THE MAN OF LE MANS

Written By: Robert Cocuzzo | Photography By: John Dagys

Meet the world champion sports car racer who drives among us.

Team Scuderia Corsa’s headlights peered through the punishing rain as it shot off the line. The weather was hardly fit for a drive down to the corner store, let alone racing around a circuitous track at nearly two hundred miles per hour. The rain beaded off its hood then peeled down the million-dollar machine
into a haze of
jet stream. Hitting the straight-
away, the driver
swerved in and
out of his lane, warming his
tires and readying all six hundred horses of his Ferrari 458 Italia for the twenty-four hours that lay ahead. The wait was finally over. Bill Sweedler was at Les Mans, and he was there to win.

screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-8-42-53-pmAt forty-nine years old, Sweedler, a private equity exec and longtime Nantucket summer resident, was living his childhood dream as a racecar driver. Dashing in a Steve McQueen kind of way, he certainly looks the part, but he doesn’t have the racecar resume one might expect. “My parents unfortunately wanted me to have nothing to do with automobile racing,” he says. So despite obsessing over roaring engines and racetracks since he was a kid in a car seat, it wasn’t until his twenties that Sweedler enrolled in Skip Barber Racing School. He was a natural behind the wheel, but after graduating from Babson and marrying his college sweetheart, Sweedler realized that being an aspiring racecar driver wasn’t exactly a stable career for starting a family. So he turned his competitive racing attitude towards business, leading several big name companies such as Joe Boxer and Hathaway before launching his own private equity firm, Tengram Capital Partners.

With his business life on cruise control, Sweedler returned to racing in his late thirties. He started small by racing Miatas in regional races, then in national races. In 2001, he upped the ante by racing Porches. And Sweedler wasn’t just racing — he was winning. He took the 12 Hours of Sebring in 2012, the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2014, and then he was crowned the champion of the International Motor Sports Association a year later. But it wasn’t all victory laps. In 2013, Sweedler was coming around a high-speed turn when a tire released on him. “I hit the concrete barrier at 135 miles per hour,” he remembered. “But I was fine. I walked right out of it.” That wreck aside, Sweedler was on course to capture the elusive endurance triple crown. The only podium that had eluded him was that of the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans.

“Le Mans is the granddaddy of all forms of racing,” Sweedler says. “It is the first and most important endurance race in the world. It’s a feat just to finish.” Founded in northern France in 1923, Le Mans is the oldest sports car endurance race in the world, testing teams of three drivers on an eight-and-a-half mile course for twenty-four straight hours. “Most people don’t understand the endurance and athletics that are involved,” Sweedler explains. “Imagine being at a rock concert, while on a treadmill, trying to play a game of chess — on a rollercoaster. That’s what it feels like in a racecar, the most extreme roller coaster you can imagine in heat that can be up to 135 degrees.”

screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-8-43-20-pmWhile most race courses might only have one or two opportunities for a car to reach maximum speed, Le Mans boasts five. “There’s no place like it on earth,” Sweedler says. “It’s hallowed ground.” Once a year, the storied racetrack, the Circuit de la Sarthe opens its gates to the streets of Le Mans, creating straightaways for racers to pin the gas pedal to the floor and pull up to 3Gs. The track is shared by seven classes, ranging from GTs like Sweedler’s Ferrari to space-age concept cars that hit the straightaways at over two hundred miles per hour.

Each team enlists three drivers to break up the twenty-four-hour race along with a pit crew of up to twenty. Joining Sweedler on his Scuderia Corsa team was forty-one-year-old Townsend Bell, who also competes in the Indy Car series (and is a frequent Nantucket visitor). Bell has been racing since he was twelve years old when he took the wheel of a go-kart in Southern California. Much like Sweedler, he earned his racing chops at Skip Barber Racing School. The two had teamed up on a number of races together and were both gunning for the triple crown honors at Le Mans last June. Rounding out their team was thirty-one-year-old Jeff Segal, who, among many other racing stripes, had been the youngest to win the Ferrari challenge when he was just seventeen. Together, the three men made up the only all-American Ferrari team at Le Mans in 2016.

When the sun finally broke through the grim, rainy sky five hours after the start, Townsend Bell pulled Scuderia Corsa’s Ferrari into the lead. The three drivers made swift switches at the wheel, slowly dominating the second place car until they had carved out a three-minute lead. The pit stops, twenty- five in total, ran flawlessly, eventually propelling the all-American team to lap the entire field. But even with a three-minute lead, victory and defeat at Le Mans can be decided in a matter seconds. “I hate the end of endurance races when you’re leading,” Sweedler told reporters. “So many things can go wrong.” Consider the case of the #5 Toyota team in the hybrid MLP1 prototype class. After nearly twenty-four hours racing perfectly with just one lap to go, the Toyota suddenly lost power and came to a complete stop. With that, their race was over.

screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-8-43-43-pmBut that was not to be the fate of Bill Sweedler and his Scuderia Corsa team. They defended their lead till the end, and at three p.m. the #62 Ferrari took the checkered flag. Minutes later, 250,000 spectators stood in silence as the National Anthem was played over the historic racetrack in France. As Bill Sweedler stood there with his hand over his heart, he might have thought about how legends are made in Le Mans. And now he was one of them.

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