The Hired Guns of the ALMS

July 3, 2012

The Hired Guns of the ALMS

July 3, 2012

They come from all over the world, gunslingers of various age, shape and size, all possessing two shared traits: They make their living driving race cars, and they drive them very fast.

Like high-speed troubadours or minstrels, they travel from country-to-country, from series-to-series, and ply their trade race-by-race.

Their kit includes a helmet, a passport, a set of racing licenses-and a hefty insurance plan.

Factory drivers are at the top of the racing food chain. Sportsman drivers-owners are the opposite pole. Hired guns are the bridge connecting the two.

For some of these, like three-time ALMS GT champion Sascha Maassen (Miller) and ALMS veteran Butch Leitzinger (PR1 Mathiasen) – the challenge is to help coach up a younger driver or wealthy teammate. Others are there simply to win races or gain podiums.

With two Challenge classes and the P2 class in the ALMS pairing at least one amateur driver with a pro – the demand for hired guns is quite high.

Imagine a PGA touring pro playing every round of the season with the same amateur partner. Increase that intensity by sharing the driver’s seat of a race car for three, six, ten or even twelve hours. Chemistry is important. So is helping your partner to improve and avoid mistakes. A sense of humor, like Joe Foster (Dempsey Racing) possesses helps.

Some guns are particularly good at sorting a car. Their ability to go fast and help find a set-up that their co-driver can handle makes drivers like Guy Cosmo (ESM), Mexico’s Luis Diaz (Level 5) and IndyCar’s Townsend Bell (AJR) particularly valuable. After all, the better the co-driver is, the greater the success for the hired gun.

For former IndyCar star Bruno Junqueira of Brazil (RSR), NASCAR’s Colin Braun (CORE) or  Christophe Bouchut and F1’s Franck Montagny of France (Level 5), it is a primarily a matter of speed. In classes that pair a sportsman with a pro, the pro must out-duel the rival pros. To compete, you hire the biggest gun you can find, creating a global search for talent.

Jeroen Bleekemolen (Netherlands) and Tim Pappas have forged a strong pairing at Black Swan, first in GTC and now competing in P2.

The fraternity of racing gunslingers has its own culture. Drivers are friends as well as current, former or occasional teammates. Each knows that today’s teammate is next week’s rival, or vice versa.

Guy Smith of England (Dyson) and Klaus Graf of Germany (Muscle Milk) have built strong relationships with their respective teams and been there through the team’s ups and downs. Former IndyCar and ALMS champion Scott Sharp started his own team (ESM) and snagged Johannes van Overbeek as his co-driver.

Longer races like Sebring and Petit Le Mans see many teams add a star driver from another series to add speed or a veteran safe-pair of hands capable of preserving a podium finish or bringing a wounded car home.

The role of the gunslinger is not easy. You need to keep your head on straight, perform in sometimes-difficult circumstances, and try to get on well with everyone, including your co-driver, crew, and team owner’s family.

Hired Guns are also often on the prowl, by necessity, looking for the next ride, the next race, and the next paycheck. Racing schools, media drives and corporate events provide opportunities to meet prospective team owners or coaching clients.

If a top driver is injured, Corvette Racing’s Doug Fehan says the phone calls and texts from prospective replacements start piling up before the ambulance door closes.

Chip Hanauer, 11-time Gold Cup unlimited hydroplane champion and one of the hardest working drivers throughout his Hall of Fame career, once laughingly described race drivers as people “too lazy to work and too chicken to steal.”

The hired guns of the ALMS have no choice but to work hard: Being without a ride or having to find a “real” job can be even more traumatic than losing a race.


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