LAJES FIELD, Azores -- When Staff Sgt. Joshua VanHorn arrived at Lajes Field here two years ago, with a car that was the only one of its kind on the island, he quickly gained the attention of car enthusiasts both on and off base.
"It's the fastest car on the island," he said of his current turbo-powered white Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X. "It has an all-wheel drive turbo, and it's built to drive on a track. That got me a lot of attention and a lot of friends."
VanHorn, a 65th Medical Operations Squadron medical technician, loves cars -- anything from a Toyota Prius to Lamborghinis. He also loves upgrading and personalizing his own cars.
"I love fabricating parts on cars; I love making it my own," he said. "Ever since I got my first car in high school, I realized having the same car as everyone else was kind of boring to me ... If you're a car guy, then your car represents your personality."
Now VanHorn is living his dream. He races cars in the Azores while building friendships and host nation relations within the Portuguese community. His Portuguese landlord, who is a professional driver, connected him with a few new friends, who then introduced him to some of the island's racing events.
"I joined the Air Force to travel, to see the world, so this has just been a great opportunity for me," he said.
Although he'd always loved racing, VanHorn's first opportunity to race didn't come until after being stationed in the Azores. He first participated in rally cross and autocross racing here in 2012.
"Rally cross is wheel-to-wheel racing; I have to focus on driving with all the other cars around me," he said. "Autocross is a timed competition on a planned course. Only one car goes at a time, and it allows me to just really focus on my driving."
At first, VanHorn was the only American visiting the Olavo Esteves Competitions track in Praia da Vitoria. However, he was very much welcomed by the Portuguese.
"They embraced me," VanHorn said. "They love seeing Americans here. The more I come to these events, the more other Americans come, and they're usually people I've invited. I love spreading the word about the track because it's so close to base, yet no one really knows about it."
As for his rally car, VanHorn recently purchased a small European vehicle from a Portuguese friend and continues to customize and upgrade it for races. The car is equipped with complete safety measures, such as a full roll cage, bucket seats with racing harnessing seatbelts, and a fire extinguishing setup. When racing, VanHorn wears a full fire retardant suit, gloves and a helmet for personal protection.
On the outside, his electric blue two-door Nissan Micra displays several logos of local sponsors as well as an American flag with his last name on the rear driver's-side window.
"As the only American out here representing the U.S., I have the American flag on the side of my car," he said. "That kind of makes me a target during competitions -- a friendly one. When we're on the track, it's aggressive and competitive; but off the track, these guys will do anything they can to help me compete. It's all just for the fun of the sport."
VanHorn, who knows enough Portuguese to get around, usually enlists the help of his friends in translating.
"It's fun to just hang out, show off your car, talk about cars -- new cars, old cars -- cruise around together and just show off your personality," he said. "It's all about the love of cars, no matter what language you speak or where you're from. I have an amazing Portuguese rally mechanic that I trust with both my everyday car and my race car. He translated to me, 'I don't know what you're saying, but I know cars.'"
VanHorn considers himself an adrenaline junkie and said he feels great adding race car driver to his résumé, which includes being scuba diver certified, holding a personal trainer certification, and being a registered emergency medical technician for the Air Force.
"When I first started out at Lajes, I worked in ambulance services," he said. "When the phone rings, I'm excited; I get pumped. I'm not afraid of emergency; I'm confident in my job; and I've literally had people's lives in my hands before. It's almost the same with racing -- it's just an adrenaline kick. You get in there, and you're surrounded by other drivers. The light turns green, everybody goes at once, and the dirt starts flying."
Some of VanHorn's coworkers said they enjoy attending the races because it allows them the opportunity to interact with local nationals who are also interested in the same things.
"Sergeant VanHorn is always accepting a challenge," said coworker Senior Airman Hannah Meza, a 65th MDOS medical technician. "At work, he's a great leader, and I think it's great that he's building such great relations with the Portuguese. Sometimes (they) seem surprised to see Americans (at the track), so we try to talk to them even though they don't always understand us -- but it usually works out one way or another."
Olavo Esteves, who's owned the track for four years, said, "It's always nice to have Americans racing here because they're very respectful people and they do everything by the rules."
Esteves and VanHorn met more than a year ago. Esteves, who's been a rally driver for more than 16 years, said, "I think I've met a good friend."