Cadillac Racing’s Johnny O’Connell is 52-years old, much older than some of the rookies and youngsters racing against him in the Pirelli World Challenge, but his age is merely representative of his experience level. O’Connell is as fast AS ever in 2015 and more importantly, he’s happier than ever with his job piloting the No. 3 ATS-V.R.
As The Detroit Free Press learned when interviewing the veteran racing driver prior to the start of the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, O’Connell’s career as a racing driver used to have much more uncertainty in it than it does now. He started out thinking he’d be the next big thing in open-wheel racing, but he learned he was destined for something different after spending time competing in Europe.
“I thought I could be the next great American in Formula 1,” O’Connell told The Free Press. “I guess like a lot of guys.”
“I got to go to Europe and raced against Gil de Ferran, David Coulthard and Mika Salo. At Snetterton, I had them by a second.”
After he failed to move up through the ranks in Europe’s different formula series, he began racing with Nissan in IMSA. He still had a desire to drive open wheel cars, though, and raced at Indy in 1996 and 1997. For the ’97 race, O’Connell took over Scott Sharpe’s seat, but ended up hitting the wall head on and then “spent eight months learning to walk again,” he says.
O’Connell later returned to IndyCar but flipped his car at Las Vegas, forcing him to spend more time in the hospital.
“These were plane crashes, basically,” O’Connell said. “I made the decision: I’m going to be a sports car guy again.”
The Poughkeepsie, NY native later secured a seat with Corvette Racing and began his partnership with General Motors. He won at Le Mans in the C5-R (and again later in the C6.R) and was moved to Cadillac Racing, where he’s been massively successful.
“Cadillac Racing — it’s the most cohesive team I’ve ever been with,” O’Connell said. “Everyone is pulling together. They have brilliant engineers, guys who are hungry. It’s always a team effort.”
Johnny says he’s “in the right seat, at the right time,” in the ATS-V.R, and we think he’s spot on. He’s hoping he’s got “a few more good years” before the guys at GM replace him with someone else, and based on his race results, were hoping he sticks around too.