Think your 40-minute commute is exhausting? Try driving for a full 24 hours. In an uncomfortably hot cockpit. Neck-and-neck with the world’s most skilled motorists. At full throttle.
That’s Kuno Wittmer’s life. The Quebec-born hot shoe has won some of the world’s most challenging endurance races (first place in last year’s GTD class Daytona 24 Hours, 2014’s GTLM class United SportsCar Championship). That makes the 33-year-old one of today’s fiercest Canadian speed demons.
As the BMW Team RLL driver gears up for the six-hour Watkins Glen International on June 4th, we caught up with him at Toronto’s Buca — for the launch of Michelin’s new Pilot Sport All Season 3+ Tire — to talk shop about the Canadian racing industry, the Wittmer legacy, and just who in their right mind would push the pedal to the metal from sunrise to sunset.
You’re known for doing a lot of endurance races. What it like to race for 24 hours? I can’t even imagine…
So the first race we have at the beginning of each year — the one I ended up winning in 2015 — is the iconic Daytona Rolex 24 Hours. It’s right up there with the Indy 500, the Monaco Formula 1 race, the Lamont 24 Hours. And it is a gruesome, gruesome race. It’s tough! It is so tough — physically, mentally, everything — it’s just so tough. You’re three or four drivers versus just one or two, but still, it’s literally like doing an Iron Man; it’s physically so tough on you. But those are the iconic ones. We’re at the Daytona 24, Sebring 12 Hour in March, and the last one at the end of the year, which is the series finale in October, and that’s in Atlanta, called the Petit Le Mans. It’s a perfect 10-hour race.
“[The] Daytona Rolex 24 Hours [race] is so tough — physically, mentally, everything — it’s just so tough. But those are the iconic ones.”
How does one prepare for a crazy, multiple hour race?
The thing is, when you’re in motorsport, it is by far the most expensive sport in the world; the amount of resources we go through, the amount of research and development we do, it becomes extremely costly. For me to practice and get behind a wheel, it could cost you anywhere near the range of $200,000 to $500,000 just for testing one day at a track. So you cannot always be on track: you need to prepare differently, on your own as a driver. For me, the best thing that works is doing a lot of high-intensity physical sports. I’ve done Iron Mans, I’ve done triathlons, marathons, and cycle races. Every morning I’m in the gym doing one muscle group per day. Then in the afternoons it gives me time to go home and put some nutrition in me, because that’s the most important thing of it all. I don’t want to be too frail or too underweight, but keeping a low body fat is very, very important. I think a lot of drivers don’t understand quite what dieting they need.
It’s funny, because the casual observer might not think race car driving requires that much physical upkeep.
You’re absolutely right. Because once we’re in the cockpit, you have to factor in we’re wearing a full three-piece fireproof suit, boots, gloves, a five-pound helmet — and you go around corners with G-forces on your bodies, on an average of 2 to 3 G’s, left to right, front to back, non-stop on the laps. Just one lap is quite sufficient, but multiply that by 80 laps that you’re in the car; it just exponentially gets very draining on your body. Plus, the biggest factor we face is heat. The heat inside the car, sometimes can easily rise above 45-50°C. All you have with you is a litre and a half of water. Then you’ve got to keep focus at 300 km/hr and race twelve other competitors in the blazing sun. It gets quite mentally draining as well, on top of physical.
I’ve got to ask: do you ever take naps during these 24-hour races?
I think once I was walking back to my motorhome and I fell asleep against a light pole. I was so tired! It’s really, really difficult to try to fall asleep. For those long weekends, all the drivers have motorhomes we’ve had to rent, or some drivers own. It’s really important to have because you can go lie down, and change, and supply nutrition, and get all the fat you can back into your system, and all the water and all that. It’s really, really vital. If I have ever slept through one, I think in all the 24 hours I’ve done, which is well over a dozen, I think I’ve slept maybe half an hour in total at all those races. I mean, you just cannot sleep. You try to get some shut eye, but you’ve got the TV on following the race, and you’re on the radio at the same time listening if anyone needs another driver, and then you’ve got to run, you’ve got to get dressed; it’s quite difficult.
Do your engineers keep the physical toll of racing in mind?
You know, when you talk to engineers, they don’t really care about that. [Laughs.] Engineers just want you to go faster. If you say, “My body this, my body that,” they’re going to look at you like, “What? Huh?” But the tires are probably the biggest factor on the car. In our class, in our category, we could choose any tire manufacturer, and BMW & BMW Motorsport have chosen Michelin. There’s a long partnership and it is probably, truly, the best tire for endurance racing. Michelin has won the Lemont 24 Hour over and over for countless years now. When they come to the track, everything is proper: everything is set up right with the right information, the right tire data, we have the right engineer at our disposal that’s under our tent for the three or four days that we’re racing. Because if we start talking about the car and the way it’s handling around corners, and we need to make an adjustment to the suspension or the wings or the transmission and all that, the engineers need to be part of that. They need to go, “OK, perfect. So we’re adding more strain to the tire,” or, “We’re adding more heat to the tire.” It’s very, very technical. And that’s why you need to have engineers there — not sales people — that really understand the tire in depth, and can guide us in the right direction so that we can win.
“In ’85 they didn’t really believe in helmets, and I look back at the pictures now and am like, ‘Yikes.'”
You’ve recently been giving the Michelin Pilot Sport A/S 3+ performance tire your co-sign. Why?
You can tell that when Michelin’s engineers do something, they’re very, very passionate, and I think that all radiates right through the customer’s tire. What we do is not customer racing, it’s professional factory racing, and the tires that we have are not available for purchase. But what they develop for our cars radiates right through the ranks, right through production, marketing, and the whole ladder system, right into the customer tires for winter, all seasons, summer… any tire! Any Michelin tire that a customer could buy. There’s a place to test the performance, and that’s a racetrack, for sure. But something else that we, as drivers, bank on solely is safety. We can’t afford to go 300-320 hm/hr at Daytona on the banking and have a tire explode on us. We can’t have that.
Did you always want to be a racecar driver? It’s not your typical career choice.
Yeah. I mean, I grew up in a racing-type world: my grandfather, father, and uncle, all three of them were drivers in the ’60s and ’70s here in Canada. They were born in Germany, came over in the mid ‘50s, they all migrated over and opened up a business here in Canada selling cars. They sold Hondas, but at the same time they were racing rallying little Hondas. My grandfather was five-time champion in Quebec for rally cars, and my dad, in the late ’70s, won two championships in the Honda series. I remember at age three — and it’s quite ironic we’re talking about this because just yesterday I did the exact same thing for my son — my father had bought me my first little gas-powered ATV. In ’85 they didn’t really believe in helmets, and I look back at the pictures now and am like, “Yikes.” But my son just turned 20 months and I’m like, “OK, I gotta get a head-start on this.” I went to Wal-Mart and I bought him a little electric BMW i8 car that he’s been driving around: yesterday he drove it for two hours and burnt the battery out. So, I mean, it’s pretty cool. At 7, that’s when I really started to get into ATVs, a little bit more of motocross… I would never stick in ball sports like my brothers, but it was always motors; anything with motors; anything that made a sound. Then at 15, that’s when my dad looked at me and said, “OK, do you want me to take you to racing classes up at Mont Tremblant?” I’m like, “Oh, what’s that? OK! Cool, let’s try that.” And really the rest is history.
Do you think the Canadian racing scene gets enough support these days? Compared to the US market? Is there an infrastructure for people there to break into the scene?
It’s very difficult, I would say. It’s easy enough to get your classes and to get a car together for not too expensive, and to go have fun. That’s no problem. But to make it professionally: there is no structure there for that at all. That’s when you have to go either to Europe or North America: I’m going to say North America because the racers that I race with right now, we do touch into Canada a little bit, but it’s based out of the States. I’ve tried to help the community a little bit. For example, at the end of the race seasons, I give out a trophy — the Kuno Wittmer Trophy — to the most accomplished, decorated, humble driver that I see deserves it, at an amateur level. It also comes with a $2,500 cheque that could help boost that driver into the next season. That’s based on my judgement, and I feel that’s a pretty good initiative on my part to go forward and do that. And I think that if we, if all the professional drivers that are racing internationally, would get together and help establish a proper foundation in Canada, then we could have a proper series that people could make a living off of, and pull in some manufacturers to race more here in Canada. Because let’s face it: we’ve got some of the most beautiful circuits across the world right here in Canada, we have the fans who are just completely nuts when it comes to racing, and that’s what you need. Not to be rude or mean toward the United States, but there are some tracks there that don’t even draw in half the people that we could have here. That’s common knowledge.
You were speaking about your son. Would you want your son to go into racing?
Oh, uh… Yes and no! Because the thing is, I look at the sport, and I have been through it so far, and I do want to see him eventually at least drive a go-kart and see if he could go right or left. If he literally cannot go right or left and there is no talent there, then I’m like, “Hey man… maybe let’s just focus on some hockey or something.” [Laughs.] Because I look at the amount of resources and funding it takes to go through, and if you’re not talented then it’s extremely tough. If you want to have fun then I think the sport is there for that also. But it would be third generation, so let’s see what he’s got!