There is much confusion about what a “gentleman” driver is and their role within motorsport. As it is an area Motorsport Prospects will be exploring in the near future and to to gain a bit more clarity, I talked to professional race car driver and motorsport consultant Johnny Mowlem to get some answers.
Motorsport Prospects: What is your racing background and how did you get to this point in your career?
Johnny Mowlem: Long story! Before I moved to Spain at age 3, we lived near Crystal Palace race track and for some reason I can remember hearing loud engine noises in the distance and getting very excited by them. Years later I mentioned this to my mother and she couldn’t believe I could remember them as I was so young, but I think it was in my blood somehow as a bit of an obsession! Unfortunately neither of my parents had any background in motorsport, in fact my father didn’t even have a driving licence, so it was left to me to make things happen by sheer stubbornness and determination once I’d finished my university studies, so i started pretty late, in 1990 at age 21, late by those day’s standards, and by today’s standards positively ancient !
MP: What makes a good gentleman driver?
JM: Someone with the time and money who is a perfectionist and wants to try and improve to be the best driver he can be. To be honest that kind of goes for a professional Driver too!
MP: How does the relationship between driver and team work? How do these drivers find a team?
JM: Drivers without a budget, as in paid professional drivers often don’t find the teams, the teams find them. Having said that you need to be able to work the angles out of the car and find and in particular chose the right opportunities that will allow a driver to further and prolong his career.
The better results you have the more opportunities will be available to a driver, which in principle sounds great but does mean you have the added pressure of choosing the right ones, and in the case of a jobbing professional driver who races in a number of different series, something that’s quite common with sportscar drivers, you also want to avoid taking on so much that you burnout and don’t do justice to any of the opportunities you accepted.
MP: It can be argued that motorsport was built on the backs of gentlemen drivers. Do you see the phenomenon changing at all? Does motorsport need gentlemen drivers?
JM: Absolutely the sport started with gentleman drivers and it needs them in order to continue to flourish. 90% of all club and national racing is there solely because of gentleman drivers. Even at Le Mans probably 25% of the grid are gentleman drivers and without them you’d potentially lose a huge chunk of the grid.
In my opinion they are the lifeblood of our sport, no different in that regard to car manufacturers. They tend not to go hand in hand in certain series though, with the exception of sports cars and Le Mans in particular, but the Gentleman driver is often still there supporting a race series while manufacturers can come and go dependent these days on economic and often political decisions.
MP: How did you get involved in mentoring drivers? What exactly do you do? What services do you offer?
JM: Red River Sport which is my agency, is a ” one stop shop” that provides everything that a driver needs to not just succeed in motorsport, but also navigate the minefield that motorsport can be.
We take drivers from doing in some cases just track days, to helping them decide what and where they want to race , negotiate the best deal with the team possible to save them the maximum amount of budget, coach and advise them on how to improve their driving skills, provide pro co-drivers where needed, and by and large ensure that they have the most fun possible whilst ensuring that everything is done to keep them as safe as possible at all times. Our moto is “Optimise the experience. Maximise the value for money.”
MP: Do you see sports cars as a more viable career path for young drivers than single-seaters?
JM: Absolutely, these days young drivers are focusing in on sportscar already as a career path as young as 16 or 17, whereas in the past, myself included, the attraction to a young driver was largely Formula One, and we all followed the single seater route to try and make that happen. I didn’t switch to sportscar until I was 26, and within a year I was fortunate to actually start being paid to race as opposed to having to bring budget.
MP: What advice would you give young drivers looking to build a career in racing?
JM: Only do it if it’s a passion that you can’t imagine NOT doing. You can’t succeed if it’s just something that you think sounds like a nice idea. You have to be obsessed with it if you’re going to succeed. Also try and find someone who knows the industry who can advise you and convince your parents to invest some money into your early career!
MP: What advice would you give an aspiring gentlemen driver interested in pursuing motorsport?
JM: Call the Red River Sport agency 🙂
MP: Gentlemen drivers are sometimes criticized for being only on the track because of their money. How do you respond to that?
JM: That’s not fair. Most gentleman drivers are incredibly accomplished drivers, lapping only a second or two away from top pros, with also good spatial awareness of what’s going on around them. With the multi class system in sportscars especially, it’s more of a problem the speed differences between GT and LMP cars, than the difference between the pro and the gentleman drivers.
MP: Did you see the Netflix film The Gentleman Driver? Thoughts?
JM: I know a few of the drivers featured in it and I also know the producer so I’m biased. But I thought it was very good and in particular the bits that showed how the gentleman drivers managed their work and time with their motorsport aspirations. In my experience with good gentleman drivers, especially the wealthy ones, committing the time is their biggest obstacle.
MP: You also manage a select few pro drivers. What is your role in their career?
JM: With the pro drivers I use my contacts to get in touch with top teams looking for a top pro driver, and then negotiate their contracts, manage those contracts and generally help and advise them where needed to try and ensure their careers flourish and more importantly, have longevity.
MP: At what point should a driver take on a professional manager?
JM: I think if you’re serious about your racing then the earlier you at least find someone to help advise you on the best motorsport to follow the better. Even if you don’t have a formal management deal with them, or it’s just a family friend who races or used to race, it’s important to pick people’s brains about the best way forward for what you want to achieve out of this great sport, whether you’re a young karter aspiring to make it as a professional, or an amateur driver just looking to spend a bit of your hard earned money and go and have some fun!
MP: Thanks so much for your time Johnny. If any one reading this article is interested in dipping their toes into motorsport at any level, then they can contact Red River Sport via their website www.redriversport.com or check out their listing at Motorsport Prospects here.