described former “snow bum” who cut his teeth boarding fast in the Wasatch Range and the Rockies. He’s a high-ranked local race car driver and brewing professional. As head brewer at the Utah Brewers Cooperative (which combines the talents of Wasatch and Squatters under one roof), Lee splits his time crafting award-winning beers and driving number 93—The Devastator—named after the popular Wasatch label brew. Over a bottle of his car’s namesake, several facts became clearer as reaction times slowed: There are more than just oval-shaped racing tracks, and Jon Lee knows his shit about beer.
Lee started brewing at home in 1997, transitioned to Squatters as a paid brewer 13 years ago, then worked his way up to his rank as second-in-command at the Utah Brewers Co-op. Lee was a key player alongside Dan Burick, brewmaster for the Co-op, in 2007 during the creation of Devastator’s recipe. The doppelbock lager was one of the first of its kind in Utah beer history: a legally brewed “high-point” or “high-gravity” beer that was double the Utah norm at eight percent alcohol by volume and one of the most successful in the Wasatch/Squatters family.
Lee found his racing outlet in 2003 when he started auto-crossing (parking lot obstacle courses) with his wife Heather in their new Subaru WRX. The racing bug bit him hard, and Lee eventually found himself racing in his newly wrapped 1996 Miata—complete with Devastator’s fiery ram motif. “I thought it would look kind of evil,” says Lee. He’s right, especially when that car is driven by a racer who ranks in the top three locally.
Lee races a stock Miata in a sprint style format. The green flag goes down, and racing continues until a checkered flag drops. It’s a “very intense type of racing—no pit stop strategy, no nothing. Something breaks? You’re done,” says Lee. The Miatas race on tracks that have left and right turns with breaking zones and acceleration zones—atypical of what you might think of standard NASCAR-style racing. Lee has raced for two national championships in The National Auto Sport Association (NASA), and has placed as high as 10th nationally (2009) and holds the distinction of being the only local beer-themed car on the tracks in Utah. He qualified in 2010 and would have placed better than 12th, but says he was thrown off a little bit by last year’s Great American Beer Fest awards.
Two hours before race time, Lee discovered his brewery had won Mid-Size Brewery of the Year. “For me, that was a national championship right there,” Lee says, yet “two hours later I was supposed to start in a televised national race and I was kind of spent. I got the green flag, and I was like ‘go guys,’ and I didn’t really fight for position. I lost that drive.” Who cares? Utah Brewers Co-op had been recognized as a top brewery. If he did have to choose, Lee says he would choose beer over racing. That’s a no-brainer.
Although his car sports the Devastator beer logo, Lee would like to remind people to not drink and drive: “There is some responsibility, we’ve talked about it. We have to have some conscience and advocate that people do need to stay safe. We recommend drinking after [racing],” says Lee. “After everything is done and calmed down, we’re gonna crack a beer and hang out.” And what better place to do that than the camping area at the Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele—which Lee says is one of the finest facilities in the United States? Although he loves his local track, he also embraces the club racing mentality and travels often. As an avid club racer, Lee goes to other tracks in packs of other racers with all their families and friends in RVs—cars in tow. It’s a real lifestyle choice, and the time spent not racing is at a pace that sounds almost idyllic and peaceful to the observer.
Seemingly peaceful—until Lee reminds you he likes to dance with death on the racetrack. “There’s nothing quite as thrilling as bumping somebody at 120 down that front straight then diving into a corner at the same time,” says Lee. “Or driving side by side in a corner at 85 mph—brushing mirrors—while you’re heavily loaded in that corner.” All that fancy race car talk means Lee will own your ass in a street race.
“Thanks, everybody, for the support, fellow racers, fellow beer drinkers—they all go hand in hand,” Lee says. “Would there be no race cars without beer?” I ask. “Without beer, there would be no people,” says Lee, laughing with a smile on his face. Yet, you can see in his eye a little bit of the angry horned beast from the Devastator art and you realize you’d never want him ramming your fender at 120 mph.