Helmet images courtesy of Patrick Long; other images by LAT Photographic.
Honoring a fallen friend and mentor, as CORE autosport's Patrick Long will do during this weekend's ALMS finale at Petit Le Mans, has been a great priority for the factory Porsche driver.
Open-wheel ace Tony Renna, who lost his life 10 years ago this month, on Oct. 22, 2003, wasn't famous at the time of his fatal testing crash at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He'd yet to make a name for himself among the IndyCar Series heroes he was set to join as the newest member of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, but that didn't stop Renna from having a profound impact on Long and other young drivers who followed behind him.
Renna's story – of a determined young Californian who fought his way through the junior open-wheel ranks with limited funding and refused to be denied his place on the Indy Racing League grid – continues to resonate with Long. And with the chance to commemorate Renna's life and journey just days before the 10th anniversary of his passing, Long commissioned renowned helmet painter Troy Lee to blend Renna's helmet livery into his own as a personal memorial.
“It's amazing to think that it's been 10 years,” Long told RACER
. “And I think that for the younger generation – the guys who are coming up into racing today – they may not know who Tony Renna is and I just thought it was a creative way to celebrate Tony.
“For me, I looked up to Tony. I looked to Tony for advice, but it was more of a distant admiration where I wanted to follow his path. I think what he stood for, for me, was that he was a quiet fighter. He wasn't going to take ‘no' for an answer, there were tough seasons he had and Tony always knew that he could do the job. That inspired me.”
Long's persistence and self-reliance – traits he amplified after watching Renna – have served him well. Long's journey began in karting, followed by open-wheel racing before turning his attention to sports cars, and as he shares, the model set by Renna was one he looked to follow.
“As a kid, a 19, 20-year-old Formula Ford driver, I looked at the way Tony presented himself,” he continued. “He was professional, understated. And to me what he sort of embodied was: Get the job done on the track rather than with your mouth. That resonated with me. Tony was classy. He always knew how to dress well and present himself well. It wasn't flamboyant, it wasn't a flashy. Those little things meant a lot as a kid trying to learn how to be a professional.”
Renna's achievements as a driver also drove Long to keep an open mind as he sought to find his place in motor racing.
“Tony refused to accept when things didn't work out for him,” he explained. “It didn't end the best for him in Indy Lights with PacWest, and you see a lot of guys, talented guys, who fall off the radar when things go wrong at that level. But he didn't give up. He latched on with the Kelley Racing guys and was right there when they needed a stand-in driver. He could have gone elsewhere after Lights, but stayed true to his dream of becoming an Indy car driver.
“Fast forward a few years and to be signed by Chip to one of the most prized drives, if not the
most prized drive in IndyCar at that era, it shows a guy who was just unwilling to stay down. Before things opened up in IndyCar, he was scraping money together to run a late model out of Las Vegas to a couple of years later, showing up to the racetrack with a helmet in his hand and coaching and being a test driver and reserve driver with Kelley. It was just the ultimate fight back to what he knew he deserved and where he belonged.”
Through Sean Jones, who oversaw the business end of Renna's career and has worked with Long, the idea of celebrating Renna's life with a tribute helmet quickly gained momentum.
“My relationship with Sean Jones, all of the closest people who were involved with Tony, and with Troy Lee had us looking for something that's a creative blend of two designs. It originally came from Sean, who really looked after Tony and I at different times in his life. So it's a way to honor him. I told Sean I wanted Troy Lee to draw it up. We both liked each other's helmets. He had flames on the top of his helmet as I did. What Troy drew up was a pure blend of both. I had some original ideas of maybe just running Tony's helmet livery altogether.
“And then I caught Troy on the right day and I said, 'What do you think about this?' I printed out Tony's helmet and my helmet and I said, 'What do you think we've got here?' He said, ‘Oh, dude, I see it, I see it.'
“So he immediately started pulling markers off his desk and just going at it. It was just awesome to watch it come to life right there, spur of the moment, just typical Troy. He just starts sketching stuff out and it's brilliant.”