One of sports car racing’s top drivers will be hanging up the helmet, at least from professional racing, at the end of this year, with Johnny Mowlem having announced Wednesday his retirement from top-level sports car racing.
The 47-year-old Englishman’s final race will be next month’s IMSA WeatherTech Championship season-ending Petit Le Mans, where he’ll drive for BAR1 Motorsports to cap off a 20-plus year pro career that’s included multiple championships and class wins at in key endurance races including the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Twelve Hours of Sebring.
Sportscar365 caught up with Mowlem to reflect on his career, as well as look ahead to what’s next.
When did you start considering retirement?
“I’ve been thinking about it for a while, on and off for a few years. But I never was really seriously considering it. Honestly this year, it began to enter my consciousness more and more as the year progressed.
“I began to seriously consider it around Laguna Seca, just because I love it and it’s my favorite track in the world. I went to that race and I wasn’t pumped up to go there, and that was the first time that ever happened to me.
“Some of the small challenges we’ve been having meant we haven’t been winning. It started off so well at Daytona, and even at Sebring, we should have been on the podium as well. Then it gradually slid.
“I decided, categorically, after Lime Rock that I’m not having any fun, I’m stopping now.
“Road America to me was very much go there with the pressure off. I felt like a load had lifted and even Brian [Alder] said to me, ‘You’re like a different person. You were like you were before.’
“The pressure of trying to deliver was getting to me more than I realized.
“I wanted to go out on my own terms and want to go out when I’m still delivering value to people.”
What career highlights stand out to you the most?
“I was so fortunate that my professional career basically began around the time the American Le Mans Series started and ran pretty much through the end of the ALMS having finished in 2013.
“I could pick out any number of those races, but I suppose the highlights within that was my very first proper win in America, which was at Laguna in 1999, when we won against the all-new Porsche with the old RSR with me and David Murry against Dirk Mueller and Court Wagner.
“That put me on the map and that was the first time Alwin Springer said to me, ‘I’ll take care of you and help you progress.’ That’s what led me to getting my drive the following year.
“Obviously in Grand-Am, the Daytona win [in 2004] was really sweet too. Daytona was the place my professional career started as that was the first race I got paid to race in 1999. Daytona has been so lucky to me.
“In 2003, we finished 2nd overall but we didn’t win GT because that was the year [TRG] won it. The following year, to finish 2nd overall again but win GT, especially with the fight I had with [Mike] Rockenfeller at the end, that was probably one of the highlights of my career.
“That was really special. I wear that Rolex pretty much every day, to this day.
“Another highlight was breaking out of GT racing and getting to race with the factory Zytek team and finishing 2nd overall at Petit Le Mans. That was my first proper LMP1 race and I managed to do pretty well. That led on to me racing quite a lot of LMP machinery for the next two or three years.
“That famous Sebring victory with Jaime Melo and Mika Salo when Jaime lost it on the last lap and managed to take it back on the last corner of the last lap. That was also a special moment.”
What would it mean to go out on top with a class win at Petit Le Mans?
“That would be really nice. I’ve done [the race] 15 times, been on the podium seven or eight times, second overall, but I actually never won my class there. That would be nice.”
How’s it been mentoring Matt McMurry this year?
“I’ve helped Matt in the sense of treating him like a professional, trying to help him lead the car with setup and dig as deep as he could.
“Actually, I’ve been very, very pleased and he should be too because some of his performances in qualifying, he’s really got the car right up there near the front.
“I’ve always never been the most generous of teammates in the past, especially in the early days of sports cars. I still very much had that single-seater mentality.
“It’s been something I’ve always admired in Allan McNish, how he managed to be super quick but also be very generous and helpful to his teammates, even at the highest level.
“It’s something I’ve always worked on and have gotten better at it over the years, but this year, as I watched myself help Matt almost to the detriment of myself, I suddenly realized that I have managed to crack this.
“Then I realized in the same thought that maybe that’s because now I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t mind not being the fastest, which is maybe the first sign that the end is near.”
Will you be continuing that kind of mentoring in your post-driving career?
“My mentoring I’m doing is aimed at the slightly older people. It’s more at the other end.
“I’ve set up Red River Sport with Ivor Dunbar, an ex-high up person from a bank, who has since retired. We set this company up together and he’s had the dream of doing Le Mans. So we put together a three-to-five-year program to do that.
“We decided to turn it into a business where I basically take care of all the needs of people that want to race. We decide the best championship for them, on how and where they want to do it.
“Rather than taking a young that guy that probably has very little money and invest in him in the hope that one day he’ll be really good, I’m going at the other end of the spectrum with people who have gone away and become very successful entrepreneurs, retired and got time on their hands to do what they’ve dreamed of doing when they were younger.
“Those are the people I’m aiming at with this company.”
Are you going to be completely done with driving, or could we see you back at the wheel in an occasional race or two?
“I haven’t decided yet. I’m going to give myself a bit of time to think about it over the winter.
“I would like to drive with [the Pro-Am drivers] still. I don’t want to just stop driving. I’d like to continue driving with Ivor and maybe do selected things with others.
“But my ambition is to build the company to an extent where I’m in control of everything and I bring in young drivers and pay them to drive with our clients and customers.
“I will still drive here and there, even if it’s just on test days. I still have the passion for driving.
“This is really calling time on my professional career. What will really change on my life is that I will no longer be actively seeking a role in things.
“But obviously I’m not an idiot. If someone rings me up and offers me a fantastic opportunity to race at Le Mans, and that I can win my class there.
“If I have an opportunity to go back, and definitely only in a Pro-Am element, obviously I would very seriously consider it. But in terms of me going off and doing full championships, those days are done.”