Andy McElrea on his teams highly successful driver development program
Results speak volumes in motorsport and Andy McElrea’s team, McElrea Racing, definitely has some success stories when it comes to its driver development program and helping young drivers onto the world stage.
In this episode of The InSyde Line, Rhys chats to Andy about his team’s driver development program through the Porsche pyramid, Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge and Carrera Cup Australia, that helped springboard both Matt Campbell and Jaxon Evans into international motorsport careers. We also cover what young drivers can expect should they want to be involved with the team.
Andy shares McElrea Racing’s unique approach to driver development, both on and off the track, to help young drivers build the toolkit and connections that they need to succeed regardless if they would like to pursue a career of an international GT competition or remaining in Australia to race in Supercars.
Rhys Vandersyde: What I wanted to do was have a chat with you about your driver development program, and obviously the history of what McElrea racing’s done.
Obviously you’ve got a fairly successful history with guys like Matt Campbell and Jaxon Evans going off to do bigger and better things internationally. So yeah, I just want to have a chat with you about your program, and what young guys are looking for with McElrea racing.
Andy McElrea: Sure. We’ve been working in the Porsche categories since 2011… and like to think that we’ve got a fairly well-oiled little machine to get talented kids from wherever that they are when they come to us, to being ready to hand off to a GT team in Europe, or a V8 Supercar team here.
So that’s, that’s, in a nutshell, what we try and do – obviously there’s a lot more to it but, yeah [laughs].
RV: Yeah, no obviously you do a lot of things behind the scenes with the kids to get them ready. And obviously you’ve got guys like Luffy who come in and do a lot of driver training, as well as Matt and Jaxon when they are back who get involved with that kind of training as well, so you’ve got a lot of things in place to help build up young drivers as they progress through the system.
AM: Yeah, correct. I guess the first that we’ve gotta have is fast cars. That’s crucial. And then that allows people come to us obviously on the understanding that our cars are quick.
That’s something that we’re constantly working at, we never, never, never stop on that one. Because… well for obvious reasons. So, that’s the first thing. That attracts customers, and then after that, it’s hopefully what we’re starting to prove in terms of what we can deliver to the promising kids, and their folks.
So… we’ve had some success, and that doesn’t come without a fair bit of hard work behind the scenes.
RV: Yeah. Ok, and you’ve got things in place to help young guys when they do succeed, so that they’re not caught out at the end of their tenure. That’s something that McElrea Racing has in place as well?
AM: Yeah, absolutely. In fact that’s something that we’re very proud of, and I think we do that better anyone else in Australia at the moment. Certainly for the kids that are looking for an international GT career.
So, yeah, I mean all the teams that are operating in our space that are competing in the GT3 cup, and Carrera cup. Are all doing something very similar. But it’s the little… the little attention to detail, the little things that we can do for the driver outside of the car that helps develop them into a more, a well-rounded race driver that other teams want to take on in the future.
So, to answer that question, we are very proud of the pathway that we can provide for them, provided they’re doing the right job. But once they get to a point where they’ve won the Carrera cup championship here.
RV: Yes. That’s obviously played out with Matt and Jaxon going overseas, and obviously Matt’s gone on to do even bigger and better things in WEC etc. while Jaxon is forging his pathway over in Porsche Supecup at the moment and he’s getting a handle on European competition.
AM: Yes, yep. Well… Matt was our first success story in that respect. Obviously Jaxon, the second one, last year in twenty-eighteen. But Jaxon is having a few more challenges than Matty had in his first year, but he’ll overcome them, no problem. But, and we can’t say too much right now, both kids have some very exciting news coming up soon about next year, so their futures are both looking very bright.
RV: Excellent. And playing a small – well, fairly big part at this stage – but playing a small part in their overall careers is obviously something to be very proud of.
AM: Yeah, absolutely. Once we get a driver in our team, or even family – that’s kind of how we look at it – we are very proud of what they go on to achieve, so when we have a driver that comes in like Harry and Ryan this year, they’ve suggested that they’ll be with us for the long haul, which is generally a three-year program.
And we give them everything that we can to get them to the point where they’ll be in the same situation as Matty or Jaxon in three years’ time. So we’ve both gotta give each other a bit of loyalty, and work towards a common goal, so, yeah that’s how we like to do it.
Rhys: Yeah, ok. So obviously you’ve got Harry and Ryan in the system now, so, was that just purely those guys coming to you, or did you have several drivers and you picked those two?
AM: No… because GT3 cup challenge is the first over the Porsche pyramid, the drivers need to have proper funding to do those two categories.
When they start moving up, we are able to help with our larger group of sponsors that we have worked with for a number of years. But certainly to get there feet under the desk so to speak, they need to bring the funding and raise the funding themselves.
If we were able to provide the funding, we would obviously go and pick which drivers we thought were talented and then put them in the car. But unfortunately we’re not in that situation – no-one in Australia is. So it’s more a case of who picks up the phone to ring us, and the better that driver is, the more excited we get, obviously.
Having Harry and Ryan onboard this year. Harry is the current a Formula 3 champion, Ryan is the current Formula 4 runner up, there’s two of the hottest young single-seater driver in the country that have picked up the phone and rung us. So that’s exciting because they’ve seen what’s happened with Matty and Jackson, and want to follow that same pathway.
So we sit and wait for the phone to ring, and if we’ve done a good job, then the phone does ring. And if we haven’t in a while then it’s a pretty brutal game like that.
RV: It’s self-regulating in that regard, isn’t it?
AM: [laughs] Yeah, yeah, precisely.
RV: Excellent and so you’ve had Cooper jump across from ASM to your operation this year, for basically your success rate with those other guys, how did that sort of come about or is it just one of those things that…
AM: We watched Cooper last year in the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge and he was a stand definitely out last year.
He was with another team. In Australia, we, the teams, like ourselves, Sonic, Ash Seward Motorsport, Wall Racing and GWR – we play pretty fairly with each other. We don’t try to poach each other’s drivers, and y’know, we expect sort of loyalty in each direction, and that’s what happens.
So what happened with Cooper, last year he had a standout year in Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge with ASM. Then, for whatever reason, the beginning of this year didn’t work out so well for him. They wanted a change of scenery. And obviously it made sense to try, y’know, ourselves or Sonic, and they came to us, and we were happy to take them onboard because we knew he had the crucial thing, which is the driving talent.
Also he knew we had the other crucial thing being car speed. So it was probably a bit of a no-brainer, but they had to have the courage to make the change part way through the season, which they did. And obviously the results of that change will show that it was a reasonable decision.
RV: Yeah, absolutely. So obviously now he’s part of your driver’s system, so he’s getting that coaching from Luffy (Warren Luff), and some of those other things that happen, behind the scenes with the McElrea operation. So, that’s also a factor in that decision as well?
AM: Ah, you might need to ask him that question, but what I do know is that they wanted just to give him the best shot in a competitive car. And we’ve been able to provide that car for him, but, y’know there are a lot of little things that go into developing a driver. That’s where I’m proud of what we do.
With the way that our senior management and the team is set up, with Leigh Geyer, our team manager. He’s been with me now since 201, so we have great stability there. Luffy (Warren Luff) obviously, the super coach and then myself.
So we all bring something completely different to the table. Leigh, certainly on car development, working with the driver to get the best out of them. Luffy giving the drivers coaching while they’re driving, between sessions. Leigh and I do the data with the drivers, he does the video footage with them.
Where I’m able to help is a little bit more on the, believe it or not, the psychology side of it, and the commercial side. So if there’s an area where a driver can be a little bit better at looking people in the eye, or shaking their hand, or something that might seem trivial like that – that’s where I can kind of stand back and help point him in the right direction. So when they leave us, with some big trophies under their arms, hopefully they’re ready to – ready to go at an international level.
RV: Yep, and take on the big bad world.
AM: Yeah, yeah – exactly!
RV: That’s all stuff that a lot of young drivers don’t necessarily get. Particularly coming through very junior categories, they’re not getting that education as to how the world works in terms of motorsport, and what they need to do to get to those next levels. So it’s good that there’s an opportunity there, once they get into a decent team like yours, that they then can go and get those extra skills – just those grey-matter skills, that may not necessarily come straight away.
AM: Yeah, well a good example is Matt when he started with us in 2014, doing the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge B-class he was so shy.
He was so shy he couldn’t look you in the eye when he spoke to you. And we, one way or another, bought him out of his shell quite nicely, and y’know, now people can’t believe how well he speaks, and he speaks in public very well, and he initiates conversation with people and he just grew into himself once he had the confidence to know that he was a pretty special driver. Just gave him the confidence as a person.
So he’s a different guy now, but that’s one example of it, and the other things that we do in the background, and making introductions to some of the other very important people in the pit lane – both in the V8 side and the GT side. So yeah, it’s the old story – you get what you pay for, and it’s never been truer in motorsports.
AM: And that’s the fact of the matter. Racing’s a fun thing for the dads and the sons that wanna take their car to the tracks on a trailer, but kids that have the backing and ambition to make it to the very top need to come with someone like us who can join all the dots for them. We won’t do the work for them, but we’ll show them how it happens, what needs to happen, and we’ll lead the horse to the water, put it’s up to the horse to have a drink – and that’s sort of how we roll it.
RV: Excellent. Ok, so in terms of, if a young driver was to come to yourself and go, ‘What do I need to run in GT3 Cup Challenge?’ So, obviously you’ve got a pretty full house with Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge cars at the moment. Is that something that you have a limitation with, or can someone buy a Cup car or run to you and go ‘can you run it for us?’
AM: Right now we’re full, both in the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge and the Carrera Cup side.
So the ideal business model for us is to have two pros and two Pro-Ams in each category and this year is actually the first year that we’ve managed to hit that target – have two pros and two gentlemen drivers in each category, and that works best for us logistically, overhead wise, staffing wise, and just dynamically over the course of a weekend.
And, y’know, one of the other things that generally tends to rub off, is that some of the gentlemen drivers end up giving some of the youngers drivers a drive and a race somewhere, or…
RV: The Bathurst 12 Hour?
AM: Yeah, exactly right. Both Matt and Jackson have got numerous Bathurst 12-hour drives by getting on well with some of their gentleman drivers.
RV: Absolutely, yeah.
AM: That’s another part of it. But also some sponsorship. Y’know Jimmy Vernon’s deal last year was stretched pretty thin, and both Michael Hovey and Brett Bolton tipped in and funded the last couple of rounds. So those are some of the other intangible benefits that we could never promise, but quite often happen as a result of rubbing shoulders with the right sort of people.
RV: Excellent. Alright, so, do you wanna go into just a little bit more detail about the progression path that you’ve got in place? Obviously Jaxon did two years in Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge. So you basically give young drivers a development year, then a championship year. Then another development year and then championship year?
AM: Yeah, pretty much. What we have set in stone is two years in Carrera cup.
First year to win some races, park it on the front row a few times, get used to getting off the line well and doing good starts, which leads to winning races obviously. And then go for the championship in year two, and that formula worked beautifully for both Matt and Jaxon.
What happens prior to that depends on the kid – where they’re at in their level of development.
So Matt came to with a year-and-a-half formula forward numerous other cars that he’d driven. So he only needed one year of GT3 Cup Challenge to be quick enough to go up to Carrera Cup and be ready to win races.
Whereas Jaxon on the other hand came to us fresh out of go karts. So he did one Formula Forward race in New Zealand, and then into the Porsche, so he needed two years – he did the first year of B-Class, him and Aaron Seton slugged it out, and then in the second year he did an A-Class in a newer car.
And he should’ve won that championship, but because it was only him and Hamish Hardiman that were running for the championship, one DNF really cost him the championship through no fault of his own. So he should’ve – could’ve won Cup Challenge in 2016, but in any case after that second year of GT3 cup challenge, he was ready for Carrera cup.
It took Matt twelve races to win, and in the Carrera Cup, but it took Jaxon ten, which was pretty cool. And then, y’know, Cooper coming – obviously he didn’t do his development with us in cup challenge but he’s come to Carrera Cup and won his fourth race with us. So that’s exciting, and it underlines the fact that our system works which is obviously important for us to keep proving that.
RV: Yeah, absolutely. Results count, regardless of being a team owner, a driver, a sponsor, like, results count.
AM: Exactly right, yep.
RV: You’ve got a fleet of cars that you run. If someone was to come to you and go, ‘Look, I’ve got a car that I need to run’, AKA what Cooper did, with the Porsche model, are you guys happy with running cars from the general Porsche fleet of Australia-wide, or is it that you would prefer to have someone lease one of your cars internally?
AM: No – so the way our team runs is all of our customers own their cars. So if they bring their car to us, we bolt our setup on it, and off we go racing.
The only variation to that is we own our own Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge car, which is the ex-Matt Campbell championship car. And we own a Porsche Carrera Cup car, which is Jaxon’s championship winning car. So we lease those cars out in each category to help us kinda control, as much as we can, the fact that we have a pro in our car.
With our system, in a perfect world we’d like to win the championship one year, develop our driver the second year, and then win it again. So what happened is that kind of got out of sync a little bit, so y’know we had the super couch sitting here without a drive – so this year we put Luffy in the car, so he’ll win races.
And if he doesn’t win the championship, he’ll finish in the top three – he’s currently second. So, again, if we didn’t have our own car, we would only have had Tim Miles and Anthony Gilbertson in the Pro-Am class this year, and Cooper may not have come to us, had we not been running Luffy up the front.
So that was an example of where having our own car gave us the freedom to make the decisions that we wanted to from a sporting perspective, rather than a commercial perspective. And it’s worked, and we don’t make nearly as much money as we would like to out of this whole thing, but to me racing is about winning first.
We have our MR Tuning business, and we have our MR Driver Development business. And those are the businesses that help underpin the race team, so the race team doesn’t need to make money, it just needs to support itself properly, and then we can put everything and all the resources we have into running the best team we can.
RV: And you guys have made a big investment getting the simulator in our office, well… workshop up in Yatala.
AM Yeah, that’s a crucial part of it. Like our MotionForce1 simulator, we’re the Australian agent for it.
The Erebus Motorsport team bought one from us, and they’re not having a bad year – or couple of years. But that’s an important part of our driver development program, is getting all the drivers on the sim, we often hit the ground running at any circuit, or a circuit the driver hasn’t been to before because we’ve been able to put them in the sim.
Having a full-motion sim, it gives the best perception of breaking force, cornering force, g-loads etc. because of the quality of the machine.
Everyone’s got a little static sim of five grand, or ten grand rig, sitting in their bedroom, or around the workshop, but this thing is a serious piece of equipment.
RV: Yeah, I’ve seen it, it’s a proper piece of equipment it’ll throw you around if you let it.
AM: Yeah… yeah, yeah, yeah – exactly! So that helps our drivers. And that’s also available to any driver in fact. Thomas Maxwell who drivers for Sonic, who everyone knows is our nemesis in Porsche racing, Thomas he’s a customer in our driver development business. And he hires time and drivers the sim, so that’s a good example of sort of how that business sits alongside the race team, but it stands alone.
RV: Yeah – and you also had guys like Todd Hazelwood and other Supercar drivers coming in to just sharpen up the skills before they go out to their next round so it’s all part of the back end system as well?
AM: Yeah, correct – exactly right. And, y’know, Jack Le Brocq last year when Campbell Little and Adrian Burgess were looking after him at Tekno, he spent a lot of time on the sim last year. I
n fact, he perfected changing from left foot to right foot braking, on the sim. And he was interviewed on TV at Tasmania last year, and congratulated on doing such a good job, considering it was his first weekend right-food braking, and he put it down to the training that he’d done on the sim with Campbell. So, yeah, it’s a serious, proper tool, for learning to drive different or better or overall quicker – no matter what lever you’re at it can make you better, so yeah.
RV: So young drivers can potentially get in touch with you in regards to taking advantage of that facility as well?
AM Absolutely. Yep, yep – just go to our website and it’s all there.
RV: Excellent. Well, thank you very much for your time today Andy, it’s been much appreciated and a very educational conversation.
AM: [Laughs] Not many people say that about a conversation with me, but I’ll take that as a compliment.
To find out more about McElrea Racing’s Porsche program head over to their website – https://www.mcelrearacing.com or check them out on Facebook and Instagram. Alternatively, if you’d like to know more about their Motion Force simulator and driver development program visit – https://mrdd.com.au