A conversation with Jon Bennett
ROCK HILL, SC: As the LMPC class in the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patron enters its second year of competition, a new team has set the pace in 2012 headed by ex-Prototype Lites racer, Jon Bennett.
After two races, Bennett’s CORE autosport organization leads the teams and driver’s championship with Gunnar Jeannette and Ricardo Gonzalez heading the title chase after their Long Beach victory.
Bennett and teammate Frankie Montecalvo sit second the championship with a second place at Sebring to their credit and fourth on the Long Beach streets.
CORE autosport took the Prototype Lites driver’s and team’s championship last year and Bennett’s team look to have successfully made the graduation to becoming a successful American Le Mans Series team.
Q: WHEN DID YOU FIRST BECOME INTERESTED IN MOTORSPORT?
JB: “Racing for me has always been a passion since I was about eight years old.
“Some kids grow out of it but for others - like me – the motorsport addiction just became worse and worse.
“I didn’t come from a motorsports family but I did have a neighbour who did some SCCA racing.
“I certainly had dreams of being ‘found’ as a racing driver but that really wasn’t going to happen when I wasn’t actually on tack competing.
“I didn’t have the money to go circuit racing but I did a lot of competition stuff in autocross and gymkhana events in parking lots from aged 16 through to the end of college.
“I graduated with a mechanical engineering degree and was a bit tired of driving around parking lots at that stage.
“I started earning a living and began building an SCCA road racing car – a Volkswagen Sirocco.
“Money was a bit tight so I started with a car that was headed to the junkyard and did all the work on it myself – the engine, roll cage, paint.
“I had a good time with that but I certainly longed for more. I lusted after things like Formula Atlanta and C-Sport Racers but at the time trying to purchase an $80,000 racing car was just out of the question.”
Q: HOW HAS SUCCESS IN BUSINESS ENABLED YOU TO FOLLOW THAT MOTORSPORT DREAM?
JB: “I remember complaining to a colleague at work that I really needed to triple my income so I could fund this habit. He encouraged me to take a risk and go out on my own and I established my own company in 1995 that specialized in engineering problem solving – mostly using my knowledge of composites.
“Composite Resources did a lot of engineering studies for companies and some of my clients started asking for more than just reports.
“First they wanted prototypes, then clients wanted us to make more units so we went from design, to prototyping to full-scale production and manufacturing.
“Things really took off in the late 90s, early 2000s and today we have a 110,000 square feet manufacturing facility, 150 employees and sales of around $50m annually.
I had become really serious about racing at that stage ...
“As the company began to make its climb I started to move into more and more exotic equipment on track.
“I drove a Spec Racing Ford for five years and the competition was extremely tough. I certainly learned a lot about racing in that class.
“I moved up to Formula Enterprises in SCCA competition and not long after that on the business side, Composite Resources was really hitting some home runs.
“After talking it over with my wife, I made the step up to Prototype Lites and was racing on American Le Mans Series weekends.
“I really loved the car – it is a bit of a cross between a Formula Atlantic car and a C-Sport Racer.
“I had become really serious about racing at that stage and I had some really good people on board at Composite Resources. That enabled me to have more time on my hands than what I had when I started the business.”
Q: HOW DID YOU BECOME AN AMERICAN LE MANS SERIES TEAM OWNER?
JB: “My Prototype Lites car was being prepared by Inspire Motorsports out of Florida but I wanted to step things up a notch – take things to the next level for development, testing and equipment.
“We started discussions and eventually I purchased Inspire in April last year and that is what has turned into CORE autosport today that now operates out of Charlotte.
“We had three Prototype Lites cars including my own and I discovered that to really enhance my performance I had to step up my fitness and I was lucky to run into Morgan Brady in the gym one day.
“He was wearing another team’s t-shirt and we started talking about racing. Morgan was looking for a job at the time and with his background, he proved to be the perfect man to lead CORE for me as Team Manager
“Morgan has extensive experience from Formula Atlantics and studied motorsport at Cranfield University in the UK. He really has helped me bring this team together.
“Securing good people is incredibly important in the success of any company. I discovered that with Composite Resources and the same has held true for CORE autosport.
“Under his direction, we had a very successful Prototype Lites season with my teammate Charlie Shears winning the driver’s championship and CORE autosport winning the team’s title as well.
“We had all three cars in the top six and I had a couple of podiums so everyone was very pleased with the results.
“At the end of the season my wife and I started to look towards the future and where we wanted to take CORE autosport.
“I am now 46-years-old – not the end of the world – but age is certainly a factor and we figured if I was ever going to do it, now was the time to step up into the American Le Mans Series.”
Q: WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THE LMPC CLASS?
JB: “We looked at both LMPC and LMP2 and Morgan really talked me out of making the step straight to LMP2.
“It would have been a big expense and huge step up due to the sophistication and complexity of the car.
“LMPC seemed like the perfect stepping stone to eventually graduate to LMP2 or LMP1.
“We began shopping for cars at Petit Le Mans last year and we secured the Level 5 cars and all their spares.
“We did a test day at Carolina Motorsports Park to shake them down and then announced we were going to make the move into the ALMS.
“Fortunately for us, Gunnar Jeannette came to see us along with Ricardo Gonzalez and Frankie Montecalvo. They had some budget, we had some cars and people and we quickly became a two-car team ready for our debut at Sebring.
“Our goal was really to try to get both cars to the finish at Sebring but to come away with second and third on our debut was really incredible.
“My car with Frankie and Ryan Dalziel was only 35 seconds behind the leader and Gunnar, Ricardo and Rudy Junco was in third only a lap down after 12 hours.
“It was definitely a very big moment for me – getting a champagne shower was certainly not what I expected at the start of Sebring week. We were thrilled to be able to demonstrate that the team was capable of stepping up from Prototype Lites.”
Q: WERE YOU SURPRISED TO SEE YOUR TEAM IN VICTORY LANE SO EARLY IN THE SEASON?
JB: “Going one better at Long Beach was fantastic with Gunnar and Ricardo taking the win and myself and Frankie in fourth. We struggled a little bit in qualifying with my car as this was the first street circuit for Frankie and myself but to come away from Long Beach with our first win and going into the Le Mans break running first and second in the championship is extremely rewarding for everyone involved in the program.
“Just being able to make the grid was our initial goal but we have probably raised our expectations a little now and will be working extremely hard to challenge for the title.
“If we could pull that off, it would be an amazing result for our team and hopefully we can turn that momentum into an LMP2 program for 2012 – whether that be a program supported by manufacturers, sponsors or funded drivers.
“Ultimately, we’d be extremely keen to take the challenge to the ultimate level and compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2013.”
Q: WHAT IS THE SECRET FOR YOU IN TIME MANAGEMENT WHEN IT COMES TO OWNING A RACE TEAM AND ALSO RUNNING A SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS?
JB: “When I was running SCCA races at one stage I was doing all the preparation work myself. I wasn’t actually able to do that many race miles because I was so busy with work.
“A race weekend is really a full week’s commitment with all the preparation in advance and unpacking after the weekend – let alone the travel.
“Time is very valuable and I decided to use a prep shop to look after the car so I could concentrate on my business.
“Concentrating on the business side of things more than made up for the costs of having someone else looking after the car.
“That was an important delegation lesson but I did miss the tinkering around with the car in the garage at night.
“Finding the right people to delegate too is what we are really concentrating on at CORE autosport.
“I have very talented people at both Composite Resources and CORE autosport and I can now turn up at the race track and switch from being a business owner to becoming a racing driver.”
Q: BEING BASED IN CHARLOTTE, HOW MANY PEOPLE PRESUME YOU RACE SOME KIND OF STOCK CAR?
JB: “About 98 per cent! It is a little discouraging but there is a bit of a cultural separation between road racing and stock car racing.
“The average person on the street certainly doesn’t know what SCCA racing is. In Charlotte there is certainly a lot of room for growth for the American Le Mans Series name and hopefully our team can play a part in that.
“I often have to stop and explain what we do for people. There are a lot of standard questions including ‘does one driver do the entire 24 hours?’.
“It was really my corporate career that really brought me to Charlotte rather than the racing but being based here is certainly not a disadvantage as there is so much racing infrastructure.
“Over the years I have watched Charlotte grow from being in the shadow of Indianapolis to probably becoming the new Indianapolis.
“It has been very interesting to watch the enormous elegant race shops grow and the motorsports industry really start to thrive.”
Q: WHERE WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE CORE AUTOSPORT IN TEN YEARS TIME AND HOW LONG DO YOU SEE YOURSELF COMPETING AS A DRIVER?
Greg Pickett is my hero at the moment ...
JB: “Obviously at my age there will come a point where it won’t be practical for me to be in the car but I have to continue to maintain my fitness and improve my performance.
“Greg Pickett is my hero at the moment – if I can still be competitive at his age that would be fantastic.
“From the team perspective I’ve got some other role models whose footsteps I’d like to follow in. I have enormous respect for what owners like Al Holbert, Duncan Dayton, Seth Neiman and Rob Dyson have achieved in sportscar racing.
“That is what I would like to see CORE autosport evolve into. We still have a long way to go and we have only taken a few baby steps but that is our long term target.”
Q: HOW BIG A CHALLENGE WOULD COMPETING AT THE 24 HOURS OF LE MANS BE?
JB: “Morgan and I are going to go to Le Mans this year on a research trip as spectators to find out a little more what the race is all about.
“We need to work out whether this is something that we really want to chase.
“There are two ways to do things. I could either write a check and go and race with a European team or take our entire team to France to tackle it as CORE autosport.
“I need to make a decision on what is the right thing to do. I would certainly be proud on so many levels if we were able to make it with our own in-house effort.
“However, initially we need to find out what it is going to take.
“We’ve made a lot of friends already in sportscar racing who are surprised and interested in our program.
“Bill Riley from Riley Technologies has become a friend of the team and he would like to sell us a car to take his brand back into ALMS prototype racing and we’re also racing an ORECA chassis in LMPC at the moment.
“They have an existing relationship with Gunnar and we’ll catch up with those guys while we are in France as well.
“There are a lot of possibilities in the future and we’re very excited to go and see what the race is all about.”
-source: core autosport