By Holly Cain
For most people, driving a race car is as high-energy, full intensity of a sport imaginable – the skill, the focus, the risk, all elements that draw a very certain brand of soul to its competitive clutches.
For IMSA driver Rob Ferriol, 43, auto racing is actually more of a calm, welcome diversion from a full-throttle life and career out of the driver’s seat. The former United States Marine and former civilian member of the United States Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) spent more than a decade in a career that required so many of the same character traits required for ultimate success in sports car racing.
With his unique and intriguing background, Ferriol may well be IMSA’s version of "The Most Interesting Man in the Paddock."
Certainly Ferriol’s work in the military and afterward has been a vital asset in laying the groundwork for his new role as driver/owner of both the No. 30 Team Hardpoint/Audi R8 LMS GT3 car in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Daytona (GTD) class and the No. 31 Team Hardpoint Audi R8 GT4 in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge.
"The mental toughness, regardless which branch of the military, it’s all about discipline and staying focused on whatever your mission is at the time without any distractions or losing any mental toughness,” Ferriol explained. "So that definitely helps in a racing environment to focus on the car, focus on your performance, focus on your competitors and not be distracted by all the noise and chaos going on around on the track.”
In fact, Ferriol said in some ways the mindset of a professional race weekend is similar to being deployed – albeit being sent into a sporting environment not to a dangerous military outpost. The focus must be resolute in both settings.
"When you deploy, everyone is there to be part of a singular mission and that’s all you do,” Ferriol said. "All your waking hours on deployment are focused on whatever your part of that mission is. You’re not worried about bills, you’re not worried about mowing the lawn or going to the grocery store. It’s day in and day out, doing the mission you’re there for, which in some ways, is what a race weekend is like.
"Everyone’s there to race, to compete. Everyone has their own role, but you’re all in it together and that’s all you are focused on. It’s very one-dimensional, but it’s cool. You’re so focused and everything else just kind of falls away.
"I haven’t deployed since 2009, but you hear a lot about people that deploy and come back from a deployment and kind of look to replace that spark. Just from my first weekend racing, I noticed this is a lot like behind deployed.
"This is so familiar and yet it’s relaxing at the same time.”
In other words, it’s exactly the right combination of intensity and fulfillment for Ferriol; it tests the brain and rewards the heart.
A lifelong IMSA fan – even growing up in NASCAR’s backyard, Sumter, South Carolina – Ferriol only made his first concerted racing entrance in 2015, participating in "track days" at a racing school. He said he’ll always remember that first time on track, however, which he calls an "awakening."
"If you’re someone like me that’s used to kind of busy-ness and chaos and things coming at you quickly, you get on a race track and it almost has a calming effect,” Ferriol said, noting the irony. "Early on, when I was growing my other business full-time, being on track became my form of yoga.
"It seems very counter-intuitive, but it was very therapeutic for me and I’m very competitive by nature."
It would not take long for his competitors to see that. Ferriol stood on the podium in his first two IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama races after finishing second at the historically tough Sebring International Raceway – prompting him to happily concede, ‘maybe there is something to this.’
One of his earliest driving coaches, IMSA star Spencer Pumpelly, saw something in Ferriol immediately and certainly appreciates the competitive benefits of Ferriol’s non-traditional background. So much so, that the two-time Rolex 24 At Daytona class champion is now co-driving with Ferriol in both IMSA series.
"I think the same qualities in Rob that probably made him so successful in the military – and then contracting for the military – the discipline, the dedication that has led to him being successful and being successful rather quickly in the racing world,” Pumpelly said.
"I’m not 100 percent familiar with the military but I know there’s a lot of parallels between efficiency in the military and efficiency in car racing and I think because of Rob’s personality traits he’s been successful in both the arenas.”
Pumpelly, a winning veteran who could team with anyone and race any kind of car, says he did not hesitate at the opportunity to co-drive with Ferriol.
"He’s extremely dedicated to every aspect of racing whether it’s his craft behind the wheel or how good he is at grasping concepts of driving to his dedication to the behind-the-scenes things,” Pumpelly said. "He shows up prepared. He puts in the homework and does the simulator time.
"You can tell when someone is talented but actually also wants to put all that energy and focus in the right place to be successful. And those are the type of people I want to be with.”
While simultaneously running a successful business and owning cars and competing in two professional racing series, Ferriol – a father of three – has certainly proven himself – again – ready to step up to a task. It’s a new uniform for the military veteran, but one he can also wear proudly.
Ferriol and Pumpelly have earned two top-10 class finishes in four WeatherTech Championship races and are optimistic about the remaining portion of the schedule as they have more seat time and get more acclimated to the cars. They’re focusing their top-tier series efforts on the seven-race IMSA WeatherTech Sprint Cup season for GTD races two-hours and 40-minutes in length or shorter, in addition to the full Pilot Challenge campaign.
And this is just the beginning really.
"I did really well under some high pressure circumstances (working in the Special Operations Command) so it helped my overall confidence that no matter what you’re thrown into, focus and prepare and chances are, you can be just as successful as the next guy,” Ferriol said. "That was proven out to me during my time in the SOC community and when I started my own business over the next nine years.
"So now as a racing driver and new team owner, I look at these things as almost challenges, not from an ego standpoint, but that if other people can do it, I can do it. I set out to learn and prepare and be as disciplined and organized as possible.”
As Pumpelly says, "We have the right person in charge.”