February 23, 2011
It's said that you're not famous until you've been on TV.
Simon Joseph Echavez "J.J." Racaza has won the world speed shooting championships at the Steel Challenge twice and finished in the top five at USPSA/IPSC national and world championships more times than he can remember, but it wasn't until he was on the History Channel's shooting reality show "Top Shot" that strangers started recognizing him in airports.
The young New Jersey native of Filipino descent finished in the top three in the first season of "Top Shot." By day he works as the lead firearms instructor for the New York office of the Department of Homeland Security. Not bad for someone just barely 30 years old.
Racaza started out working undercover as an agent for DHS. "It's a reactive job," he explains. "Our duties are based on generated missions, dealing with specific threats to specific areas, and we're sent out for 'just in case' type events."
Like many young men, he was introduced to shooting by his father. "My dad was a competitive shooter, I think he was almost Master class in USPSA, and I was about 9 years old when I started following him around. One day us little kids were in the background, doing our own thing, mocking our fathers while they practiced, and they turned around and said, 'Let's see what you can do.'€‰"
Racaza became a Grand Master in USPSA when he was 20 years old and is still an active competitor in the sport, but his real love is the Steel Challenge.
Shooting at fixed steel targets on standardized courses, most of which don't require movement, speed is the decisive factor at the Steel Challenge. "You're competing with the fastest of the fastest, and the difference between first and second place is .04 second almost every year. You can't make a mistake; you have to be perfect."
Before being hired by DHS he worked as a contracted instructor, and Racaza's background with firearms was a bit unusual. "Before my job I had never picked up any kind of gun other than a customized 1911," he says. "I stepped into the contracting job and was given a DA/SA automatic and was told to learn it. Within two days I was the fastest shooter among the instructors I was working with. The things that you pick up from shooting competitively help you adapt to different weapons because of the confidence you build."
Being at the range all day means he has plenty of time to practice, right? That's what Racaza thought, but the reality is something quite different. After instructing shooters on the range for six hours, he just wants to get off the range and, unfortunately for him, he lives 60 miles from the nearest range that will allow him to shoot however he wants, so his live-fire time is limited to about once a week. Most of his practice is dry-firing.
How does competitive shooting relate to the kind of skills necessary for law enforcement and personal defense? "You have to learn the distinctive difference between competitive shooting and real world tactical shooting," Racaza explains. "There are some bad habits you can develop by shooting a lot of tournaments. However, if you focus on the fundamentals--weapons handling, weapons manipulation and marksmanship--you are in a much higher echelon."
While Racaza didn't win the "Top Shot" cash prize, he doesn't regret the experience, even though he used up all of his vacation time in hopes of earning the title.
"I've been recognized twice in the airport. A couple of kids were yelling "Top Shot J.J.!" at me. One other time I was with my father and my girlfriend and we were flying into California, and the terminal manager of Jet Blue grabbed me and said 'You're J.J.?' He was a big fan, and he helped walk us through."