Endurance races are often long enough for competitors who have seemingly dropped out of the contest to work their way back into contention. Maybe that’s why IMSA sports car racing is such a good fit for Stephen Simpson.
Back in 2005, the 34-year old was South Africa’s man of the moment, driving the country’s entry in the short-lived A1GP series and making plans to take his career into Formula 1 or Indy cars. But like so many young racers, Simpson’s path came to a dead end due to a lack of sponsorship.
“In the early days, I had some backing and was fortunate to be able to do some good stuff,” Simpson related. “I had a handful of years racing in Europe, then came over here and did some Formula Atlantic races and a season of Indy Lights, plus a few sports car races. I wanted to be an Indy car driver, but after that, it kind of dried up for me from a sponsorship point of view around 2008. I went through a whole process of trying to come to terms with how this motor racing career that I thought had been on the right track had essentially ground to a complete halt.”
After a couple years at home, Simpson made the fundamental determination that he wanted to remain involved with racing, even if it was not as a driver. In late 2010, he moved to Indianapolis and started making calls and sending resumes with the goal of becoming a driver coach.
“I had no car, no income, and I was living on a mattress in the bedroom of a rented house,” said Simpson. “I had to start something and get something going and I remember e-mailing every single Pro Mazda and F2000 team looking for a spotting job at Lucas Oil Raceway. John Church was one of the first to reply, and I ended up spotting for one of his drivers. The funny thing is that it was Chris Miller, with whom I’ve become teammates and great friends.”
Church managed the ambitious KOOL hospitality program for Brown & Williamson from 1996 to 2002 before forming his own racing team. JDC MotorSports earned championships in several single seat categories with drivers including Miller (now a partner in JDC-Miller MotorSports), Dane Cameron, Tristan Vautier and Adam Christodoulou. His first major coaching client was Michael Johnson, the paralyzed racer who overcame his disability to become a tenacious sports car competitor with the goal of one day racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The longer Simpson worked with Church’s drivers, the more the team owner was impressed. In 2014, when Church took his team into IMSA competition, he offered his driver coach the opportunity to get back behind the wheel to drive, and Simpson and JDC-Miller MotorSports quickly turned into frontrunners in the PC class of the WeatherTech Sports Car Championship, taking class victories at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Long Beach in 2016. For 2017, JDC-Miller MotorSports stepped up to the Prototype class and Simpson teamed with Mikhail Goikhberg for a pair of podium finishes and fourth place in the overall standings.
Simpson and Goikhberg continue to form an effective partnership, with their car this year carrying the famous No. 99 GAINSCO Auto Insurance “Red Dragon” livery. Simpson also competes in the Continental Tire Challenge in an Audi TT-S, where his teammate is none other than Michael Johnson.
Simpson still coaches Johnson and several of the younger JDC-Miller MotorSport drivers, as well as the drivers competing for Belardi Auto Racing in Indy Lights.
“I do take satisfaction out of coaching and that’s why I still do it today. I enjoy helping on these younger drivers and passing on what I learned when I was going through the ranks,” Simpson said. “Being back in a car was something unexpected, and since then it’s been far better than I could ever imagine. I didn’t actually get in a race car for a solid 4-1/2 years and didn’t even have a racing license because there were so few opportunities.”
Next up on Simpson’s to-do list is to score an overall victory in WeatherTech Championship race. He’s fully convinced that his P2-spec JDC-Miller ORECA is capable of taking the fight to the dominant Cadillac and Acura DPi entries.
“Switching to sports car racing sooner than I did would have probably opened up a few more opportunities,” he remarked. “The general gist from younger drivers is, ‘If it doesn’t work out, I can always become a sports car driver.’ But it’s not that easy. It’s almost as difficult as becoming an Indy car driver; it’s just a different discipline of motor racing.
“I didn’t think I would be here when I was 18 years old, but looking back, I don’t think I would have chosen a different or better path for myself,” Simpson added. “I love sports car racing and the team I’m with. Everybody gets along great and we have a lot of fun. A lot of the mechanics I met that first weekend at Lucas Oil Raceway in 2011 are actually mechanics on my car now. That reflects what a good boss and team leader John Church is. He’s one of the best out there.”