Legendary Sports Car Hero Ready for Redemption after losing LB race last year
LONG BEACH, Calif. – Veteran Johnny O’Connell first drove at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in 1986. He still remembers he didn’t finish the race.
Last year, O’Connell was the first driver to take the checkered flag but he didn’t get the win some 30 years later after his Long Beach debut. Despite the bitter loss in 2016, Johnny still loves the atmosphere at the “Road by the Shore.”
“Long Beach is a great party for the sponsors and fans,” O’Connell said. “But the partying part disappeared a long time ago for me. You learn what you need to do to prepare for each race. The hardest thing for a driver is to get that first win at a race track. But now at Long Beach, I have a bunch of wins there. There is so much to do at the Long Beach race for the fans. It is one of those races everyone wants on their resume. Southern California embraces the race so well. It has the street race atmosphere. There is an electricity to the race. It’s special.”
Now, the 54-year-old four-time Pirelli World Challenge GT champion comes back to the streets of Long Beach on April 7-9 for a little redemption and fond memories of the race he calls the “U.S. Monaco.”
“We won the race on the track last year and the officials moved us to second after a pre-race inspection for being over boost with our turbocharged engine which was a blink of an eye,” said O’Connell, the 20-time PWC race winner of Flowery Branch, Ga. “So, I want to get back to Long Beach and rectify that win. I want another first-place trophy from Long Beach.”
The sports car legend has numerous victories at Long Beach including his last one in 2014 in the 50-minute Pirelli World Challenge sprint event in his popular Cadillac. But last year was tough to take for “Johnny O” after a sensational pass for the lead midway in the race over 2016 GT champion and pole winner Alvaro Parente.
“The cool thing last year was that I really respect all of my competitors but Alvaro Parente, who got the win after the race, did a very awesome deal,” said O’Connell. “He finished second on the track but I went to him at the next race (Barber Motorsports Park) and gave him the winning trophy. But he said to me, ‘Dude, you won that race. Please keep the trophy.’ And that showed me a lot of honor from him.”
Now, the personable O’Connell returns to Long Beach with his bright red No. 3 Cadillac Racing Cadillac ATS-V.R. machine against a stellar GT field which includes some of the most exotic GT3 sports cars in the world with likes of McLaren, Porsche, Ferrari, Mercedes Benz, Bentley, Acura, Audi as well as the Cadillacs.
“Pirelli World Challenge is insane how good it is right now,” Johnny said. “You have factory drivers from around the world battle nose to tail at every race. Guys like Patrick Long and Alvaro Parente are some of the best sports car drivers in the world and they are incredible to race with. We have young guys like my teammate Michael Cooper who will have a great career ahead of them. The series is a destination where top drivers want to be.”
After O’Connell established himself as an endurance legend with wins at Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring, he thought that driving a Cadillac in PWC might be a downturn his racing career. But it has made the former race driving instructor at the Bondurant School event better and his record proves it. He scored four consecutive series titles from 2012 to 2015.
“You know when I got out of endurance racing with Corvette, I felt a little disappointed,” he explained. “But now in the Pirelli World Challenge, I can’t really put into words the excitement of this type of racing with these incredible GT3 sports cars. I love showcasing Cadillac to the world with the ATS-V.R. model and racing the likes of Porsche, Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes, Bentley, Audi, Acura and others is a thrill right now for me. I have no regrets with the move to Pirelli World Challenge. It is a great series and we want the fans to take notice of the competition level.”
In addition to the driving level in the series, O’Connell enjoys the technical aspect of the machines in the GT division.
“The technology of these GT3 cars is really crazy,” he said. “You have paddle shifting, ABS brakes, traction control and not only do you have to be a good athlete in the car but also a technician out of the car relaying information to your engineers. It’s funny, guys in the IndyCar paddock come over and look at our cars. They want to race them. I know several of the IndyCar drivers have asked around to see what it would take to do a race in a GT3 sports car.”
After the Long Beach loss and dropping the coveted title to Parente in 2016, O’Connell has a renewed passion for a run for a fifth Pirelli World Challenge championship. He believes he is ready for another win in the streets at Long Beach and a quest for another crown.
“We missed out on the championship last year,” said Johnny. “We had one weekend when we had an electrical problem for two races. But without that, I think we could have had five straight Pirelli World Challenge championships. So, this year we are going to connect all of the dots and make sure that we pull it off.”
But racing against drivers half his age, O’Connell still possesses the fire of a young man seeking to reach the level the Connecticut native has already achieved.
“Back in 1986, I was a young punk in my career and I had a great enthusiasm for the sport,” he said. “I still have that drive and will to win. But now I also have that experience and it helps us a lot against the young guys who remind me of myself 30 years ago. These kids are good and I still love racing going head-to-head with these guys.”
When it comes to racing at Long Beach, few have the record of O’Connell or the drive of a 54-year-old who is still in the prime of his racing career.
Practice for the Pirelli World Challenge at Long Beach begins Friday (April 7) at 3:30 p.m. PDT. The 50-minute GT sprint race is schedule for Sunday (April 9) at 10 a.m. PDT with the CBS Sports Network same-day telecast set for 2:30 p.m. EDT.