During the 2016 Long Beach Grand Prix, I was introduced to Kyle Marcelli, a driver who is currently in the midst of running two concurrent championships in two completely different cars, Protoype Challenge in IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship, and GT in Pirelli World Challenge. During this particular weekend, he was driving in both series the same weekend, at times in back-to-back sessions. What follows is the transcript of a 15-minute conversation with Marcelli as he chats about the challenges of driving two championships, the driver's plight in securing seats, and the transition from his love of hockey to his passion for motor racing.
Ryan Jurnecka: As the lone full-time Audi R8 in Pirelli World Challenge, how does the car measure up to the competition? What are its strengths and weaknesses?
Kyle Marcelli: Audi definitely builds a great car. This is my first time with the Audi. When the car was introduced back in 2012, it was sort of the top of its class in terms of downforce. Now a lot of the other manufacturers have introduced their latest GT3 cars and I think the McLaren has superseded us in terms of downforce. Brake zones—we're pretty strong there. The only place we really struggle is straight-line speed, which makes racing difficult. We're still able to get a quick lap time out of it, but overtaking is a challenge because we just don't have that straight-line speed. And at the same time, that makes being defensive a challenge. The team is looking to possibly move to the latest generation R8 maybe as soon as mid-season, if not for sure next year. This would be the last year for this generation of R8, I would assume.
This is a really experienced group in this series. The CRP Racing guys have been here for a while. They first ran Nissan GTRs in 2011, and then they switched to the Audi R8.
RJ: Now you've kind of raced everything. You've done open-wheel, you've raced ALMS prototypes, and you've raced several different types of GT cars from Camaros to Ferraris. And you're doing double duty this weekend racing PC (Protoype Challenge) in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship. So how is it managing two different series?
KM: It can be a challenge, especially when the cars are so different. You know, when you're racing a prototype in one series and the same day a GT car in another series, although double duty is common for many drivers. More often than not, I'm racing a Porsche here, and also a Porsche in IMSA. So being in two completely different cars is a challenge, but it's sort of like feast or famine. Some years you're struggling to get into a few races, and in other years you've got so much going on. I've got 34 race weekends this year, so it's really busy.
I came up the single-seater ranks and spent four years in the LMP class in the American Le Mans Series. Around 2013, it was kind of a conscious decision; I was trying to get myself into a GT car. There's just a lot more manufacturer interest and support in GT racing. At the end of the day, that's the goal—aligning yourself with a manufacturer. So some opportunities have come up—with Scuderia Corse in the Ferrari. Last year was with Mantella Autosport with their Chevy Camaro, this year with CRP and the Audi. The World Challenge is a really killer championship right now. Almost every GT3 manufacturer is here. It's my first year in this series, but it's where I've wanted to be for a while.
RJ: What are your impressions so far racing in the series?
KM: It's sooo competitive. It's just a dog-eat-dog kind of thing. Qualifying is crucial. Track position is so important. These are 50-minute sprint races. Where you start is a big part of where you finish. You really can't expect to move up a ton because these guys are all pros and nobody really makes mistakes on a competitive basis. So you take advantage of little mistakes here and there, you gotta throw a Hail Mary once in a while to make a pass happen, but it's really competitive and an exciting series to watch.
RJ: And I bet qualifying is even more crucial at a street circuit like Long Beach.
KM: Yeah, we just came from St. Petersburg [Florida], where it was very much the case there, and qualifying largely determined the race outcome. So that's certainly a focus this weekend. Again, with my lack of knowledge in the Audi R8 and with the Pirelli tire, I'm trying to come up to speed as quickly as I can. It's a new tire compound this year, so we're just trying to wrap our minds around that and how quickly the tire comes in during qualifying.
Historically, the R8 is a car that takes five or six laps before it puts in a real flyer. I think with this new Pirelli tire compound that peak happens a lot sooner, around lap two or three, and we need to make sure that the car is there at the time and that we have the tires up to temperature at that time. So that's a goal of ours this weekend to really wrap our minds around that.
RJ: Now let's talk a little more about you. You kind of got started in racing a little late compared to most people. You always hear about drivers starting out in go-karts at the age of 3, and yet you started at the ripe old age of 11?
KM: Yeah, so I grew up in Canada, in Ontario, and played hockey since I could walk. My two uncles and my father were kind of motorheads. My uncles raced dirt bikes and motorcycles; I was always kind of the mechanic for them. I had a dirt bike when I was young. I just liked to drive fast, liked to drive the lawnmower, drive whatever! The one uncle of mine who was a motorcycle racer took me to the go-kart track for the first time and I just fell in love with it. There was a real connection and passion with it right away. So I gave up hockey at age 13 and pursued this full-time. And ever since then, not a day has gone by when I'm not thinking about racing and how to do better and further myself. It's in the blood now.
RJ: So let me ask you a job interview-type question. Where do you see yourself in five years? You're pretty deep into GT racing at this point. Did you just want to do one particular series at some point in the future?
KM: Yeah, as you try to build your career, as a racing driver, it's just a really tough gig. There are very few professional paid opportunities out there, and there are way more professional, talented drivers who are capable of those seats. So it's just about being in the right place, right time, networking outside of the car, and when you're in the car, doing a great job. So some years, like I've said, you'll end up with a six-race schedule because that's all you're able to put together. Other years, like this year, I'm at 34 weekends. So ultimately, the goal is for me to be a factory driver. I would love to continue working with Audi for the next decade. If it's not Audi, I'd like it to be another manufacturer. It's just about building relationships, doing well on the track, be a good face for marketing off the track, and I need a little bit of luck. It's not ideal to run more than one championship, I'd say. You just can't give 100 percent of yourself when you're doing multiple things, but it's just kind of one of those deals. This year, for me, I had nothing up until the Wednesday the week of Daytona 24. I landed in Orlando, turned my phone on, and the text message came in, "Kyle, you got the deal—you're in the car." And I was like, "OK, you're in the car this weekend!" At that time, I didn't have the World Challenge thing, so I committed to the IMSA program, but I was kind far along trying to get a World Challenge deal, and I wanted to be in a GT car. It was another two weeks before the Circuit of the Americas [PWC opener] when this deal came through. I hope now that I have two good programs, I can build these relationships, do well in the car, and hopefully by October or November we can redo a deal for the following year, because the sooner the better.
Marcelli went on to finish fifth in the Pirelli World Challenge event, and third in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship race.