“The spirit of Le Mans is coming to Texas.” That’s the headline at the Circuit of the Americas website hyping this weekend’s World Endurance Challenge event.
Few young racers embrace that spirit — and already own a victory at the iconic French track — better than Gustavo Menezes.
Menezes is a 22-year-old American, born in Los Angeles to Brazilian parents. His father, Voltaire, played fútbol for Internacional in Brazil. Gustavo’s game is driving fast race cars.
“This is what excites me. It’s hard to imagine doing anything else,” Menezes said Monday. “I started in karting when I was 5, moved to Europe when I was 12 and worked my way up as a single-seater. Endurance racing really suits me well, though. It is a mental and physical test, and I train hard for it.
“We travel around the world on this circuit, and now we get to come home. I love coming to Austin.”
Menezes, Nicolas Lapierre and Andre Negrao drive the No. 36 Alpine A470 car in the Le Mans Prototype2 class for the French team Signatech Alpine Matmut.
In Menezes’ 2016 rookie LMP2 season, his team won its class at Le Mans, triumphed in Germany and then rolled into the Lone Star Le Mans at COTA in mid-September.
“We lapped the field in Austin and won the race,” Menezes said. “It just felt like home.”
They went on to win the LMP2 points title.
“Just a magical season,” he said. “All parts came together so well. I made a deal that if I won the world championship, I’d get my own place in L.A. So I did, and now I have a nice section in it dedicated to trophies.”
Winning his class in the 24 Hours of Le Mans was an unforgettable moment.
“Driving in the pre-race parade is such a rush,” Menezes said. “There are a couple hundred thousand fans lining the route. That’s when the tension and pressure builds up.
“Actually to me the peaceful and calming parts are driving in the middle of the night when it’s pitch dark, doing 210 mph. People wouldn’t expect me to say that. Yet I enjoy that stretch of it so much. My goal is to one day be the overall winner of that race.”
This year his team is in fourth place, although they’re coming off podium finishes in Germany and Mexico City.
“It’s very difficult to match what we did last year, but we have four races left,” said Menezes, who’s also raced in Formula 3 and the American Le Mans series.
Saturday’s six-hour race at Circuit of the Americas is a favorite of Menezes.
“It’s one of the best of the modern-generation tracks,” he said of COTA. “The course is beautiful with the elevation changes and all that red, white and blue. I actually get a bit emotional driving it. Austin has everything to offer and more.”
Sounds like one of Central Texas’ many transplanted Californians, though Menezes isn’t crazy about the mid-90s forecast for Saturday’s six-hour race.
“I wish it were at night,” he said. “Even at night here last year, it was 130 degrees in the car, one of the hottest things I’ve ever done in my life. You could probably cook eggs on the circuit.
“You have to dig deep and you need your endurance training to pay off.”
Menezes said many drivers spend significant time preparing on two wheels.
“A lot of days I cycle for six hours,” he said. “You have to push yourself hard, and Austin is one of the races we train for the most.”
Lone Star Le Mans
Where: Circuit of the Americas
Tickets: $49, Friday or Saturday; $79, weekend pass; free admission, Thursday
Thursday: Practices begin for support series, 9:10-11:45 a.m. … FIA WEC practice, noon-1:30 p.m. … Practice for support series, 1:45-4:15 p.m. … FIA WEC practice, 4:30-6 p.m. … Formula V8 3.5 qualifying, 6:15-6:45 p.m.
Friday: Ferrari Challenge and F4 USA qualifying, 8:30-9:45 a.m. … FIA WEC practice, 10-11 a.m. … Formula V8 3.5 qualifying, 1:25-1:55 p.m. … F4 USA race, 2:20-2:50 p.m. … FIA WEC qualifying, 3:05-3:55 p.m. … Formula V8 3.5 race, 4:25-5:10 p.m. … Ferrari Challenge race, 5:35-6:05 p.m. … F4 USA race, 6:30-7 p.m.
Saturday: F4 USA race, 8:10-8:40 a.m. … Ferrari Challenge race, 9:05-9:35 a.m. … Formula V8 3.5 race, 10-10:45 a.m. … FIA WEC Lone Star Le Mans, noon-6 p.m.