Making of a Champion: James French
Thursday, December 14, 2017

The seventh in a series of articles highlighting each champion driver in the 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, “Making of a Champion” shares some previous experiences and “backstory” that led to this driver becoming a champion.

Fun fact:  With 11 career Motul Pole Awards, James French is the all-time IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship leader, three more than Ricky Taylor, his next-closest competitor.

Another fun fact:  French graduated from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (AKA “IUPUI”) with a degree in motorsports engineering at the end of 2016.

And one more fun fact:  Prior to the 2017 WeatherTech Championship season, French never had won a race in the Prototype Challenge (PC) class. But that changed in a big, big way in 2017.

In his third full season aboard the No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports ORECA FLM09, French and teammates Patricio O’Ward, Kyle Masson and Nick Boulle opened the year with a dominating PC class victory in the Rolex 24 At Daytona. For French, it was an especially sweet victory.

“We had really bad luck there in the past, but it just felt like everything came together and we were finally able to put that bad luck behind us,” French said. “We had two new drivers – we had Pato, who was only 17 at the time, which was insane – and we had Kyle, who was 19 at the time. Nick was another young guy.

“(The team was) joking, but they said I was the ‘old man’ of the team, which was kind of a strange role to play since I was only 24 at the time, and I’m 25 now. It was kind of a weird role, but it was awesome having the young people with me and a ton of talent. I’d been with the team for so long up to that point that the ‘old man’ role kind of made sense. It was my third season with the team and just knowing them for so long and knowing how badly they really wanted to win, it was a really special one.”

That French was able to embrace the “old man” role at the ripe old age of 25 paid dividends in the Rolex 24. He was able to relate his own, still very recent experiences to his young teammates, which accelerated the learning curve for the whole team.

“I had different coaches and I had a lot of really good co-drivers, so I was able to learn a lot in that environment,” French said. “I’ve been through it and I know the things that worked for me and the things that didn’t throughout the year, so I feel like I’m able to pick out what works and give people the accelerated version.

“’OK, this is the easiest way to pick it up. This is what you should worry about. This is what you shouldn’t worry about.’ I just tried to make it as easy as possible for everybody. I feel like the teammates I had struggled a lot less than I did (when starting out). They picked it up extremely quickly. They were really comfortable right off the bat, so they made that part of it easy for me.”

Both full-season teammate, O’Ward, and Tequila Patrón North American Endurance Cup teammate, Masson, definitely picked it up quickly, because they went on to win the next race – the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring – as well. Then French and O’Ward went on to win all the other races (with Masson again in the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen) and the trio went into the season-ending Motul Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta looking to sweep the PC class for the entire season before an incident ended their bid.

Nevertheless, French’s win total went from zero at the start of the year to seven at the end of it, moving him well up the all-time WeatherTech Championship race-winners list as well. And while his plans for 2018 are yet to be unveiled, he’s hopeful that he will have plenty more opportunities to add to that win total, because he really enjoys sports car racing.

“I suppose as a young driver, you kind of have to pick your path early on,” he said. “Some people transition from open-wheel to sports cars and vice-versa, but pretty much the whole time I was pursing this whole professional career, I was doing school as well, so I kind of had an outside perspective. I was going to school with people that worked in IndyCar and worked in sports cars, and I had professors that worked in sports cars and IndyCar.

“Pretty much, just based on my driving experience and getting a little bit of time in Indy Lights and just getting advice from people, it seemed pretty clear that I had a better fit in sports cars, just based on the competition and my driving style. I’ve always been a consistent driver, and I’m good with managing fuel and tires, but I just never had the outright dynamite pace that I think it takes to be in IndyCar.”

That could be open for some debate given his demonstrated prowess in qualifying, but French clearly brings a lot to the table. Namely, his education has proven to be extremely beneficial.

“All of the motorsports-specific classes – we had vehicle dynamics, aerodynamics – that’s what you’re pretty much focusing on the entire weekend, trying to maximize all those things with the car and various settings,” French said. “If you’re not educated with the car and you feel understeer, there’s 20 things that can be causing understeer.

“The average driver knows what understeer feels like, but if you have that comfort and understanding of the car, you might be able to pick it apart and at least have the conversation with the engineer and know what’s causing it rather than just complaining, ‘Oh, the car has understeer.’ It gives you a much better understanding and the ability to talk with the engineer that much better and build that stronger relationship.”

And if there’s another thing French has learned along the way, it’s that motorsport is a relationship business. He feels fortunate to have built the relationship he has with Performance Tech Motorsports, from a partial season that began at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2014 through the 2017 championship season.

“I really got along with (team owner) Brent (O’Neill) and the engineers and everybody,” he said. “It really didn’t take a long time. At the end of that first partial season, I knew I wanted to do the next full season. Whatever it took, I really wanted to have the full shot at it, so we just kind of clicked.”