Pepperdine senior Max Root recently did a lot of long-distance, high-speed driving.
The 21-year-old Encinitas native wasn’t speeding down the coastline from Malibu to his San Diego County home.
Instead Root, a professional race car driver, was one of three drivers for JMW Motorsport, a British team, that finished sixth in their division in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a storied event held annually in France that is known as perhaps the most prestigious automobile race on the globe.
The pro driver of four years said it had always been a dream of his to drive in the northwestern France-based showcase, held Sept. 19-20 this year.
“It was a really good race,” said Root, who began his racing career as a dirt-bike riding tike. “We ended up finishing sixth after starting 16th, so I was happy, given where we finished.”
The 24 hours of Le Mans isn’t a race to the finish line. Instead, the winner of the historic endurance competition is the car that covers the greatest distance in 24 hours. The competition draws cars from the top racing teams and sports car factories in the world. Two to four drivers share each automobile.
Root and his teammates, racing veterans Jan Magnussen and Richard Heistand, drove a yellow and black Ferrari 488 GTE EVO in Le Mans’ GTE division, the largest and most competitive division. The trio placed ahead of 16 other cars. Their top speed was 208.5 miles per hour.
Root, a business administration major at Pepperdine, drove the Matter Real Estate-sponsored sports car a little over 1,000 miles for total of 10 hours and 30 minutes around the 8.4667-mile track at 200 miles per hour. It was his first time behind the wheel of a car at the pristine race.
“There are definately a lot of learning curves; you are driving with the best drivers in the world,” he said. “I was happy with my performance and the team was, as well.”
Root and his teammates divvied up their driving time between various hours of the day. The college student first took the wheel in the early evening, then midnight, then there were a couple of early morning spins before getting in the driver’s seat at mid-day. Root raced at night for the first time, which he said was interesting. A myriad of race-related things whipped through Root’s head during his time speeding around the motorsport course, he said. But the racer stayed focused.
“You try to stay relaxed because these are quite long driving stints,” Root noted. “You are thinking about traffic. If it’s going to rain. You are making sure you are staying on top of fuel and talking with your engineer over the radio. It’s quite complicated.”
When he wasn’t driving, Root spent time speaking with his team’s engineer, eating and resting.
“If you don’t rest, you will burn yourself out,” he said.
Not only was this Root’s first foray at Le Mans—it was also his first time racing a Ferrari. He normally speeds Porsches in the company’s development system. Root said there are differences in driving the two sports cars.
“Porsche—what I’m accustomed to—is a rear engine car with a balance back there,” he said. “So, I am very accustomed to how the car handles and what it does at different speeds.”
Root, his teammates and other Le Mans participants didn’t have much training time on the course before the race’s start because practice sessions were shortened due to COVID-19 restrictions. The Pepperdine student had to learn to drive the car fast, well... fast. Root practiced some in a Le Mans simulator after he arrived in France on Sept. 12. Before that, he talked over Zoom with Magnussen, his team’s leader, who now has 22 consecutive starts at Le Mans.
“Overall, the Ferrari was a little easier to drive, but I prefer the way the Porsche drives,” said Root, who has driven Porsches since making the drive from motocross to sports car racing.
Root first started racing dirt bikes at age six, following in the footsteps of an uncle who has raced the vehicles for three decades. He began racing cars when he attended the Skip Barber School at Laguna Seca Raceway where, as a 15-year-old, Root raced his first formula car. Root said it wasn’t long before he began to drive to more and more successful finishes.
The driver finished on the podium at each of the 16 races of the 2017 Pirelli Cup Trophy USA Diamond-class championship and that same year won the opening round of the Pirelli Cup at Thunderhill Raceway Park in Glenn County. Root also previously finished fourth in the Platinum division of the IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama season. At last November’s World Endurance Car tests in Bahrain, Root had some of the quickest and most consistent laps. That led to him being offered a spot on JMW Motorsport’s team.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans was supposed to be held in June but was postponed because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Races began to resume at the start of summer. Root will soon take part in an event at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and then one at the Sebring Raceway in Florida.
He said managing time between racing and his school work isn’t easy, but that Pepperdine has been supportive.
“It’s been a great community to lean on,” Root said. “A lot of people at Pepperdine do neat things for work.”
Additionally, he said, “When you love something, you really try to do everything to make it possible.”
Root eventually wants to be a racer in the International Motor Sports Association and FIA World Endurance Championship bodies.
“I want to compete at the highest level of motor sports,” he said.