Johnny O’Connell says it’s a dream come true to be able to race alongside his son Canaan for this first time this weekend at Utah Motorsports Campus.
The four-time Pirelli World Challenge GT class champion will share a Robinson Racing-entered Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R with Canaan, who finished third in the TCB championship last year driving for Tech Sport Racing.
The elder O’Connell says that the process of putting this deal together began when watching a SprintX race earlier in the season, prompting him to make a call to an old friend.
“I watched the race and realized that they were only running one car so I wondered what they were doing for the rest of the SprintX races,” O’Connell told Sportscar365.
“I’d been texting and talking to George [Robinson] even from the start of the year when they were in the Mercedes because I actually did a race for George ages ago, but there was nothing for me there because I’m a GM guy.
“When they moved to the Camaro, though, I thought maybe there will be a shot.
“It’s an interesting thing because even though I have more years as a [Chevy] bowtie guy, I’m a Cadillac guy [now] and they’re very reticent about me doing anything [outside of Cadillac].
“But I figured it I could get this deal put together they couldn’t say no. How many dads get the chance to race with their kid?
“I honestly would have quit Cadillac if they had said no! You don’t get an opportunity like this often.
“But I did Le Mans two years ago in a Corvette and they were cool as long as I wore my Cadillac gear, and so they were cool about this.”
Canaan O’Connell, who has been coaching at the Bondurant School and Thermal Club circuit since his last PWC start in the TCB finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca last year, said he had to temper his excitement early in the process just in case it didn’t come together.
“It’s such an incredible experience, to be able to drive with Robinson Racing just by myself would be a dream come true, but it’s the gift that just keeps on giving,” he told Sportscar365.
“I was trying, just in case it didn’t go through, not to get my hopes up too much, but once I really started to get the confirmation that we’re going to do this, I’ve been breaking out in spontaneous smiles throughout the day.
“I was like: I’m a couple days away from racing at Utah with Robinson Racing and my dad.
“For us to be able to travel the circuit last year and do the series, share a hotel room, and debrief at the end of the day, it was immeasurable.
“Unfortunately he didn’t have the greatest of season, but just being able to do that was so unique. Now to be able to team up and not just be in sister cars but to be in the same car? I never thought that I would be able to do that.
“I remember being ten years old and thinking about how cool that would be if I ever got to, but I thought that that would be too big of a stretch of the imagination.
“So for that to actually come to reality, it’s hard to put into words how special this is.”
Canaan said he would lean heavily on his dad and the whole Robinson team as he makes his transition from the TCB-class Chevrolet Sonic that he drove last year to the GT4-spec Camaro, but feels as prepared as possible given the scope of the challenge.
“I think I’m as prepared as I possibly can be aside from not having the ability to go drive something of this caliber,” he said. “It’s a little bit of baptism by fire, but I like that.
“The first couple of laps, even with the idea being exactly the same, that Chevy Camaro is a lot different than the Chevy Sonic.
“It’s like a lap and a half of being Wild West, but still now I can’t stop smiling and laughing because it’s so bloody cool to be out there.
“It hasn’t been an incredibly dramatic learning curve, but finding little things in these cars that they like is a special challenge.”
Johnny said their expectations for the weekend are limited by their lack of seat time in the car – both turned their first laps in Practice 1 on Friday – and the fact that they are coming in towards the end of the season, but added that this will be a special weekend regardless of the result.
“If this was the first race of the year it would be a challenge because we’ve never tested,” he said. “If it was the first race of the year, it would be tough.
“But it’s the last [SprintX race]. So all these teams up and down pit road, they know their teams. They know their driver change stuff. They know their cars. We start out way, way, way behind so expectations are relatively realistic.
“I think, based on [Practice 1], if we improve the car a little bit more, get him a little more seat time, we can be in the mix.
“I remember vividly when Canaan was one or two years old, sitting on the sofa, and watching a race and seeing Mario and Michael [Andretti].
“I remember thinking: how cool. How cool, to do a race with your kid. Or race against your kid. Not many guys get that. If nothing else we’ll have rocking chair memories.”