Learning Curve

The sole American driver in the series, BMW Motorsport’s Joey Hand has been flying the flag for two seasons in the DTM. At Hockenheim, Hand reflects on his experience.

Learning Curve 1
November 29, 2013

After making a successful start to his racing career in karts and single-seaters, Sacramento, California’s Joey Hand became a BMW factory driver in 2004, when he joined BMW Team PTG at the age of 24. Hand raced with BMW in Grand-Am GT during the team’s two-year hiatus from the American Le Mans Series, and when BMW rejoined the ALMS in 2006, Hand went with them, scoring three podiums in the GT class that year.

He left BMW for a stint with Panoz, but returned in 2009 and promptly won at Lime Rock (teamed with Bill Auberlen). Hand has been with BMW ever since, and in 2011 he cemented his status as one of the factory’s fastest drivers by winning ALMS GT driver’s championship (with Dirk Müller) in the BMW Team RLL M3 GT.

In 2012, Hand took on the challenge of racing in the ultra-competitive Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) series in addition to his ALMS duties. Like many drivers, including former F1 pilots, Hand had a tough first year in DTM, finishing 20th for the season.

Things improved greatly in 2013. Driving for a different BMW Motorsport team, Team RBM of Brussels, Belgium, Hand finished 12th out of 22 drivers, with a best result of fifth at Brands Hatch, England. Hand was steadily improving until the final race of the season at Hockenheim, where Team RBM’s M3s were well off the pace for both Hand and his fellow driver Augusto Farfus right from the start. In what must have been one of the worst weekends of his career, Hand finished last after his car was put onto slick tires on a still-wet track in order to gather data.

Despite his disappointment, Hand remained gracious as ever after the race, indulging our request for an interview before joining the season-ending party in the BMW hospitality lounge. Although the BMW Motorsport drivers for 2014 hadn’t been announced at press time, Hand is expected to return for a third season in DTM while continuing to race the Z4 GTE with BMW Team RLL in North America.

Bimmer: You’ve probably just had one of the worst races of your life, so let’s start on a positive note. Tell me what you’ve enjoyed about racing in the DTM.

Joey Hand: What first comes to mind is how tough it was—having to learn so much stuff, because it’s been a long time since I had to do something like that. You learn all the time, obviously, when you do something, but endurance racing, American Le Mans, Rolex—I knew a lot about it. I knew the pit stop strategy, I knew the car, I knew where the buttons were, I knew where the hotels were, I knew where the tracks were.

When I came here, everything was new. It was slightly overwhelming at first, but now it’s kind of cool. And now that I can sit here and look back on it, that’s for sure been the best part of it. In any profession, I don’t think you’re going to be really good at anything if you’re not challenged, or if you don’t challenge yourself. I think the challenges are what make you better, make you learn.

For sure, the DTM is one of the toughest challenges I’ve come up against in my racing career. People always ask me, ‘What is it?’ Well, what is not challenging about DTM? For me, coming from the U.S., not really having been in Europe, not traveling in Europe, not racing over here, not doing standing starts, not doing 2.5-second pit stops, driving an aero car which I haven’t done since my Toyota Atlantic days [2001-2003]…there’s a lot of stuff to learn.

I actually feel pretty good. I haven’t won here, yet, and I’ve won at every other level I’ve been at, but when I reflect on it, I feel pretty good with how we’ve done. Who knows what expectations were, but I’ve heard some people didn’t really expect me to do well here, because it’s so different from what I was doing, and because of how tough it is.

I’m really proud to, I hope, knock down some barriers for other Americans to be offered jobs here. I think you can see that an American can come in and race—I’m not at the back all the time! Sometimes, but not all the time! I’m proud of the respect I’ve gained here.

Bimmer: How has this experience changed you as a person?

Hand: Well, it has changed me. You don’t really notice it, but I think it changes how you look at certain things. From the racing side, it makes you really pick things apart, because here we’re looking for hundredths of a second, and most of the stuff I’ve done you’re looking for tenths. Here we’re looking for hundredths in the pit stops, at the start, and we’re breaking everything down. It’s like looking with a stronger microscope, looking closer and closer and closer.

Learning Curve 2

When I go back and race in ALMS, it’s allowed me to do the same thing. My buddy Bill Auberlen—whom I drove with for a long time—he’s kind of like that; he spent some time in Europe, and maybe that opened his eyes a bit.

From the personal side, when you spend a lot of time away from your family…when you’re here by yourself it can be a lonely thing. I’ve done it all my life, so I’m used to it, but when you have a wife and kids it makes you definitely appreciate home and family. When you get home after having a rough weekend like this weekend, it’s very uplifting. I can’t get home fast enough. I have a 4 a.m. roll time tomorrow for a 7 a.m. flight, because it’s the quickest I can get home.

It’s not that I didn’t appreciate my family before, but it just gave me even more appreciation, because you really fight hard over here, and you’re away from home, and away from family, it’s mentally draining.

Bimmer: The language is mentally draining.

Hand: Luckily for me, English is the main language here.

Bimmer: Here in the garage, yes, but when you go out the door…

Hand: I just deal with it. I’ve learned enough to kind of figure things out.

As I get older, I get more laid back. Everybody here thinks I’m laid back anyway, but they didn’t know me ten years ago, when I wasn’t as laid back. As I travel the world more and have to do things on my own more, then I become more and more relaxed with all that stuff. I’ve tried to bring that into my personal life at home and be more relaxed and more chill with my wife and my kids.

I really think this is an experience that I will look back on whenever it’s over and say I’m really glad I made the effort to do it. I’m really glad I traveled. I’m glad I did it, for sure. No regrets.

I teach kids, and I always tell them, ‘You need to learn every day.’ I’m here trying to learn every day—in the race car, yes, about the race car, yes, but also about myself and life and all that.

For me, it’s important to be somebody that people like to be around. I don’t like to be around people who are not cool, or who are not fun, or who are negative, and I don’t want to be that person. You’ve got to find a way to have bad days and still be likeable. When you have good days, it’s easy to be likeable.

For me, all in all, it’s a great experience. I’ve said it many times, I’m definitely proud to have this opportunity. Proud to be an American flying the flag—on the grid, without me there’s no American flag, and that’s a big thing for me.

Bimmer: How has driving in the DTM changed your racecraft? Boy, is it different than ALMS!

Learning Curve 3

Hand: It’s different here because it’s all the time. It’s closer.

I always pride myself on fighting to the end, but everybody tells me they appreciate that I never give up, that I’m always fighting to the end. I appreciate that people notice! It could be a bad day like today, but I drove as hard as I could to the end, and we made progress.

The ‘fight to the end’ part I brought with me. What I’ve learned here is that the intensity has to be there the whole time. That’s what’s super-difficult about DTM. Practice is one thing and you have to be intense, but qualifying intensity is super-high. You have to be really on your game.

And when the race starts, the chance of having a safety car is pretty slim, so when the lights go off, you can pretty much just add the [lap] times together and the guy with the best time wins the race. It’s not like in the U.S. where we have safety cars and whoosh! everyone’s together. You can count on that—we look at a race’s history and can see that we’ll have two or four safety car periods.

But here, if you do a pit stop and you came in ahead of a car that stays out one lap while you lose three-tenths getting bottled up in the pits, if this guy comes in and does it just right he comes out in front of you. It’s very difficult to pass here, and this changes your whole race. One little bobble in pit lane is a position.

In DTM, your intensity has to be on point all the time. There’s no time to take a breath. If you regroup, if it costs you three-tenths—or worse, if you lock up and it’s a five-tenths slower lap, you’re two cars behind.

Bimmer: Has that translated into the way you drive the Z4 in ALMS?

Hand: Not a lot, but I find myself being more intense in pit lane, believe it or not! I push the brake zone of the pit speed limiter, I push into the box. In the ALMS, if you’re a starting driver, it’s all about nice, smooth, clean, get it out of the pits. I’ve tried to stay nice and clean, but attacking it a bit more to get a few tenths. Maybe you won’t get a safety car.

That’s just one of the things I’ve looked at differently since I’ve been over here. When you peel it back, there’s some time there. If you do three pit stops in an ALMS race and you lose half a second each time, that’s one and a half seconds. If there’s no safety car…

Bimmer: What do you hope the future holds?

Hand: A long time getting paid to drive race cars would be the best thing! (Laughs.)

You talk with people on airplanes and they say, ‘How long can you race? How long can you do that? How old are you?’—I’m 34 years old—’How long can you get paid to drive a race car?’

I tell them there’s no real exact time. The future for me is driving race cars. I’m pretty easy. I’m not going to race boats—we can take that off the list!—I’m not going to race motorcycles, but I can tell you for sure I’m going to race something as long as I can, because that’s what I do best and that’s what I enjoy.

I really enjoy racing. Some people think it’s funny, but I don’t come for [the sake of] practice. Practice is part of the weekend, for sure, but what I really like is the race—the battle, the thrill of the hunt, whatever you want to call it.

There’s a lot more to battle than just the fight or the firepower. There’s the mental part of it, the strategic part, and not just from the teams, the pit stops and all that but the strategic part from driver to driver. I think that’s something I live for.

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