Picture This: Eliott Watson's Focus is Off-Road Racing, Success in Engineering

The University of San Diego was just one of then high school student Eliott Watson’s college choices when it happened. He was participating in a Torero for a Day undergraduate admissions event when he received pictures on his cell phone. 

Eliott Watson '22

“My parents were doing their own (campus) tour, checking out the facilities,” Watson recalls. Taken inside the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering building, photos of the machine shop and the design labs were nice, but one visual captured and seemingly sealed the deal for him to ultimately choose USD.

“When they saw the Baja vehicle, they sent me pictures and that’s when I thought, ‘Okay, that’s kind of a big attraction.’ That showed me just how hands-on students could be in the engineering labs, the machine shop and with the Baja project. That definitely pulled me to USD.”

It was an actual student-built, off-road vehicle used for a capstone design project tied to the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Collegiate Design Series. Known at USD as the Mini Baja Project, senior engineering students team up to do all designing, engineering, fabricating, testing and, ultimately, competing, in their off-road vehicle. They also raise funds and have partnered in past years with USD School of Business students on marketing and fundraising strategies.

Watson is now in his third year as an electrical engineering (BS/BA) major at USD. He’s not yet eligible for the senior capstone project. He does, however, have the Baja project on his mind.

“It does interest me and I do have a lot of friends in the engineering program who know about cars. They’ve done research and they know about the (Baja) project,” he said.

So, when the time comes and the Baja project team is to be filled, one should expect Watson to express interest. Why? Because the team will have a distinct and immediate advantage.

Off-Road Racing Veteran

The now-20-year-old Watson drove his first racing vehicle at age 6. He competed regularly at age 10 and, since 14, he’s been a professional driver in the Lucas Oil Off-Road Racing Series (LOORRS) in the Pro Buggy category. Last year, he won his first Pro Buggy championship and added a world title to his growing resume. And, to top off 2019, he signed a contract to drive off-road desert vehicles for Team Honda Talon Factory Racing, including the utility terrain vehicle (UTV) in 2020.

Watson, whose full name is Thomas Eliott Watson, is the son of Tom Watson Jr., a four-time off-road desert buggy racing champion who raced until 2007 to focus on his electrical contracting company and growing family, as well as introducing Eliott to racing.

First it was Trophy Karts. A few years later came the shift to Pro Buggy. At 14, Eliott was the youngest to jump into the latter’s competitive class. “It was all adults, and me,” he said. “It was a big learning curve, but I had fun with it. I started slow in 2014, but we’ve been running hard since 2015. I have a lot more experience.”

And last year, in Chandler, Ariz., he checked the box on winning a LOORRS Pro Buggy points championship. Tied in the standings, Watson battled through a tough race to clinch the title.

“Finally, after chasing the Pro Buggy title for three years and coming up short, we got it done,” Watson said. “We have fought so hard to get this championship and to lock it up finally is something I’ve dreamed about my whole life.”

USD, Racing Come Together

While racing has been at the forefront of his life, attending USD is rewarding, albeit challenging with the time management that’s necessary. Even attending USD he’s been unable to fully escape a connection to racing. One of his best friends in racing, Christopher Polvoorde, is also a current USD student. Polvoorde has raced in the LOORRS Pro Lite (Truck) series since 2017 and has competed in racing since age 10. Polvoorde, a third-year business finance and real estate double major, and Watson are teammates on the Honda racing team.

“We’ve had our eyes on Eliott and Christopher for some time,” said Jeff Proctor, Team Principal for the Honda Talon Factory Racing in a statement announcing the drivers’ signing. “At their young ages, they already have long and successful careers in short-course racing, with multiple championships between them in many classes and they show no signs of slowing down. They’re perfect for our program and we look forward to helping them develop as racers."

Polvoorde enjoys his camaraderie with Watson. Their driving styles are different as Polvoorde and his Pro Lite colleagues tend "to beat up on each other and there's more risk taking," while Watson's Pro Buggy work goes more toward "being smooth and make no mistakes. I'm not the fastest, but I want to be consistent."

“Eliott is an outstanding race car driver who has a large future ahead of him, just look at his results and it provides plenty of proof,” Polvoorde said. “Eliott is a great example of how results are earned, not given, and this applies to both his racing and academically. He’s one of the most down-to-earth, hardest-working individuals I know.”

One fun note about them came during the Honda recruitment. It was done professionally, separately and confidentially — but also without Honda knowing the two were USD roommates their sophomore year.

“We were talking to the same company about a new team they were putting together and we both signed confidentiality agreements,” Watson said. “We were talking to them, but (Honda) didn’t know we were roommates. When they got us both to sign, they introduced us in an email. We looked at each other and both said, ‘you were talking to them and you didn’t tell me?’ It was so funny.”

Visualizing the Future

The opportunity with Honda is a rewarding sign of their talent and hard work, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, racing opportunities became limited. Things have picked up in the latter part of the year. Watson is currently atop the LOORRS Pro Buggy points standings in a shortened season and could earn back-to-back titles. The final LOORRS race weekend is Oct. 16-18 at Glen Helen Raceway in San Bernardino, Calif., (Fans aren’t allowed to attend due to COVID-19 restrictions).

Engineering-wise, though, Watson is enjoying additional benefits. In addition to his father’s electrical contract company, he’s also getting a peek at a potential career path long after his driving days are done.

“It has been awesome to work with the engineers at Honda, to see what goes into their jobs on a day-to-day basis. Being around them inspires me to get back in the classroom and get my degree,” he said.

It’s another visual image Watson can see for himself.

— Ryan T. Blystone

All photos courtesy of Eliott Watson. None of these photos can be re-used without the consent of Eliott Watson.

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