At age 45, Jan Magnussen has had a substantial career in motorsports. He made his way up through the ranks of open wheel feeder series all the way up to Formula 1, where he made 25 starts for a combination of McLaren and Stewart, scoring one point for a sixth-place finish.
After 1998, Magnussen transitioned to sports car racing, competing for Panoz in the early years of the American Le Mans Series. He also made starts in CART and the IndyCar Series. 2004 saw Magnussen make his debut for Corvette Racing at Sebring. For the first three years, Magnussen only drove in the long-distance races. Starting in 2007, Magnussen joined the team full time. He’s been there ever since, winning 27 races and four class championships (split between ALMS and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship).
Recently in Long Beach, Frontstretch spoke with Magnussen to discuss his current season, his time with Corvette Racing in the GT Le Mans class and a memorable excursion into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Phil Allaway, Frontstretch: You’ve won here a couple of times before in ALMS and in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. What’s the key to getting around Long Beach?
Jan Magnussen, No. 3 Corvette Racing Chevrolet Corvette C7.R: Confidence. With these cars, you do need to be aggressive to get good lap times. If you don’t have confidence with the car that it will do what you ask it to, the walls come up at you very fast.
If you’re confident with the car, then you can work with it. If so, lap after lap, you’ll see improvement just by moving your [braking] point a little bit, releasing the brakes earlier and rolling through the middle of the corner. For me, it’s all about confidence and trust in the car.
Allaway: Through two races, you and Garcia are sixth in points with a podium finish at Sebring. How would you characterize the season to this point?
Magnussen: Daytona wasn’t great, but Sebring was a pretty good race for us. It feels like we have a chance of winning every race. But the problem with that is that everybody can win. It’s a little bit about how the luck falls each weekend since everyone’s so close.
IMSA’s done a great job with the BoP (Balance of Performance). I think everyone is very close together. It’s just a matter of putting a good race together.
Allaway: You’ve driven a whole bunch of different cars in your career from Formula 1 to CART. You’ve even ran the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series once back in 2010, finishing 12th in your only start. What do you remember from that weekend?
Magnussen: It was a fantastic experience and something that I would have loved to do more of [on road courses]. It came about because I was helping Hendrick Motorsports develop their road course car. When that job was over, they gave me a race.
It was crazy. To me, it felt like a three-and-a-half-hour bar fight.
Allaway: Lots of contact out there during the race?
Magnussen: Yes, but not crazy contact. Not [the contact that sends] you off.
I’d only heard a lot about NASCAR before that. When I knew I was going to race, I tried to learn as much as I could. At the start of the weekend, I made a deal with myself that I wasn’t going to do anything stupid… until the last 20 minutes. I was going to stay below everybody’s radar and then see what would happen near the end. That strategy worked out really well for me.
There was a Swedish driver (DTM veteran Mattias Ekström for Red Bull Racing Team) also in his first NASCAR race. I qualified right in front of him. Ekström just barreled through at the beginning, just pushing his way through. I thought, ‘I’ll see what happens to him and see if I can get away with it.’ Sure enough, poom, someone knocks him off into the tires. I thought, ‘I’ll just carry on with my plan.’
It paid off. We didn’t get involved in anything huge. Unfortunately, I got involved with spinning Carl Edwards around. I have to say that it was my fault. I was going for a pass and I saw that it wasn’t going to happen. I tried to back out of it, but somebody hit me in the back, and then boom, straight into the back of him and sent him off. [Edwards] was pissed at me after the race and had me in a chokehold. It’s all part of the experience.
Allaway: He actually had you in a chokehold?
Magnussen: Right. I had just gotten out of the car, and he came running at me. I’ve never experience anything like that. I kind of stuck my hand out as to say sorry. That’s not how it works in NASCAR. [The experience] was still good. I loved it.
Note: The contact that Magnussen is referencing occurred with four laps to go in the race. It did not make TNT’s broadcast of the Toyota Save Mart 350k. It cut to Edwards stopped on the outside of Turn 7 after his spin, which dropped Edwards from a possible top-10 finish to a 29th-place finish.
Allaway: Nothing like that’s happened to you since?
Magnussen: I haven’t experienced anything like that since. I’d love to have done more road course stuff [in NASCAR]. I won’t pretend or even imagine that I’d be good on the ovals compared to those guys since they know what they’re doing. But the road course stuff was fun.
Allaway: You’ve driven for Corvette Racing for the entire time that they’ve in the equivalent of the GT Le Mans class. How has the class changed over the last 9.75 seasons?
Magnussen: Every time that someone introduces a new car, there’s a new benchmark. I think what Corvette Racing has done really well is react to those changes since we haven’t had a new car for six years. To react to when the BMW [M8 GTE and] when the Ford [GT] came in and they were super fast. Suddenly, we were up against it to find that little bit extra time. We went through all the data and make sure we’re getting everything out of [the car].
The class itself, GTLM, is, for me, a fantastic category. We’re all experienced drivers. There’s a couple of young drivers in there with less experience, but there’s a good feeling amongst us. Stupid stuff will happen just because we’re racing and racing close, and nobody leaves a lot of margin for error.
What I think makes [the GTLM class] a great place to race is that there is great respect between the drivers. We’ll be pissed off at each other after a race, but what I think is nice is that the respect stays there. We’ll try to race hard, but we’ll still take care of each other.
Allaway: The GT racing in ALMS and now the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship has been viewed as some of the best in the world. Do you think that it is still at that caliber?
Magnussen: Yes, for sure. I wish that the GTLM category was a little bit bigger. It’d be nice to see a couple of Aston Martins over here. Pretty much everything we do over here in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is to hone our skills and learn from the other teams where we stand for Le Mans.
Le Mans is the big one for us. We try and learn as much as we can here in order to be better at Le Mans. It’d be nice to have a couple of Astons here to [see how we match up against them].
Allaway: Does it hurt not having Aston Martins and really, Ferrari, here?
Magnussen: I don’t know if it hurts, but we would be better off as a series if Ferrari and Aston [Martin] were here. We put on a good show every weekend with eight or nine cars, so it doesn’t [negatively affect the show]. It really only takes two cars to race.
When you see the GTLM field, eight cars, split by six or seven-tenths of a second in qualifying, you know IMSA’s done a great job. You’re in for a good race.
Note: The only team that has raced a Ferrari 488 GTE in the series in the past couple of seasons has been Texas-based Risi Competizione. It only confirmed its participation at Daytona International Speedway and are currently focusing on Le Mans. The current Aston Martin Vantage has not raced in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. The most recent appearance for Aston Martin in the GTLM class was in 2015 at Sebring.
Allaway: This is your 13th full year (16th overall) with Corvette Racing. What’s the key to having such longevity with one particular race team?
Magnussen: Without knowing it, that was what I wanted during my whole career. When I joined Corvette Racing, I didn’t think that it was in the cards, but as time has gone by, a big part of Corvette Racing’s success has been continuity. Continuity with drivers, learning from the previous car and building that into the new one. Continuity with crew members, with management. We are essentially the same team that we were 10 years ago, and even further back.
I think that’s a big part of the success of Corvette Racing. We keep developing and honing our skills with what we have.
Allaway: It’s the same thing with your teammate Antonio Garcia. You’ve been teamed with him since 2012. What’s it like having him as a teammate?
Magnussen: He’s a fantastic teammate. Super, super fast. We were put together in the same car because we’re the same height. Makes it easier for driver changes since we don’t have to do seat [inserts]. Ollie [Gavin] and Tommy [Milner] are also the same height, so it makes sense.
A lot of the success that Antonio and I have had together is not because we want the same things from the car. We don’t have the exact same driving style, and because of that, we put a lot of pressure on Kyle, our engineer, to try and keep both of us happy. I think we get the most out of the car that way.
When you have two drivers in a car, the car will never be exactly what you want. Got to find a happy medium. We push Kyle hard to do that. Antonio pushes for his stuff and I push for mine. Usually we end up with something that we’re both pretty happy with.
Allaway: Now your son Kevin is racing in Formula 1 for HAAS F1 Team this weekend in China. With your schedule here in the United States, do you have the opportunity to watch him race often?
Magnussen: A lot of the weekends clash, so I’ll be sitting in pit lane, pretending to follow our race. [laughs]
I look at [timing and scoring], seeing how he’s doing. I also see it on TV. This year, I’ll go to five races and try to keep up with what he’s doing. He’s doing a fantastic job driving for HAAS. It’s been the best thing that could happen for him.
The way that [HAAS F1 Team] supports him and lets him be the person that he is, that’s just how he works the best. They can really get the best out of him.
Allaway: Obviously, a lot has changed in Formula 1 since 1998. Is there anything that can still apply to F1 today from that time period that you can give to Kevin as advice?
Magnussen: A little bit about how he interacts with team members and his teammate (Romain Grosjean).
Early on in Kevin’s career, I kind of became his coach, but we never really talked about it. It just sort of happened. However, it wasn’t good for our relationship. Kevin just wanted me to be his dad and I just wanted him to be my son. None of the pressure of coaching.
Turns out that it’s exactly the same [as before]. We still talk about everything, but now the pressure’s gone. Now I’m not demanding that he do stuff. We can talk a lot about driving the car. When we do that, we know that we are talking exactly the same language. I can see with his body language when he explains to me that he knows what he’s talking about and vice versa.
I don’t give him advice as such on how to take decisions and things like that. I leave that up to him. He’s a big boy. I try just to follow and enjoy what he is doing as a proud father.
Magnussen and Garcia ultimately had a rather eventful race in Long Beach. One of the most spectacular moments of the 100-minute race was the battle for second in class between Magnussen and the Ford GT of Dirk Müller. On the final lap, Müller ran out of fuel exiting Turn 8 onto Seaside Way. Magnussen had nowhere to go but directly into the back of the Ford.
The impact busted the radiator of Magnussen’s Corvette. Tommy Milner in the No. 4 Corvette was right there and attempted to capitalize, but Magnussen was able to drag his steaming C7.R to the line to finish second.
“The end was pretty crazy with the 66 running out of fuel ahead of me,” Magnussen said after the race “I thought I was going to get stuck behind him, so I had to get on the throttle full to push him out of the way to get that last half lap back to the checkered flag. Corvette Racing did a fantastic job setting the car up and thinking about what we needed at the end of the race. I don’t know if we had the best car, but it was close. I’m super happy today. For sure we’d like to get a win soon. We’ve caught up in the championship so it’s a good day.”
As for Kevin, he had made it into Q3 in Shanghai prior to this interview taking place. Starting ninth, Kevin ran competitively but dropped back during the race and finished a lap down in 13th.
With the second-place finish, Magnussen and Garcia are up from sixth to second in GT Le Mans points with a couple of weeks off before the next race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on May 4.