Exactly four things exist off an Interstate 20 exit near Birmingham, Ala., officially in the small town of Leeds. In order, there's a gas station, the Hampton Inn hotel, a Bass Pro Shops, and Barber Motorsports Park. It was at the latter of these four facilities that for a two-and-a-half day period, Porsche invited four drivers and a handful of other guests for something that, at the time, didn't even have its official name – the inaugural Porsche Motorsport North America Young Driver Academy.
It would feature several elements for the quartet of youngsters, ranging from age 19 to 22, where they'd learn the ropes, climate and culture of Porsche as a company and global brand, get a crash course in media training and personality tests, and drive a GT3 Cup car from the track's Porsche Sport Driving School around the 2.38-mile circuit to evaluate their progress and hopefully launch them toward new opportunities.
The key for Porsche and the participants was to provide insight and work to develop young drivers within North America for future development with the manufacturer.
THE INVITEES (left to right: MacNeil, Marcelli, Johnston, Pigot)
Patrick Long, Porsche's lone American factory driver, has now added scouting young talent to his own driving responsibilities. With the gap in the American Le Mans Series schedule between Virginia in September and Petit Le Mans in late October, Long had a window to serve as an advisor and project manager to select the drivers along with Porsche Motorsports North America head Jens Walther and special consultant Helmut Kristen, among others.
IMSA's two GT3 Challenge champions – Sean Johnston (IMSA GT3 Platinum Cup) and Kyle Marcelli (GT3 Canada presented by Michelin) – got invites along with ALMS GTC class champion Cooper MacNeil. The fourth driver, Spencer Pigot, was the open-wheel “wild card” recommended by IMSA after his performances this season in the USF2000 championship.
Marcelli, the oldest at 22, is a Canadian who beyond his time in GT3 this year has now concluded his third year of racing in ALMS in the PC class. Poised and confident, but still calm and cool, he's the most experienced of the bunch and at a stage where a strong week could enhance his stock and viability for a bigger sports car opportunity next year.
Johnston, 21, is boisterous and enthusiastic – so amazed with the opportunity and his rapid ascent from, in his words, “from pajamas racing simulators to GT3 in 18 months.” It's not that far removed from reality. He spent hours, days, weeks and months honing his skills on Gran Turismo, which earned him a spot in Nissan's GT Academy last year. That would then lead to his opportunity with Driscoll's to run in IMSA GT3, where he won the title in his first go.
MacNeil, 20, literally towers over his rivals. Standing at nearly 6'6”, but having made it work with the equally tall Leh Keen (6'4”) this year in GTC, MacNeil balances his studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder with his racing career. Beyond GTC, he's also podiumed at the SCCA National Championship Runoffs.
Then there's Pigot, 19. Quieter by nature, the Floridian has let his driving do the talking for two seasons in USF2000. He's also won the Team USA Scholarship twice and has European racing experience already under his belt. Given his lack of GT3 Cup car experience, he entered at a disadvantage, but had the potential to adapt very quickly.
Game on, then, once they all arrived in Birmingham, made it to the hotel and through the initial dinner on the Sunday night. You could tell the drivers in the batch of 17 with chicken and pasta orders compared to ribs, steaks and other delectable items.
A schizophrenic weather day on Monday greeted everyone upon arrival. With most of the day's activities scheduled for the classroom, the weather – rainy, cloudy, windy or sunny, depending on the hour – mattered not. Johnson and MacNeil showed up with jeans to match their new Porsche polos, while Marcelli and Pigot wore slacks.
“These two days are a gift and a showcase of our appreciation of your talents, from Porsche,” Walther said to kick off the day's festivities. “It's not about competition. There are no winners or losers. It's about looking in the mirror and getting a clearer picture of yourself. How you will move forward, and how will you offer and reply to feedback?”
The first evaluation was a personality assessment that the drivers had to take in advance of the program and then go through with Christina Kisley, CEO of Life-long Leadership, Inc. She offered her take on how the drivers handled it.
“They're all intuitive,” she said. “They're focusing on patterns and people. They're creative. It helps them significantly. It's a test that's 70 years old and 85 percent reliable.”
Accuracy was the overriding reaction. Johnston said it “blew his mind,” Pigot offered a simple “wow!” and MacNeil thought himself “extremely fortunate to open his eyes and understand where he is and needs to be.” Marcelli expanded further.
“This allowed me to clearly better identify who I am,” he said. “There's significance in this. You learn how to better handle situations and interactions with people.”
Next up was a Porsche written test, where five pages of questions pressed the quartet on their knowledge of the brand's culture, its history, and its key facts, beyond just asking for their racing histories and résumés.
After lunch came two further sessions, with the first coming from Michelin's new motorsports technical team leader Ken Payne going over tire performance, construction and details. The later, longer session was an enhanced media training session, led by BurnsGroup's Barbara Burns and SPEED TV personality Justin Bell.
Several hours followed where the drivers took turns in one-on-one stand-up interviews, and swapped notes and information with Long and Hurley Haywood about their media experience with Porsche. Haywood – one of both Porsche's and sports car racing's most decorated drivers – offered a succinct piece of advice: “shut up and drive.”
Burns' key tips were to keep their press releases succinct but interesting, and also to answer the question by repeating the question. Bell could adeptly work the driver angle, a very successful one in his own right, along with the media one – noting how you have to remain calm in moments where you might not want to talk to the press.