American Ace: Joey Hand

Joey Hand is one of those irrepressible optimists who see opportunity in every calamity. After finishing thirteenth and fourteenth to kick off the season, the first American to earn a factory ride in the prestigious German DTM series looked like he might be the last American to get a chance to play with the big boys. But Hand characteristically accentuated the positive.

“I can win over there,” he says. “I haven’t been at my best yet. Fourteenth is not my happy place. But the format of practice and qualifying, the start, pit stops, pit strategy — I’m just so new to it, and I’ve got to get to the point that all of that is second nature. But I showed I have the pace, and the car showed it can win. So I definitely can win.”

That’s a tall order for a guy who’s never raced against a field as fiercely competitive as DTM. But Hand is universally regarded as one of the premier sports car aces in the United States, and the thirty-three-year-old Californian has been the fair-haired boy at BMW North America since 2004. So when BMW AG announced that it was entering DTM in 2012, Hand started lobbying for a seat. “I was, like, ‘I have to drive that car,'” he recalls.

At first, BMW executives were noncommittal. DTM — which grew out of the Deutsche Tourenwagen-Meisterschaft, or German Touring Car Championship — is the high-tech German version of NASCAR. The series features a common chassis with elegant silhouette bodies and sophisticated race engines from Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and, starting this year, BMW. The only American ever to compete in DTM was Danny Sullivan, who drove in a few desultory races near the end of his career. More recently, former Formula 1 stars Ralf Schumacher and David Coulthard have floundered in the series, managing no wins between them in six-plus seasons.

But Hand, who was on the fast track to Indy before a brutal wreck on the Milwaukee Mile stalled his formula-car career, enjoyed a magical season for BMW in 2011 — GT champion in the American Le Mans Series, overall winner at the Daytona 24, and a class win at Sebring, all for BMW. So at the end of the year, he was offered a two-day test of the company’s new DTM car. “I wasn’t sure if I was testing for a job or whether it was just a slap on the butt for winning the championship,” he says.

When he was told to stick around for a third day of testing, he knew he’d made the initial cut. At the end of the last day, his team fitted new tires to his car and sent him out for a final run. “Nothing like a one-lap test for a job!” Hand says. “I said to myself, ‘I’ve just got to put a nice smoothie on it’ — no big lockups, don’t give anything away. The tires were really good, the balance was really nice, and I went really fast.”

Hand was signed by Team RMG, one of three factory-backed BMW teams in DTM. He’s also continuing to drive for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in ALMS. In fact, we caught up with him while he was in Monterey for the six-hour enduro at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca during a stretch of four back-to-back race weekends in three countries.

Hand was disappointed by his performances at Hockenheim and Lausitz, but he’s not discouraged. In both races, he was victimized by atypical mistakes in qualifying. Still, he clocked the fifth-fastest race lap at the Lausitzring and showed plenty of potential. “I learned that I have to up my intensity,” he says. ” It’s just a matter of putting everything together.”