Sports car ace Johnny O’Connell takes over the reigns as the latest Online Driving Instructor. The 2012 Pirelli World Challenge Series Champion and Sebring Hall of Fame inductee will be answering questions from a full mailbag every day this week! Thanks for all the great posts!
2012 Pirelli World Challenge Series Champion
A four-time class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and this year’s Pirelli World Challenge series champion in a factory-backed Cadillac CTS-V, Johnny O’Connell began his career in karting and earned multiple titles in open-wheel racing – including Formula Russell (1984 and ’85) and Formula Atlantic (’87) – before settling into a career in the sports car ranks. O’Connell was named IMSA Driver of the Year in his first full season with the Nissan factory team in ’93 and went on to win the GTS class at Le Mans on his debut in ’94. After a season of IndyCar racing in ’96, O’Connell switched to the Panoz sports car team, then joined Corvette Racing in 2001. He earned an overall victory at the 24 Hours of Daytona that year and added three more Le Mans victories and three American Le Mans Series titles to his resume. He also works currently as an analyst for ESPN2’s TV coverage of the American Le Mans Series, and is Vice President of the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving.
Johnny O’Connell answers your questions!
When you started out in the sport – even though it wasn’t that long ago 🙂 – there wasn’t much emphasis on driver fitness or nutrition programs, for example. When did those elements appear on your radar screen and how important are they in racing these days?
Fitness has always been important, and I’ve been training pretty much my entire career. I was probably in my best shape when I was doing martial arts full time, but that also led to injuries. That said, I know that with Corvette we began taking a much closer look at driver conditioning around 2004 when we all worked with a personal trainer to get us all on the same page nutrition and exercise. These days virtually everyone that I know is training as it does make a difference toward the end of a stint or race.
Do you think all the “driver aids” that have become so prevalent in the sport these days have diminished the role of the driver?
Big time. I would love to go back to H-pattern shifting, no traction control and no ABS. With all of the technology these days it allows those with less talent to get much closer to the guys with talent. Shifting mistakes are a thing of the past. Braking skill is not as important for those with ABS, and the ability to manage tires also is made much easier. The driver is still an integral part, but I know a lot of engineers would be happy if they could replace us with a laptop!
After having so much success in the sports car ranks driving for factory teams, what kind of advice would you give a driver looking to align himself with a manufacturer?
Win. And once you are winning, make sure to meet all of the principals of every race team. Get your resume to them, and don’t be afraid of calling them and letting them know you would kill to drive for them!
What is the best piece of advice you ever received in your racing career?
I was working as a mechanic at Jim Russell in 1985, when an instructor named James Besmer told me that as long as I didn’t quit, I would achieve some sort of success. Granted, that might have meant winning an SCCA National to me back then, but the one thing that stands out when I look back is that I never thought of giving up.
As a driver with multiple class wins at Le Mans, what do you feel is the most important thing a driver needs to know, train for, or be aware of before their first trip to Le Mans?
Patience. These days you can use simulators to learn the course, but that place can bite you really quick if you get caught up in looking at lap times. And that happens a lot. I felt at home there very quickly when I was there the first time with Nissan, and after four or five laps just loved the place. The biggest thing probably is just being smart and not taking too many chances before you are comfortable with your car.
Johnny, given all of your achievements, what would you consider to be your most prestigious accomplishment in motor sports?
Certainly of everything I have done so far, my time with Corvette would probably be where I achieved the most – the championships, wins at Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans. But if I had to point to one thing it would be the success I had at Sebring, and this past year being inducted into their Hall of Fame while still an active driver. Pretty cool to say the least!
Johnny, thanks for taking the time to answer questions. There are a few scholarship opportunities available in the sport these days. How should I go about getting myself nominated for these programs?
Boy, that’s a tough one, Harlan. I would say that being in front of people is always important, and try to rise above everyone else trying to get the scholarships. The good news is that there are quite a few opportunities out there these days, especially with the Mazda Road to Indy program. The important thing is to just do the best job you can – and keep on winning!
How many speeding tickets have you gotten in your life?
You know, most drivers I know actually rarely get speeding tickets. One of the benefits to racing is that you can get your need for speed out on the track. The tickets I have gotten are generally only about 10 MPH over the speed limit. Most racers realize the street is far more dangerous than the track and drive accordingly.
As your career developed, how important was it that you had a background in open-wheel racing before switching to sports cars? My goal is to win Le Mans and a lot of people tell me that I should start out in formula cars, then switch to sports cars later. What is your take on that?
Good question. If you think that you are going to have a career in prototypes then I would say yes, you need that formula car experience. Learning about downforce and the rear-engine platform would help you immensely. But if not, then the most important thing is track time. Most guys learn the most in go karting, and then carry those skills and racecraft from there, usually attending Bondurant or another school to learn the techniques used in cars.
In formula car racing, your only focus when working with your engineer is to make the car faster, or easier for you to drive quickly, whereas in sports cars you need to have a car that works well for two and sometimes three drivers. Did you find it difficult to make that adjustment in perspective when you made the move away from open-wheel cars?
Personally, I’ve always been able to adapt to cars pretty quickly, no matter how they handle. So, many times sacrificing set up was never an issue. I do recall one year at Le Mans when I loved the car but our third driver was uncomfortable with it leaning towards oversteer. I was upset about this, but the engineers changed the car to make him comfortable. It was a bad move in hindsight as about four laps into a stint you would lose front grip in the middle of corners and it cost us tons of time. In my mind the third guy just needs to drive whatever the regular drivers say is right and go with it. More towards your question, the answer is no. I always thought it was my job to just take whatever I was given and try to go faster or as fast as the other drivers in it. One thing I have always been particular about though is getting as comfortable with my driving position as possible. Sometimes those sacrifices are difficult to find.
Johnny, since the move to Le Mans and endurance racing, have you ever gotten the urge to go back to sprint racing?
Well, that is what I’m currently doing with Cadillac in World Challenge. I certainly miss Le Mans and Sebring but there is a lot of satisfaction in having a car all to yourself. And standing starts like we do there are one of the coolest things in motorsport.
With regards to the actual technique of driving, what do you think are the most important qualities needed for a young racing driver to become successful?
Smoothness. This means slow steering inputs. Smooth use of the pedals. For a young guy, determination and a hatred of losing. And I would add a never-quit attitude.
When it comes to strategy in sports car races, who makes most of the decisions – the driver or the team?
Drivers rarely make any calls these days. Most are made by the engineers who have a better idea from watching the monitors and seeing the strategy of other teams. A driver will give opinions on tires, set up, etc, but when it’s time to pit, the final decision is up to the engineer.
Jack Mitchell Jr
How did you prepare yourself for racing at Le Mans both mentally and physically?
Great question. Mentally, I always just thought of the race as being a 24-hour test session. The keys are to relax and just try and be super-consistent with lap times, and knowing that getting in a serious battle with another guy early in the race is usually not going to determine who is the winner. Patience and being smart and mechanically sympathetic are hugely important. Physically, you’ve been training for that race for months, so you ARE in shape, and just need to be smart about getting your rest when you can during the event.
I seem to have some difficulty in maintaining my level of concentration during a race. A lot of young drivers have driver coaches to help them but I don’t think I can afford that at this stage in my career (I’ve only been racing in cars for about a year). I know, right now, my races are still quite short – nothing like what you have to do at Le Mans, for example – so what can I do to overcome this problem?
Make each lap a challenge. Hopefully you have a way to get your lap time each time you cross start/finish. If so, race to your dash, and focus on always pushing. You are actually in a good place as you know what your problem is – most don’t. One thing I always did when I was younger was look for the fast guy, and in every session try to make sure he was in front of me. That way he would not only show me all of his lines and braking points, but also give me something to try and catch. But you have to find something that forces you to push every lap.
What is the most common mistake that you see people making when they come through the Bondurant school, and how do you teach your pupils to make the appropriate correction?
First off is vision. Most people don’t have any idea where to look, and once they have a helmet on never turn their head. God gave us a neck so that we can turn our head and see an apex, so we focus on that a lot. Also drivers tend to over-brake. So we teach them at the limits of the car, when we are actually steering a lot more with the pedals than the wheel by getting grip on that part of the car where it’s needed. At Bondurant there’s a three-to-one student/instructor ratio, so fixing problems is usually quite easy. It’s one of the reasons the school has been around for 44 years.
First of all, congrats on the World Challenge title! I can only imagine how difficult it must be to stand out and reign in the title in such a big field. Talk about consistency! Anyways, the question I have for you is how difficult did you find it to make the switch from formula car racing to sports car racing? Clearly you switched successfully. However I can only imagine how challenging it must be to be so accustomed to a light-weight, darty formula car – or full ground effects in the case of the Atlantic – and suddenly hop in a much heavier sports car.
Well, the first sports car I drove was the Nissan 300ZX which was pretty incredible!!! Talk about power, it would wheelspin in fourth gear! I loved that car. Initially it was a bit difficult getting used to the weight and mass, but for me I learned pretty quick to change my footwork and modulate brake pressure more on corner entry. (Actually, it helped a lot that I was working as an instructor at Bondurant at the time.) In formula cars, the pedals are more like on-off switches. In heavier cars, you need to use them more like dimmer switches, and learn to wait a little more for your car to take a set. And thanks for the congratulations. I had told my friends that if I didn’t win the championship this season to hunt me down and kill me. Everyone at Cadillac had done a great job improving our car over the winter, and I knew if I was smart – win when I could and get points when I couldn’t – good things would happen.
I understand that racing is full of a lot of ups and downs. Whenever you think you reached a low point in your racing career, how did you handle it, and what kept you motivated?
Like any job you have ups and downs – good seasons and not so good. For a team that is struggling it is always an easy fix to blame the driver and just change the helmet, so to speak. For me, well, in down times I just worked hard at getting another ride and proving myself. Early in my career I wound up driving a lot of really bad racecars, but I had the mindset that if I can’t win, be spectacular – make people notice when you are driving hard. Today, I get motivated just by wanting to keep on winning races and championships. I’m a long way from quitting!
What is the best advice you can give someone wanting to move up in racing who has a lot of talent but hardly any funding?
Try to get a job as an instructor at a racing school like Bondurant. I have known so many guys that have made it that way by meeting and becoming friends with someone who is financially able to get a career going. And just don’t give up. But the important thing early is to get track time and laps – experience – and being an instructor can help you achieve that.
Jack Mitchell Jr
Mr. O’Connell, What was the biggest change that you had to make to your driving technique when you transitioned from open-wheel cars to heavier sports cars? Thanks for your time!
Jack, the biggest issue was just getting used to the weight and the slower response time of GT cars. In Formula cars the input you give leads to an immediate response, whereas in GT cars the input you make takes a little longer for the response so you need to plan ahead a little more. That said, a prototype is very similar to an open wheel car. One other thing that affects the technique is for most GT cars they are front-engined, which means you tend to do more trail braking.
How did you make the transition from karts to cars and when is the best time to make that move?
I did the Jim Russell school in 1984, and they had a program called the Graduate Runoffs, the winner of which got a free season racing with them. I sold a stereo I owned to do it, and wound up winning. If not for that, wow, it probably never would have happened. The best time to move up really depends on if you are winning. Winning in karts means that with work you will most likely win in cars, and these days, the younger the better.
I understand you spend quite a lot of time working at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving. What traits do you look for when you watch young drivers attending the school for the first time?
Some guys you see just have a natural feel – a softness and smoothness with the controls. Natural talent is pretty easy to spot. Things will just click and make sense for a guy. But I’ve also witnessed other guys that didn’t get it right away, but wanted it bad enough and spent the time figuring things out.
Dear Mr. O’Connell, first of all let me say that I am a big fan. It is so impressive how you have raced and won in just about everything. I am currently racing in the IMSA Prototype Lites series. What advice would you give to me about the steps to take to increase my chance to get a factory ride? I hope to meet you someday!! Thank you.
Tristan, I know who you are! You might not realize it but people in racing do pay attention to the other classes, and people are aware of the great job you are doing. Continue to win. Don’t move up a class until you are dominating a class like you are now. Also, and this is the hard part for a kid, learn who the key guys are at the factories and go introduce yourself to them. Ask for a card, and give them one with your resume, then make sure you stay in contact with them now and then.