The Appeal and Opportunity of Sportscar Racing – In Conversation with Paul Charsley

Sports car racing is the rare type of motorsport where talented amateurs can race alongside the pros at such legendary venues as Le Mans and Sebring. It is also increasingly the target of young drivers looking to make it professionally in the sport. Recently I chatted with motorsport veteran Paul Charsley of IMSA’s Heart of Racing Aston Martin team and a new Team Speed Club Racing about why sportscar racing is so appealing, working with gentleman drivers and some advice for the young guns.

Early Days

Motorsport Prospects: How did you get interested in motorsport?

The Appeal and Opportunity of Sportscar Racing – In Conversation with Paul Charsley

Paul Charsley: It came from my family. My dad used to run IMSA cars in the 80s and ran 962s at Le Mans. Dad was team manager, and my brother was a mechanic in F1 and sports cars and then evolved into being a team manager in sports cars in Europe and then in the US. He is now one of the top guys at Multimatic and runs the Mazda DPI program. Racing is in the blood so to speak.

I was the only one that went out and started driving and I raced for a number of years but that has waned and now my role has evolved to the other side of the pit wall.

MP: Tell me a bit about your motorsport background.

PC: Currently I am involved with two teams, Heart of Racing and Speed Club. My association with Heart of Racing is a result of long time relationship both behind the wheel and within the motorsport business with team owner Ian James. I have essentially become his “right hand man” in the running of the team. Working with Heart of Racings IMSA program is not a full-time job (we run 12 races a year and dedicated time a week during off weeks) so I also help out with the new HORT SRO GT4 effort and am involved in the creation of a new team Speed Club Racing closer to home here in Texas.

Speed Club evolved out of my work with Premier Events Services. With PES we used to do a lot of driving programs for various manufacturers like Ferrari and Maserati. 3 years ago, they started doing a driving program for McLaren when McLaren expanded their European track day program (Pure McLaren) from Europe to the US. Premiere came on board to run that program for both the road cars and race cars. Covid shut that down, but Premier bought one of their cars and based on the experience they had built up running the track day programs (they would run 8 GT4 cars on the same day) they decided to start a racing team based on this knowledge. This is how Speed Club started and is now about to start competing in the GT Celebration series and possibly some SRO events later this year running a customer McLaren GT4.

Luckily for me, my past driving career combined with my organizational experience, keeping things going and making things efficient has allowed me to move into the team-side of the business.

MP: Compared to driving, is the management side of things something you really enjoy?

PC: I love it. Some things are a bit mundane like travel and getting the team around, but some are more exciting like setting up the strategy before the race. I get bored doing just one thing. It’s all a bit scattered but it is how I like to do things and it all works.

Why Sportscar Racing?

MP: What is it about sportscar racing that you love?

The Appeal and Opportunity of Sportscar Racing – In Conversation with Paul Charsley

PC:  I have always liked endurance racing. As a kid F1 was always there and luckily in England where I grew up there are so many tracks you can go to on any weekend that you will never run out of places to watch a race, but I love the strategy behind sportscar racing and how the races evolve over a long period of time and the multiple driver aspect of them working together as well as the ebb and flow of the pit stops.

I like the long game of a sports car race which is why I don’t like this whole concept of how some people feel we must see a pass every lap. I love the strategy of seeing how maybe there is only one pass but the whole process behind the multiple laps leading up to that pass and then the strategy and skill required after that pass of maintaining the lead.  

Endurance racing is what I was best at as a driver, and I always enjoyed how you did not have to be the fastest driver every lap, but you had to know how to drive fast while saving the brakes and saving the tires and saving the equipment and not making mistakes and making sure the passes are succinct and not getting damage. It’s a different discipline but I think it is a more complex discipline even though it might not necessarily be the most exciting thing to watch second by second, but I find it to be more compelling. In that aspect it is like the difference between basketball and European football. In basketball one basket does not mean that much but in football one goal can be the difference and you watch the entire 90 minutes in anticipation of that one goal.

The dynamics of the different cars from track to track and who is going to be good from track to track also adds a level of interest. When you know your car is normally good at a certain track you better execute because not all cars are suited for all tracks. The cars are so close that there is a real strategic element to maximizing your cars strength and minimizing its weakness on each track. Add to that the difference in the drivers since it is a Pro Am sport and it makes it all so compelling.

I am surprised that it is not more popular because the cars are all so different and people can aspire to buy these cars and it really harkens back to the roots of racing in that way. Not only that but it is accessible for the fans and the racing is close, especially in the GTD class that we race in.

Working with Gentleman Drivers

MP: Tell me a bit about what it is like to work with gentleman drivers?

PC: There are different types of gentleman drivers. Some don’t take it too seriously and just want to have fun, some don’t even want to drive too much and just want to be part of the show. Others take it as a challenge to come as close to a pro as they can be. So, with the dynamic of these drivers, you must figure out what they want from it because as a team you want to be successful and there is no point in going racing if you are not trying to win the race. Therefore, some gentleman drivers never get all the way to the IMSA GTD side as opposed to racing in something like the Ferrari Challenge as they are just out there to drive and have fun with no real thought of being competitive.

The key when you get to the GTD level is to get a gentleman driver who is taking it seriously because you will be treating them equally as a pro in analyzing their driving and in pushing them. There is a line though that you have to watch in that you can’t fire your gentleman driver as they are a big part of funding the team, so you have to play that “game” a little bit, but you do want to push them and get them on board. It is key to get them to understand that in everything they do before getting to the track and in their preparation for the race that it is helping the team as a whole to be successful.

It’s tough sometimes because these drivers spend so much time working so hard to make the money they do that they can’t spend the time training and spending time on the sim and being integrated fully within the team so you have to immerse them as quickly as you can into the team on race weekends while at the same time allowing them to enjoy the experience. You can’t be as “pushy” with them as you would a pro driver that you are actually paying to drive for this reason.

MP: Do you ever get drivers with an “attitude”?

The Appeal and Opportunity of Sportscar Racing – In Conversation with Paul Charsley

PC: The people who have an attitude and don’t want to take suggestions from the team will not be successful. At this level nobody wants a driver like this.  At the IMSA level we actually have the opposite problem in that some are too shy to drive for fear of letting the team down and you need to coax them a bit so that they enjoy the experience and want to continue on. It’s not really a game, what it boils down to is treating people right. They are paying the money so you want to give them the best experience possible but it is still a sport, so you want to coax them into becoming the best driver possible and to being integral to the team because that breeds success.

Some people you don’t need to coax anything out of and are super serious about driving and bring both money and dedication to the craft. Those types of bronze drivers are the drivers you want because they surround themselves with good people like a driver coach and a great team that supplies the tools to make them better drivers and because they are so serious the team’s success rightly benefits from their contribution.

The ones in the lower series tend not to be as dedicated as the ones at this level. Having a good, dedicated AM driver is important, one that is dedicated to getting better and that is fully focused on the task at hand once they arrive at the track on Thursday. We always tell them that now that you are at the track, driving this car is your job for the weekend. Treat it like a job you want to be successful at because we are all going to reap the benefits of it.

Working with young drivers

MP: Is GT Racing the place to be for young drivers? Why are young drivers going to sportscars?

PC: I love helping young drivers since my days of being a driver instructor at Sonoma. Formula car racing is tough because every year you are starting from ground zero, every year you must come up with the budget. The way the series are structured, you will need a full budget as you are not going to get manufacturer or tire manufacturer help, you won’t have a co-driver to help supplement the budget which makes it very difficult to do year after year, which is the main reason I gave up on formula racing. 

It is also very difficult for the teams to supplement budgets. If Ayrton Senna came along and wanted to drive today somebody still must pay for the drive and to run the races and there is just not enough prize money, and the series themselves just don’t generate enough money to make it all work. Even if you won every race, you would not be able to pay for the budget for a season.

Sportscars has a lot more avenues for you to stay in the sport. There is manufacturer support, sometimes there is tire manufacturer support, sometimes you have co-drivers that can supplement the budget. There are even situations where gentleman drivers come along and want to help a young driver get noticed so they co-drive with them and introduce them to the paddock in the hopes of getting the young driver noticed.

In addition, every manufacturer seems to have a young driver program and they bring in drivers like Ross Gunn for us who is a factory Aston driver who was discovered by a gentleman driver who helped him by getting him time behind the wheel and various races and a factory noticed him and signed him. These drivers then get sent around the world driving for the manufacturer showing off the car brand and their skills at the track and this works out well for everybody.

There are a lot more avenues to keep a young driver racing for a very long time. The longevity of a sportscar driver is good. You can drive into your 50s if you are good enough. Aside from the length of career there are so many different sports car manufacturers and series around the world where the Formula stuff is limited and so defined. Unless you’ve got a good plan and really good budget, you can be left by the wayside very quickly.

MP: In your experience, what advice would you give a young driver?

PC: Some kids think that being a race driver is all about being fast and it is so not about just that. Others have the speed but also have the work ethic required to be successful and are intent on building and nurturing relationships in the sport that will help them in their careers as these people will help them get to the next step. Those are the kids that will be successful.

The Appeal and Opportunity of Sportscar Racing – In Conversation with Paul Charsley

There are a lot of very fast drivers out there, but it is only the complete package that will get you forward in motorsport. You need to develop working relationships, get to know people, treating people right, always working whether it is on or off the track trying to build these relationships. It is all about networking. Don’t be shy at the track in meeting people and shaking their hand and introducing yourself to people you don’t know. Its uncomfortable but if you do it, people can help you. And you never know when people can help you. I’ve helped young drivers just because I have had the opportunity to put them in touch with somebody that may help their career and plenty of people do the same with no money involved.

Another key thing is to never discount the impact of the person you are talking to, no matter where on the pecking order they are. It could be the guy changing the right rear tire that gets you the next ride. Treat people with respect and see everyone as an opportunity which is a very powerful thing to keep in mind. Of course, you must back it up by being a fast driver and not crashing but all these things come into play in being a successful driver in the sportscar market and racing in general.

Most of the motorsport community is very welcoming so if you go up and introduce yourself as a driver in a support series on a race weekend for example to somebody people will remember that. You will never get an opportunity if you don’t knock on that door. It may not be right away but who knows when it will happen.

When I raced in the North American Touring Car series in the early nineties, I had no money, but I really wanted it and it was purely persistence that allowed me to race. I didn’t race a full season and only raced a few races, but I went to every race, kept talking to the sanctioning body and networking with anybody and everybody. One day I got a call saying that there was a car sitting without a driver down at Mid-Ohio and that the race will be on ABC with a lot of coverage, and that they needed as many cars on the grid as possible. They asked if I could come down and jump in the car and race. That opportunity was purely down to my persistence and working hard and calling people every week asking if there was an opportunity to race and that was a lesson I learned that made a lasting impact on me. This is what young drivers should be doing. Don’t be afraid to walk up to me or Ian James or anybody on our team or in the paddock and introduce yourself. It is a mighty powerful thing to be that forward but if you are polite and respectful people will want to help. Quite honestly everybody wants everybody else to be successful (as long as they are not racing against you that weekend!). We are all passionate about the sport and we love to see as many good drivers out there as we can so anything we can do to help with that we will.

MP: Any last comments to add?

PC: Yes, I have a couple of stories that illustrate the power of persistence.

I used to room with Jeff Bucknum who went on to Le Mans and IndyCar. As a young driver he was diligent on setting aside time every day to make connections and try proposals etc. He worked hard at a newsletter (by mail back then!) that he would send out every month to everyone he knew updating everyone on his career, thanking those that supported him etc etc, and basically keeping his name on everyone’s mind. It worked very well in the end.

Also, my own story! I told you about the Super Touring ride but even before that the only reason I was able to go pro racing in IMSA was due to building a relationship with a customer at the racing school I worked at, going above and beyond to help him with various things from his first suit to what car he should get and that was rewarded with a ride in the Firehawk series. And it is not just me. Other opportunities arose from similar circumstances for so many drivers, it’s an important factor. Be friendly, confidant (not cocky) in your abilities, show your passion and drive. I promise you that if Roman DeAngelis had been full of himself and not so personable when he drove the Team Canada Audi at Daytona a couple of years back, he wouldn’t have gotten the Heart of Racing ride. That is just one example of the power of networking done right.

You can find out more about Speed Club and Heart of Racing here and here.

Paul keeps his driving skills up to date with his testing role at Speed Club Racing as well as at the Ford Performance Racing School on occasion. He is also the host of the excellent Formula 1 Parc Ferme podcast.

Mark Boudreau
Author: Mark Boudreau

Mark is the publisher of Motorsport Prospects. As a former lawyer, he applies his legal background to assist race drivers in finding the resources they need to make their motorsport careers happen.