Promise, persistence and patience has paid off for Jonathan Summerton, with the 23-year-old Kissimmee, Fla., native a surprise but welcome addition to the American Le Mans Series field with BMW Team RLL. Summerton was named third driver for the team's No. 56 BMW M3 on Monday, alongside defending champion drivers Joey Hand and Dirk Muller. Summerton's role will also include being Hand's replacement at the four conflicting rounds of the German DTM championship.
Summerton is an intriguing pick because the three aforementioned qualities are his most recent racing accomplishments – he hasn't started a major race in America since the 2010 Indy Lights season opener for Derrick Walker. The two years prior to that, Summerton starred in Indy Lights and Formula Atlantic, finishing third and second in the Atlantic standings in back-to-back years, but has been basically sidelined since early 2010. Summerton was also heavily linked to the failed USF1 project.
More importantly, Sebring will not only mark his ALMS debut, but also his first ever start in a touring car. Still, Summerton explained Monday night how the opportunity arose, and how he plans to handle his signing to one of the series' marquee rides.
“Honestly, it came out of the blue,” he said. “I was working out one day, and saw ‘Bobby Rahal' pop up on my phone. Of course then, I thought, ‘Wow, I'd better take this.' Bobby asked if I wanted to test for BMW, and in a split-second I responded, ‘Yes!' Bobby had good words to say about me to BMW, so they decided to give me that chance. It went from talking to discussions, and then a little over a week ago I received a contract. It took maybe a month.”
There is some history between Summerton and BMW, as he raced in the Formula BMW USA field in 2004. Still, this signing came after a two-year run of meetings with teams, manufacturers and sponsors throughout various paddocks, as Summerton was still working to find the funding to compete in IndyCar or sports cars.
“Working to try to get into IndyCar, I also had to explore sports cars, and there seemed to be more opportunities there, with more manufacturers,” he explained. “Bobby gave me some advice about how to handle the transition in driving these.”
That's what he'll have to learn, and quickly. Summerton is upbeat but realistic about the prospects of debuting in a race of this magnitude. He said he enjoys “jumping in at the deep end,” and that's this race in a nutshell.
“To think my first race is the 12 Hours of Sebring, with more than 60 cars, is such a big field and completely new,” he admitted. “However, driving with Joey and Dirk, I can tell you they have been and will be a great help. They're telling me who's who, how to deal with traffic, which drivers are safer than others, and what you can and can't do. The biggest thing I saw just today was that the Audis are so freaking quick, and when they get on you, they definitely go for it.”
Lastly, the race represents a major change in running from a junior formula single-seater to a GT car. After only a few days, Summerton seemed relatively at ease despite the shift in machinery.
“It doesn't seem to require too much of a different driving style, because there's still quite a bit of downforce,” he said. “I was so impressed with the car when I first got in, and within about 10 laps, I felt I was getting the car back up to pace. For me, the rust came off really quick. There are the nerves, of course, but I just felt comfortable and at home again.”