The young driver has flourished, with some help from dad and Paul Newman.
By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 15, 2002
Gunnar Jeannette was 15 minutes into the most amazing experience of his life when he got the rare chance to slow down, look around and soak in all the details.
He was only 18.
And he was driving Le Mans.
"About 15 minutes into the race there was a big caution because a car caught on fire," Jeannette said. "Driving around the track slowly, you get to witness all the people around the track. To see hundreds of thousands of people cheering for what you're doing, there's no way to describe how it felt. It was a real gift."
It still is.
Jeannette, who grew up in West Palm Beach, is scheduled to start today in his third consecutive 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world's premier sports car endurance event in France. Two years after making his debut and becoming the youngest to finish the race, Jeannette drives for a factory team in the highest class.
"It's a dream come true," he said.
Jeannette's meteoric rise through the ranks of sports car racing the past three years would not have occurred if he could not wheel a car around tricky turns at all hours of the day or night. But it never hurts to have a father with connections.
Kevin Jeannette's business, Gunnar Racing, prepares racing Porsches for Grand Am and IMSA races and is the nation's largest restorer of racing Porsches. His customers through the years included A.J. Foyt, Danny Sullivan, Mario Andretti and Paul Newman.
In 2000, Kevin Jeannette asked Newman and another customer if they were interested in driving the 24 Hours of Daytona, with one catch: "Gunnar's in the car."
The team featured the oldest and youngest drivers to compete at Daytona -- Newman at 75, Jeannette at 17 -- and was a hit with the media. They did a live, three-minute interview on a network morning news show in which Newman was impressed with Jeannette's presence.
It would pay dividends.
Later that year, Jeannette raced at Le Mans with friends of his father's, finishing sixth in the GT class. In 2001, Kevin Jeannette spent nearly $100,000 to buy his son a ride at Le Mans, but it was worth it when Jeannette finished second in class, seventh overall.
"We got him a podium finish," Kevin Jeannette said. "That took him as far or further than the first year with Paul Newman. The kid had finished two Le Mans at 19 years old and had a podium."
Soon after, Jeannette contacted Panoz Motor Sports about an opening it had for a test driver. He got the standard reply, until Newman put in a good word for Jeannette with owner Don Panoz. Before he knew it, Jeannette had a test.
Then, a job.
Jeannette is Panoz's official test driver for 2002, with a one-year contract he hopes to parlay into a longer one. He competed for the team at Sebring and Sears Point, races in the American Le Mans Series founded in 1999 by Panoz, and is driving for one of two Panoz teams in the LMP class at Le Mans. Jeannette's team will start 17th.
"To move up into the top class and be going for overall victory is amazing," said Jeannette, who turned 20 on May 5 and again will be the youngest driver in the field. "For my third year in motorsports to be with a factory team is awesome."
As Jeannette's career blossomed, his father did him one more favor: talked him into quitting school. After graduating from Cardinal Newman High, Jeannette went to the University of Central Florida as a mechanical engineering major but struggled to balance school and racing.
"I finally convinced him that at 24, 29, 33 years old you aren't getting a ride. You're too old for the factories to take a look," Kevin Jeannette said. "But at 24, 29, 33, you can always go back to school.
Jeannette's experiences the past three years cannot be duplicated in a classroom. He moved to Georgia, where Panoz headquarters is just outside Atlanta. He tutored Coolio, Tim Matheson and two members of Aerosmith for a celebrity event. And he raced past the cathedrals and rolling countryside of France.
All as a teenager.
"My friends didn't really understand," said Jeannette, who grew up around his father's shop but did not take an interest in driving race cars until age 16. "They just said, 'Wow, you're going to France. Lucky you.' Most people in the United States don't really know what's going on in sports car because NASCAR is so big right now. But sports car is growing at a fast rate.
"I love it."