Local driver coach Tommy Byrne shared his expertise with Eurosport Racing's Porsche drivers at Virginia International Raceway, held June 16-20.
It was 5:45 a.m.
“Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds played on repeat three times before Tommy Byrne jumped out of the hotel bed, heading for the bathroom to take a shower. Usually, it’s me who hits the snooze button, but after a 9-hour drive from our home in Ormond Beach the day before, I didn’t hear anything. It was the first of two of the David Murry Track Days, to be followed by three days of the Porsche Club of America event at the Virginia International Raceway in Alton that Wednesday, June 16. Tommy did not want to be late for his drivers.
An Irish woman’s voice languidly gave directions to the track as Tommy balanced his glasses and a cup of coffee while driving the Chrysler rental van. I refrained from any commentary about my significant other’s balancing act. This was his fourth time coaching the drivers of the Eurosport Racing team and he already had an idea of what to expect from the them. Most were experienced Porsche drivers that sought his expertise to hone their skills, with a few that were new to driving cup cars. The cars would be another issue entirely.
Born in a car in Drogheda, Ireland, Thomas, the name his parents gave him, began his life on wheels. He became a mechanic in his teens and raced around the Irish countryside in any motorized vehicle he could get his hands on. This experience, and a propensity for driving, led him to England where he won the British Formula Ford Championship of 1980, the British and European Formula Ford 2000 Championships of 1981 and the British Formula Three Championship of 1982. Due to a climate rife with inequities, his foray into Formula 1 was brief and he moved to the U.S. where he continued racing in various series, including Indy Lights and the American Racing Series, during which he lived on both coasts. We met in California at the Long Beach Grand Prix in 1985. Our mutual friend Legs Pivec, co-owner of Pivec Racing Service, had stopped to pick up Tommy before driving the rented station wagon full of crew onto the course the night before the race.
A move to Florida, one marriage, two kids and a divorce later, Tommy retired from racing and began driver coaching at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in 1994.
“Driver coaching is the second best job I can get,” Tommy said to me. “Driving is obviously the best. Well, the best is coaching and driving which is what I’m doing now with Eurosport.”
Eurosport Racing of Bensenville, Illinois has been owned and operated by Brian Weathered for 40 years. Initially, he handled most aspects of running the business, including the cooking duties, but has since relinquished a few of his responsibilities which has allowed him time to race. Over the June 16 weekend, he raced in three historic class sprint races with his Porsche 914 and won all of them.
Once at the raceway, Tommy parked the van and jumped out, shouting good morning to the crew and a few of the drivers that had arrived early. Neil Charles, the team’s cook and one of the semi-truck drivers, was busy at the grill flipping sausage patties and strips of bacon. The smell of breakfast permeated the tents. I watched him as he grabbed some tea and laughed as Neil yelled at him to get out of his kitchen.
The drivers ate breakfast while he reviewed some in-car camera footage and answered questions regarding the way their cars were handling on the track. Travis Bedson wanted a professional comparison and asked him to test drive his Porsche. After 10 laps in the Porsche 968, Tommy was only able to do a 2:11 — four seconds off the pace. Crew chief Tony Reyes checked the compression of the engine and found that it was leaking. Travis is now getting his engine rebuilt.
“The goal is really to get drivers the most track time possible,” Tommy said. “The first year I raced, I did 50 races and 60 test sessions. In America, some of these drivers do 10 races and no test sessions a year. It took me three years to not crash. If you get a driver coach, you can get the knowledge and gain experience in a shorter amount of time.”
Eric Rahenkamp, a client of Tommy’s, was grateful for his friendship and for inspiring him not to quit.
“Tommy took me from having no confidence in myself or my car to having total confidence and actually competing, in two months,” Eric said to me. “He keeps things simple but is highly effective at improving his students’ skills and makes it fun. I am a 100% better driver because of Tommy after only three races.”