"This is who we are, what we do."
-John Rambo, Rambo
To the best of my knowledge, Rambo was never paid to drive a racecar. But his line best exemplifies what it takes and what it means. Our last edition of Sport covered Alex Job Racing as the team campaigns three Porsche GT3 Cup cars in the GTC class of the American Le Mans Series. AJR's cars don't race themselves, and mixed in with the up-and-coming drivers, a quality team always employs professionals. The following two pros have the experience, the temperament, and most importantly, the hardware and accolades that inspire.
Butch Leitzinger: Strength in numbers
How many people can claim to live on a working farm in Pennsylvania built in the mid-1800s, attend Penn State before deciding on a full-time career as a racing driver, and along the way take the time to win the Daytona 24 overall three times? Butch Leitzinger has an impressive resumé, and more importantly, he has built it up over time as a professional. Not an easy task as those who have tried will attest, and that makes what he has to say worth paying attention to.
ec: You are that rare breed, an American who has successfully made a living driving mostly sports cars.
BL: It's not the easiest way to make a living, or the most straightforward. For whatever reason, sports car racing seems to be the most volatile form of auto racing. So many teams come in with huge expectations, only to disappear before the middle of the season. Add to that the instability with the sanctioning bodies in the '90s, where you didn't know year to year if there would even be a series. It makes it very difficult for a driver to settle in with a team. I was very fortunate to land with Dyson, which is by far the most stable and enduring team in sports car racing. There was still always the pressure to perform, but I didn't have to worry whether the team would be shutting its doors before the next race, or if the checks would clear. That can distract you from your primary job at the racetrack and hamper your performance. If sports car racing was able to do a better job of cultivating privateer teams and form a stronger core entry that fans could expect year to year, it would do wonders for attendance and provide for a better job market for drivers.
ec: Most drivers tend to look for a comfort zone and hone their skills to the particular class; you have been all over the scale, GT and prototype, and had success with all, even NASCAR. What's the mindset of being able to adapt from one car and one class to another?
BL: Growing up, I was such a huge fan of drivers like Mario, Dan Gurney, AJ, who would drive anything. You look at what someone like Mario was doing in the '60s, where he would be racing in the dirt at Terre Haute, then jump on a plane and race F1 at Monza. They were so versatile, and were able to adapt to anything that came their way. I think much of their success was due to drawing upon such a wide range of reference. If Mario was driving the Lotus, and the handling went away, he could throw it around like a dirt sprint car, because he had that experience. Whereas someone with a narrower frame of experience might just park the car and say it's undrivable. I very rarely turned down a ride, partly because I just love driving, but also because I really believe that you learn more with each new challenge. It can be frustrating learning a new car. My first few laps in the Porsche GT3 this year were like that. The first time that I drove it, at Sebring, I went into Turn One, and my first thought was, "I've made a terrible mistake taking this drive." I just could not get the car to do what I wanted. I'd never driven a car with the engine behind the rear axle, and it wasn't responding to my usual inputs, at least not in a good way. But in times like that you just have to not panic, and try to figure out by trial and error what the car is asking for. I was also lucky to have Alex Job's team help me get up to speed, which was invaluable.
ec: We spoke after the race at Long Beach (where you happened to win your class... again) and I asked about the fortunes of a professional race driver. In stick-and-ball sports, a trip to the minors is always a possibility. Racing is different. You went from a leading prototype team to a top team in the GTC class. Alex Job has the credentials, but a GT3 isn't a prototype. As a professional, how do you assess this? Or is it simply getting down to the task at hand regardless of the mount?
Bentley at Le Mans, 2001. Butch Leitzinger stands at far right next to the Number 8 car.
BL: I found out quite late that Dyson would not be doing a second prototype when some of their funding didn't come through. I had to do some thinking about what direction to take. Part of me said I needed to stick with prototypes no matter what. That if I fell out of prototypes, it would be very difficult to get back in. But another part was saying that I needed to be with a quality team, regardless of the category of car. That it was more important to be in a position to win races. The more I thought about it, I realized I could live with myself if I never drove a prototype again, but if I never won another race I'd be miserable. So when the opportunity came along with Juan Gonzalez and Alex Job Racing, I was comfortable signing on.
ec: Sebring made for great television with the speed differential of the four classes, although it was evident that the new GT3 Cup car has plenty of power and the Oreca LMPC prototypes had problems getting by you on the straights. As a former prototype driver, it has to be somewhat unnerving checking your mirrors yet not being passed-and then here comes an Aston Martin or Peugeot, different visuals altogether.
BL: I think all of us were frustrated with the relative speeds of the different classes. The LMPCs, GTs, and GTCs were just too similar in speed, and we tripped over each other throughout the race. The LMPCs were a particular problem, as they had some drivers who had very little experience with traffic, and they were making some very brave (to put it nicely) moves. I would see this happening in my mirror and have to take evasive action. The LMP cars were not really a problem, because they were so much faster that it was pretty apparent where they would pass and who had the corner. I think enough of us complained that there will be some adjustments to the different classes.
ec: Right out of the box you've been quick in the GT3, quick enough to have a pair of first-in-class wins for the season's start. Great teamwork and strategy are all part of it, but you still came in with limited experience in a Porsche. Again, does this go back to your varied background and why you can adjust so quickly?
BL: If I would have only had experience with formula cars or prototypes and then tried to jump in the Porsche, I think I would have hung up my helmet. I've definitely had to draw from my experiences in all manner of cars, from the Nissan GTU cars I drove in the early '90s, to Trans-Am and NASCAR. When you drive a prototype, the car corners very flat. The Porsche, however, rolls over like a sailboat. I'm sure that the engineers in Weissach won't appreciate my saying that [laughs]. But it takes a completely different driving style to hustle a Lola around Sebring than a GT3.
ec: I was at Le Mans when you were on the podium after finishing third in the Bentley. For many in the crowd (and around the world) that result was THE race. Even moreso as you were in a Bottle Green car wearing number 8. Bentley got the overall victory a few years later, but it's the number 8 from 2001 that has been used in almost all the advertising and promotions for Crewe. It's been nine years; how do you look back at that adventure today?
BL: The Bentley was really something special. It's not often that you can feel the crowd pushing you on. There were so many Brits who came over for Bentley's return to Le Mans, and there was a sea of green Bentley flags around the circuit. When we were on the podium, I was almost embarrassed with how much the crowd was cheering for us. It was a great team to drive for. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it was not just an Audi with a roof, but a bespoke design, penned by an Englishman, built in England, crewed by Brits. It wasn't done on an enormous budget, and we were going up against the might of Audi, so there was a kind of classic British underdog aura about the team. I'm very proud that I was one of the Bentley Boys.
Luis Diaz: A time of transition - prototype to GT
Today's pro drivers have learned not to take anything for granted. Unlike other sports, a winning season in motorsport does not carry the promise of continuation. The good ones have learned to adapt and adjust. Luis Diaz is such a driver, one who set records last season with Adrian Fernandez and the Lowe's Acura team with the Acura ARX-01b LMP in the ALMS. An extremely talented prototype driver, Diaz has found the change to GT this season somewhat of a challenge.
ec: You ended last season with one of the great drives in the history of Laguna Seca, and to many, it established you firmly as a top-tier prototype driver. This season you have returned to the ALMS aboard a Porsche GT3, and this has been somewhat of a surprise. How did that come about?
LD: I think it was destiny [laughs]. I worked very hard during the off-season, spent months searching for an opportunity, and to be honest, I thought that I was not going to be racing this year. Two weeks before Sebring I received a call from Juan Gonzalez to see if I wanted to be part if his project along with his nephew, Ricardo, who was a good friend of mine from the go-kart days. That's how I'm here racing today.
ec: Based on your competition history, it's been open-wheel such as Formula Atlantic, Formula 3, Indy Lights, and Champ Car, or in prototypes. A GT3 is about as agricultural as a racecar can be. I assume this is a whole new learning curve for you, so what are the obvious differences in making the transition?
LD: Definitely, and I'm still learning. The first thing is I have to brake with my right foot now because with the Porsche you must use the clutch for downshifting, so that was a big change. There are also many subtle differences like having a much bigger steering wheel. With the handling and braking, it is really like learning to drive a racecar again.
ec: Of the transition of a prototype to a GT car, JJ Lehto was once asked how it felt to go "from going through traffic to becoming traffic." I'd ask you the same question.
LD: Well, I personally don't like it because racing is all about going fast, passing people and not being passed. That's why my wife is driving me around all the time at home, so I can get used to all the cars passing me. [Laughter-we shut off tape and take five to recover.]
ec: Take us through a lap of Long Beach and highlight how you took it with your Acura LMP2 prototype versus a rear-engine GT car. On a street circuit, are there so many critical areas?
LD: Big differences under braking, and you have to be even more patient with the throttle under acceleration because exit understeer is a characteristic of this car. Always watching the mirrors for faster cars since the track is not that long, and staying focused on my own position and competitors.
ec: Your talent has brought you to a number of good teams, such as with Chip Ganassi, over your career. You set records with Adrian Fernandez and the Lowe's team. Now you're with Alex Job Racing, also a top team with a history of results. Having this support has to make the transition to GT easier.
LD: Alex is great to work with. I respect him a lot and I'm trying to learn as much as I can from him. I'm also very fortunate to be part of this team and to share the car with another great driver like Ricardo Gonzalez, who I've known for years. That helps with the transition, yes.
ec: When you signed with Fernandez to drive the Acura in LMP2, the launch was held in Los Angeles on Olvera Street. It was a clever move to bring more fans into the sport for the team and sponsors. Can you make this work with a Porsche and your main sponsor for additional coverage in your home market?
LD: I would love to do that, but it's more up to them. I'm not sure yet if they are interested in the Latino market or not, but I will be happy to help. The team was part of a street display at Long Beach that went well. About my sponsors IDN, they are new in the sport so we are trying to make them as happy as we can in hopes that they can become bigger in the future.
ec: What do you see Luis Diaz doing in ten years' time-team owner and driver? You were with one of the best with Fernandez as far as the learning curve goes.
LD: Yes, racing with Scott Pruett and then Adrian in the past, and look how competitive they still are. I'd love to keep racing after 40, but this sport is very cruel and I know how fortunate I am to be racing this year, so I'll go year by year. Then we will see.