With his black Troy lee Designs T-shirt, skateboard sneakers, and male-model good looks, Patrick Long doesn't fit the usual Olive Garden demographic. He's also something of a foodie, and he speaks Italian fluently, which is probably more than you can say for anybody working in the kitchen. He'd planned to eat someplace more upscale here in Daytona Beach, but it's prime time on a Friday night, and the restaurant was mobbed. "This is fine," he says when he strolls into the ersatz Italian foyer. "When I was racing in NASCAR, I learned to eat anything."
Three weeks from now, Long will race a Porsche 911 GT3 for Flying Lizard Motorsports in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Although this is the biggest race on the Grand-Am schedule, sports car racing plays to minuscule audiences in North America, and participants far outnumber paying spectators at this weekend's test session. Nobody at the Olive Garden pays any attention to Long during dinner. Until the waiter drops off the bill. "My boss recognized you," he says, sounding chagrined that he hadn't recognized Long himself. "Stay on the track, and good luck in the race."
Long is the public face of Porsche motorsports in the United States. Worldwide, Porsche employs nine factory race car drivers, but Long is the only American. "I have a different role within the factory team because the U.S. is so passionate about Porsche and there's such a thriving Porsche community here," he says. "I haven't even cracked the surface of meeting all the Porsche-philes out there and sharing stories with them. It's not part of the job description per se, but I've made it a huge part of my life. If I drove for another manufacturer, I'd have only one or two chances to do an auto show or a new car launch. But at Porsche, I could fill 365 days a year with activities."
Job One, obviously, is racing. Since joining Porsche in 2003, Long has scored class wins in the Triple Crown of endurance racing -- Le Mans, Daytona, and Sebring -- as well as overall victories in cars ranging from Daytona Prototypes to the 911 GT3 R Hybrid. So he's proven himself worthy of entree to a select American fraternity of Porsche factory drivers that includes legends such as Dan Gurney, Peter Gregg, Al Holbert, and Hurley Haywood. At the same time, Long has also insinuated himself into the corporate culture by representing Porsche at events designed to burnish the brand. "Patrick is a great communicator who can talk to customers as easily as he can talk to race engineers," says Jens Walther, president and CEO of Porsche Motorsport North America. "That makes him a perfect ambassador for Porsche."
At thirty, Long still exudes a boyish passion for racing, and his role as Porsche poster child is well served by his sunny, all-American image. He grew up in suburban Los Angeles in a hotbed of surfers (like his father) and skateboarders (his brother, Kevin, is a top pro). But despite his all-American persona, Long attributes his success in racing to moving to Europe while he was in high school. Not only did that pit him against the best karters in the world, but it also demonstrated how committed he was to making racing his career.
Long can't remember a time when he wasn't obsessed with racing. When he was four, he started attending races with his Uncle Pat, a motocross rider and demolition-derby competitor. "I was at Ascot every Thursday night watching speedway, and Saturday night the World of Outlaws, and Sunday night demolition derby," Long says. "I remember my mom saying, 'I'll buy you a new Nintendo game if you stay home this weekend.' And I'm like, 'Are you kidding me? The World of Outlaws is in town. I'm gone. See ya.' And my uncle would be outside honking the horn."
When he was five, Long's Christmas present was a hand-welded go-kart that his father and uncle picked up for $75 at a garage sale. He started racing when he was eight, won his first national championship when he was ten, raced in Europe for the first time when he was fourteen. The next year, while he was a junior in high school, he moved to a small town near Lake Garda, in the heart of Italian kart country, to race -- and work in the shop -- for kart-chassis manufacturer CRG. There, Long learned to speak Italian and underwent his baptism by fire.
"The racing was self-policing -- boys have at it, an eye for an eye," he says. "Even before the green flag, you had to fight just to hold onto your grid spot. In the U.S., we have the mentality that every kid gets a trophy. In Europe, three-quarters of the field goes home before the final. Crashing was such a regular thing that you had to learn how to pick your battles and protect your kart. I also understood that it was important to pick up the language and immerse myself in the culture of the team I was racing for. It helps you with the little things -- making people laugh in their own language and knowing if they're talking shit about you. It was also critical to show my team that I wasn't just there on vacation. I was there to win."
Long became the first American in twenty years to win an international kart race in Europe. This led to a fully paid Elf Formula Campus scholarship. He moved to Le Mans, learned French, and finished third in the series championship in his first season racing cars. Next came two years in England and several impressive wins in Formula Fords, plus a Skip Barber scholarship back in the States. Formula 1 was his goal, but Long couldn't raise the money he needed to take the next step up the ladder. Then, providentially, the much-ballyhooed Red Bull Driver Search came out of nowhere, and he was one of the fifteen finalists who competed in a shoot-out for what was ultimately supposed to be a shot at Formula 1. Long was devastated when he didn't make the cut. (Scott Speed got the gig and rode it all the way to F1.) But Porsche liked what they'd seen of Long during the two-month-long Red Bull media circus. After testing him in a 911 Carrera Cup car and subjecting him to a battery of interviews, Porsche offered him a slot on its junior team. The contract would give him the security of a full-time job racing sports cars, but it would close the door on F1.
"My dad told me to do my due diligence," Long says. "I didn't even know what that meant. So I called up everybody who would take my call and told them, 'I can chase the Formula 1 dream a little longer or I can sign this sports car deal.' And every single person said to me, 'Are you an idiot? Sign the fricking deal.'" He smiles. "I never looked back. I never said, 'I beat Danica. I beat Sam Hornish. I beat Fernando Alonso.' I'm just so lucky to be where I am. In 2003, I attended Le Mans as a spectator, and I thought to myself, 'I wonder if I'll get a chance to race here one day.' And literally twelve months later, I was on the top step at the podium."
Long rifles around the banking at Daytona at 185 mph during the Saturday morning test session. "You are still quickest," comes a call over the radio as his red-and-silver GT3 flashes past start/finish and dives down into the infield. "Forty-nine six. Pace is good."
As a factory driver, Long is subcontracted out to whatever team Porsche wants him to drive for. For 2012, he's been assigned to partner longtime teammate Joerg Bergmeister at Flying Lizard in ALMS. He'll also run a handful of one-off races, such as the Rolex 24, where he and Bergmeister will be joined by Audi factory driver Mike Rockenfeller and team owner Seth Neiman.
Long could just as easily have ended up at Alex Job Racing, where he did two seasons in Daytona Prototypes earlier in his career. "When I requested a driver from Porsche, Patrick was my first choice," Alex Job says. "The thing that made him special was that he went over to Europe at a very young age. I don't think Europe has more talent than the United States. But the culture is much tougher, and I think it breeds more hunger into the driver."
Long prides himself on excelling in difficult conditions, whether on cold tires or a challenging racetrack. "He's particularly good in qualifying on street circuits, and he's as strong technically as anybody I've ever worked with," says Flying Lizard chief strategist Thomas Blam. "But if there's one thing that comes to mind about him, it's tenacity -- his ability to withstand pressure from behind and get by somebody when it counts."
Long's aggression doesn't always endear him to his rivals, and he's left a bunch of bruised feelings along with damaged cars in various paddocks. "He's got red hair. He's a little hard to manage sometimes," Job says indulgently. Adds Neiman: "Patrick can be pretty explosive. But if you're just a machine, you don't succeed in racing. The sport is too emotional. You have to have a passion for it."
Long has spent virtually his entire life at racetracks. Naturally, after two decades of nearly nonstop competition, he gets tired of the grind, and there are times he'd rather be hanging with his girlfriend or chilling on a wakeboard. But Long subscribes to the racing-is-life credo articulated by an earlier Porsche icon, Steve McQueen.
"The day that racing doesn't pay the bills anymore, I'll still be racing," Long says. "It's what makes me the happiest. It's not always about champagne and money. It's about getting behind the wheel. It's that feeling of sitting on a tire on a brisk, cold morning, talking about racing with the guys at the track. That's what I've always done, and that's what I'll always do. I'll make my money in racing, and I'll probably spend every bit of it in racing."
Long is carving through Malibu Canyon in a 4.0-liter 911 GT3 RS he's borrowed from Porsche. These are the hairpins and switchbacks he drove as a teenager from his home in the San Fernando Valley to the surf beaches around Malibu. His pace is sedate; he doesn't want to hustle over a blind crest and clip a biker. Plus, he gets all the excitement he needs in a race car. Or so he says.
Still, when he sees a tunnel, he checks to make sure nobody's around, brakes briskly to a stop, opens the windows, snicks the Alcantara gearshift lever into first, feeds in some throttle, and dumps the clutch. The RS slithers forward with a glorious crescendo of flat-six mayhem blasting off the walls of the tunnel. "The extra torque of the four-liter really makes a difference," he shouts with a grin. "Plus, it sounds awesome when it comes on the cam."
Long will probably run about thirty races this year. Besides ALMS, he's looking at Porsche rides at Daytona, Le Mans, and the Nuerburgring. He's also hoping to race in Australia in a V8 Supercar, in NASCAR in a Nationwide car, in Latin America in a touring car, and possibly on the dirt at Du Quoin in an ARCA stock car. With few exceptions, though, he'll rarely be in cars that can compete for overall wins.
If Long had been born thirty or forty years earlier, when Porsche was building 917s, 935s, 956s, and 962s instead of focusing on GT-class 911s, his mantel might be groaning under the weight of Le Mans, Daytona, and Sebring trophies. Or who knows? If funding hadn't been a prerequisite for advancement, maybe he'd be in Formula 1 today. Long shrugs when asked about the roads not taken.
"I don't feel like there are any holes in my trophy case," he says. "This may sound complacent, but I don't know what Formula 1 would bring me. All I ever wanted to do was race cars for a living. It's not about making a lot of money or having my name in the record book. I love what I'm doing, and I want to be able to do it for a long time. So I want to keep refining what I have, not only on the track but also representing Porsche around the world."
Which is why he's giving a thrill ride in a GT3 RS during a brief sojourn in Southern California before returning to Daytona. And visiting sponsors in Corona and Orange County. And meeting with a Hollywood producer. And doing a rare day of private coaching at Willow Springs International Raceway. Not merely filling time but looking for opportunities.
"My biggest fear is having any regrets," he says. "My second-biggest fear used to be being broke. Now, it's being bored. I realize that I can't race forever, and I'm going to have to enter the real world at a certain point. That's why I do more than go to the gym and drive race cars on the weekend. I want to build something now for the future while people still answer my calls because I'm a racing driver."
He hangs a left onto the Pacific Coast Highway. To the west, waves are breaking lazily at First Point, and you can't help but think that Patrick Long is right where he wants to be.
Patrick Long at a glanceBorn: July 28, 1981
Thousand Oaks, California
Residence: Belleair, Florida
Speaks English, Italian (fluently), German, and French (both conversationally)
Major AccomplishmentsThree-time American Le Mans Series champion. Two-time class winner at Le Mans. Class winner in the Rolex 24 and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. Pirelli World Challenge champion.
1998: First American in twenty years to win an international kart race 1999: Elf Formula Campus scholarship winner
2000: Skip Barber scholarship winner
2001: British Formula Ford vice champion
2002: Red Bull Driver Search finalist
2003: Joins Porsche junior team
2004: 24 Hours of Le Mans class winner
2005: Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring class winner
2006: Petit Le Mans class winner
2007: 24 Hours of Le Mans class winner
2008: Drove Porsche RS Spyder for Penske Racing
2009: Rolex 24 class winner
2010: ALMS GT2 champion
2011: Pirelli World Challenge champion