The 76th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans marks a historic first for Greg Pickett and his Team Cytosport organization. The California-based team has made the trip across the Atlantic for their first twice-around-the-clock French marathon. But it's not just any old race for Pickett, as he has now fulfilled a lifelong dream of competing in the most legendary endurance race in the world.
"A lot of people get the dream of motorsports," Pickett said. "If it's down in the Southeast, it's the Daytona 500. If you're a dirt tracker or live anywhere through the Midwest, it's the Indy 500. For me, for some reason, I've been dreaming of coming to Le Mans. And really, it's taken me a lifetime to get here."
Pickett, a successful businessman and accomplished racer, has now taken on the challenges of competing at Le Mans. But he's not gone in alone. The former Trans-Am racer has linked up with Sam Hignett's Team Jota organization to help run the team here. Entered under the Charouz Racing Systems banner, the No. 12 Muscle Milk Lola B07/14 is also receiving support from engine provider Judd, which will extend into the team's return to the American Le Mans Series next month.
With two well experienced Le Mans veterans in Klaus Graf and Jan Lammers joining Pickett behind the wheel, the team is well prepared for the challenges at hand, even if they can't go up against the mights of the factory diesels in LM P1.
"You have to get realistic when you get here," Pickett said. "There's a proper way to go about this as a factory team; that's one level of competition. Then there's a proper professional way to go about it as a privateer. Then there are privateers that come here that look like they will have a difficult time. We're trying to do it the proper professional way for a privateer team."
One of Pickett's goals before heading to Le Mans was to be familiar with the circuit. He credits time spent in Pabst Racing's simulator in Sonoma, California for teaching him the tricks of the 8.5-mile Circuit de La Sarthe. Pickett spent over 30 hours in the ultra-realistic simulator that racing stars such as Scott Pruett, JJ Yeley and Tony Stewart use on a regular basis to train for upcoming races. Every possible detail is replicated, including the use of real race telemetry and car setups, making the experience as close to reality as possible.
"I could actually talk Klaus around like I've almost been there," Pickett said. "It took me ten or 15 hours in the simulator to get under a four-minute [lap time]. You make a mistake, and the car is going to go around. You make a big enough mistake, and it's going to go in the fence. When you come out of the pits, you have to be careful on cold tires."
On top of his invaluable experience at the wheel of a racing simulator, Pickett has continued to keep up with his fitness. At the age of 61, Pickett is the oldest driver in this year's race but that doesn't faze him. In his state-of-the-art gym, Pickett trains regularly with good friend, and four-time Super Bowl champion Bill Romanowski, and feels that he's in the best shape of his life.
"I'm in better shape than ever in my race career," Pickett said. "There's no question about that. I feel stronger, I feel better in the car. My heartbeat is the lowest it's been in 20 years... Life is about new experiences and challenges. I think that's what really enriches your life and I'm thankful to be able to do this."
Pickett is not afraid to hang up the helmet once he slows down, though, but he feels he's still at his highest level. He and Klaus Graf spent many years battling each other in Trans-Am, and now the duo are co-drivers and close fiends. Graf is now even associated with Pickett's company, Cytosport, which is behind the Muscle Milk and Cytomax energy supplements. While Pickett was not able to develop as a professional driver earlier in life because of his business commitments, Graf compares him to German racing legends Hans Stuck and Klaus Ludwig, who also still both racing today.
"People think he's a gentleman driver," Graf said of Pickett. "To me, from all the stories I know and the racing he did, he to me is a driver on a professional level who never became a professional because of circumstances. Because the business was always there, I think he made the right decisions in life. With his knowledge and his experience and his technical skills, he's far more than a gentleman driver. I think that makes a big difference."
When the tri-colour drops 3 p.m. Saturday afternoon for the race start, Pickett will be behind the wheel of his Lola, living a dream that's taken a lifetime to fulfill. He'll certainly be relishing every moment of it.
"You never know when it's going to happen again," Pickett said. "I didn't want to go through all this effort and not do any laps in the race. My guys have very nicely agreed to go ahead and start the race.
"I'm sure it will be very emotional. When I finished the test day, I was kind of letting it all soak in. When I took my helmet off, I actually had tears coming down my eyes because it was such a dream come true."