One of the biggest smiles in the Sonoma Raceway garage this weekend belonged to Joey Hand, the California native who, a week earlier, was one of the winning drivers in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Hand, Sébastien Bourdais and Dirk Müller drove the Chip Ganassi-owned No. 68 Ford GT to a class victory at Le Mans, 50 years after Ford first went to France and beat Enzo Ferrari in the world’s most prestigious endurance race.
In an exclusive interview with FOXSports.com, Hand talked about his big victory at Le Mans.
What was the Le Mans experience like?
It was huge. It was one of the biggest things I’ve ever been involved in in my career — just the way it all went down is the story. The fact that when that car (Ford GT) was built, how that car was built, in secrecy in Dearborn (Mich.) in a basement.
The idea that they (Ford) wanted to come back and win Le Mans 50 years later. This was two years ago when it started. I drove the car eight months ago for the first time. We’re four races down and the fifth race we win Le Mans.
It’s pretty remarkable to win at Le Mans, isn’t it?
It’s a storybook ending to how this all went down. For me, personally, just really proud and honored to be part of it. Because every day, leading up to it and after the race, you see how big a deal this was to the Ford family.
I stood there with Edsel Ford II who, the last time he was there, was 1966. He was 18 years old and with his dad. They won. He never went back to Le Mans until this year. How crazy is that? Fifty years ago, you can imagine how different it was. That kind of stuff makes me proud to be part of it.
How tough is the race itself?
Twenty-fours hours are always difficult, but Le Mans is especially difficult. At Daytona, you can use four drivers. Sebring is only 12 hours and you use three drivers. But at Le Mans, you can only use three guys, max.
What’s the toughest part of racing at Le Mans?
It’s an eight-and-a-half-mile track. A lot of people think, ‘There’s a lot of long straightaways where you can rest. No big deal.’ There’s no rest at Le Mans, especially with all the Prototype cars coming by you. Every corner at Le Mans is quick and you have to be on your toes. Even in the chicane, you miss the braking zone by a couple of feet, you’re in the gravel. Race over. No room for error there. You find your eyes bugging out of your head and your palms sweating.
What was your strategy?
Our thing was just what Chip always says: Let’s do the obvious things right. And that’s what we had to do. We were the new guys in town, right? So, we don’t know the rules really well there, as an American team, our first time there as a group. So we were like, “OK, let’s be really solid. Let’s do everything right and if we’re there at the end we’ll go race ‘em.” And that’s what we did.
Were you well-received by the locals?
Oh, yeah. Le Mans… 350,000 people come through that place. You can’t fathom 350,000 people. The locals there are very knowledgeable. That’s what’s cool. They have sports cars in their blood. They have 84 years of history at that race track. The locals are always awesome. It didn’t hurt that we had Sébastien Bourdais in our car. The French fans are really supportive of the Americans. They like the American drivers and they especially like the American teams.