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2000 Tales: Spencer Pumpelly, 25 Going On 24

As the DSC Ed completed his move into new office accommodation he came across a series of old discs that included a number of items of pre DSC material, some of which included interviews and features with characters that are still significant players in the sport a decade and a half later.

Spencer-PumpellyFirst up for the look back is Spencer Pumpelly, latterly a key part of the Flying Lizards efforts in AlMS and TUSCC, and now a regular at Le Mans too. Back then though we had a window in the world of a young man looking for a way forward in the sport

The world of sportscar racing includes players both young and old, both the novice just getting their tires warm and the seasoned veterans with many miles on their racing odometers. And while each may have enjoyed their youth in different eras and to different standards, for many of these multi-generation speed merchants, a singular, shared goal awaits. A goal that stands out from all other desired achievements. They search for that one accomplishment that will mark the zenith of their career.

For some, that goal is simply to finish first just one time. For others, it is to win just one more race. And for still others it is that one very special race that will bring them into the world spotlight. For Spencer Pumpelly, a 25 year old son of a racer, that goal is to win the Rolex 24 Hours At Daytona.

Spencer-Pumpelly-03And if his impressive performance in an old, very old Porsche 911 at the Watkins Glen 6 hours Grand Am race this summer is any indication of his talent, then he may yet be wearing a Rolex.

Starting Out

“I got started in racing because my father (Tom Pumpelly) raced. He was not one to encourage me to race, in fact it was just the opposite in the beginning. But, I think I was about 13 when my interest was sparked. My Dad ran the Ford Probe GTP cars with Tom Milner in 1989. (pic below copyright to and courtesy of Marshall Pruett.

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I went to every race and that was how I developed the desire to race. I next went to Skip Barber and did his race series and then moved into sports cars. That’s really where I want to be because that’s where my dad raced and where my racing interests first developed.

“I ran the Skip Barber Formula Dodge series on the amateur level about 4 or 5 years ago. That is a great way to start racing. It’s an ‘arrive and drive’ kind of deal with a lot of competition and very equal cars. Back then I ran with drivers like Matt Plumb, who currently runs in the Barber Dodge Pro Series.

“From my performance in Formula Dodge, and through contacts I made while running there, I was invited to run a Camaro in the GT1 class at Daytona in ’98, with Diablo Racing. Despite not having ever driven anything faster than the Formula Dodge – street tire – 120 mile per hour cars, I did a fairly good job, and I saw what type of effort it would take for a team to compete. For me, the next step was to either pursue the open wheel path – which I think is a trap for a lot of young drivers because it is tough to get enough money to go that way – or go into sports cars. The Barber Pro series was attractive, but at the end of the season I would have nothing left, unless I won the championship. Being of limited financial means, I decided to invest instead in sportscar racing.

“My father, who has since been very supportive, helped guide me towards sports cars, as did my friend Chris Mitchum, who had a better knack for things mechanical than I did. Together we started Pumpelly-Mitchum Racing. I drove an old Porsche 911 that I purchased from Jack Lewis. Our first race was at Lime Rock and we did one more race at Watkins Glen that season. We finished 4th there in only our second race. We were very happy with the results! Since the first season Mitchum has left to pursue other aspects of racing but I have continued with the same car under the name of Spencer Pumpelly Racing with Paul Chabris as team Manager.

“When we started the team the budget was largely based on rental income. It’s hard to earn that income when you are a new team! We did only two races, with help from good people, including one of our sponsors, the North Atlantic Marine Group. I would rather be a driver for an established team than be an owner. Ownership is quite a hassle at times as it takes away from my driving because I worry if the car is going to run well mechanically or wonder if the crew has gotten something to eat. But for me to break into professional sports car racing it would be difficult to start out any other way. From the results we have achieved so far, I think we have moved well along the path of establishing the team, and myself, as a good entity. Eventually though, my long-term goal is to land an SR ride with a good team.

“At this point, the Porsche is for sale and hopefully, that money will help me to move forward.”

Connections That Move Him Forward

Making friends, finding mentors, building collaborative relationships and identifying resources are smart moves to make for a racer – or anyone – looking to climb the ladder to the top of their chosen profession. Pumpelly admires what others before him have done to be successful including Randy Pobst and David Murry, and he singles out Elliott Forbes-Robinson as one special resource he has drawn upon in his still burgeoning career. “I have a lot of admiration for him. As a fellow driver, EFR is one of the few guys I can go up to and ask for advice. The few times I have spoken with him he has always given me his time and remembers who I am. Most of the guys on the Dyson crew are like that too.

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“I have also received a lot of help from Jack Lewis over the years. Since I purchased the car from him he has really gone out of his way to help our team with the mechanical aspects of the racecar.”

Sharing His Skills With Others

“I really enjoy being a driving instructor for the Skip Barber Racing School. I started teaching this past year. I’m a big fan of his programs and I owe a lot to him as a driver and being successful on the track. I’ve had a lot of fun meeting people and it’s a great organization. I get to travel a lot. I went to Laguna for the first time this year.

“The school offers a variety of courses. In addition to the racing programs, they offer a way for drivers on the street, who don’t want to become racers, to learn better car control techniques. I particularly enjoy working with the people who sign on for the race series. The drivers who aren’t new to a race car. The drivers who are looking for a little extra speed. It is really rewarding to help them find the extra few tenths.

“We do the racing school in the open wheel cars and the Dodge Vipers are used in the driving school, which is a good way to teach people how to control big horsepower and the often resulting oversteer. The racing school cars are 2 liter four cylinder cars. At a track like Lime Rock, on the 3rd day of the racing school, the cars will hit around 100 miles per hour. The little cars will actually lap the track about 4 seconds faster than the Viper because they handle so much better, can brake much deeper and, at Lime Rock, you don’t need to slow down as much. You are brushing the brakes in most of the turns, not getting really hard on them.

“I know that I learned so much in the 2 liter series in just a year and a half. I wouldn’t recommend any other way to go racing. If you want to be successful in racing you almost have to do your first few races in the Skip Barber regional series. It gives you a great way to compare yourself with others in the same car. If you are 2 seconds slower it is because of your driving. And the Skip Barber instructors are there to help you every step of the way.

“Skip Barber runs programs for everyone from people who have a casual interest in racing and want to see what it is like, to those who want to become professionals. There is something there for everyone.”

The Hunt For Sponsors In An Unsettled Sport

“It is difficult to find sponsors and part of the blame for that falls to the sanctioning bodies. I can assist the sanctioning bodies by presenting a team in the most professional manner my budget will allow but there is little else I can do. The sanctioning bodies must begin to use their resources to heavily promote their series and they must take an active role in helping their loyal teams find and support sponsors. It is hard to get sponsors interested in sports car racing when the televised programs are not getting very good ratings.

“I think that having two series definitely hurts. I don’t think there is any argument about that. The question becomes whether or not this is a contest between teams, drivers and individuals or if it is a contest between manufacturers and their design resources. I am under the impression that a race should be about the people involved. I want to know that, if my team is at their best, my co-driver and I can come to the event knowing we have a legitimate shot at winning if our performance is better than the other drivers on the track.

“I don’t think the ALMS approach is about that whereas the Grand Am has taken steps to promote that attitude.

“If you go back to when my dad was racing in GTP, there was a good series of races. Jaguar entered the game and things were OK, but once Nissan showed up and won 9 of 12 races in 1988 the fans really started to leave because no one else could be competitive. And then Toyota came and Nissan decided they had already proved their point so they moved out and Toyota dominated. Nissan was able to get photos of their car in victory lane and use them in their marketing programs for the next 10 years. Nowadays, we are seeing the exact same thing in the ALMS.

“Last year BMW dominated and now the Audis have stepped up their game. Since BMW had proved its point, it didn’t come back this year as a factory effort. BMW doesn’t need to spend the money. And now Audi has the same role Toyota had in GTP. They have already announced that they are not going to be building new cars. So it just seems that the flavor of the month idea is too predictable. There will always be one dominant team.

“The factories aren’t in racing for the sport. They are in it for the marketing promotions. If you have teams, drivers, and owners involved, who are racers at heart, then you do have a group of people who don’t really have ulterior motives. They are there for the good of the sport. They are there to race.”

But It’s All About Technology Isn’t It?

The knowledgeable fans that already support the ALMS make the argument that they want to see new technology. What do you think the fans we haven’t captured yet, the fans that aren’t yet caught up in the excitement that is sports car racing, want to see? “I think you and I want to see the latest in technology, but I think sponsors want a majority of people, people who don’t necessarily share the same interests as you or I. We represent the niche sportscar fans that know and understand all the nuances of the sport. I think the people who come to the races now want to see new technology, but I don’t think that any series – Grand Am or ALMS – can survive with just those few fans. I think the future of sports car racing has to blend everything. And close racing alone isn’t that important because, I think what fans really want is to get behind a team or a driver and root for their success.

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“If a team like Audi is really the only one who can win, then the fans will not have an interest. Technology is good but ultimately you have to have people you can root for. That is why NASCAR has been successful. That is why football has been successful. No one watches for the football, they watch to see the team they want to win, try and win.”

Who Are These Guys?

In the ALMS, a fan can watch an Audi versus a BMW versus a Panoz and a Dodge Viper and Chevrolet Corvette. As Don Panoz has said on many occasions, “We race the cars with the names the people can identify with when they look in their driveways.” When you look at the fields in the Grand Am, the names just don’t carry the same recognition factor. What’s a Riley & Scott MKIII or a Lola, or a Crawford or a Kudzu anyway? How do you get the casual fan interested when they can’t tell you what those brands are? “It doesn’t matter. What is more important is that the fan is there and is entertained.

“Let’s say you go to a basketball game and the ball is made by Wilson and the backboard is made by Spaulding. The fans didn’t go there to say I have a Wilson ball or a backboard by Spaulding in my driveway. The equipment in racing is of course much more exciting but the fans go to enjoy watching their team compete against the other team. It’s the people out there – the ones who are using the equipment – that is stressed in other sports. Yes, we need to stress the equipment used in sports car racing but we can not forget the other aspects. If the cars are only there because a company like Audi wants to showcase their products, not because we are actually having a contest, that’s when we lose our fans. If it is not racing, then it’s just a parade and the fans are only going to come out once. They aren’t going to come back.”

Seeing Stars

Do you feel the Grand Am should be spending time and effort in promoting the drivers and the teams in its series? “Absolutely! I think the theme ‘The Cars Are The Stars’ hasn’t worked. It hasn’t worked over the last two seasons and I don’t think it will work in the future. I think consistency is a big factor that sports car racing lacks. Every other series has some consistency. If I root for Paul Tracey, for example, I know that he will be back in CART next year and if he is not, I know why. Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt will be back and if they don’t win this year I know I can root for them again next year. I think we need to get personalities in front of the cameras.”

On Family And The Future

“I have a younger brother and his wife just gave birth to their first child so now I’m Uncle Spencer. I live just south of Washington, DC, in Virginia. I majored in Economics in college and, of course, that serves me well in my chosen profession! It only took me five years to figure out that I’m broke!

“Spencer Pumpelly Racing is full bore ready to go as soon as we can land the funding. Up and down the garage area I do not feel there is anyone doing better for their level of funding than our team. I try to sell potential sponsors on the peripheral benefits that racing can provide. That includes promotions outside of the track and the use of the car to attract people. This side of the women in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, nothing captures more attention than a racecar. Having a company affiliated with that really helps to bring the company some attention.

“In addition, sponsoring a racer is also a great way to get employees in an organization to rally together. It provides entertainment for the companies clients as well, getting them to come to race weekends and be a part of the excitement. For a primary sponsor, we will actually run a special day where we give the clients rides and let them drive the car. It is definitely a great way to entertain the people who support the sponsor’s company. If someone reading this would like to talk to me about forming a partnership for 2001, please fax me a note at 703-550-6053!

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“My ultimate goal in life is to win the Rolex 24 overall. I refuse to wear a watch as a reminder of my goal. If someone were to give me one for Christmas or my birthday, I’d have to return it. It goes back to when I was younger and I watched my dad race. He actually led the 24 hours back in 1982, in a Ferrari 512, until the engine let go before dawn. Mechanical disappointments followed his career. Fortunately I have had a bit better luck. But my goal is to win in Daytona.”

After spending some time talking with Spencer Pumpelly, I’d have to bet that his wrist won’t be bare for too long! Look for him in a Porsche – a NEW one – at Daytona 2001!

Andy Hartwell