Cooper MacNeil figures he’s in a race car about 40 weekends a year, and this weekend¬†is the closest he gets to a home game.
With the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship racing Sunday at Road America, the 25-year-old native of Hinsdale, Ill., is back at the 4-mile track in Elkhart Lake¬†where he spent numerous days of his childhood, watching his father, David, compete in SCCA events.
The Continental Tire Road Race Showcase is set for 2 p.m. Sunday.¬† MacNeil, who is fifth in the GT Daytona class, co-drives the No. 63¬†Scuderia Corsa Ferrari.
He sat down recently to talk about racing, his active schedule and his transition into his family’s company, which has $500 million in annual sales and¬†also serves as the title sponsor for the series in which MacNeil competes.¬†
Q. With driver aids and tests of autonomous cars, we seemed to be headed technology-wise toward cars doing more for themselves. For a racer ‚Ä¶ nobody‚Äôs going to watch a race of self-driving cars, right?
A.¬†¬†We already saw how that worked out. At some street course they had two run together as a demonstration (at a Formula E race in Argentina) and they ran into each other.
Q. But you‚Äôre 25. ‚Ä¶ This is going to progress. Where are we going to be in five years or 15 years?
A. In my opinion there‚Äôs nothing like combustion. The old combustion engine. It‚Äôs very hard to replace, as good as that is. Sure there‚Äôs more efficient ways of racing and conserving energy. But that‚Äôs not the essence of motor racing. Not saying it has to be a dirty sport, but to some degree it can‚Äôt be a clean one. Hybrid technology is good. The LMP1 hybrid cars. But as far as pure electric cars go, I don‚Äôt see it. You might have these small, small series that are electric, but as far as mainstream IMSA, as far as ‚Äúlive on Fox Sports 1‚ÄĚ goes, I don‚Äôt see it happening anytime soon. Maybe 10 years out, there might be something, but people like ‚Ä¶ burning rubber, burning gasoline, burning oil. People love to hear the sound of the V8 Corvette go by. Take the sound away, it‚Äôs like ehhhh, it doesn‚Äôt do much for me or a lot of fans.
I know a lot fans can relate to the sound of a car. Especially people with disabilities like I‚Äôve met at the track sometimes, people that can‚Äôt see recognize sounds of the car. They know what it is. I think that‚Äôs cool. So having an all-electric car or something like that, it‚Äôs not all that special.
Q. Tell me about your season so far.
A. It‚Äôs going as a racing season does. Ups and downs. That‚Äôs the name of the game in any sport, for that matter. We‚Äôve had some trials and tribulations we‚Äôve had to work through. Lost my full-season co-driver (Alessandro Balzan) to a health issue. Had to work through that ‚Äď still working through at, as he‚Äôs gone for the rest of the season and we have to have someone drive with me.
The season has been up and down. We ‚Ä¶ had a great car at Daytona and had a steering wheel issue and finished top-10 or something, but then we finished second at Sebring, which was great. I felt that was really the start of the bright part of the season for us, and then Alessandro (Balzan) all of a sudden couldn‚Äôt drive. It‚Äôs tough when you‚Äôre driving a car that‚Äôs won the championship the last two years in a row with the team that‚Äôs won the championship the last three years in a row. So they have the biggest target on their back. The car has the biggest target on its back. And nobody wants to help it. Meaning IMSA doesn‚Äôt want to help it (with balance of performance adjustments) because it‚Äôs won. They don‚Äôt help it as much as they normally help cars that are struggling. So that‚Äôs difficult, not to say it should be easy. But obviously a level, fair playing field is all I can hope for, ask for. But when the¬† balance of performance is based on previous race results ‚Ä¶ the unfortunate evolution of the sport has come to BoP racing. So to win a championship, you¬† have to stay off the radar, which means finishing third, fourth, fifth every race. That‚Äôs how you win a championship. You don‚Äôt get weight put on the car. You don‚Äôt get restricted. You just float there and stay steady. I‚Äôd like to go out and win every race, but I can‚Äôt. That‚Äôs one of the nice things about IMSA is there are eight or nine manufacturers in GTD, so there‚Äôs a lot of competition. And competition is a good thing. If it was easy, there‚Äôd be no satisfaction in winning.
For instance, Le Mans this year, we were running really, really strong all week. Qualified well and we were running top-three the first 16 hours of the 24-hour race until Jeff Segal, my co-driver, locked up the rear wheels braking too late in the Mulsanne Corner and sailed it off into the gravel and got stuck in the gravel for three laps. We fell to ninth and fought our way back to finish fifth. Bittersweet. Because I really felt we had a podium car there.
(Three)¬† races ago at Watkins Glen, we had two penalties and a fire. My other co-drivers each had one of the two penalties, and when I was getting in the car on pit lane the car caught on fire during refueling. At Mosport, I started and it was a 2 hour and 40 minute race and Jeff Segal finished. I qualified ninth, which the position wasn‚Äôt all that great but the times were all close so we knew we had a somewhat competitive car. Not to the Lexuses; they were in a class of their own. I had a great stint. I drove very well. One of the best stints I‚Äôve had all year. Ended up coming in in fifth place, legitimately. Then Siegel got in and blew the red light at the end of pit lane and got a stop-plus-60-second penalty. I had to¬†leave right after my stint to fly to Portland to do a vintage rally with my sister in an old Aston-Martin. I‚Äôm not even there and I look at the timing and all of a sudden we‚Äôre down a lap. There‚Äôs only so much you can do and the rest is out of your hands. When I‚Äôm in the car, I try to do my job and do my job to the best of my ability and hope¬†everybody does theirs the same way.
Q. One of those things that comes up in sports-car racing all the time is driver changes, but I didn‚Äôt realize until you walked in, you‚Äôre ‚Äď what ‚Äď 6-6?
Q. Do you have trouble with finding compatible drivers that way?
A. No. Surprisingly. The types of cars, the Grand Touring cars we drive¬†are big, where you can put somebody my size in it or anybody that‚Äôs smaller than me. We just have a seat insert. In the Ferrari, for example, the pedal box is adjustable, fore and aft, a good amount, about a foot, about 10 inches. And the steering wheel telescopes and goes up and down. So when I get in the car, I slam the pedals all the way forward, which is just a little lever, which is super-easy, and move the steering wheel where I want it and off I go. I get out and Balzan, who is a lot shorter and his legs are a lot shorter, needs an insert that is two-sided so that part of it goes under his butt and part of it goes behind his back to get closer to the steering wheel. I jump out, he puts his insert in, he jumps in, we don‚Äôt even change the belts because I‚Äôm so far back and he‚Äôs a bit ‚Ä¶ I would say ‚Ä¶ ‚Äėwider‚Äô than me. So the belts work out perfectly. So to go from somebody that‚Äôs 6-5, my height, to Balzan, who‚Äôs 5-6, is no problem. In the Porsche, the Porsche is a beetle, it‚Äôs got a bigger greenhouse, so there‚Äôs plenty¬† of room in the Porsche. Mercedes was a little different in the way it was designed. It didn‚Äôt have much elbow room,¬† which was my limiting factor. I need elbow room to drive the car and move my hands fast when I need to. That‚Äôs the issue. But the Ferrari, I fit in great, which was one of the reasons we moved to it, because of it being a strong car but also because I fit better. Very doable. Even though the seat is fixed to the ground ‚Äď it‚Äôs not on sliders ‚Äď everything else moves. No big deal.
Q. You finished your degree ‚Ä¶
A. December 2016, I graduated.
Q. Are you putting it to use? What‚Äôs your long-range plan for mixing real life with racing?
A. When I was in school (at the University of Colorado), it was balancing racing and school and now it‚Äôs balancing learning the company and racing. So my degree is in economics, and every day when I‚Äôm at the company learning, it helps for sure.
As far as a long-term plan goes, I‚Äôm spending two to three months in each department of the company, learning everything from the bottom up, which is the right way to do it, and putting in my time, basically spending an intensive amount of time in each department learning the company, separately, not taking off too much at once.
I started in sales. I was in the factory showroom from 8 to 5 every day, talking to people, talking to customers all day, every day, seeing what they want, what they like, what they don‚Äôt like. ‚Ä¶ It was a good learning experience. Then I moved to production, so I was standing at a thermoforming or injection molding machine from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. ‚Äď that‚Äôs the first shift ‚Äď every day for a few weeks straight, making floormats, making mudflaps, making license plate frames, making floor liners, making all sorts of things. So now I‚Äôm in the wholesale department, putting in wholesale orders in the computer, talking to the wholesale people on the phone, learning how the wholesale side of it works. Next might be R&D or machine shop. I don‚Äôt know. Whatever my dad has me do.
So I‚Äôm putting in my time and learning from the bottom up rather than just coming in and trying to tell people what to do when I don‚Äôt know how everything works. Not only gain knowledge that way of the company¬† but also gain a lot of respect from the employees for putting in my time, which is important. So a year or two from now, when I‚Äôm all done with that, where I‚Äôm going to be, I don‚Äôt know. But I‚Äôll probably run some part of the company. Or not. I might find myself doing something else. You never know. I don‚Äôt have a magic ball that tells me where I‚Äôm going to be in three years. Obviously family-run. My dad started it, so I‚Äôd like to keep it in the family, and he‚Äôs grooming me to do so.
Q. Yeah, I was kind of curious when you‚Äôre in a situation like that if following is always the way people want to go or sometimes you want to branch out, like OK, Dad did this and I‚Äôve got this other idea to go off and do another thing.
Q. I come up with ideas all the time for stuff, for new products. Sure, I could go off and do something else. But why? There‚Äôs so much infrastructure already there for me to take advantage of, to learn about and to grow. Sure, I could go try to do something else, do it on my own, yeah, and that‚Äôd be great. But we recently came out with coasters for cars. We sold different sized coasters for home. And one day working in the showroom, I thought, ‚ÄúWhy don‚Äôt we make these for cup holders for cars?‚ÄĚ So I sent my dad an¬†email, worked with our engineer on designing the thing and sizing and getting the right angle of flanging going into the thing. Two weeks later, three weeks later we had a prototype and then two or three months later we were in production and year to date we‚Äôve sold 15,000 sets of stupid little car coasters. If I wanted to do that on my own, I‚Äôd need a machine shop with CNC machines to manufacture, first I‚Äôd need CAD design to design the thing, then you¬† go to the production of the mold, after you‚Äôve tested the prototypes, which I don‚Äôt have the SLA machines, which are¬† half-million dollars, to make prototypes. And then¬†you go to the CNC to make the mold. And then you go to production ‚Äď they‚Äôre injection-molded ‚Äď so the injection-molding machine. If I wanted to make a little car coaster without all of that, good luck. So, yeah, I‚Äôm going to stick with the company, I think.
Q. So far you‚Äôve got the boss‚Äô ear. That helps.
Q. You mentioned going from balancing school and racing to balancing business and racing. How do you do it?
A. It‚Äôs a very interesting question. In school, I had a student-athletic form for racing so I was able to miss classes and miss assignments and miss tests without being penalized. Which was important. You could only miss 10 or 7% of classes, and I missed 70% of classes. So I would have been kicked out a long time ago. That¬† helped. So when I was at the racetrack, I concentrated on racing and driving the race car fast, and when I was at school, I focused on school.
But now that I’m out of school, it‚Äôs no different. When I‚Äôm at the racetrack, I focus on racing.¬† When I‚Äôm at home, I‚Äôm at work, learning things at work.
For example (the week of July 15), Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, had I not gone to Laguna Seca and not come up to here to talk to you guys, I‚Äôd have been at work, learning about the company and then flying to Lime Rock tomorrow morning. I don‚Äôt have a 9-to-5. When I can, I do, basically.¬†
Q. It does largely work together because there‚Äôs advertising involved for the business (in racing).
A. Exactly. Which is nice. It‚Äôs tough,¬† but I try to wear as many hats as I can.
Q. What do you want to accomplish in racing? In sports cars you can go another 40 years. Do you have other things you want to do? Try?
A. By and large it‚Äôs winning championships and winning big races. Been on the podium at Sebring three times; won it once. Finished second at Daytona. I don‚Äôt have a (Rolex Daytona) watch yet, so I‚Äôd like to win a watch. Le Mans ‚Ä¶ I‚Äôd like to win Le Mans, which I know we can do. Last year finished third, this year fifth. I want to win the Ferrari Challenge championship, which I‚Äôm leading and there‚Äôs three rounds left. I haven‚Äôt won that championship ever. For me, the biggest thing is Le Mans. That‚Äôs the most prestigious, longest-running, most difficult endurance race there is. Still like to win that.
But I also enjoy cool stuff,¬†like I want to do the Mongol Rally, which is 37 days and 10,000 miles long, which would be super cool. I‚Äôve done Tour Auto twice. I‚Äôve won Tour Auto overall this year in a¬†1974 (Porsche) RSR with Gunnar Jeanette as my co-driver, which is super cool. Just cool car events. I‚Äôve raced at pretty much every racetrack I‚Äôve wanted to race at, so now it‚Äôs about winning big races and championships.
Q. What all are you racing?
A. Between IMSA, the Ferrari Challenge, Le Mans and historics, and testing. So, if I‚Äôm not testing the GTD car because I can‚Äôt (only four tests are permitted), we‚Äôre testing the Ferrari Challenge car. Or I‚Äôm driving, like I said, I was driving a vintage car in the Portland Rally, the Sportscar magazine rally in Portland, all last week. Tour Auto, we‚Äôre in the car for a whole week. Hill climbs. Wheel-to-wheel racing. That‚Äôs all seat time. If I wasn‚Äôt at Lime Rock, I‚Äôd (have been) out at Road America with my dad ‚Ä¶ racing a vintage car. I‚Äôm racing the Monterrey Historics this year ‚Äď not the pre-HIstorics, because we‚Äôre at VIR, otherwise I‚Äôd be there ‚Äď which is the Rolex Monterrey Reunion thing, which is a great event. And then Rennsport this year. Rennsport it every four years, a big Porsche event. So I‚Äôm driving three or four different cars that weekend. Every now and then we do the Classic 24 Hours at Daytona. I‚Äôve also done the Classic 12 at Sebring. I‚Äôm sure there‚Äôs some stuff I‚Äôm missing. Monday and Tuesday at Road America, we‚Äôre testing eight or nine different cars for various reasons. But that‚Äôs still seat time. Last year it was, like, 40 weekends.
I’m fortunate enough and humble enough where I‚Äôm in a position to do that. I don‚Äôt have to be at work from 9 to 5 every day. It‚Äôs a great experience, and I‚Äôm taking advantage of it, because why not?
Q. Your dad still races, but how much was he doing when you were a little kid?
A. A lot. He started racing in 1979 in a Dodge Neon, because that‚Äôs all he could afford, and won the June Sprints in 2008. So he had race cars for a long time. Stopped racing in the early ‚Äė90s to fly airplanes. Flew airplanes for 10 years or so before¬†started again in the mid-2000s. Finished second at Sebring at ‚Äô99. Mainly he did SCCA stuff. He didn‚Äôt have the time or the money or desire for professional racing. His only professional race was ‚Äô99 at Sebring, the 12-hour, when he finished second with Alex Job. But growing up I always went to his races. Kind of caught the bug that way, and obviously the business is automotive-related and racing cars is cool. So why not?
Q. You got to race with him (as a co-driver) once? Multiple times?
A. Historic racing,¬†the 24 at Daytona. The only pro race is Daytona a couple of years ago, when we were second with an hour to go, catching first a second a lap. That‚Äôs because our wing was slowly going from down force to up force, so our car kept getting faster and faster until the wing broke and Shane (Van Gisbergen) went spinning off the track. We would have won. My dad, it was his first time doing Daytona, so he would have been a winner for his first time doing it. Then the wing broke, so we went from hero to zero, as they say. He did one stint ‚Ä¶ and that was it. That‚Äôs the only time I‚Äôve really co-driven with him in a true capacity.
Q.That‚Äôs a cool thing from a family standpoint. Is there somebody you‚Äôd like to co-drive with from the racing standpoint?
A.My dad‚Äôs at just about every race. But he is very supportive of me and very invested in it. So he wants us to perform and do well. He‚Äôs always there on the pit stand with a radio, seeing what‚Äôs going on and talking to me on the radio sometimes. So that‚Äôs cool. It‚Äôs nice to have family involved.¬†As far as co-driving with ‚Ä¶ it‚Äôs a good question. I‚Äôve already driven, in my opinion, with some of the best sports-car drivers on the planet. Jeroen Bleekmolen, who I won an American Le Mans Series championship in 2013. Shane Van Gisbergen,¬† factory Red Bull driver. Alessandro Balzan is in my opinion is one of the best, as well. We don‚Äôt really hold back when we want to put someone in the car. We want to win. We spend so much money. So we don‚Äôt really have a budget, so to say, for a co-driver.¬†¬†Would it be cool to co-drive with Fernando Alonso or Jenson Button or Mark Webber or Kimi Raikkonen or, or, or, or? Sure. But there‚Äôs also something to be said for team camaraderie, and bringing one superstar in for one race or two races or something, that doesn‚Äôt really appeal to me too much. It‚Äôd be cool to drive with some of the guys, but it‚Äôs all about building a relationship with your co-drivers, and Gunnar (Jeannette)‚Äôs been driving with me for many years and we get along great. And Balzan and I have known each other for three years, and we get along better than Gunnar and I do. That‚Äôs important. It really is a team sport. There‚Äôs only one person driving the car at one time, but there‚Äôs so much more behind it that is important, team camaraderie being one of them.
Q. All right, you live in Northern Illinois and drive fast cars. Hwy 57, there‚Äôs a few speed traps. ‚Ä¶ It‚Äôs been 15 years since I met any of the local greeting parties. How about you?
A. No. Not up here. Well, actually ‚Ä¶ there‚Äôs one good story.
Downtown Elkhart, it was 11 o‚Äôclock at night on an SCCA weekend, rain, pouring rain. You go around the corner and then there‚Äôs that stop sign (at the intersection of 67 and A). ‚Ä¶ I was turning left to go to wherever I was staying. I was driving a six-speed, E92 BMW M3. Great car. It was wet, and I was 18. You push the “m”¬†button, and the ‚Äúm‚ÄĚ button you can pre-program in the computer to turn off that (driver aid) or leave this on. I had it programmed to turn everything off. Because I‚Äôm 18 and stupid. So I‚Äôm at the stop sign and I turn the steering wheel left and give it a little stab of throttle and may have had a nice, beautiful drift around the corner. I never exceed 20 mph. Maybe¬† the wheel speed did, but the actual speed of the car never exceeded 15 mph, 20 mph. I‚Äôm not going 90 mph.
¬†And, well, what I didn‚Äôt see when I was turning left was facing this way was a cop sitting there. So I had this nice little drift, cruising along, no big deal. I turn left into the parking light, there are the lights, here we go, I know what this is about. Well, thank God the cop was a car guy. By the time he pulled me over, the rain had lightened up. He comes up in the parking lot. I‚Äôm getting out of the car already when he pulls up. And my excuse at the time was, oh, I‚Äôm new at this. I‚Äôm 18 years old, just trying to figure out stick shift and I just got out of the gas station back there to put gas in it ‚Äď which was true ‚Äď so my feet were wet and slipped off the pedals and I got a little too much throttle in it. Hook, line and sinker, he took it, and then we started talking about the V8 engine and it was no big deal. ‚Ä¶ And I won the race that weekend.
I learned my lesson a long time ago with the law. We don‚Äôt need to get into that.
What:¬†Continental Tire Road Race Showcase¬†
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Road America, a¬†4.030-mile road course in Elkhart Lake
Length: 2 hours 40 minutes timed
TV: FS1, 1:30 p.m.
2017 winners:¬†Prototype – Pipo Derani and Johannes van Overbeek,¬†Tequila Patron ESM Nissan DPi;¬† PC – Pato O’Ward and James French,¬†Performance Tech Motorsports
ORECA FLM09; GTLM – Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller,¬†Ford Chip Ganassi Racing
Ford GT; GTD –¬†Jens Klingmann and¬†Jesse Krohn,¬†Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3