You can’t talk about 24H SERIES staples without mentioning Charles Espenlaub. Together with American compatriots Charles Putman and Joe Foster, the former IMSA Sports Car Challenge ‘Grand Sport’ champion has competed regularly with CREVENTIC since 2015, taking his first class win in 2016, his first class championship in 2017 in the Porsche-dedicated ‘991’ class, and the Overall GT Drivers’ crown in both the European and Continental standings in 2018. These of course were just the latest in a long line of accolades. Charles after all is an incumbent of the World Challenge (now the GT World Challenge America) as well as Grand-Am (the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship), having competed in both as early as 2001. He was also a Daytona 24 Hours regular until 2014, even finishing 3rd in the GT class with Dempsey Racing in 2010.
He may have put us off Gatorade for life, however…
“I don’t need to lie, I’m just happy I made it this far! I’m 52 years old.”
“The first time I was officially on the track was in 1996 at Sebring for a Firehawk [Endurance Championship] race, which was basically like GT4 back then. So I would have been 26. I’ve been racing ever since.”
“So far… probably winning the SP7 class at the Nürburgring [24 Hours] in 2018 with Joe [Foster], Charlie [Putman], and Xavier Maassen. We’d attempted to do the Nürburgring for many years, and that was the only time we finished. And we won! That was something. I don’t keep a lot of my trophies – I usually give them to the team to keep in the shop – but that Nürburgring trophy is sitting on my dining room table.
“I think that’s one of the most difficult races we’ve ever attempted. It was actually the same car” – a Porsche 911-I Cup – “we won the  title in the 24H SERIES in 2017 and we named it ‘Emma’. We took her to the Nürburgring, we won, and then we shipped her to the United States. Now Charlie has her displayed in the shop in the USA.”
“Spa-Francorchamps, hands down. It has all the characteristics of a great track. It has a lot of history but it’s all-natural terrain, high-speed and very technical corners, and the weather changes by the second so you never know what’s happening. I’ve always had the most enjoyment at Spa.
“Although I will say, [the Autodromo di] Pergusa quickly grew on me. The first time I saw it, I didn’t think that the layout would be much fun. But it’s very fast, it’s very technical, and it’s tricky to get right when you’re racing with other classes. So I really enjoyed it. Obviously the logistics are a little different, but once those are worked out, this will be a great event.”
“I’ve had a lot of weird things happen actually! [Pause]… maybe 2004, the Daytona 24 Hours.
“I was driving a Porsche [996 GT3 Cup for Foxhill Racing], and we had a very long yellow flag period behind the safety car. The rain was so bad they had to bring us through the pitlane. And I was in the car for so long that, eventually, I had to use the bathroom. So I called my pit guys, but they said, ‘well, we can’t stop because we can’t give up our position.’ I said, ‘okay, throw me a Gatorade bottle through the window when I come by next time.’ Next lap through the pits, they throw a bottle in, and I… ‘used’ the bottle on the banking at Daytona! We were still under yellow so we were going pretty slowly.
“At the time I was working for the Panoz Racing School at Sebring. One of the guys that helped us at the school was also a corner worker at Daytona, and I knew he would be at turn six on the infield. So when I finished my business, I sealed the bottle and threw it out the window at the corner station. He saw it, radioed it in – ‘something just came off one of the cars at turn six!’ – and as soon as he picked it up, he knew what had happened. He wanted to kill me after the race!”
“My current paint job is Battery Tender. It’s a relationship that goes way back and it’s a family-owned business in Florida where I’m from. They’re great people, the owner and I go fishing quite often – so we try to support them whenever we can. Charlie’s a good friend of theirs too, so we have Battery Tender on my helmet and on the side of the car.
“On the front is In-N-Out Burger, which is another family-owned chain in California. When I first started racing, I didn’t have the budget to paint my helmet, but I was told, ‘you need to mark your helmet so we know who’s in the car’. One week, I went to In-N-Out Burger for the first time and really liked it. So I got a sticker and just put that on the front. Since then, no matter who does the paint job, I always make sure In-N-Out Burger is on the front. That’s my thing.”
“I started as a mechanic, before I got into racing. So I understand how the car works and how to fix it, and with that, I can relate to my [mechanics] what’s wrong, in which corner, and maybe how to fix it.
“That, and being older. I still make mistakes, obviously, because I’m a race car driver, but being older and having more experience means I make fewer of them. Those are probably my biggest strengths.”
“When I was younger, and much skinnier, Johnny Depp was doing 21 Jump Street. I had longer hair and we kinda have the same facial features, so I used to be told that I looked like Johnny Depp. He always does weird parts, so he could probably pull this one off!”
“Honestly, if I never sat in another race car again, I’d be completely happy with what I’ve done with my career. Every extra lap I get, I’m happy. I consider this all bonus.
“Charlie [Putman] is like a brother to me. Joe [Foster], Shane [Lewis], we’re all very good friends, and to be able to do this late into my career with these guys, and our team… we’re a family race team, and to be able to have more success with these guys is all I’d like to achieve.”
“I was born and raised in Florida, kinda out in the country, and some of my hobbies include hunting, extreme fishing and alligator hunting where we disappear into the Everglades for days. We’ve actually caught a couple of big pythons out there and were able to bring them back to the game wardens for them to analyse. In fact, I have a picture of 12-foot python that my buddy and I caught…” – CREVENTIC’s slightly horrified expression at this clearly amuses Charles, who continues… – “Hey, I’m an adrenaline junkie. I have an air boat too, which is essentially a boat with a jet engine, and that’s something I like to do when I’m not racing. I’m a little on the extreme side!”
“I love the endurance format. But for me, it’s the people. CREVENTIC is a pleasure to work with, everybody’s very nice and friendly, and it’s a very welcoming atmosphere. And that’s what I like. With a lot of other series, it’s very fast-paced and that can take the enjoyment away from the racing. At this point in my life, I do this for the enjoyment. I’m not going to be a factory guy again. So if I’m not enjoying it, I won’t compete. CP Racing is doing this primarily for aan enjoyable experience and CREVENTIC always makes that possible.”
Charles Espenlaub was speaking with David Vink and James Gent at the 2020 COPPA FLORIO 12H Sicily. Images courtesy of Petr Frýba.