As the fourth and final race in the IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup, Motul Petit Le Mans offers up a bevy of additional guest stars as third drivers for all 30-plus cars in the 10-hour race.
The third driver role is particularly important. With limited track time available to this driver, he or she needs to be up-to-speed immediately at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta after a several-month hiatus since their last race at either Watkins Glen or Sebring.
Third drivers come from a wide swath of motorsport, too. Many come from the open-wheel world, where they’re either a past legend, current star or aspiring young driver. Others are sports car veterans who rely on their cagey craftiness and experience to bolster team lineups. There’s a third kind, too, the up-and-coming sports car driver who may look to parlay his or her opportunity as a third driver into a full-season role the following year.
With Petit Le Mans capping off the season, it’s the last and in some cases best opportunity for these third drivers to make a key impact and deliver a solid result or championship.
Sportscar365 caught up with three third drivers in interesting stages of their careers, two past IMSA champions and one sports car rookie, to gauge how they view their role as part of the race.
*Eric Curran, No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R
*Spencer Pumpelly, No. 44 Magnus Racing Lamborghini Huracan GT3 Evo
*Aaron Telitz, No. 12 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC F GT3
Q: As a third driver, how do you approach your role and knowing you need to jump in and immediately get up to speed?
Eric Curran: “For me, it’s been a much different approach to the whole season. It’s been an interesting change in role, going from racing full-time for 20 years to now going part-time. But it’s still great to be part of this great Whelen program and within their fold for 13 years.
“We’ve had a good amount of success in Michelin Endurance Cup races this year with second at Daytona and winning at Sebring. For me personally, at some point you can’t race cars forever. Stepping back wasn’t easy, but at 44 years old when you have a lot of good things occurring in your personal life and business, it was a matter of time.”
Spencer Pumpelly: “Coming back to this team, it’s been an easy plug-and-play. I’ve worked with Magnus before and driven with Andy (Lally) and John (Potter) a couple times before.
“Fortunately with these long races in the Michelin Endurance Cup, these are all track I’ve been to for years and know pretty well. The third driver does receive especially limited track time, but knowing the track makes it easier versus an unknown circuit with more unknown variables.”
Aaron Telitz: “To jump right in, it’s been a steep learning curve. But the AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus team has made my transition as easy as possible. Having Townsend (Bell) with his open-wheel and sports car experience has been crucial; I’ve asked questions. For me, I’ve taken it slowly. Daytona was about bringing our car home in one piece every stint, and then work to build up speed and comfort at both Sebring and Watkins Glen.
“Before Daytona I’d done some work on a simulator to get an idea of what it’s like. With limited laps in practice, my first time really getting a lot of time in the car was my first stint in the race. You learn how traffic gets around you, versus in an open-wheel situation where that’s not as prevalent. It’s a completely different world.”
Q: Third drivers often don’t qualify or finish, and generally run the middle stint. How important is the strategy for that “bridge” stint, particularly if you’re dealing with a setting sun at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta?
EC: “Knowing we have Nasr and Pipo as well, they both show extreme talent for being the ‘new kids on the block’ and can run fast and clean whenever they’re in the car. I’ll do as many stints as I need to, but trust in those guys comes from us all clicking and running similar setups in the Whelen Cadillac.
“Going from light to dark here is one thing, for sure. But I’ve ran Petit for a long time, and I started racing at Road Atlanta in ’96… so it’s been 20-plus years driving the same track!”
SP: “John’s pace this season has been fantastic, and unless Andy gets a random illness or something you know we’ll have him as the closing driver. My job is just to maintain the strong opening pace, and hand it over to Andy in a good position.
“The toughest part here is when the sun sets up through Turn 1, and it’s right in your eyes as you look up to the top of the hill, into the Esses at Turn 5. Around 6:30 p.m. or so, it tends to be pretty tough. But the transition to night is easy because it’s such a well-lit track. The key is not getting blinded from behind by another car.”
AT: “It doesn’t matter when you’re in the car because in this series, everyone is still really good and every stint is so important to maximize your pace with the field as close and competitive as it is.
“Although I haven’t been here yet in a sports car, I have a ton of laps here and won a past Mazda scholarship to get into the Road to Indy. I didn’t have to deal with the sunset at Daytona but at Sebring, I did. At Road Atlanta, you get the elevation and a face full of sun. But we’re all dealing with it, so there’s no excuses.”
Q: How do you like the atmosphere at Petit Le Mans and what would a good result mean to you?
EC: “It’s funny. I’ve had an amazing successful career for 25 years, so I’ve been racing for as long as my teammates have been alive! This spot is a key role within the endurance races. We have another opportunity to win the Michelin Endurance Cup for the season if we can finish this off, which would be the sixth in a row for Action Express Racing and second straight for the Whelen Cadillac.”
SP: “This race is always special because of my family here, and being able to sleep in my own bed and not having to deal with all the travel. While I have guests, they know when I need to work and ensure I am fully focused when I need to be.
“It’s been great to see all the effort that’s gone into the Magnus program this year, and to drive with Andy again for first time in a long time. To win the final race, to win on the big stage, it’s one of the good feelings that takes you into the offseason. The party would be rather large in the A-T-L.”
AT: “This is the first time I’ll even be going to Petit! So I don’t know what to expect, but there have been great vibes and atmosphere at these big sports car endurance races. Every team has multiple drivers, so it’s a lot more different than formula car weekends. You see 40 drivers in open-wheel there versus way over 100 in sports cars. So you see a lot more of your friends, whether you’re racing them or not. And that makes it fun.”