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Oregon teen will be youngest driver at Le Mans 24-hour race next year

United Autosports recently announced Josh Pierson will join their team for the 2022 Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile World Endurance Championship.
United Autosports recently announced Josh Pierson will join their team for the 2022 Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile World Endurance Championship.

At 15, Josh Pierson has more driving experience than many adults. He first sat in a racing kart at age two and went on to win numerous kart championships. United Autosports recently announced he will join their team for the 2022 Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile World Endurance Championship, which includes the Le Mans 24-hour race. He’ll be 16 by then, but he’s still expected to be the youngest driver in that race. We hear from Pierson fresh from his trip to Le Mans for this year’s race, where he attended as a guest of United Autosports.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. At the age of 15, Oregonian Josh Pierson has more driving experience than many adults. He drove a kart for the first time at the age of two, and went on to win numerous cart championships. United Auto Sports recently announced he’s going to join their team for a series of major endurance races, which includes the Le Mans 24 hour race in France. He’ll be 16 by then, but he is still expected to be the youngest driver in the race. Josh Pierson, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Josh Pierson: Yeah, thanks, Dave. It’s great to be here.

Miller: So as I mentioned, you got in a kart at the age of two. This was in Canby. I’ve heard you don’t remember that time, but what if people told you about that day?

Pierson: I don’t remember it, but people have definitely told me about what it was like, and how they did it. So, I don’t remember it, but I just know that it was a slow process of introducing different things one of the time. At that age, what we did first is we had someone else out there, another cart that would basically push me to go forward, and they’d get in front of me to stop. They did that, and introduced steering first. So they just stopped me, and let me steer, and then push me. Then eventually, somewhere along the line, they introduced gas and brakes, and that’s what I’ve been told, but I don’t remember it.

Miller: Do you have a first memory of actually being behind the wheel of a kart or a car?

Pierson: Yes, I think my first memory is behind the wheel of a go-kart for sure, when I was around seven or eight, racing in Arizona. It was my first big national event in karting and it’s always been [that] my first memories [are] racing in Arizona for the Challenge of the Americas.

Miller: What did you like about it, even back then?

Pierson: I think it’s the speed and a sense of control. At that age, to be going that fast and have control over this kind of machinery is not very common. I think it was just something unique. I’m a control freak, and I’m not sure if that’s because of the of the driving or if it’s something that I’ve always just had, but I love the sense of speed, I love being close to the ground, I like seeing things rushed by me. I’ve always been in love with motorsports and just controlling something that is hard to control.

Miller: How fast did you go in go-karts, at your fastest?

Pierson: Go-karts will range anywhere from 60 to 90 miles an hour, it depends on the go-kart. When we drive single speed X-30′s, it’s usually around 60 or 70, but when we get into the shifter karts, which are six speeds, we can actually get them to 100. So go-karts are actually very quick, and they’re very low to the ground. I’d say that’s around the mile power in the go-karts.

Miller: How old were you when you went 100 mph?

Pierson: I believe 12 years old, since that was the first time I was in a car. I hadn’t been in a shifter cart at a track where we can get to 100 yet, so my first test in a car was where I did 100 for the first time, and I was 12 years old.

Miller: Oh, in an actual car, going 100 on a track?

Pierson: Yeah, that was my first test in a USF 2000 car. That was shortly before my first season in USF 2000, which was just a year ago, but it was a couple years ago when we did the test.

Miller: And I imagine you must have been tall enough to reach all the pedals?

Pierson: It’s actually interesting: we don’t actually need to do a lot of adjusting on the formula car side of things, when it comes to pedals and steering. We do the seats in a very interesting way, which is actually almost like expanding foam, tis how I would explain it. They get you in a position in the car, and then they basically use expanding foam and a bag to mold the seat to your body. It’s not hard to make things suitable for even someone that’s very short, in formula cars. So it wasn’t actually a huge, huge problem, but I didn’t actually do a seat fit the first time I drove.

The first time I was in a USF car I had two or 3″ wooden blocks on the pedals to help me reach them.

Miller: You just came back from France. I mentioned that you’re going to be doing, next year, the 24 hour Le Mans race, and you went there and just got back a couple of days ago after seeing what it was like. Can you describe, first of all, what this race is?

Pierson: The 24 hours of Le Mans is the most historical endurance race in the world. It’s been run for years and years and years, and it’s just a very, very big and historical endurance race, and the atmosphere, there is like nothing else. When you walk into this place, it’s just this wave of nostalgia from watching it when I was little. I’d never been there before, but knowing that I get to race it in the coming years, and just being at this track, where all this history has been laid down there ... It’s incredible.

Miller: How does a 24 hour race work?

Pierson: The way we do endurance racing is actually not very complicated, but some of the things that we do are complicated. We run a single car, but the single car … it won’t just be me driving for the 24 hours. I’ll have two other co-drivers that drive with me. Those will be my teammates, and basically we do driver changes.

We come in after however long the team had us in the car, and a stint is about 45 minutes. When I say a stint, that’s basically a fuel load. So it’s about 45 minutes, and the maximum number of stints we can do is three or four, I don’t know the exact number. I’m not too well versed in the ruling, but I know that we’ll usually do two to three stints before we change drivers. So we’ll do: if I do two stints, I’ll come into the pits and then as soon as I stop, I get out of the car and they know that one of my teammates will come out and actually jump in the seat and replace me.

We have custom seats. We usually take the tallest driver, and he makes the base seat, and then we pour seats for the other two drivers inside of that base seat, and we call those inserts so that every driver fits perfectly in the car. We just rotate drivers throughout the entire race.

Miller: And what would you do when you finish your stints, and you have just a couple hours before you have to race again? What are you gonna be doing?

Pierson: The teams have a very specific process that we go through. In United’s case, once I get out of the car, I basically … At the race, I was sitting there and kind of following this routine with some of the drivers, just so I knew what I was getting into for next year when I race it. Drivers get out of the car, get out of all the gear, and then that gear gets taken to some dryers where it gets dried and then hung back up on a rack. While that’s happening, the driver is taken from the garage. The driver will walk out to the pit wall and have a quick debrief with the engineer.

From there, we’ll go to a hospitality that they have set up. The hospitality is this very nice, temporary building that they have set up there with food in it. I’ll probably grab a quick bite to eat, as well as there’s a lower level that has a physio for the drivers, so we’ll actually get physical therapy after being in the car. If there’s anything that sore, any of that, they take care of that. Then from there, we have either an RV or they have apartments that are temporary at the track that the drivers stay at. I should really only be in one of three places during the race and that’s either the garage, hospitality, or my RV, or whatever I’m staying in at the track.

Then the physio is who’s taking us around all these different places, and we basically stay on that schedule for the entire race.

Miller: How do you train for a race like that? Or a series like you have coming up in the next year?

Pierson: In terms of training, I do have a personal fitness trainer that comes to my house three times a week, and we do a lot of endurance training. It’s cardio work. It’s all just getting prepared to be in a car for an extended amount of time, because we’ll be in the car for two, three, sometimes four hours. So you’re going to be driving for a very long time, it’s going to be hot in those cars. They don’t really have any airflow in them, besides the few vents, so it’s very hard to get a lot of air in the car. It can get very hot in the car, so we do a lot of training for that.

As well as the strength side, we do have to be pretty physically fit to drive the cars. The endurance cars do have a lot of bells and whistles on them, like power steering and traction control, to make it a little bit easier throughout the race, but that’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the G force and the load that your body takes when going through corners. So we do a lot of neck strength training, and we do strengthen the core and the arms to be able to hold the body up, under all the G force. But it’s mainly just going to be your endurance training, and then a bit of strength training to make sure you can hold yourself up, and you can hold your head up for that long in the car.

Miller: You’re 15, as I mentioned, which means you are now old enough to get a regular old driver’s permit, to drive a regular old car on Oregon roads. Do you have one?

Pierson: Yes, yes I do have a permit.

Miller: What is it like for you, to have all of this driving experience, but not even yet to be able to get a regular driver’s license in Oregon, something you have to wait to get until you’re 16?

Pierson: You know, it’s weird because it means that I have so much driving experience that driving on the road is almost normal for me, but I haven’t really done it a lot. I can just get in the car and drive and to me it feels totally normal, whereas most kids, their first experience driving is hectic and you’re trying to pick things up and it can be scary sometimes, but for me, everything feels very normal and it’s a lot slower than I’m used to going.

The P-2 car that I’ve been testing that I’m going to race next year will actually do 200 miles an hour at Le Mans, so I’m used to going a lot faster than the speed limit allows on the road. For me, everything feels very calm and slow when I’m in a car. I don’t have my driver’s license yet, so I can’t drive by myself, but my parents have always been in the car with me, and they’re totally comfortable with me driving since I’ve been doing this for so many years. I mean, I’ve been driving for over 12 years now of my life, so driving on the roads, it just feels normal. It’s just different rules that you have to pay attention to, but it feels very normal for me.

Miller: You’ve been driving for 12 fifteenths of your life on earth.

Pierson: Yeah.

Miller: I want to go back to what you said at the beginning, which is that what you loved about driving at the beginning, and it seems like it still is the case, is the combination of speed and control. You said that you’re a control freak. Do you think that’s unusual, among racers, or is that something that you basically need? To be a control freak, if you’re going to drive 200 miles an hour and survive?

Pierson: You know, I don’t think you need to be a control freak, but I think most drivers at a professional level are. I think the biggest thing that we love is the speed and the competitive nature of it. Going wheel to wheel at 200 mph is so much fun. It’s really an adrenaline rush, and it’s definitely an adrenaline junkie sport. You don’t necessarily need to be a control freak, but I think most drivers are, I’ve always been a control freak. I don’t think it’s necessary, to be a racing driver, but I think most drivers are.

Miller: What does it mean in practice, to be a control freak? How do you actually exert control over what you’re doing?

Pierson: As a control freak, it’s more like we just have to be in control of science. Like I hate slow rides, for example, because I’m not in control, and even if it’s a roller coaster, I know where it’s going, I still just dislike it because I’m not in control of that.

Miller: Your hand is not on the steering wheel.

Pierson: Yeah, so I’m not in control of what happens, or where that goes, and I dislike that feeling. So for me, I just love being in control and knowing that if I make a mistake and I crashed the car, that’s on me. That’s something that I could have controlled. I could have changed the outcome if I didn’t drop a wheel on the entry, and if I didn’t break a fraction later, then it would have turned out much different. I love being able to know that I can control this car, and I can control what I’m doing, in a sense.

Miller: Have you had a bad crash before?

Pierson: Yeah, I’ve had many bad crashes in my career. I’ve been to the hospital several times, at a young age, and also the infield care center at the track. I’ve been there many, many times. It’s something that’s almost unavoidable. When you put 40 cars or 40 karts on the track here, you’re going to crash eventually. It’s just part of racing. Fortunately I’ve been very lucky to not break anything or have any serious injuries, but I have had minor injuries like rib contusions. I don’t think I’ve ever had a concussion, but maybe I have, I don’t know. I haven’t had any serious injuries, but I have had some very bad crashes.

Just last year, at the first road race, I actually lost my brakes, which is very uncommon, but I had a fracture in one of the components in the actual brake line, and it just happened to explode when I hit the pedal. I actually just lost my brakes and went straight into a wall at 150. That wasn’t great. It did a lot of damage.

Miller: Well, that sounds way worse than not great. You hit a wall at 150 mph, and you walked away?

Pierson: Yeah. They wouldn’t let me walk away. The EMR safety team at the track, and any of the safety teams that are at these races, they do a fantastic job making sure the drivers are okay. So they actually won’t, if you tell them that you have any back pain or neck pain, they actually won’t let you get out on your own. They’ll take you out with a neck brace on backboard, and all that. They don’t want you walking around like that.

Nothing was seriously wrong, I was just bruised a little bit. It compresses the spine when you have a big crash like that, especially with the way we’re sitting, it just compresses the spine and the back. I had minor back pain and I told them that. I probably shouldn’t have told them that, because then it was a neck brace on backboard, ambulance, trip to the infield care center. I could have walked out of that by myself, on my own power just fine. So that was good. It did knock the wind out of me pretty good, which is something that just happens with the belts over your chest if you have a really hard impact of 40 Gs. I don’t know how many Gs it was, the G sensor in the car actually broke when I hit the wall, so we have no idea what the impact was, but we just know it was a very, very big hit.

I could have walked out and been just fine, but I said I had the back pain. It’s better safe than sorry. I’m really thankful to those guys that got out there as quick as they could, and got to the car and helped me out.

Miller: I’m curious, because we’ve talked a lot over the last couple years with people who are about your age who are really serious climate change activists. The sport you love is directly tied to greenhouse gas emissions. I’m curious how much you think about climate change.

Pierson: So if you want the unfortunate answer,I don’t think about it. Unfortunately, I try not to think about it. I’m not an environmentalist, if you will. This sport, yeah, it is directly linked to greenhouse gases, the exhaust and all that that we pump into the atmosphere is not great, but I don’t think about it. All I’m focused on is my job and what I’m doing. This is my job, at this point. I’ve signed contracts and I drive for these things professionally. So I don’t think about that. It’s just thinking about the sport I love, and going wheel to wheel at the speeds I do, that’s really all I think about.

Miller: What are your goals, as a racer?

Pierson: In terms of goals, everyone’s goal is to win. I think that that would always be the easy answer. However, I do set goals for myself. I want to be a driver that can drive anything. Whenever a team reaches out to me and wants me to drive, I want to be a driver that can drive it. As a goal it would be to be able to drive all these different cars and not be a specialist, because there are a lot of drivers that are specialists where they can only really drive one or two cars, because they’re all very different. I want to be someone that can actually drive all these different cars, so when teams need drivers, I can be there in these cars

Miller: Josh Pearson, thanks so much for joining us. Best of luck and stay safe.

Pierson: Yeah, thank you. I appreciate it.

Miller: Josh Pearson is a 15 year old car racer from Oregon. He’s a driver for United Auto Sports.

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