On Any Given Weekend – Patrick Long

In 2002, Porsche saw the many qualities they value in a professional driver in Red Bull F1 Driver Search finalist Patrick Long. Moving into the position of Porsche factory driver, Patrick Long has climbed the sports car ladder, finding success at many of the great racing venues across the globe.

Mecca of Speed: Let’s look at your career in reverse order, starting with the event this weekend. As a factory Porsche driver,  are events such as this Nationwide race considered a conflict of interest due to Porsche not being involved in the series?

Patrick Long: A great thing about being a Porsche factory driver is you do a lot of racing for Porsche, but when we have an off weekend they are pretty liberal about what we do with our time. My colleagues in Europe do a lot of rally racing in their off time and this is how the factory sees my off time. It’s important that we are not competing against the mark of Porsche.

For me personally, it’s about venturing out and trying to emulate a fraction of what my heroes like Mark Donohue, Parnellie Jones and Mario Andretti have done, which is found success in anything they have sat in. The days of a driver competing in four different kinds of cars in one week are gone, but if you can get a little variety it makes you a better driver. It’s the racer inside me that wants to drive everything from Baja to Pikes Peak.

NASCAR is so big in our country that I was desperate to give it a try. Last year as well as this year I’ll do a handful of NASCAR races, but make no mistake my focus is with Porsche. My goal this year is to capture the GT title in the ALMS. With the level of competition going up, it’s left less time to play on the weekends, but Road America and the Nationwide series is a fusion I couldn’t pass up.

Mecca of Speed: The Nationwide car is a much larger and heavier car compared to the Porsche you race in the ALMS. What changes have you made to your driving style to make this car work at Road America?

Patrick Long: The racing line is completely different and the brake zones are night and day. Knowing where the track goes and the secret spots where you can utilize the curbs or where there is more camber or surface changes are the things that pertain the most between the two cars. It’s really whole different game.

Mecca of Speed: Do you square off the corners more and use a point and shoot technique, or is it more of a momentum game?

Patrick Long: You have to turn in later, carry less speed through the middle of the corner, and get the car straight sooner. You don’t have as much aerodynamic down force and you have to deal with more weight located in a higher center of gravity.

In the last few years I’ve driven a Nationwide car, a Porsche GT3 RSR, and a Porsche RS Spyder here. All three are completely different experiences. The GT3 and Spyder are a little bit closer to each other when you compare the racing line. Running through the carousel, you run along the bottom edge until the end and let the car drift out, then bring it back down. With the Nationwide car, you have to run in the middle of the road because of the way the car handles and its size.

Mecca of Speed: How does it feel running a Nationwide car through the Kink?

Patrick Long: It’s pretty wild. Going through the Kink isn’t any more fun or less nerve racking compared to any other car I’ve raced here.

In the RS Spyder, after you were comfortable running flat out through the Kink, it was probably the easiest. On the other hand, the Nationwide car is definitely one of the most challenging. You have to anticipate where the car is going to be at the exit and not make any abrupt hand or foot movements because it’s a little easier to upset the balance of the car.

Mecca of Speed: Obviously you race to win, but with your limited experience in this car, what is the goal for this weekend?

Patrick Long: We are a small team, but one of the best in making a lot happen with limited resources. We are realistic, knowing we are up against teams like Roush, Penske and Gibbs. If we can be up front, giving them a hard time, it’s a goal accomplished. From a numeric approach, if we finish inside the top five that would be a victory. Anything in the top ten would be a successful weekend.

Mecca of Speed: Stepping back to your fulltime drive in the ALMS, you and teammate Jorg Bergmeister have won the last two races including a great battle at Laguna Seca with the Corvette and BMW teams. With the dissolving of GT1 for 2010 and all cars competing in a single GT class, how has the level of competition been raised?

Patrick Long: The new class structure has helped getting more competition into the GT class, but what I think it’s really about is the manufacturer support. Corvette’s decision to not only go into GT2 but also continue in the series is what maybe helped the GT1 class close shop. It could be the manufacturers showing where they wanted to compete that helped create the new class structure, rather then the ALMS ending GT1 and forcing everyone into GT2.

There is a long history between BMW and Porsche in GT racing. To have Corvette join the class in 2009 and Ferrari competing the last five or six years, in my opinion, are the stars aligning to create the most competitive GT class in the world.

As a team you have to fight tooth and nail. There is a balance of performance system in place so you don’t know if you are going to be a first or eighth place car every weekend. That is great for fans.

Flying Lizard qualified eighth at Laguna Seca and ran outside the top five for the first two hours. By hour five we were knocking on the door for a win. Those are the days that are the toughest, but the most rewarding for a driver. If every race can be that challenging and rewarding, I don’t see myself wanting to do anything else.

Mecca of Speed: Both Grand Am and the ALMS put on great events. You have driven a Porsche in both series. How do the GT cars differ between the two series?

Patrick Long: There are a lot of fundamentals between the GT3 RSR and GT3 Cup car, which the Grand Am series is based on. Starting with the same platform, there is a lot of geometry that applies to both series but things like aerodynamics, gearboxes, horsepower and traction control are allowed in the ALMS due to the larger budgets. Those factors make it a different battle when comparing the two series.

Weather I’m in a Nationwide, Porsche RSR or any other car, it’s all about adapting to what you have on any given weekend. You have to look at your car, the racetrack, weather conditions and other factors from the start of the weekend to the finish.  If you want to be one of the best you have to be able to jump into a car and figure things out as quickly as possible.

Running the race is a whole other thing, which applies across the board for all series. You have to be smart, knowing when to push the envelope and when to save your equipment. Everything appears to be the same between series, but from a technical side, it’s a completely different world.

The GT class in the Rolex series has a lot of cost saving measures in place that control what you can do with the cars. It’s not a case of the ALMS being better because the teams are doing a better job, it’s regulated by the series to help control cost. Cost saving measures don’t always apply one for one, but the series is working to help the teams.

Mecca of Speed: Do you work on understanding the technical side of setting up the car, or is your approach working with the engineers, giving feedback, and having them set the car up?

Patrick Long: When I’m asked that question by younger drivers, I tell them you want to mold yourself into being able to give very clear and concise feedback. Be able to break down a corner and tell an engineer what the car is doing.

If the engineer then ask you a question such as, we are thinking about adjusting either the springs or the anti-sway bar, do you have any input on which way might be better? If you have an understanding and knowledge on the dynamics of the car and how things work mechanically, you can help tip the scales in one direction.

I think a driver that sits behind the wheel and engineers the car is more of a hindrance for the crew unless they lack the human resources to have a crew chief. If that is the case, a driver will up his stock with the team if he can give them direction on car set-up.

Fortunately, I’m rarely in that position. There have been a few times I’ve traveled to South America or to a club race and the team not only asks me for input as a driver but to help them with set-up.

I’ve listened to and picked the brains of the great engineers I’ve had the opportunity to work with. I do have that knowledge when needed, but for the most part, it’s about giving clear concise feedback as a driver.

Mecca of Speed: You mentioned working with the best; you drove the Porsche RS Spyder for Penske Racing when they were in the ALMS. Can you tell us about that experience?

Patrick Long: The most memorable experience would be working with Rodger Penske first hand. He called my races and was instrumental on race strategy and pit stops. He is a very hands-on and approachable guy, which you don’t know until you work in his organization. He is a true racer.

The level of competition between the Acuras and Porsches when I raced the LMP2 class in 2008 was amazing. It was very memorable and character building at times. That year was one of the most challenging in my career. That includes when I was 16 and went to Europe to race go-karts and my first year racing British Formula Ford. Those are probably the three most challenging years of my career.

It wasn’t all roses and flash bulbs, but it goes down as a very memorable year. Ryan Briscoe was one of my teammates. He had a long past with the Toyota Formula One program and said the Spyder is as capable as a Formula One car and sometimes better in some sections of a track, depending on the configuration.

Compared to a Formula One car, the Spyder lacked horsepower due to the intake restrictors, but at Mid-Ohio, our lap times were faster then the IndyCars on the same weekend. Being able to drive a high down force, aerodynamic car with carbon fiber brakes is a career high mark. I’ve always wondered what a Formula One car is like and that may be as close as I ever get.

Mecca of Speed: When a car such as the Porsche Spyder comes back to a series like it did in 2009 and sits at the front end of the grid, that speaks for its self.

Patrick Long: When you think about that car, it was designed and tested in 2005. It’s a design that was ahead of its time. It’s still a modern and competitive chassis even with all the evolutions of the carbon monocoque and simulations now used with new cars. It races with the original tub that was designed in 2005 and that says a lot about how ahead of the times that car was.

In 2008 we were starting to feel it was a little long in the tooth because Acura had a brand new car. We had to work extra hard but had the support of Penske and Weissach. Mid-season they went back to the drawing board and brought out so many evolutions that we were able to capitalize and win the championship.

Mecca of Speed: Can you give us an insider’s view of what it was like being a driver in the Red Bull F1 Driver Search? You made it into the top six, which ultimately lead to your start with Porsche?

Patrick Long: The European experience was incredible. To be racing in Europe at 16, traveling to places like Japan, living in Italy and learning different cultures was great. There were also times when I was living in a 400 square foot apartment above a factory, listening to a drill press all night because they were running a double shift – that also made it a very trying experience.

Fast-forward six years, Red Bull comes along and says they are going to take the top 16 U.S. drivers and turn one into a Formula One driver. I thought it was the step I needed to get to Formula 3, Formula 3000, GP2 and ultimately Formula One. At the time, I didn’t have any backing that would get me farther then a mid-pack in a Formula Renault team.

In hindsight, I wasn’t what Red Bull was looking for in a driver both in and out of the car and I don’t think they were a place where I could have made a career. At the time, it was pretty heartbreaking, but as you pointed out, it turned out for the best.

A lot of people took notice of what the Austrians at Red Bull had done. They did what so many American corporations and fans said needed to be done, but no one had stepped up to make happen. They gave guys like Ryan Hunter-Reay, A.J. Allmendinger, Scott Speed and myself a platform to build a career in racing.

As devastated as I was by not being the one chosen, the next day Porsche called and said there are two guys from the program they want to interview and potentially test for their junior team and I was one of them. They asked if I would be interested in flying to Weissach. I went there, tested the car and saw how the team was a real show. As a 21-year-old kid, you are not focused on anything but the top, which at that time was Formula One, but when I got to Porsche I started to realize what a great operation they have.

I started studying up on sports car racing. They offered me a deal and said we want you if you want to be a sports car star. We don’t want you if you are looking at racing formula cars on your off weekends or using us as a springboard to Formula One. If you come to us, we want your verbal commitment and focus. They advised me to go home to California, talk with my family and anyone else I get advice from.

Every person I called from Danny Sullivan, Bobby Rahal or Kenny Brack, anyone who had found success in motorsports said you need to sign a contract with them. They are loyal and they are winners. Porsche has had every driver who is a name in the sport come through their system for either one race or a season.

A couple of guys that were a little closer to me said what else do you have if you don’t take this option. I thought maybe I could have a couple of races in IPS or a Formula 3 test. They looked at me like, kid, come to your senses.

This is my eighth year with Porsche and I’ve never looked back. There really isn’t anything I’m looking for that Porsche doesn’t offer. They have cars that can win, which is objective number one. I’m making a living traveling the world, driving a lot of cars and meeting a lot of interesting people, which is a huge asset to this job and something a really enjoy.

Mecca of Speed: The month of June means one thing in sports car racing, Le Mans. You have raced there multiple times, including two GT class wins. What comes to mind when you think of Le Mans?

Patrick Long: It’s our flagship event, our Indy 500 or Super Bowl. It’s the oldest race in the world if I’m not mistaken. My first objective was to win the race, which I did fairly quickly. Now it’s about trying to win the race and driving for new teams, but also enjoying the experience.

It’s like the Indy 500 because it’s so prestigious and fast when you are behind the wheel. Every driver wants to be there every year.  That is what I see in a lot of my peers when they try to get into the Indy 500.

Le Mans represents a recognizable name. If I’m sitting next to a guy on a plane and he asks me what I do, my reply is race endurance sports cars. He may ask, what is that. I then ask have you heard of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Eight out of ten times the answer is yes.

Le Mans is a household name that puts sports car racing on a world stage.

Mecca of Speed: Prototype cars trim down their aerodynamic package for the long straights, which make them feel lighter, especially when they are crossing the crown of the roads. Do GT cars also have a light feeling in race trim?

Patrick Long: The GT cars today have flat bottoms, are lighter then past cars and have greater aerodynamics. You feel similar characteristics to the prototypes cars, but not as extreme.

The GT car is not as sensitive to the balance of pressure or tiny aerodynamic changes as the prototype cars, which generates the floating sensation, especially over certain rises.

Mecca of Speed: In endurance racing you work with a co-driver. Having driven with Jorg Bergmeister for multiple seasons, are your driving styles similar or different and how does that affect car setup?

Patrick Long: Five out of the last six years we have been teammates. When we started out we were very different in what we liked in a racecar and how we moved through a race weekend. They say when you are with someone for a long time you merge together and I think we balance each other. Our strengths and weaknesses have morphed into something similar as to how we like a racecar, which makes the weekend easier.

There is a lot less drama over a weekend on everything from qualifying to race strategy. We know each other and how we work, which makes things easier. Having the same driver has helped our friendship to grow. Away from the track, he is one of my top five closest friends I have.

Mecca of Speed: Regardless of size, from a driver’s point of view, what are the qualities that bring success to an organization?

Patrick Long: Communication, organization and management. You are only as good as the guy looking over your shoulder. It’s a peer direction thing. One key is hands-on guys that know how to send a message, but not micromanage.

When I look at organizations as a driver, I look at the ins and outs, their philosophy and the message that radiates in the working environment. It’s amazing to see what some teams and organizations can do with some incredibly talented individuals that are very differently minded, but work together towards one goal.

On the other side, I’ve seen some great organizations take some very talented drivers, engineers or crew members that let people go because it’s more about the team aspect and work ethic then it is about a person’s pedigree or talent. Sometimes people can be molded into what is needed to help a team finish up front and sometimes they can’t.

I’m sure this applies to a lot of different business structures. It’s interesting to see that in a race team because they are always on the road working long hard hours. It’s not always as glamorous as it appears from the outside. When you see a team that works well together, as a driver it gives you a lot of confidence.

Mecca of Speed: What are three of your favorite tracks?

Patrick Long: Le Mans, Long Beach and Road America. They each have different reasons I enjoy them.

Mecca of Speed: The ALMS list driver helmets for identification. You have had a flame motif for many years, is that a bit of southern California hot rodding?

Patrick Long: I’ve had green flames and a shamrock for 20 years. It started when I was eight years old. Early in my career I was told my helmet is my identity, keep it for as long as you can. Your clothes are going to change, your car is going to change, and your hat is going to change.

There have been a couple of times the color or design has changed a little bit for sponsors or teams, but that’s all. It’s a hot rod southern California culture mixed with Irish decent. My uncle who was the biggest influence on my career in go-karts and my dad, when I moved up to racecars, came up with the idea together. When you are eight years old, what your uncle and dad think is cool, you think is cool.

Over 20 years, flames have come and gone three or four times, but I stick with it. It’s how people know me and can tell if I’m in the car. I have a Brazilian friend who is a factory BMW driver. I had not seen him for ten years. At Le Mans this year, he said man you still have the same helmet. I didn’t even know you were at the race until I saw your helmet when you were driving down pit lane.

I’ve made some little changes here and there, but I’m married to it. Troy Lee is the most iconic helmet painter. I’ve hooked up with him and he has been sponsored the last few years. He’s brought along a lot of ideas, some have made it on my helmet but and others I’ve vetoed.

There is a timeline of about 60 helmets in my possession from my career so far. I’ve rarely given one away. Only a great sponsor, family member or mentor have received one of my helmets. If I ever have a house where I unpack long enough, I’ll have them all out in a secret room. I’m not a guy that wants a shrine to himself or a racing theme inside, but one day I’ll have them all out and be able to see how the design has grown and changed.

Mecca of Speed: You can go on a website and find out someone’s interest. What would we find if we pulled up the top 10 lists on your ipod?

Patrick Long: A very random mix. It depends on my mood. I don’t consider myself a huge music guy, but I have a little brother in an indie band called The Goat. He’s a professional skateboarder who started a band with some friends. He sends me music that is a little off the wall so that is probably number one.

From there, it’s a lot of classic rock like the Rolling Stones or Depeche Mode. There is some 80s and  hip-hop, a real mixture. If I had to pick one genre to listen to for the rest of my life it would be classic rock.

Mecca of Speed: Looking over your career so far, how has your approach to racing evolved?

Patrick Long: It’s always changing, a work in process. You have your foundations, which are hard to change, but you still can. The basis of my driving are nature and genetics mixed with sports psychology and experience.

The last element is short-term focus on where you are putting yourself. That parleys a little bit with psychology.

Every time you walk through the gate, you decide the driver that you are going to be that day. You are in control of how you are going to attack a scenario, weekend or race much like anything in life.

Content credit Patrick Long and John Vatne. Photo credit Randy Erdman and John Vatne. 

7/8/2010