Q&A: Rising Star Matt McMurry Talks Karting, Racing, and Student Life
In 2014, Matt McMurry became the youngest driver to race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans at just 16 years of age, beating a 55-year old record held by Ricardo Rodriguez. He then went on to finish the race, and thus became the youngest driver to finish Le Mans since Gunnar Jeannette in 2000. Now 20 years old, Matt has raced all over the world in sports cars, and currently drives the Spirit of Daytona Cadillac DPi Prototype full-time in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. He’s also a full-time aerospace engineering student at the University of California, Irvine, just 10 minutes away from our center. So we brought the young rising prototype star out to our place for a little chat and some karting ahead of Le Mans this weekend. What follows is the transcript.
K1 Speed: You were 4 and a half years old when you first tried karting. Do you remember how that went?
Matt McMurry: Not the very first time..I just remember a picture I had in my room that was of me in a kid kart. I remember that, but I don’t remember a ton else about it.
K1S: What’s your earliest memory with go-karting?
MM: Probably going to Bondurant. My dad was pretty good friends with Alan Rudolph, who used to be the manager there, and so he was basically my coach for a long time. And so we would go over to Bondurant and use their little kart track and that’s where we ‘d do a lot of our practice.
K1S: Do you remember your first competitive kart race and how you did?
MM: I think the earliest memory, was a driver’s meeting before the race, with the other kids and they were teaching us what the flags were. I don’t remember the race afterwards, but I remember that a little bit!
K1S: When you started racing, was it a challenge or did it kind of come naturally?
MM; No, it didn’t really come naturally! (laughs) I really wasn’t that great at it initially. I wasn’t super serious about it initially either, so I wasn’t really trying that hard. But I didn’t really start to get into it until sixth grade when I really got into it. I was in a class called KPV2, pretty similar in speed to Rotax Jr. But that was when I started to get really serious about it and didn’t start to place well until then.
K1S: I see, and I know you then transitioned to cars at a really young age.
MM: Yeah, the next year!
K1S: Right, exactly!! So how much of what you learned from karting were you able to apply towards actually racing a full-on car?
MM: I think karting’s super useful for driving any car. It’s the best way to workout for racing – the best way to work out both your body and mind for racing. Especially when you’re doing shifter karts everything is so fast, and your mind is going like a million miles per hour. And then you get into an LMP2 (prototype racecar), and you’re just like (mimics like he’s just cruising around) you feel like you’re going so slow! So yeah, it’s definitely super useful.
K1S: Do you still race karts today as a hobby or for training?
MM: Not really. I wish I did. But I’m at school right now, and the go-kart I used to drive is in Phoenix. I probably don’t even fit in it, it was a long time ago. But I come to K1 every once in a while, and it helps a little bit.
K1S: Yeah, that’s cool! Do you have some general kart racing tips you can share with those who are racing at K1 Speed?
MM: I think being smooth is important in a kart, possible more so than in a car. Cos sometimes in a car you try to be aggressive to get it to do something. I feel like karts generally don’t respond super well to that. Sometimes they do, but you have to be really good, especially with shifter karts, with your car control – like being able to react quickly, and be very smooth. You could be like oversteering a little bit, but being able to hold, it’s very important for karting. Especially since everything happens so fast, you have to have good car control.
K1S: This is where I’d ask what your favorite track is – and I know it’s Mosport (Canadian Tire Motorsports Park), Le Mans, Spa, and Mont Tremblant. So I’m going to tweak the question – is there a track you haven’t raced at yet that you’re dying to race?
MM: Umm…I feel like I totally have an answer, but I can’t think of the.. Oh! The Nurburgring! I want to go to the Nurburgring.
K1S: Nice! The Nordschliefe?
MM: Yeah, yeah..
K1S: If you could drive any racecar from the history of motorsport, which would it be?
MM: Well I have my answer that I normally use for this, but I’m in a room right now and there’s a lot of F1 cars on the wall – it looks really fun! The thing I usually say is the McLaren MP4/4..
K1S: Oh yeah, for sure. Senna’s car.
MM: Yeah! Um..what else is there..
K1S: Any sports cars..?
MM: Any modern prototype, like LMP1, would be a blast to drive. Or like the (Porsche) RS Spyder..
K1S: Oh yeah.. love that car! Now let’s about your own cars. I talked to Jordan Taylor, obviously another factory Cadillac prototype driver, and he’s got a CTS-V as a daily driver? Are you lucky enough to have one as well?
MM: No! I wish! (laughs) My dad had like a 2012 CTS-V, but he’s gotten rid of it since then..but, I wish he still had it!
K1S: Shoot, there must preferential treatment over at Cadillac! Alright, well, what is your daily driver then?
MM: I have a Range Rover Sport, a 2012.
K1S: Oh nice! Very nice.. And is that the only car you have, or is there another favorite car in your garage beyond the daily?
MM: No.. the only other car I drive is a Formula SAE car at UC Irvine.
K1S: So, yeah, actually why don’t you tell us a little bit about that program.
MM: So, for the uninitiated, it’s an international program for students, where teams of students from different universities will design and build a small formula race car from scratch. So I’m a part of UC Irvine’s team, and I’m an aerospace engineering student so like, it’s not just me driving, I’m designing parts on the car. We’ve been testing for the last month or two, and competition is next week, so this is going to be a long, long week for me! Got a lot of work to do to get it ready. There’s around 70 schools, so a lot of competition. We’re aiming for a top 10 this year. Last year we got 19th, which was our best finish. This year we’re having aerodynamics.
K1S: Oh, nice, so right down your alley. Speaking of which, with being a student, how difficult is that to balance being a full-time student AND full-time racer as well?
MM: It’s hard. I’ve been doing it for a long time, so I’m sort of used to how hard it is. It doesn’t seem as hard. It requires more planning with your teachers, and like planning when you’re going to study cos you’re not going to have as much time. And sometimes the hard part is just teaching yourself things, cos you’ll miss a week of class. Like last year, especially, or even the first half of this year, when you go to Europe, you miss almost a whole week. So it’s like you have to teach yourself everything that happened then, and usually you have to do that when you get back, cos you don’t have much time when you’re gone. So, it’s really tough.
K1S: And how have teachers been? Have they been understanding?
MM: It depends.. some of them are race about it, some aren’t. My high school teachers were nicer about it, but I think partially that’s because in high school there’s 20 kids in the class, so they actually knew me. Where now I’m just like a nuisance because I have to take a test at a different time. That’s really the only time I even need to coordinate anything is if I need to take a test. Cos all of my classes right now are like 200-300 person classes, so they don’t know or care if I’m gone unless I miss a test.
K1S: I just can’t even image. Now you’re studying aerospace and mechanical engineering – I’m instantly reminded of racers like Dan Gurney and Mark Donohue who could use their incredible engineering abilities to complement their driving talent. Obviously your dad was a successful racer as well, winning his class at Sebring in ’05. Are these the people you look up to as inspiration or are there any other drivers that have inspired you?
MM: Those guys are great guys who did crazy awesome things. But I think the racing and engineering interests are related, surely, but it wasn’t like racing engineering that initially got me into engineering. My parents say they always knew I was going to be an engineer. But idols? I mean there’s some guys that have had great, like really long and stable careers like Patrick Long or Jorg Bergmeister – guys like that. That’s the career you want to have, you know? On one team or manufacturer for your whole career. That’s awesome.
K1S: I’d ask what your favorite race has been, but I have a feeling I know the answer – Le Mans in 2014…
MM: That one.. Sebring not last year, but two years ago when it rained really heavy. That was a fun race. I got to drive when it was pouring and they red flagged it – I was driving then..that was fun. Le Mans last year was awesome too. That was fun to sort of be “the fast guy” in the car. I was sort of in charge of qualifying and setting up the car, and I got to do a lot of driving, around 10 hours.
K1S: Going back to 2014 what was it like, as a 16-year-old breaking this 55-year old record and becoming the youngest driver to enter and finish Le Mans? How immense was the pressure?
MM: I’m usually pretty calm. It wasn’t really nerve wracking until the first time getting into the car for test day. The car comes in, and I was like, “ooooh, okay! Here we go…!” And for some reason, I’ve noticed this with other drivers who are new to Le Mans, there’s something about it that’s nerve wracking to everyone, the prestige of the race and you really don’t want to screw up. So that first one, was a little nerve wracking, but after that It was okay. It was like you just gotta do your thing.
K1S: You mentioned on your website that you love thinking about inventions – what kind of stuff are you inventing?
MM: Well, on the Formula SAE car, I was the brakes lead. So I designed the whole brake system. That doesn’t mean I actually designed every part of it.. cos I would be dead if I tried to do that! (laughs) But I designed all the brake rotors for that car, and select the calipers that I use, and the components. That’s the biggest thing I’ve done. I put a lot of effort into designing and doing simulations to see how hot they get, if they’re strong enough, and shaving as much weight off as I can.
K1S: Say a kid goes into K1 Speed and starts falling in love with the sport and thinks about eyeing racing as a career, what would you recommend to them?
MM: If you can, just get really into go-karting. You can learn so much in go-karting and so much cheaper than you can in cars. Like get into Rotax, and do one of the one…I don’t even know what it’s still called, the Florida Winter Tour, because it’s super super competitive. Like you’re racing against a bunch of really good guys and girls. And if you’re competing against great people, you’ll be pushed to become greater. So, get really good at go-karts and then move up to cars and everything will come a lot easier, I think.
You can catch Matt McMurry racing in two weeks’ time at the Six Hours of Watkins Glen on Saturday, July 1 at 9:30am EST on FS1.