Porsche Factory Driver Patrick Long On What It Takes To Win, Start An Aircooled Revolution, And More
At 35 years old, Pat Long has achieved more in racing than most will ever dream of. He’s had 5 class podiums on behalf of Porsche at Le Mans. Yeah, five. Not to mention the fact that he and his dear pal Howie Idelson have created one of the most beloved events brands in the world, Luftgekühlt, centered around Southern California’s 60 year love affair with everything aircooled.
He’s a humble man who I’m proud to call a friend of Petrolicious, and even more proud that he was able to find time to sit down for this interview.
Photos Courtesy of Porsche & Nevin Pontius of Deus Customs
Ted Gushue: Patrick, what is the first car that you ever remember driving?
Patrick Long: It was probably a ’78 Suburban out on a back road in Iowa driving through the corn fields. I was 9 years old. We were racing in Marshalltown, Iowa.
TG: Racing karts?
PL: Yeah, and it was so hot that they basically canceled the afternoon runs and said, “We’ll start when the sun starts going down,” so we were out killing time looking for trouble when my dad threw me the keys.
TG: When did you start racing karts?
PL: I was 8 years old, which was the minimum age. I had a $75 garage sale special go kart that my dad and uncle found and gave to me when I was 6. I started driving that in backyards of unfinished homes that my dad was installing stairs into. On a weekend he’d lay out three cones and I would just drive literally a hole into the ground going in circles. It was total independence for me and was something that never got old.
TG: When did you start winning?
PL: Right away, actually. I found some good success my 1st year. Picked up a sponsor by my 3rd race which was a local chassis maker in Simi Valley, California. We went to the nationals on a whim as a rookie. I can’t remember where I finished. I think I finished 9th. It happened to be in California. It was a traveling circus. It was all that mattered from a very early age. Probably the lust of it is high from the beginning as it ever has been.
TG: Did you have an advantage at that age? I imagine if you weighed 20 pounds less than most of the kids or something you would have a significant advantage.
PL: Yeah, there was a minimum weight. No issues there. The only way that that hurt you is if you were a really big kid and you couldn’t make minimum weight. My advantages from a young age were that I was smooth and I was able to find the speed through feel, and where I was weak was in racecraft, aggression, fighting my way to the front. I wasn’t a fighter. I was a craftsman. I had to learn the art of actual sparring, if you will.
TG: You went from karts to?
PL: Next step was entry-level formula cars. I spent a lot of time with Bob Bondurant out in his facility. He was importing the go kart that I was racing for, that company. He was very gracious to not only give me time in his cars, but to run with me wheel to wheel, share a car, go wheel to wheel in the Formula Ford. My first race season was in Europe, I won a scholarship from Elf Fuels to live in Le Mans, study full-time while racing on the weekends.
TG: This is at what age?
PL: This was 16.
TG: You’d just legally been allowed to drive in America and you get an invitation to live at Le Mans…
PL: Not even close to being able to legally drive in Europe. There were a lot of scholarships in the late ’90s for karting kids. It was finally a boom where karting kids were being recognized as the talent of the future. You had a lot of main level Formula 1 drivers, especially European IndyCar drivers who had a huge background in karting. Before that there were some guys who were SCCA Autocrossers or short track sprint car guys. It wasn’t clear cut karting, but in the ’90s it became clear to a lot of companies and so they started to invest.
TG: That’s not crazy to think about though, because Senna was a kart racer. It wasn’t unheard of.
PL: No, it wasn’t unheard of, but for the U.S. to stand behind karting as one of the or only way to be there. That was a big deal. Karting was all around, but it hadn’t received that token “Gong Show” scholarship that allowed kids like me, who didn’t have the money, to otherwise fund a jump to car racing and would have otherwise just stayed in karting unless they were able to pick up a private investor.
TG: Then in 2003 you were scouted by Porsche, but before that you were in a Red Bull competition? Did I miss a step?
PL: No, not really. There was another five years of racing in Europe, cutting my teeth against the melting pot of kids who were all trying to get to the Formula 1 top. Three years in England, year in Italy, and a year in France. I didn’t have the funding to make it to Formula 3, which was really the last step.
TG: How often is that the case for some of the kids that show promise that don’t necessarily have the financial backing?
PL: 99%. I was at a talk the other night with a motorsport hero of mine, and he used one word to describe a racing driver, and that was “determination,” and it was really because of having to find your way to the pros when there’s so much funding needed takes determination. Yeah, there’s more cases than not of guys who didn’t make it because they didn’t have the funding.
TG: Famously, again not to mention Senna, but his parents were industrialists from Brazil. They were able to fund basically carte blanche his entire childhood racing career.
PL: Lots of wealthy, very talented and deserving racing drivers end up in the majors. Even if you go back further, that history of having to have the means in order to compete at a level and get picked up is very clear. For me I had a carpenter and a surfer as a dad, and he took me as far as he could, but then it was about finding people who were willing to give me a shot, Red Bull being one of them. They decided they were going to find an American for Formula 1. We had a grand prix in Indianapolis and we had no American hero. Red Bull, an Austrian company, ironically stood up and said, “We’re going to go scout all of North America and we’re going to bring 16 of what we consider the best drivers from short track racing all the way up to Toyota Atlantic,” which was the feeder for IndyCar.
I was lucky to be in that first group, which received easily the most amount of attention. Through that, I met the Porsche guys. They had always wanted an American in their team. The last one probably being Hurley Haywood. David Murray and Randy Popes had short stays, but they hadn’t found their American guy and they thought this might be a chance.
TG: If you had gotten a nod for Formula 1 would you have taken it?
PL: At that point, yes. The Red Bull scholarship didn’t promise you Formula 1, but it was probably the only shot I had at it. In hindsight, I don’t think I would have survived their program, so it probably would have been the end of the road for me if I did win that scholarship. The reality was I didn’t, and Porsche saw something in me that they didn’t and it just all worked out in a fairy tale strange way.
TG: How did the programs differentiate in a way that maybe 50 years ago they didn’t differentiate? 50 years ago you could be someone who raced Formula 1 on a Sunday, race the Baja on a Wednesday, and then…
PL: Yeah, Formula 1 still is a discipline that is very, very unique. You’re in such different equipment team to team that it’s you versus your teammate, and among many other challenges before that point.
My style of driving that I’ve learned over the last 14 years of being with Porsche is that I’m a guy who likes the low grip technical, moving target type driving, that seat of the pants, more of an old school effect. The new age, high down force, one way in, one way out is not my strength. Therefore, other than the temperament of the program that Red Bull had, I don’t think the style of driver I am would have got me far enough. I was very, very fortunate to have that crossroad and luckily it’s worked out.
The way that Porsche grooms their drivers versus a single seater program like Red Bull is black and white, night and day and the temperament worked for me. Porsche was a family. They took you under their wing. They tried to let you grow in their culture. At Red Bull it’s one thing: It’s be the fastest guy or get pushed to the side.
TG: Is there a funnel within Porsche that drives people down into the LMP class? Do you guys stop off along the way in the GT2, GT3 class? How does that structure work?
PL: It always evolves. In 2005, we announced as Porsche that we were coming back to prototype racing with Roger Penske. Fortunately, I got that gig as one of the GT members. Actually, all the drivers full-time were graduated through the GT system into the LMP. The second time around, which is the current 919 crop, there was only one driver from GT, and the rest came from single seater disciplines mostly, the Formula 1 type guys, Brendon Hartley, Neel Jani, Mark Webber. This program is different.
I’m just content as a 911 guy. That’s kind of my specialty, whether it’s a GT3R or a cup car, an RSR, whatever we deliver these days race-ready, I have to keep a discipline that I could be able to be thrown into any version of a current-day 911, and put it right on the edge in any type of tire or rules category. Then my newfound love is to be able to drive any 911 that’s ever been created, from the beginning. The vintage craft is something that I work on in my spare time.
TG: How would you compare driving a GT car to a LMP car?
PL: It’s back to that discipline of a bit more seat of the pants instinctive, more weight moving around, more of a reactionary type of driving, compared to LMP which is razor sharp, at the very edge of aerodynamics, and now even more technical with hybrid systems, autoboosting etc. It’s very, very, very cutting edge, the most technically advanced racing in the world, I would say even above Formula 1.
GT racing is certainly moving in that direction. I would say that GT racing, from downforce, power-to-weight, and technology is at an LMP level from 10 years ago. It’s quickly narrowing, and if you look at the modern spec GTE car that runs at Le Mans, it’s almost a prototype 911.
TG: Have you driven the 917K or any of the other beasts of yore?
PL: I have, yeah. I drove this last year the 917 Gulf, I think it was the ’70 or ’71 Spa winner, just restored by Porsche and drove it hard. Loved every bit of it, just a completely unexpected experience.
TG: Could you have been a competitive driver back then?
PL: I think my chances of being a competitive driver back then would have probably been better than they are now. It’s more my style, again, of driving every lap a little bit differently. Certainly having that mixture between speed and being easy on the equipment because so much of it was getting those cars to the end, but doing it quickly. Those are the types of things that I love.
That’s why I play with vintage cars and collect vintage cars. I love the interaction that a driver has. At the same time, I think that day and age there was one other really important part of that, and that was huge, brass nuts because those cars killed a lot of people. I could never imagine what that feeling was like to line up on the grid amongst guys you’d raced against your whole career and know that there was a good chance one of them wasn’t coming back from that race. That part of that era I can’t even comment on.
TG: What was the first vintage car that you drove?
PL: Strangely, it was the Fletcher Aviation 550 Spider, the iconic Porsche family-owned car. I was a junior. I was back at that time where I just had signed in 2003. We went to the Mercedes museum opening in Stuttgart where they had invited BMW, Audi, and Porsche to bring some of their cars and run through a makeshift race track in the parking lot and on some of the city streets. I just showed up there. I couldn’t tell you the difference between a 356 and a 912. I was completely naive.
Klaus Bischoff, who’s still a huge piece of the rolling museum, threw me the keys, and I said, “Mr. Bischoff, how many RPM? Where do I need to shift?” He said, “The engine will tell you. You rev that thing as hard as you can and shift when it doesn’t pull anymore, and win the race.” My opponent was Jochen Mass in a Gullwing. It was just surreal. People lined the streets. They were off the curb standing between you and the curb and we were sliding those cars around the streets. Something I wouldn’t do these days for sure. It’s been downhill since then [laughs].
TG: When did you buy your first classic?
PL: I waited. I guess I wasn’t sure what I wanted and I wanted to be sure. I was able to drive a lot of really cool stuff. I started studying motorsport history of Porsche, but I didn’t have the street car sense at that point. I quickly realized when I started researching a car to buy that the crossover between nationally-recognized race team owners and crew chiefs and mechanics were guys who were the cream of the crop of shop owners, car hunters, tuners, builders. The people like Rod Emory and Joey Seely, these guys that we just built LuftAuto with are guys that I worked with 10 years ago in motorsport.
It was so easy to pick up the phone and ask Kevin Roush, or Mark Hergesheimer or anybody, “Hey, what do you think of this car? Do you know this car? Do you know this guy? Can you check this car out for me?” Back East, it was just so many people that helped out. That made it easy, but it also is the reason I’ve ended up with more cars than I have time to play with because every time a car comes across the desk and it’s this word of mouth deal and they’re like, “You have to grab this,” I’ve been naive enough to grab a few too many.
TG: What’s in your collection now?
PL: Right now I’m working through the ’60s to the ’90s, a ’66 912 and a ’61 356 is what I have in the ’60s. Both bought them from the original owners and they just have a complete history and a lot of little things I’m working through. They’re by far the most perfect cars. In the ’70s I have a narrow-body 73E that’s pretty hot underneath the hood and the rest of it looks stock. From the outside it’s light ivory. That’s my regular go-to car because it’s sort of a dress up, dress down. 72E is a hot rod flared project car and then ’81 930 car which is another one that’s a very low mile car that’s working through some bugs. Then a ’91 C2 that’s just a low mileage, pristine car that’s really fun to take my wife to dinner in.
TG: When did you first meet the guys that now make up Luftgekühlt?
PL: Howie Idleson, my partner, we go back to 25 years ago at the go kart track.
TG: His kids are now huge kart racers as well?
TG: Runs deep in his family.
PL: Very deep. Howie was a pioneer. I couldn’t say it any differently. He was not only one of the first Americans to go over to Europe on a regular basis, but he was a design pioneer. He pushed the boundaries in karting in the late ’90s from an aesthetic side, from team building side, from bringing in companies like Nike to go karting that no one had ever dreamt of. I looked up to him. My dad and him were more friends than I was. I was 8, 9 years old, but I knew he was the guy that we all wanted to be.
After I left karting, we just stayed in touch as friends and we started collaborating on design projects together, me from the practical side of being a driver, him from the designer/driver racing shoes or team clothing or transporter design. He does all types of stuff like that. It was him and I. I wanted a fresh vision, certainly a creative vision, because I don’t consider myself to have one cell of artistic ability in my body. He wasn’t from the vintage Porsche world or from the sports car world in any of that sense, but he had a great vision and he had a great network of people in this area, the west LA area, that helped get Luft going. Again, it was just supposed to be a fun, one time event on a Sunday morning and it’s kind of taken a direction itself.
TG: What goes into the production of something like that? Is it purely a Rolodex game? Is it networking, what is it?
PL: It’s different than a lot of car experiences, we’re as focused on the non-automotive side as we are on the car side. From the car side it’s clear that we want Porsche product, vintage, air-cooled product, but we want to recognize all different types of genres and owners. For that reason, there’s not a huge criteria there other than trying to have a few special cars that are recognized as our flagships for each event. Then, from the organizational standpoint away from the automotive, it’s about the venue. It’s about telling a story of a different world and of a different brand. That part has been the most fun and the most eye-opening.
The goal was always to cater to the non-automotive enthusiasts as much as it was the car guys. I think as car guys we’re all a little bit sick. If there’s great cars around or like minded people, we’re content, but to sell the non-automotive people on a car experience is not always easy. We’ve had to be eyes wide open. That’s where the creative, non-vintage Porsche side of that cross pollination fits in.
TG: The Deus Ex Machina guys.
PL: Yes, Bandito Brothers, which is a film production company, Modernica, a mid-century modern furniture company. Worlds that are very close to the vintage car world, but in some ways very far. That’s been the actually the low hanging fruit and the fun side. It’s not been a challenge to find people in that world.
TG: If you hadn’t had the race success you’ve had, do you think it would be as easy to pull off something like that?
PL: I don’t know. I certainly think that the network has helped us more than anything. I think the relationships of people I’ve known more than 10 years are really the influencers who have helped get our name out there. Without that network, without my racing network, who are also vintage car legends, no, I don’t think we could have done what we’ve done in this amount of time. That’s where we owe all of our appreciation.
TG: To go back to racing for a minute, what was it like when you first stood on the podium at Le Mans?
PL: First year at Le Mans on the podium, it all happened in one year and that was overwhelming. There’s people that have raced Le Mans 25 times and never been on that podium. There are so many variables beside the driver. It’s an amazing test of car and team. A trio of drivers to stay out of trouble for that long, so many stars have to align. For me, in the beginning of 2004, I only had hoped that I could one day take part in that race. I had been there 3 times before as a fan, as a aspiring driver. I got a really late call up to be on that team and it ended up being the favorite team for the championship that year.
TG: Who makes the call? Is there a team manager? Walk me through that architecture.
PL: Actually, in that sense, which is a lot with a Porsche factory driver, I’m one of 10 drivers underneath an umbrella as a representative of Porsche who is plugged into different programs around the world. It’s a little bit of a spreadsheet. You’re sort of placing your soldiers where you need them. I don’t know why or how there was a 3rd seat in the favored and most experienced car.
This is Petersen White Lightning, a team out of Las Vegas. They didn’t really know me. I think that Porsche put the trust in me to not fuck it up. I was certainly the liability and the rookie on the team, but my teammates, Jörg Bergmeister who went on to be a teammate of mine, I was a teammate of his for 8 years and Sascha Maassen, who is now one of the legends of Porsche and looks after all of their young drivers. I had two very good mentors sharing a seat with it.
TG: What are the personalities like of the guys that you race with in that class?
PL: Motorsport, auto racing drivers are just a mixed bag of very extreme personalities from all different sides. I would say that if I could just focus on one thing, you have to have a pretty strong ego to put a car on the edge time and time again for a few reasons. 1, you have to have a willingness to show your ability to anybody who will pay attention over and over again. You have to be that little kid that goes and circles in his driveway and just wants dad to watch him jump over a piece of wood 100 times.
TG: Is there some sort of god complex involved where you’re not afraid to die?
PL: I don’t know if it’s that as much as it’s something else that’s a bigger focus. I think there is always a risk management side of motorsport, but when your helmet’s on and you’re elbow to elbow, you could use any parallel in life, when you’re in a process where you’re not really assessing risk, you’re not really assessing much at all. You’re in a moment of road rage or you’re in a fist fight or you’re jumping off a high dive. You basically shut that out to do what you’re set out to do.
I believe drivers are fueled by many things, but I think you have to have a bit of ego. Drivers wear ego differently. Some are extremely good at keeping that under their hat, but that’s, to me, one of the parallels of the many championship drivers I’ve been able to share a seat with.
TG: Do some people have bigger egos than others?
PL: Certainly. I think I would even say people have a better way of utilizing their egos for success.
TG: I’m also putting that question the framework of 30 or 40 years later, we still talk about Hans Stuck. We still talk about Derek Bell. We still talk about James Hunt. A lot of these guys that had larger than life personalities. Who are those people that we’re going to be talking about in 40 years time?
PL: I think in many ways, what makes a Stuck or a Bell or a Hunt legendary is not only did they get it done on the race track, but they had a personality off the race track that made them memorable in whatever direction that was, that is somewhat stripped away from today’s racing driver.
TG: It’s more homogenized, more professional, more corporate. The amount of money that you have to be associated with comes with a huge risk management team.
PL: I think there are also more eligible drivers to pick from. With technology and with science and with the art of understanding physical fitness simulation, all the things that drivers utilize these days—and where you’ve taken pro sports and pushed it to the very pinnacle. If you look at a Tour de France rider of 30 years ago compared to today, when you had someone who was “the man,” it might have been that he could stand to be a little bit more himself off the race track, because the teams were still going to go with him because he had that edge.
TG: Right, like you can’t get caught in a hotel room with two supermodels at 4am these days.
PL: There are plenty of drivers capable on track who are waiting in the wings as an alternative plan, so you have to be a little more careful, but if you look at a Lewis Hamilton: Lewis is getting it done no matter who wants to argue with him, he’s getting it done on the race track. Off the race track he’s pushing boundaries, so it’s still possible, but I think better be…
TG: I wouldn’t say he’s pushing too many boundaries. He’s doing a lot of hashtag blessed and praise the lord kind of thing. That’s the biggest message that comes out of his outside the track life.
PL: If you look at his social media, he’s not afraid to be posting photos in the Bahamas this weekend in a tank top, partying hard in the race season. I don’t think there’s another guy on the grid that’s posting that or doing it. I guess my point is, if you’re going to be on it off the race track, as long as you’re getting it done on the race track, it’s hard to hold it against you. I think that’s the only parallel I can pull from 20, 30 years ago till today is if you have an edge you can probably get away with it.
I think there also is a page turning right now. With social media there’s a new sense of ROI for people who advertise in motorsport. I think that that’s actually going a little more retro in that kind of playboy mentality, because there’s a new set of eyes watching what you’re doing. It’s not just wearing a label, now it’s following that “reality show”.
TG: It’s brand placement for a watch on a wrist kind of thing.
PL: For sure, and look, we’re tracking everything through impressions and likes and tags verses Joyce Julius reports. I think we’re just starting to see the start of it.
TG: Have you already started working on next year’s Luftgekühlt?
PL: No, right now we’re sort of in a transition phase. The last Luft got to a size where we had to decide whether we let this continue to grow at the rate it’s growing or do we mix it up for a couple years and change the format a little bit? We’re sort of in a lucky place where we can afford to take a few months off and just let the emotion die a little bit and review. Big aspirations to visit some new markets, but always stay true to our roots.
TG: How do you syndicate something like that that is so Southern Californian by nature?
PL: It’s pretty clear in my mind that when we do finally accept an invitation from some of these cities that we’ve aspired to even travel to, let alone throw a show at, that it will have to be pretty much split right down the middle. The DNA will be half the Luft you know, which is a West LA car culture mixed with the I guess originality of Porsche, which is a huge central focus for us, to kind of keep that original state there as well.
TG: What cities have approached you?
PL: You know the air-cooled world. It’s a small world. There’s people all over who are like, “This is what we want. This is what we want. Come and let’s do this where we live.”
TG: How do you feel about the knock off events like all those other things that are not necessarily trying to copy you, but aren’t not trying to copy you?
PL: I think that it’s flattering that people might follow a few of the things that we’ve done. By no means do we see ourselves as pioneers. We’ve taken pages out of other people’s books. It just motivates us to keep it fresh and keep the next shows unique and different. I think all along we’ve been guilty and celebrated for leaving a little bit of the show a mystery.
There has to be some part of the show that is a surprise. That’s fun and it also takes a little bit of pressure off of us, cause we’re kind of making it up as we go.