Who am I? Charles Putman

News | September 29, 2020

In late 2014, this likeable American was wondering whether he might live to see the morning after a horrendous ATV accident left him trapped for 22 hours. In early 2019, he’s speaking with CREVENTIC about the European Championship he’s racing to defend alongside his countrymen, and friends, as part of a team that boasts his name. His story is a remarkable one.

Saturday 14 September, 2014. Casper, Wyoming – 7pm.
 
Charles Putman is in trouble. Serious trouble. Five hours ago, the ATV he was riding across his 1,500-acre ranch hit a ridge and flipped over, landing on top of him. The quarter-ton quad-bike is far too heavy to lift, leaving Charles pinned beneath it, unable to scrabble free and barely able to breathe. He’s badly injured, night is starting to close in, the temperature is dropping, and there’s not another soul around for at least 2km. His only hope is rescue.
 
Saturday 30 March, 2019. Mugello – 12pm
 
It comes as no surprise when we find Charles Putman in good spirits. The Mercedes-AMG GT3 that bears his name down its flank – ‘CP Racing’ – is currently leading the A6-Am class of this year’s Hankook 12H MUGELLO with just over half of the race to go. He, like American compatriots Charles Espenlaub and Joe Foster – currently on his second stint in the car – is well-rested after the now customary mid-race intervention, and the team principal is due to climb back aboard the #85 Merc in an hour’s time to resume the team’s European Championship defence. The Tuscan sunshine is vibrant, and the mood in the garage is light. With each question asked, a wry grin or an occasional chuckle accompanies the answer.
 
Now one of the 24H SERIES’ stalwart competitors, Charles Putman’s enthusiasm for his craft is almost palpable, as it always has been.
 
“I first got involved in motorsport as a young teenager, when my father raced motorcycles and I wanted to try motocross,” he explains to CREVENTIC. “My mother didn’t like that, but I competed for a few years and did pretty well. But when I left home and I suddenly didn’t have the money or the support to do that any more, I actually quit racing for many years.
 
“Later in life, I wanted to go to a race school, essentially as a vacation, and I really enjoyed it. So I went back for more, and eventually signed up for some races. That was in the mid-1990s, probably 1995, and that’s actually how I met Charles [Espenlaub]. He had a small Miata, and we started doing endurance races together with that. We gradually got better and better, so the cars started getting bigger and bigger!”
 
‘Racing’ doesn’t quite cover the diversity of Charles’ motorsport career hitherto though. Since his days at the race school, and aided by the linear mindset forged through his early studies as an engineer, a young(er) Charles raced machines as disparate as a Mazda6 in the touring car-focused SCCA Speed World Challenge (now called the Blancpain GT World Challenge America), an ACR-X in the Dodge Viper Cup, and an Aston Martin Vantage GT4 in the IMSA Sports Car Challenge. In 2008, amongst a couple of Ford Racing Mustang Challenge races, Charles took a Mazda MX-5 to victory at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill alongside Mr Espenlaub and Jason Saini.
 
Few manufacturers have proven more significant to Charles’ career though than BMW. Indeed, it was on-board a Fall-Line Motorsports-entered M3 that Messers Putman and Espenlaub claimed victory halfway through the 2010 Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge at Watkins Glen – a series first for both Putman and Fall-Line – and a further three podiums en-route to that year’s title. It was Charles’ first outright championship title, one that, by his own admission, was hard-won.
 
“Everything needs to fall in the correct place for you. It was a 10-race championship, and from the second race on, we led the standings, but just barely. At that time, it was like fate was telling us, ‘you’re going to win this’, because often on the last lap – or that’s how it felt anyway – the two cars that were challenging us would run into each other, and we would go through and maintain our lead.
 
“The race director of that series actually came up to me when we won the title and said, ‘I think you did this the way it’s supposed to be done.’ And he was right. Charles and I started in a less than championship-winning car, we learned the series, we knew who we were racing against, and we just gradually made our way up the order. 2010 was also my first year with Charles and our current engineer, Nathan McBride. I’d known Nathan before then, but it was our first season working together, and it’s a relationship that just keeps getting stronger.”
 
Saturday 14th, 2014. Casper, Wyoming – 1am.
 
Night has fallen, as has an eerie silence.
 
Still helplessly pinned beneath his ATV, a severely dehydrated Charles Putman realizes he will spending the night outside in near-freezing temperatures.
 
Sleep is impossible. Two of his ribs are broken, as are two vertebrae in his back, and contusions have formed around his heart and lungs. His face is still pressed against the ground, and with each wheezing breath, he inhales a noseful of dust. Worse still, with the full weight of the quad-bike crushing the small of his back, his kidneys have started to shut down.
 
His body is betraying him.
 
Though he’s managed to stay relatively calm so far, Charles Putman can’t help but wonder if this is the end.
 
‘Just’ 1.5km away, his wife Diane has notified the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office, and a Search and Rescue operation has been underway for almost four hours. Well off the beaten track though, Charles will be difficult to find. Even the Civil Patrol’s aerial infrared has picked up nothing.
 
Saturday 30 March, 2019. Mugello – 12.15pm
 
Though he would continue his IMSA campaigns for several seasons, with a championship now under his belt, it was time for Charles to look further afield. In 2012, he made his debut at the 24 Hours of Daytona aboard a Dempsey Racing-entered Mazda RX-8, finishing a solid 10th in-class alongside his ‘dreamy’ team owner. That year, ‘the Charlies’ bookended their IMSA Sports Car Challenge campaign with their maiden season in the NASCAR Rolex Grand-Am, finishing 8th and 9th in the respective standings. 2013 by comparison was considerably more scattered though, and included forays into the British GT Championship, the ADAC GT Masters, and the Blancpain Endurance Series.
 
As a result, it wasn’t until 2015 that the road back to championship success began in earnest. After half a year out of the car recovering from his injuries, Charles Putman made his competitive return at the 2015 Hankook 12H MUGELLO alongside Mr Espenlaub and Porsche Carrera Cup specialist, Christian Engelhart. Remarkably, just one round later, Charles, Charles and interim teammate Xavier Maassen finished on the 997-class podium for the first time in the 24H SERIES. One year later, Charles and Charles, now joined by Joe Foster in the MRS GT-Racing Porsche 991 Cup, took their first class win in Mugello, aptly, one year on from Charles’ return race.
 
This was but a prelude to the trio’s utterly dominant run in 2017. The ‘American Porsche’, now operated by PROsport Performance, took an astonishing seven class wins from eight races in the 24H GT SERIES, collecting both the Team and Drivers’ crowns in the 991 class, and missing the overall GT championship by just two points. This was Charles’ first title in eight years, and the first since his return from injury. It’s also one of the reasons why the #85 Porsche 991 Cup will remain part of the CP Racing collection for some time yet.
 
“If cars can have personality, that car has personality. We all love that car, and the whole team threatened to beat me up if I ever sold it! We retired that car at the beginning of last year, after the Nürburgring and we’ll just keep her aside for special events and show races. We won so many races with that car because it just seems to have heart. Beat it, hurt it, and it just wants to keep going. That will stay in the collector’s barn for a while.
 
“In 2018, we moved on to the Mercedes-AMG GT3. We actually took delivery of it in Dubai last year, and brought Adam Christodolou on-board for the [Hankook 24H DUBAI]. We don’t normally bring in outside PRO drivers, but we figured it would be good to have somebody who knows the car and tell us if everything is functioning as it should.
 
“We didn’t have a good race in Dubai last year” – an on-track clash cost the team more than an hour repairing the damage – “but I felt immediately at home behind the wheel of the Mercedes. The principles are the same. The cars just feel a little different, so you have to learn how they communicate to you individually. Charles, Joe and I, we’ve been racing for 20, 30 years now, so it’s just a natural evolution for us.”
 
Despite a tough start in Dubai, 2018 was another remarkable season for PROsport Performance. The new Mercedes took its first A6-class podium finish two races in at Silverstone, secured its maiden A6-Am victory two rounds later at Imola, and three wins later, Charles, Charles and Joe had won both the European Championship and the Championship of the Continents. The German squad and its American driver line-up even took SP7-class victory at the 24 Hours of Nürburgring, ending a four-year ‘DNF’ streak at the event for Charles. It was a fitting end to the affiliation with PROsport Performance, and ushered in a new era for the trio as the newly founded ‘CP Racing’ for 2019.
 
“I’m very happy with our time with MRS [GT-Racing] and PROsport [Performance]. We went to them and told them what we wanted to do, and that ‘we want to bring our own engineer.’ A lot of teams won’t allow you to do that.
 
“In the beginning, MRS dealt with the maintenance and the preparation of the car, and we would tell them what we wanted for setup. So I was only lightly involved in that program. When we moved to PROsport, we took more control: ‘we want this like that, and this designated mechanic here,’ etc, so I got a little more involved. When we made this last step and put our name over the door, it became even more so.
 
“My role became more of a director.  Nathan and I probably talk two or three times a week to decide what we’re going to do about the car. I follow the mechanics’ advice, but I also have my input. It’s work but it’s enjoyable.”
 
Saturday 14th, 2014. Casper, Wyoming – 4pm
 
Almost 22 hours after the accident at his Wyoming ranch, Charles Putman is finally spotted by “friend of a friend”, who has followed the ATV’s tracks in his own light aircraft. Coordinates are sent to Search and Rescue on the ground, and it only takes another seven minutes before rescue finally arrives.
 
“He’s alive!”
 
Saturday 30 March, 2019. Mugello – 12.30pm
 
“That was a major event in my life. I didn’t know if I would ever recover from it.
 
“I spent nine days in the hospital and another week in the rehabilitation unit. And I was back in a car in 60 days.
 
“I wasn’t ready to race. My body wasn’t strong enough for endurance races, and I was too weak, emotionally. But I had to see if I could still drive.
 
“My race conditioning helped me stay calm during those 22 hours. I kept thinking, ‘this is like an endurance race’. So I started with the aeroplane trip: ‘okay, I have to get on this aeroplane, sit there, and not move, so just think about what you would be thinking while you’re on the aeroplane’. Then I’d get to the race, and I’d visualise doing the circuit, lap after lap, so I used a lot of my race experience to stay focused. There’s not much else you can do. When you’re pinned and you can’t move, you have to figure out how you’re going to make your energy last as long as possible.
 
“That was a great motivation during my recovery too. It took a lot of physical rehabilitation during the first three months to get myself back into condition. I’m not young anymore, and I said if I don’t get back into condition, I never will. So my drive was to get back into a race car. I spent a lot of long days, working and sweating, just thinking, ‘I have to do this, just to get back into a race car.’ It was very emotional for my wife, very emotional for me, especially when we went to Mugello for the first race back.
 
“The funny thing is, a lot of people, while I was recovering, asked me, ‘does that mean you’re going to stop racing now?’ I wasn’t in a race car at the time, so, ‘no’. The thought didn’t even cross my mind. Quite honestly, I’m not sure what I would have done without racing during the rehab.
 
“I really don’t know when I’ll stop. I remember asking my wife, Diane, before we started running with the Mercedes, ‘y’know, if we commit to these cars, we’re committed to running these cars for at least 2/3 years. We just won the championship in the 991, so we could go out as winners?’ And she said, ‘you can’t do that. This is what you do.’ And she’s right. This is what I want to do. This is what I’ve always wanted to do.”
 
*Charles Putman was speaking with Jolijn Jongenelen and James Gent

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