At the 2023 Hankook 12H MONZA, Tracy Krohn, together with RPM Racing, secured his first class win in the 24H SERIES, six years on from his maiden outing at the 2017 Hankook 24H PORTIMAO. A weekend of heat, gearbox gremlins and birthday cake.
Words – James Gent
Images – Petr Frýba
It’s fitting that, just under a month after taking his first class win in the 24H SERIES, American entrepreneur Tracy Krohn is heading back to Portugal, site of his first race with CREVENTIC back in 2017.
Well… technically, at least. While round four of this year’s 24H SERIES powered by Hankook will be hosted at the Circuito do Estoril for the first time, Tracy actually made his CREVENTIC debut just over 300 km further south at the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve. A venue at which, like the 24H SERIES, he’d also never competed.
Not that the ‘Krohn Racing’ founder had much to worry about. By July 2017, Tracy had already started the daunting 24 Hours of Le Mans 12 times (three of which he’d finished on the class podium), completed two full seasons of the World Endurance Championship in the hotly contested LMGTEAm category (taking four further class podiums in the process), and, since his first-ever race in 2002, the Houston native has taken on pretty much every American circuit of note during his decade-plus in Grand-Am / the SportsCar Championship, and the American Le Mans Series. On top of that, European greats like Silverstone, Spa-Francorchamps and Monza were ticked off during his WEC and European Le Mans Series days. Learning 4.652km of winding asphalt in the Algarve would be just another day in the ‘office’…
“I think the idea was, we were in the area anyway” – As a step towards his dream of competing at the Nürburgring 24 Hours for the first time in 2018, Tracy entered two rounds of the VLN with LMS Engineering in the summer of 2017, both of bookended the Hankook 24H PORTIMAO – “and that the race offered some pretty good seat time with the Audi TT RS.
“And I thought [Portimão] was a great track! It’s got a lot more elevation to it than I originally thought, so it’s a pretty good rollercoaster ride, and it’s a challenge for any driver, you bet. There’s plenty of passing areas and the track is not particularly narrow, so if you screw up and there is some run-off, so it’s not the end of the world. Not like the Nürburgring or parts of La Sarthe. So I thought it was a very risk-reward oriented track with a reasonable amount of risk for a good amount of reward.”
Entering Portimão with LMS as opposed to his eponymous team, Tracy was handed two further challenges for his 24H SERIES debut. The first was the Algarvean weather: held in mid-August, paddock temperatures at the Hankook 24H PORTIMAO, at their mid-afternoon height, hit a near-stifling 28-degrees, with cockpit temperatures rising well into the low 40s. Ironically though, Tracy’s Texan home actually helped him prepare for this…
“I used to train for the heat doing aerobics in warm rooms with a full race suit on! It is unpleasant, but also, I’m from the southern part of the United States where we get a lot of heat and humidity, so it’s almost the course of everyday life down here. I mean, it’s 101 degrees outside with about 90 per cent humidity right now!”
The second challenge concerned the car he would be racing, again for the first time, that weekend. The front-wheel drive Audi TT RS after all was an altogether different prospect to the rear-wheel driven Ferrari 458/488, Audi R8 LMS ‘Ultra’, and/or Ligier JS P2 / Lola B08 prototypes with which he was already well-versed (even Tracy’s VLN-entered BMW M235i Racing Cup was rear-wheel driven), meaning any track time the series debutant could get would prove vital…
“The Audi was a little bit different, particularly at a course that’s got that kind of elevation to it. The worry was, when you load up the front end, you put a lot of force on the front wheels, which is good when you want to stop and suddenly change directions, but it’s not so good when you need the front end to stick. So, the car had a tendency to have a little too much oversteer. That was probably the biggest difference for me.
“But, whether it’s rear-wheel drive or front-wheel drive, you have to manage the car, and that’s kind of why I’ve always enjoyed mid-engined cars. They’re a lot more forgiving.”
Despite the steep learning curve, even for a gentleman driver of his experience, Tracy would at least be sharing the car with some familiar faces. As he had done at almost every race since 2005, long-time friend – and fellow Le Mans class podium finisher – Niclas Jönsson dutifully lined up alongside Tracy in the #206 Audi, as did American up-and-comer Jason Wolfe, who, having secured two TCA-class championships with Jönsson’s Kinetic Motorsports team in 2014 and 2015, was taking a stab at ADAC TCR Germany in 2017 (Wolfe would later make a one-off 24H SERIES return at the 2019 Hankook 24H COTA USA with future Overall GT Teams’ champion, ST Racing). The LMS Engineering quartet was rounded out by Audi factory driver, and future 24H SERIES GT3 Drivers’ champion, Pierre Kaffer.
“Pierre’s always had a great attitude about everything. He’s easy to deal with. He’s not a primadonna at all. He’s very practical and very workmanlike in his approach to getting things done. Very matter-of-fact. He’s a real professional. An experienced driver who’s that quick and patient is rare and hard to find.”
The familiar faces didn’t stop there either. In a heavily American populated SP2 class that weekend, Tracy also found himself going head-to-head with compatriots, and fellow Panoz GT Racing Series alumni, Charles Putman, Charles Espenlaub and Joe Foster.
“It’s always fun to race against your friends. You get temporary bragging rights anyway!
“We’re all friends. Charlie [Putman] and I went to race school together [the Panoz Racing School in Florida], and we raced in the old Pan-Am spec series as well. Charles Espenlaub and Joe Foster, and in fact Nic [Jönsson], were all instructors of mine. And Charlie’s too. So there’s a lot of history there. But I love beating those guys, and I’m sure they love beating me too! At the end of the day, we’re all friends and it’s all good competition.”
Together with fellow 24H SERIES stalwart Shane Lewis, Putman, Espenalub and Foster finished on the overall podium with CP Racing at the 2023 Hankook 12H MONZA. Two places further up the rostrum meanwhile, Pierre Kaffer was taking his first win of the season with Scherer Sport PHX teammates Elia Erhart and Michael Doppelmayr.
“Bragging rights,” sadly, would have to wait a while for Tracy Krohn, as Putman, Espenlaub and Foster, having already clinched the 2017 24H SERIES 991 Drivers’ championship with PROsport Performance, went on to take their fifth consecutive class win of the season (of an eventual six) at Portimão 14 laps clear of their nearest SP2 rivals. The only blight on an otherwise steamrolling weekend for PROsport was the A6-Am victory that instead handed the 2017 Overall GT Teams’ championship to nearest title rival Hofor-Racing. By a scant two points.
LMS Engineering’s weekend did at least get off to a consistent start: Tracy, Wolfe and Jönsson quickly found pace on their first runs aboard the TT RS – donning ‘Krohn Racing’s traditional luminescent green livery – during free practice, while Kaffer netted the 4th fastest SP2 time in qualifying. Pleased with the team’s progress, Krohn was the epitome of calm on the Portimão grid the following morning, which just so happened to also be his birthday!
“What else would I want to be doing on my birthday?! Getting to do something I really enjoy? That’s a perfect birthday for me!”
The birthday boy was even presented with a cake, with a polite number of candles, on the grid by radiolemans.com’s Nick Daman (the latter’s efforts to get a birthday serenade off the ground were less successful). Although Tracy didn’t know it at the time, his cake would become an on-going theme of the TV coverage: eight hours into the race, the cake remained untouched, though still very much on display in the LMS garage; the following morning, only a few slices had been taken, plus the decorative strawberry, the latter nicked by radiolemans’ Andrew Marriott for breakfast during his morning shift. Would red velvet have perhaps gone down better than ‘Decadent Chocolate’, Mr Krohn…?
“I’m sure it was delicious, but it probably had something to do with the start of the race. You don’t want to get too much sugar in your system just before you climb into a racecar for an hour, right? A sugar rush is nice but the downside of it makes you a little too tired!”
Tracy did indeed appear to be firing on all cylinders when, 15 minutes and two formation laps after his on-the-grid interview, the green flag finally flew for the 2017 Hankook 24H PORTIMAO. Keeping out of trouble, the Texan debutant, aboard the #206 Audi for the first stint, compliantly stayed out of trouble while keeping the leading PROsport Performance, and IDEC Sport Racing’s and B2F compétition’s Porsche 991 Cup cars in his sights before settling into his own pace. Pitting from 6th in-class shortly after the first hour, Tracy then handed over to Kaffer, who, across a typically rapid stint, had hauled the LMS Engineering Audi up to 3rd in-class by the end of the second hour, less than 30 seconds behind 2nd-placed B2F compétition.
Sadly, towards the end of his stint, the Audi’s 2.5-litre turbocharged five-cylinder suddenly lost power heading onto the back straight, and the #206 TT RS was ‘hurriedly’ brought back to the pitbox. More than 30 minutes had already been lost replacing a broken spark plug by the time the Krohn-green TT RS, now with Jason Wolfe at the wheel, was sent back out, 16 laps down on SP2 class leader PROsport.
“It is hard to deal with that kind of adversity, but it’s part of racing. Things happen, and they are not always going to go your way. I’ve been doing this long enough that you learn to savour the victories because they’re really hard to get.”
Adding to the frustration, the LMS Engineering TT RS, during the first three hours at least, appeared to be the only SP2 entrant suffering problems during the early stages, the exception being Black Falcon’s Mercedes-AMG GT4. Entered as ‘Mercedes-AMG Testteam Black Falcon’ for only the second long-distance race for the brand-new AMG GT4, the #2 entry had already been involved in an on-track smash during Thursday’s Free Practice session. Even so, the repaired AMG GT4 had already moved up to 2nd in-class during the first hour when the decision was made to pit for the first of several pre-arranged programmes for the Mercedes’ newly-developed braking components. A decision that ultimately dropped Black Falcon to the tail of the top five, where it stayed for remainder of the race.
B2F compétition meanwhile – which, following the Mercedes’ pit stop, held 2nd in-class for most of the 24-hour event – eventually ran out of luck, brutally, just three hours from home when the bullet-proof #35 Porsche 991-I Cup sheered a driveshaft. The French team had already lost its sister Peugeot 308 Racing Cup when its engine, overwhelmed by the Algarvean heat, expired in dramatic smoking fashion just one hour into the event, and an eventual 4th in SP2 was far from a just reward for the team’s efforts. IDEC Sport Racing, after a clean albeit “tough, physically and mentally” run, was dutifully promoted to 2nd.
Sadly, LMS Engineering was not around to take advantage. After a solid recovery in the night, during which the #206 Audi moved past the #2 Mercedes into 5th in-class, the team retired altogether when terminal gearbox problems struck after 15 hours. Ironically, the timing was now perfect for cake, though few in the LMS pitbox were really in the mood…
The technical failure was particularly galling, given that Tracy, Jönsson, Wolfe and Kaffer had worked their way back from 10 laps down to their nearest rival – VDS Racing Adventures – to just one by the early morning. On top of that, B2F’s late-race demise ended up elevating VDS to the podium. Had the Audi’s gearbox held on, it’s entirely plausible that LMS Engineering, despite its earlier hiccup, could have finished on the SP2 class podium on Tracy Krohn’s 24H SERIES debut. Quite the potential birthday present…
“Oh man, woulda-coulda-shoulda is always an aggravation. Fortunately there’s always another race, right?!” Time and business priorities, ironically, meant that ‘next race’ wouldn’t emerge until the 2021 Hankook 12H SEBRING.
“I never wake up on the morning of a race and think, ‘gee, I hope we finish 2nd!’ But a lot of times in racing, you know your competition pretty well, you know it’s pretty hard to beat them, and oftentimes that you’re not likely to win. So, like I said, you have to savour the wins and the podiums because they’re so hard to get. The competition is so good and there’s a lot of really good drivers out there.”