Interview: Local Sports Car Driver Tom Long of Long Road Racing

Photo Credit: Grana Studios

Photo Credit: Grana Studios

On the weekend of August 24th folks will be heading out to VIRginia International Raceway for three days of racing. Why do we care? Because Raleigh local and sports car driver, Tom Long will be on the track in the Maserati Trofeo World Series and Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge. We had the opportunity to meet with Tom at his shop in North Raleigh to chat about him and his start in the competitive racing world.

RH: Have you always lived in Raleigh?
TL: I was actually not born in Raleigh, I was technically born in southern NY and so my family moved to Raleigh when I was 12 years old. I have basically been a Raleigh native since middle school/high school and I went to UNC Charlotte for college so I’ve been North Carolina based from my adult life if you will.

RH: So do you think this is where you will be for a very long time?
TL: I would think, I really like the area. I’ve actually lived in a couple places in the Carolinas in the past five or ten years but I still consider Raleigh my home.

RH: What are some of your favorite places, restaurants and hangouts that you like to go to in the area?
TL: There’s a bunch [laughing]. Raleigh has got so much to offer, I think that depending on what you like there are a lot of new businesses and new restaurants that are up and coming. There is also a lot of stuff that’s going on and building downtown that’s really fun to go to as well. So my friends and I may go downtown every once in awhile for a meal or something, but there’s just a lot of stuff in this area [North Raleigh] that has just built up. For example, seeing the Hibernian that unfortunately burned down before. I know it’s been rebuilt and now its even bigger, better and its amazing.

I love going to downtown. You know Glenwood or the other areas down, its so much fun, but now they have built their other one [Hibernian] right around the corner and there’s that whole area up there too…

RH: Lafayette Village?
TL: That’s it! It’s just fascinating, who would have thought that [space] would be right there off Falls of Neuse.

RH: And now that’s it’s there you don’t have to worry so much about having to go downtown.
TL: Yes, exactly!

RH: So growing up and watching the city change, what’s impressed you the most with just the growth of the city?
TL: Well, I think what’s impressed me the most is that they’ve kept it interesting for not only the folks who have always lived in the Raleigh area but for all of the people who are new coming to the area, they have something to do. No matter what kind of interest you have whether its sports related or outdoor activities or if you’re a foodie and you like restaurants; I think there is something for everybody in the area.

No matter what your age is, like if you are a 20’s or 30’s something or a young professional, there are plenty of places to go out; but if you are also kind of in that older group that enjoys still going out on the weekends or the evenings there is something for everybody. Specifically, within the Triangle there’s places to go to see theatre, concerts, you know all those kind of things in the area – that’s pretty unique.

RH: When did you start to competitively race and how did you get started?
TL: I started in 2001. I’ve always had a passion for cars. Growing up I was always into cars, but the big reason was because of family influence. My dad was always into racing, I grew up around racing because of him. So this [Long Road Racing] is kind of a family business if you will. So, getting started it was in the late 90’s, I was still in college and I didn’t graduate college until early 2000’s.

Photo Credit: Grana Studios

Photo Credit: Grana Studios

Basically from college onward I’ve always been able to get on a track and just do some time trial type of events and we were able to work to getting to do some more competitive motor sports type stuff. From that we were able to build some relationships and be able to say ‘Okay, we’ve always been in this location [a smaller area and smaller shop] and we’ve been able to grow the company into doing what we’re doing now.’ So it’s been a lot of fun and it hasn’t necessarily been a clear cut path to this but it’s kind of where it’s morphed into and looking back at it 10 years ago it’s like ‘WOW, that would be great!’ You pinch yourself sometimes, you get so focused in the moment sometimes and it’s like ‘Well okay, big picture this is not so bad.’

RH: Does your family travel with you to your races and everything?
TL: My dad still manages a lot of the day-to-day here as well, I do a lot of the team management for Freedom Autosport on top of driving. He manages the day-to-day of the physical shop, so he manages the guys and all that. I more manage the program, the logistics of the team, all travel arrangements things like that. So to answer your question – yes, he comes to the races because of that. My younger brother is involved in Motorsports, he lives in Charlotte so he’s on the NASCAR end of things and my mom is unfortunately stuck with it because we’re all into it. She makes it out to a lot of the races especially coming up to VIR next weekend, it’s a little over an hour away from here.

We mention attending a NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
That’s great! This is more of a family-oriented, big country club style, big rolling grass hills, big fields… not like a big stadium trying to wedge everybody into the same little area. It’s a lot different feel, it’s a good thing.

RH: Who are your influences in the racing community?
TL: Growing up I naturally had idols I looked up to and they were because I guess NASCAR is such an easy/popular method to look at, like I remember Richard Petty was a guy I would always follow. I remember when Jeff Gordon was a rookie in racing, I remember his rookie season and all this stuff and then it’s like ‘well he’s one of the veterans now!’. More on the racing that we do, or at least in sports car racing or road racing growing up watching Formula 1 on TV. Which usually came on live in Europe (or 7 or 8 AM in the US), Sunday mornings was always a really special time for me too.

RH: Why did you decide to build your shop in Raleigh?
TL: Living here, being here it was kind of a natural fit. What really spawned all that development and that thought was the business from VIR, […] there’s a lot of car clubs that all go up to VIR and just independent folks that go up to VIR to drive their car on the track – more of a sport driving enthusiast whether they race or not, but they are up there. So that has really grown the demand for this type of facility as far as you want your car prepped, gone through, checked over, upgraded or whatever – that’s what we do! That’s been a huge reason for the shop.

With Raleigh and the Triangle area being so large and I think having about a million people, there is just a natural number of folks that are old enough to do this as a hobby and so that’s their outlet.

RH: On top being a team member and full-time lead driver for the Freedom Autosport; you are also a professional driving instructor with the BMW Performance Driving School and the Skip Barber Racing School – how do you find the time to do all of that?
TL: I look at what I do here [at Long Road Racing] as something I don’t do at the shop all the time. I actually travel a lot, so I end up doing a lot of the logistics and coordination through e-mail, phone, laptop – all that. I’m usually on the road a lot with that so I can do this away from the shop. A lot of the coaching and instructing that I do is on-site whether its at a race track or for instance the BMW Performance Driving School is located in the Greeneville/Spartanburg, SC area so when I’m down there I’m able to take care of business ‘after-hours’ on this end while I’m working down there.

It’s just a big passion for me teaching folks how to become a quicker/more efficient driver on the track but at the school its more about how to be a safer driver, have better car control skills whether its in the wet; or if its a teen driving school teaching teens how to be safe and how distracted driving is really dangerous and things like that. For me I just really enjoy that aspect of it so it’s hard to say ‘give that up’ because it’s such a strong passion to be here so I’m trying to multi-task and do both.

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Professional Driver, Tom Long, Showing us one of the cars that will be racing this coming weekend. Photo Credit: Grana Studios

RH: Well it seems to be working out! We know you’ll be participating in the two races (Maserati Trofeo World Series &  Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge) next weekend tell me a little about both of the races.
TL: Starting with these cars here at the shop (pictured) – those are the cars that are going to compete in the Continental Tire Challenge and that is like a multi-class series type of racing. If you think about it – Mazda has cars in it, Nissan has cars in it, Toyota, Honda, BMW, Porsche all of these brands are in the same class. The series figures out these cars weigh this much, these cars weight this much, these have this much power – they all kind of make them even and so the racing is really competitive but they [the cars] are all different. So fans might have a brand affinity for one particular style and they really like just watching that.

The difference in the Mazerati Trofeo Series is that Jim Taggart [whose rig was outside and his cars were at the shop] is going to be running those Porsches in that series. What that’s all about is think about 30 cars identically prepared besides from the numbers and maybe the colors of the cars. He and I will be competing in an endurance race where we’re actually going to switch off driving. It’s going to be multi-driver so very different, like if you had multiple manufacturers racing on the track the cars are stronger in certain areas than others, well theoretically the Maserati series is going to be all identical so it would be more up to the driver to make the difference. So that’s the neat aspect of it for next weekend.

RH: I understand that VIR is one of the most challenging courses in the world, what makes it so challenging?
TL: It absolutely is a challenging track. Its 3.25 miles long, takes a little over 2 minutes to get around the track depending on what type of car you are in. It has 130 feet of elevation so that’s a lot of elevation and a lot of the corners they come up over blind crests and you are going down hills and back up and over so imagine a very twisty road where your carrying a lot of speed.

There’s a lot of grass and a lot of run off area if you will, but the whole track the way it’s laid out its not very cookie-cutter at all. There are certain racetracks that are kind of angled this way and that and their flat and your kind of like ‘well that’s kind of exciting but it’s not like VIR’. I think that’s what gives it this personal character, and the facility is continually upgrading. The pavement was just redone over the winter, they have so many other things going on besides Motorsports which is really dynamic to a racetrack.

RH: What’s the training like that you do to prepare for these types of races and how do you prepare for the races coming up?
TL: I think Motorsports can sometimes get a bad rep like ‘Oh those folks aren’t real athletes because all their doing is just driving a car and whatever’. The interesting aspect to that is the actual heat the car produces from the engine (in addition to the heat/weather outside), we don’t have air conditioning systems in the car or anything like that because we’re trying to reduce the weight. We’re trying not to have air conditioning belt pulleys spinning the engine which is taking away power, so with all our gear on it ends up getting to be anywhere from 120-130 degrees Fahrenheit in the car.

It’s pretty physical as far as if you’ve ever been on roller-coasters and you know your head is getting thrown around, your pulling a couple G’s worth of gravity – that’s what we’re experiencing. Between all of that force you feel with all the heat it really can take it out of you. It’s really physical, our average heart-rates in the car are anywhere from 140-160; so it’s quite high as all of that is going on. To train for that we do a lot of long distance training whether your cycling or running, heat training in these [hot] conditions, not necessarily weight lifting or body building but more so strength training like circuits or different things where you do a lot of high repetition because you are in the car for many hours.

RH: So more endurance based?
TL: Exactly. High heart rate, high energy and it really can make a big difference when you are an hour into the race and its hot and you are looking to dig down.

RH: It sounds very mentally draining.
TL: It is. It absolutely is. There is a lot of focused involved beyond just the physical.

Photo Credit: Grana Studios

Photo Credit: Grana Studios

RH: Tell me about the team that’s going to be helping you out in your upcoming races.
TL: Freedom Autosport is a team that Long Road Racing, this shop, takes care of. So we basically provide all the support, we take care of the rig, we take care of the cars, we do all that. What Freedom Autosport stands for is a pretty cool thing. The guy who owns the team isn’t necessarily the shop owner, he owns the team. Instead of calling his team by ‘his last name Autosports’ he decided ‘why don’t I call it something that gives back to the armed services and the men and women who protect our country’ because we couldn’t really be doing this without their help. He also has a brother-in-law that’s a marine and in fact I believe it’s that plaque [hanging on his wall] we got when we went down to Camp Lejeune and we actually did a family day and brought the cars out for it and they gave us a special piece for that. It’s basically a tribute back to them.

As far as the folks who will be helping us, a majority of them come from Raleigh but actually at this level we’ll fly folks in to help with the event. We’re going to run those three cars, we’re going to have all kinds of logistics to deal with between all the fueling, tires and pit-stops we’ll have about 15 people helping out to support the three car program.

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Photo Credit: Grana Studios

RH: In all of your experiences racing, what has been your favorite highlight/most memorable moment that you’ve had so far?
TL: I’d say there have been two. One being this year, but the first one was a couple years back. One of the races that we do is called the 24 Hours of Daytona, we ended up finishing on the podium which is the top three. You know how they do the Olympics and they have the podium? Well its exactly the same thing in Motorsports and you get to spray your champagne and celebrate and all that; but the big thing was that year in the 24 Hours of Daytona was the only time I’ve ever finished on the podium there. I was driving for a different team, I was driving for Patrick Dempsey’s team so I was actually racing with that team in that car (pointing to another plaque on his wall) the yellow and orange car #40. We ended up in 3rd at that race and that was just so special because that race is probably one of the most coveted most popular endurance races in the US and almost around the world. It’s a very international flavor race, to be with Patrick and our other teammates that was a huge huge accomplishment so that was really special.

The other one was this year with Liam Dwyer, who I’m going to be driving with next week. Liam is still an active marine but he actually has an amazing story. He lost his leg from an IED explosion in Afghanistan and he is still driving, from mid-calf down he has a prosthetic leg and we’ve fabricated the clutch pedal in the car so he can still work that with his leg. We ended up winning the race on Memorial Day weekend in Connecticut this year and so that was a really special deal to be able to do that. It got a lot of publicity not only in the Motorsports world but ESPN and FOX News picked it up too, it was a really big deal Memorial Day weekend.

RH: That’s really inspiring!
TL: It is, he is an inspiration for sure to fight through what he’s been through and still doing what he loves.

Special thanks to Tom and the folks at Long Road Racing for giving us a tour and showing us around! Good luck at VIR!
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