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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Patrick Long's path to ALMS stardom

by Gordon Kirby
In recent years Patrick Long has emerged as one of America's top sports car racers. A factory Porsche driver since 2003 Long is the defending ALMS GT2 champion with Flying Lizard teammate Joerg Bergmeister and has scored class wins at Le Mans, Sebring and Petit Le Mans and an outright win in the 2009 Daytona 24 Hours. Long co-drove one of Brumos Racing's Riley-Porsches to win at Daytona in '09 and also raced one of Roger Penske's LMP2 Porsche Spyders from 2006-'08. This year Long and Bergmeister have scored four GT2 wins in the Flying Lizard Porsche and are leading the drivers championship by twenty-two points with just Petit Le Mans remaining at Road Atlanta on the first weekend in October. And in the GT2 manufacturers' championship Porsche leads BMW by one point and Ferrari by eleven.

I first met Patrick at Sebring ten years ago. We were there for Skip Barber's 'Big Scholarship' run-off and we chose Patrick as the winner because he demonstrated then the same skills he shows today, week in, week out, as a top Porsche factory driver. Just nineteen at the time, Long was fast, consistent, cool and analytical. He knew what he wanted from the car and how to make it better.

Patrick had been very successful in karts, winning American national titles in 1997 and '98 and also racing successfully in Europe. Long became the first American to win a major international kart race in twenty years when he won the Winter Cup in Italy in '98.

© Gary Gold
"As a twelve year old kid racing in Southern California," Patrick recalls, "there were these odd characters that came back from Europe and would talk about their experiences racing at the karting world championships and racing on these unbelievable European racetracks in rolling green hills. So I always aspired to get over there and to race in Europe and find out what it was about.

"My first opportunity came when I was fourteen and when I went over there I realized it was all that I had heard, but even much more. From a karting standpoint, I knew it was the mecca. I would learn in a summer what I had learned all year racing Stateside."

The following year Long moved up to cars racing a 1,600 cc Renault-powered car in the Elf La Filiere series. In 2000 Patrick raced in both the British Formula Ford championship and Skip Barber's Formula Dodge series where he was rookie of the year and Patrick's overseas forays and successes contributed to our decision to pick him at the end of that season as the clear winner of the $150,000 'Big Scholarship' prize. It paid for a season in the following year's Barber Dodge series, the first step on American open-wheel racing's ladder system at the time.

But Patrick decided to pass on the scholarship because he wanted to race in Europe. It was a tough but admirably correct decision for a guy who wanted to test himself against the world's best so he turned his back on a free season in America to race Formula Ford in the UK and Europe.

"It was definitely one of those pivotal points," Patrick remarked. "Skip was an integral part, as was Bob Bondurant, in getting me my first blast in cars out of go-karts. I had been involved with the karting school and the 'Big Scholarship' was something I knew a lot about and had always aspired to take part in, let alone win it.

"At the end of 2000 I had really been beat-up in my first year in British Formula Ford," he acknowledges. "I was a better driver because of it, but I really didn't have anything to show for it in results in Europe. But when I came back to do the 'Big Scholarship' I realized I was measuring up against some of the great promising talents that were at that run-off. At that point I was set in joining the ranks of the Skip Barber Pro Series which was a great feeder series at that point and had some great venues and weekends.

"Then I went back [to the UK] for the last two races in the Winter Series. I was with the lead team for Ralph Firman with Duckhams sponsorship and I was able to win the next weekend and really grew my relationship with my mechanic and team manager and with Ralph. A few weeks later the team came knocking hard and said they really wanted to work with me full-time to go after the championship. So I was left with a decision that I never wanted to take. Would I take Skip's $150,000 scholarship or drive for Ralph Firman's Duckhams team? It was incredibly difficult.

© Gary Gold
"It was a tough decision but I had to go with everything I had worked towards overseas and stick it out and try to rebound from a tough season in Formula Ford and go try to win that championship. I was still in that mindset of wanting to stick it out in Europe. At the time I felt kind of like the Lone Ranger over in Europe as an American formula car kid. A couple of other Americans had come and gone, but I felt like I had been over there quite a while and I was determined to make it work.

"So I called Skip and his people and explained my dilemma. They were very understading and supportive and it showed a lot about who Skip is and what the company was about. In the end it worked out, but it was a little bit controversial at the time."

Driving the factory van Diemenn Long won three Formula Ford races in the UK, finished a close second in the championship and also won a European championship race at the daunting Spa track in Belgium.

"In hindsight, it felt like it was the right thing to do," Patrick says. "I came within one point of winning the championship. I had three victories and won the pre-final in the Formula Ford Festival. So it panned out. It would have been tough if I had a disastrous year or the team lost sponsorship and had forgone what I had with Skip."

Long moved up to Formula Renault in '02 where he won a race and contended for the championship. Patrick was one of very few Americans racing in Europe with a chance of making it to Formula One and was chosen as a finalist in that year's original Red Bull F1 driver search program.

"I was aiming for the high pinnacle of the sport in Formula One and took a little bit more of a path to Formula One in 2001 when there was a surge in the quest for an American with the US Grand Prix running at Indianapolis. I was fortunate to be selected as part of the Red Bull Driver Search program and I figured this was the culmination of everything that I had been pushing for quite a few years. It was really timely when the opportunity came because I had just finished a season of Formula Renault, my first slicks and wings year.

"So that was a great opportunity but I was already being pretty realistic that it might not pan out. I knew that it was sort of a lottery. I'd been involved in lots of driver run-offs with Skip Barber and Elf La Filere and I didn't win every one of them. So I knew to keep my eyes open and shake a lot of hands when I had the opportunity."

Inexplicably, Long was overlooked by the Red Bull selectors in favor of Scott Speed. But in 2003 opportunity came knocking from elsewhere when Patrick was offered a contract with Porsche's Junior team to race in the German and British Carrera Cups and Michelin SuperCup.

"I was kind of given a career statement from the guys that were making the selection," he recalls. "Helmut Greiner was head of development in the German Carrera Cup as well as the Junior Team and he said to me, 'We think you might be good enough to go straight into the factory program. But we want you to race with the Junior team and learn about racing with a roof over your head and learn our culture. We want you to live here in Germany. We want you to be 110 percent focused on being a Le Mans champion for us in the future. We don't want you racing single-seaters in the off-season and living in England. We want your commitment. If you're ready to commit to us, we're ready to commit to you.'

© Gary Gold
"I guess I was pretty naive not to sign right on the spot. But I did my due diligence and asked everybody around me their opinion and it was so unanimous and strong that it made the decision easy. I've never looked back or questioned it since I made the phone call to Germany and said, 'Yes, I want to do this.'."

Long lived in Germany in 2003 and the first half of '04 before returning home to California after signing to drive full-time for Porsche in the ALMS.

"In '03 I lived in the next village over from Weissach and went to the office every day that I wasn't racing," he says.

In his debut year with Porsche in Europe in '03 Long won three races and took four poles from eighteen races and also finished fourth in his ALMS debut at Petit Le Mans in the fall. It was his first race in the United States in six years.

Patrick was also delighted to not only make his Le Mans debut in 2004 but to win the GT class driving a Peterson/White Lightning Carrera with Sascha Maassen and Joerg Bergmeister.

"I didn't expect to participate at Le Mans in my first year as a member of the team, let alone being in the lead entry," he relates. "It came together kind of late and quick, but there I was experiencing that race, which is a whole other world. Being able to be a member of the class-winning team that year, I felt like my horizons were expanding quickly. I was a late addition as the third driver and driving with Sascha Maassen and Joerg Bergmeister was fantastic because they were upper classmen with the factory team. So it was just a great experience.

"It was daunting," he adds. "I just remember being wide-eyed. I had great coaching from Sascha Maassen but it was by far the most challenged I had been as a driver. In a lot of ways I didn't smell the roses or soak up what it was all about because I was so focused on doing a good job. I knew what was going on around me and I was enjoying it, but I was super intense."

Long is now a Le Mans veteran having done the race the past seven years in a row.

"It's been seven years now on the trot and each year I've been able to experience the week itself a little bit more," he says. "I'm just absolutely honored every time I take part in that race. It's been fun. There have been different generations of my experience from being a new guy and finding my way to slowly coming into my own and then leading the French team."

In 2006 Patrick was hired as a part-time co-driver for Roger Penske's pair of Porsche RS Spyder P2 cars and became a full-time Penske driver in '08 paired with Sascha Maassen and Ryan Briscoe.

"It was surreal to drive for a guy that I used to wake up on Memorial Day and watch compete at Indy," Long comments. "It was really memorable and quite possibly when I look back in hopefully twenty years it was the highlight of my whole racing career.

"The coolest part was that Roger was calling the shots on the #6 car for myself and Sascha. He's such a hands-on guy and such a personable guy. I had definitely learned that in the previous two years. I had worked with Tim Cindric on the #7 car but working with Roger was really interesting.

"We never knew quite when he would show up during the weekend. Sometimes he'd be there before us and sometimes he'd fly in and put the headset on for the final practice. When Roger came over the radio there was an extra bit of energy and motivation to go out there and drive as hard as I could for him."

Over the past few years Long has further expanded his horizons, running a bunch of Late Model and NASCAR West races on both road courses and ovals. He's driven for seven or eight teams in five different stock car series. He also plays occasionally in sprint cars and on moto-cross 'bikes and will race an Australian SuperCar at Surfers Paradise next month.

© Gary Gold
"It's great to be able to roam around in other categories," Patrick says. "I think Porsche understands that we're race-crazy and we're out doing whatever we're doing on the off-weekends because it's our way to relax and be social and it's our way to fuel our passion.

"When you look back into the sixties the guys that are my heroes and the guys I enjoy reading about in my free time were the guys that were the best in whatever they did. But they were also the best at jumping into anything and going fast on an off-weekend or off-night, and that's what I want to emulate.

"I think there's not a lot of that these days. Some drivers haven't been outside one form of racing in ten years and for me to be in something different at least every few months is a lot of fun and also a great perk of driving for Porsche. We have the freedom to explore off-road racing and sprint cars and stock cars and anything in between.

"So that's my goal. That's what I love to do, just to drive, and that's a huge point about Porsche. They let us race other cars and that part of it is very exciting for me."

Patrick has no doubts he's learned a great deal from his stock car experiences.

"I really enjoyed it because there's not a lot of tire or brake or aero, but a lot of power and a finesse to the driving that I just loved. There was a rhythm to it that I really enjoyed. I really enjoy the low-key and down-to-earth culture and meeting new people and getting my face out to a new demographic of fans and telling my story of how I ended up in a stock car and what I do for my day job. I hope to do that with some off-road stuff in the next couple of years and keep up the stock car stuff when opportunities arise.

"I feel that racecraft on a short track and the way they attack on a restart and just how hard those kids push in the NASCAR feeder series has helped me raise my game in aggression and being right up on the wheel, as they say, when the green flag or the restart happens. The technical side of how you have to tune one of those cars has brought a different way of looking at things that sometimes has helped me. And just to become a little more worldly within motorsports. It's great pr, but it also has really helped my game.

"But it all takes a side seat to what I'm doing, which is trying to fight off Ferrari, Corvette and BMW and win the ALMS championship. It's about balancing that focus and making sure that it's only adding to my driving and never taking away from it."

Most of all, Long is proud to be a Porsche man.

"When I think of one word for Porsche, it's heritage," he remarks. "There's so much motorsport heritage around the company at all levels at Weissach and everywhere else. If I walk through the head offices in Atlanta nine out of ten cubicles have some kind of motorsports poster hung on the walls. It's kind of like being born into a motorsports family. It's cool to be around a company that's so motorsports-driven. Being able to be around their history is a great honor and opportunity."

He has no regrets that his professional career didn't take shape in open-wheel cars.

"It's unconventional to many people, certainly the people who only follow single-seater racing. But when either drivers or engineers come into sports car racing and learn what sports car racing is all about they appreciate it just as much as any other form of racing. I just feel fortunate that I was able to find my niche in sports car racing when I was still young and start to build my career."

Long believes he has an ideal teammate in Joerg Bergmeister.

"Joerg is a very interesting guy," Patrick observes. "Joining him has been a huge pivotal point for me. He's such an intense competitor, a technical guy, somebody who goes out and gets every last millisecond out of the race car. He's a great competitor and a very friendly and well-respected guy around the paddock.

"Joerg and I came from very different backgrounds. We're about as much the odd couple from our height difference to the way we attack the weekend to where we grew up. But you learn how to work with somebody and we've just grown as teammates and friends over the years. We have a special understanding in how to push each other and provide strength for each other.

"I've enjoyed that with a lot of teammates in sports car racing. There's just been something that works--an energy or level of luck that really works for us. I feel like when I go into a twenty-four hour race as a teammate of Joerg's that we both have a better chance of winning. I don't know what it is. It's hard to express."

Meanwhile, Long's immediate goal is for Bergmeister and him to win a second drivers consecutive ALMS GT2 championship and to wrap-up a fiercely-fought GT manufacturers title.

"It's going to be a show-down," Pat remarked. "We've got only one point over our opposition. We're not in a dominant position by any means. It's going to be as tough as it's ever been in my career to try to hold onto this championship."

His longterm goal is to win as many races as possible for Porsche in whatever category the German manufacturer decides he should compete. Persistent rumors suggest Porsche will return to Le Mans in the next few years with a new P1 car and Long would love to be part of that program if it materializes. Regardless, expect to see him in action in the ALMS for many years to come.

"The goal is to win the race the next weekend. It's just about pushing as hard as I can in every opportunity that I have. Right now, my radar is fixed on Porsche and sports car racing and going where Porsche's going, where ever that might be. The sport changes quickly, as we all know, and it's hard to put a five-year plan on where we might be competing. But definitely my five-year plan is to be involved with Porsche in whatever that may be and to try and win as many races as possible."

In company with one of the sports car racing's most respected brands Patrick Long continues to build his reputation as one of the world's best sports car racers. Week in, week out, Patrick shows that Americans can compete internationally in motor racing.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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