Farewelling a legend like 9-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen is a daunting task. TK amassed wins, championships and accolades at an alarming rate, and came to define sports car racing in the same way Michael Schumacher personified Formula 1.
His achievements include nine wins at Le Mans from 18 attempts – a staggering 50 percent ratio – the honor of winning on his first appearance at La Sarthe and 14 total podiums since his debut in 1997. The 2013 WEC P1 Drivers’ championship, six overall wins at the 12 Hours of Sebring, a win at Petit Le Mans, American Le Mans Series champion in 2001, Japanese F3 champion in 1993, German F3 champion in 1991, and a race winner in the BTCC, DTM, Formula Nippon and F3000.
Kristensen’s notoriety as a sports car driver often comes at the expense of his early years spent chasing the dream of reaching Formula 1. He placed sixth in the 1996 F3000 championship despite missing four rounds, and while driving for a team that was less than stable. He took seventh on his return in 1997 with an unheralded outfit, and turned an unexpected Le Mans invitation from Joest Racing into a career path that set his future stardom in motion.
Lacking the funds and opportunity to land an F1 seat, TK was drafted into the defending Le Mans-winning Joest program for Le Mans to replace Davy Jones. The American, who won the 1996 event with Alex Wurz and Manuel Reuter in Joest’s TWR Porsche WSC-95, suffered from the lingering effects of an Indy Racing League crash during the off-season, and despite his best efforts, was unable to take his place in the Joest team at Le Mans in 1997.
From Jones’s unexpected absence, Le Mans was gifted a future legend.
“Hey, I would have loved to return and gone for a second win in a row with Joest,” Jones told me a few years ago. “And I’m sure we could have done it with me in the car if I wasn’t hurt, but Tom got the drive and he did the job perfectly.”
As much as Jones hated to miss out on another chance at victory, he looks back at the situation with admiration for Kristensen’s achievements.
“Look, it happens in racing all the time,” he said. “I got hurt and he was ready to step up and made the most of it. Tom hasn’t won Le Mans all these times because I got hurt; he’s won because he’s earned it.”
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From his formative days watching and learning from his late father Carl-Erik Kristensen – a national rallycross champion in Denmark, to his swift move up the open-wheel ladder to his emergence as the most prominent sports car driver of his generation, the Great Dane is set to retire atop the sport.
He’ll turn his final laps at the WEC season finale in Brazil on Nov. 30, and with so much history to contextualize, I reached out to those who raced with him, covered his unrivaled career, and forged special bonds with the 47-year-old to honor his career in a proper manner in the pages that follow.
TK’s retirement follows the same decision made by his Audi teammate Allan McNish late in 2013. Together, they formed one of the greatest partnerships in sports car racing – the fastest driver paired with the ultimate winner. Kristensen’s razor-sharp wit, wry sense of humor and laser focus will be missed and, as McNish told me this morning, their similarities made for a powerful combination. With the lighthearted Latin charms of Dindo Capello (middle, ABOVE, with McNish, at left, and Kristensen) serving as the catalyst, Audi had a peerless lineup on its hands.
“I think Tom and I, we’re very, very similar; too similar in some ways and we needed the antidote of Dindo to make it work,” he said. “But when Dindo finally retired, we had kind of worked each other out. There’s only one other person I’ve met in my career that had that same strength of emotion running through his veins before the start of a race, and that was Tom. I felt it on the grid at Le Mans in 2006.
“We were on pole, and pole position started off on the left-hand side as we lined up. He came across and shook my hand and he was physically shaking. The intensity – like superhero’s eyes – coming out of his eyes like laser beams. That moment in time I thought, Christ, you’ve got the same feeling towards this as me. And I’d never felt that with anyone else before.”
Racer-turned-commentator Calvin Fish became TK’s personal good luck charm at Le Mans after he went on to win after Cal performed a pre-race interview for SPEED TV. Afterward, it became a tradition for Fish to interview Tom before he climbed into the car for the first time, and as he shares, their friendship quickly grew beyond the confines of motor racing.
“Personally, one of the great things about staying in motorsports through broadcasting has been the ability to watch the top guys from a very different perspective,” he said. “As opposed to competing on the track, I have gotten to know teams and drivers through the network in the paddock. I feel privileged to be in a position to have insight as to how the top guys operate. Tom reached out at an early Petit Le Mans to say he remembered me from my FF2000 years in the early ’80s, when I raced against a few Danes who he followed. We seemed to click and became friends. I have always been impressed by what a normal guy he is, with a cheeky and wonderful sense of humor.
“Initially, our paths crossed regularly in the ALMS and obviously at Le Mans each year. He always gives me and all our team at FOX great access and willingness to be available for interviews at our big races. To be the star that he is and make time with no fuss makes a huge statement about the man and his character. Watching from inside the pits for many years, observing his ability to deal with the huge pressure that LM brings is what stood him apart from the rest.
“With his success, you would expect confidence, but he never took anything for granted and made sure his preparation was perfect and his teammates were comfortable. He recognized that to have success, all three guys had to be able to execute at the highest level, not just one. In recent years his increased fitness regime showed that he was not backing down or cruising, but trying to remain a target for the ‘kids’ to chase. I have spent a bit more personal time with Tom in the later years, and seen he is a great family man and loves a good match on the golf course.
“Whatever path his career now takes, I know it will be with the same level of commitment that earned him nine wins at Le Mans. He loves the challenge and the competition. He relishes the different disciplines of the Race of Champions, for example, and has had other ideas he’s wanted to explore. His record number of Le Mans wins is remarkable and crazy to comprehend, but he could have had more when you look back! The fact that he was always on the podium when he’s finished is another tremendous stat I’ll never forget.”
John Hindhaugh, better known as “the voice of sports car racing,” called most of TK’s career while covering Le Mans, the ALMS, and the WEC for Radio Le Mans. Few people have witnessed the breadth of TK’s sports car career in such a comprehensive manner.
“I’m delighted to say I met Tom’s dad at Spa a few years back,” he said as he started a weaving narrative. “Carl-Erik was gentleman in every sense of the word and, of course, a rallycross champion. We swapped old rallycross stories and he was very funny and delighted in telling me – in deliberate earshot of his son and with a twinkle in his eye, how Tom not winning anything in rallycross was a constant disappointment…. Tom clearly had heard this many, many times!
“The mutual respect and pride between father and son was clear and heartwarming. This has nothing to do with Tom as a driver, and everything to do with the human side of one of the greatest ever in our sport. If you want stats, well, Tom’s wins at Le Mans equate, in time, to the length of 108 grands prix, and his start/win ratio at the world’s greatest race is almost double that of the most successful Formula 1 driver. And that’s just Le Mans. Look at his Sebring record: We should call him ‘Mr. Sebring,’ too.
“But that’s just the numbers. Tom’s personal touches are championship worthy as well. Tom, a staunch Liverpool fan, would always ask about my soccer team, and tell me how he scored past Fabien Barthez, the French national goalkeeper, knowing I would reply that in all the times we played in Press vs Driver games, he never put one past me…
“The statisticians and history books can have the numbers and the records. I’m exceptionally privileged to have met a genuine, generous, thoughtful man who is rightly known in our sport as Mr. Le Mans.”
IMSA president Scott Atherton presided over the ALMS from its inception, bore witness to some of his mercurial performances, and paid tribute to Kristensen’s legacy.
“In the world of endurance sports car racing, I believe Tom Kristensen is one of one,” he said Wednesday morning. “His remarkable accomplishments, not only at Le Mans, but across the entire category of our sport have confirmed him as a giant – not only in auto racing, but in sports in general. He has achieved a list of career accomplishments that I don’t think will ever be duplicated – certainly not in our lifetime. On top of that, he is a genuinely nice guy – always quick with a smile and generous with his time; a class act on and off the track.
“I am sad that his career is coming to an end, but very happy for him and his family that this decision is on his terms and while he is at the top of his game. I would like to thank him for 15 years of great endurance racing memories and wish him well in his new role within the Audi family. He will be missed in the role he has had behind the wheel, but it’s good to know we’ll still have him actively involved.”
My friend and colleague Graham Goodwin from DailySportsCar.com chose the trying circumstances surrounding last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans (ABOVE) as the defining example from TK’s career.
“There are so many drives to consider, but for me the memory was the post-race press conference at Le Mans in 2013,” he said. “Tom had lost his dad some weeks before Le Mans and had made it clear he would dedicate a win to him. In the winners’ press conference after the race though, having also lost his friend and countryman Allan Simonsen moments into the race, he said, with tears in his eyes:
“‘This victory is very special to me. I recently lost my father to cancer. Before his death he told me, that I would win Le Mans this year with my teammates. He gave me the strength and passion for motorsport and has been in my thoughts throughout the race – therefore this victory was for him. But my father can wait. This Le Mans success I am dedicating to Allan Simonsen. A friend and a great fellow countryman.’
“It was, hands down, one of the most emotional moments I have experienced in the sport and it summarized Tom for me beautifully: A proud racer, but always grounded, always with a human side.”
I asked McNish to pick Kristensen’s most impressive race and, like Goodwin, he offered Le Mans 2013.
“I think that’s Le Mans last year. He kept it together under very, very difficult circumstances. He was absolutely pinpoint accurate, as always. But then to be able to execute the drive that he did, as in on-circuit, which was a tight fight with us and Toyota, then to stand up on the podium and be so magnanimous in the circumstances, I think that showed two or three sides of Tom. One, it was the strength of character – the strength of racer we know. But in terms of his ability to focus on what he had to do at that moment in time and focus with an intensity of emotion for the losses he felt, that was huge,” he said.
“Then afterwards on the podium and subsequently later on, we saw the human side of Tom, the family man. That, to me, was probably one of the best examples of the man, if you like, insofar as what he did on the circuit but also what he did off the track as well, was absolutely perfect on both occasions. So in very sad circumstances, 2013 was probably one of his hardest but also one of his best-ever Le Mans and drives in general.”
Veteran broadcaster Leigh Diffey cites another event at Le Mans – a drive into history – as his favorite moment.
“I was fortunate enough to commentate 10 consecutive 24 Hours of Le Mans, and I have so many wonderful memories to reflect upon,” he said. “The overwhelming one is calling Tom Kristensen across the line in 2005 to become the greatest ever at Le Mans with his record-breaking seventh victory. Jacky Ickx’s mark of six wins seemed so unattainable but on that sunny afternoon in France, TK did the unthinkable and rewrote Le Mans history. These days, to be able to call him a friend and share a round of golf with him and my old mate Calvin Fish is almost surreal.”
Sports car photographer Regis Lefebure’s enjoyed a kinship with TK that dates back to the early days of the ALMS.
“I have so many memories of TK, all of them revealing his great characteristics. Here are two. Washington, D.C., evening of July 21, 2002: John Brooks and I are sitting with Tom at a bar outdoors in Georgetown, overlooking the Potomac River. Tom is quite fashionably dressed all in creamy yellow – I presume to match the blond highlights of his hair. Even his shoes, surely Italian, look soft as butter and sharp as a knife, are yellow, in two tones, like his hair. John and I are taking the piss with Tom.
“Brooksie, in a lovingly referential tone for Tom’s Italian teammate Dindo Capello, says: ‘What’s with the clothes, Tom – Dindo rubbing off on you?’
“Then it was my turn, introducing Tom to the bartender: ‘Tom finished second in today’s race at RFK Stadium. He was the first loser,’ and on and on it goes.
“Tom throws his two-toned feet on the bar in fun, and the bartender fired back: ‘Down. No loser gets to put his feet on my bar!’ Tom, supremely confident in his demeanor just as he was in his driving, laughs and smiles through it all. He picks up the bar tabs, as well as the tab for dinner with the style and poise of a champion.
“Next, it was Le Mans, France, Jun 24, 2013: It’s Monday morning after a dark, difficult week at ‘Le Circuit de la Sarthe.’ I’m sitting on the train that’s aimed at Paris to catch my flight home. Literally seconds before the train is to leave, I see the winner of yesterday’s race run past my window. Tom Kristensen, unprecedented, the newest nine-time champion at Le Mans, is late and running to catch the same train to Paris.
“We cross paths as I made my way from the bar car. How strange, how bittersweet, to offer congratulations and condolences in the same breath. Later that morning at Charles de Gaulle Airport, we wind up in the same queue at a security checkpoint. We talk more. He is with a couple of Danish friends. Tom offers to get coffee from Starbucks. Thinking he’s asking me, too, I say yes please, cream, no sugar. His quick glance, eyebrows raised, tells me he wasn’t talking to me. Five minutes later, he returns carrying four cups of coffee and hands me mine.
“Tom Kristensen, always a friend, and always with the grace, style and poise of a champion. And how fitting: TK, the nine-time Le Mans winner, had Seat 9A.”
FOX’s Bob Varsha paid tribute to Kristensen by honoring the totality of his contributions to the sport.
“The term ‘consummate professional’ is overused, but it perfectly applies to Tom Kristensen,” he said. “And not just on the track. I work with a lot of drivers doing media training, and I often point to TK as the kind of guy who’s the whole package. His tenure, particularly at Audi straddling their domination at Le Mans, is a testament to this. He’s always ready, he’s championship-quick and smart, he’s approachable for the fans and wonderful to work with in the media. And then there’s his place at Le Mans.
“Our old colleague David Hobbs always says you have to be good and lucky, and Tom’s been both. He raced with McNish, Biela, Pirro, Capello, and so many other teammates at Audi, and he’s the one out of all of them to go the longest, win the most races at Le Mans. He’s a timeless talent, a timeless champion. I’m struggling to imagine what it will be like at Le Mans next year without Tom on the grid. He is Le Mans for so many people.”
Understanding the man behind those nine wins, and getting a feel for what made Kristensen stand out among his rivals and teammates at Le Mans, happened during our earliest interactions. I’ve probably shot a dozen videos with Tom over the years, and each experience was absolutely unique from the hundreds of other driver-related videos I’ve filmed.
Most drivers surrender to the process – they go where they’re told, give interviews, make speeches, contribute to debriefs, sign autographs, and perform a dozen other tasks that involve taking direction from others. The one and only place they control is the cockpit of a racing car. Except for Tom.
He was the director of our videos, despite never asking me if I actually wanted his direction…. If Tom didn’t like the angle of the shot, the background, or any other aspect of how he’d be represented, he insisted on changes that met with his approval before recording commenced.
Often, even after we’d find something that suited him, he’d keep directing – asking more questions – between takes as he found sublte adjustments to make.
TK: “One step to the right would be better, don’t you think? And I’m not sure the lighting is OK.”
MP: “Sure Tom, one step to the right…stronger lighting…”
Just for grins, I held my ground last year on one shoot–Tom thought the background was ugly, I didn’t, and we stared at each other for about 30 seconds until he realized I wouldn’t budge. Like his winning percentage at Le Mans, Tom also dominated the win column when it came time to film and he was begrudginly gracious in allowing me a single victory in seven years of video interviews.
Those interactions were a pain at times, but also provided insights that wouldn’t have come from traditional sit-down interviews. Kristensen never surrendered, was in control of everything he did – even the little things – and held those around him to exacting standards. It’s no mystery why the man became the greatest driver at the world’s biggest race. Nothing left to chance, no stone unturned.
When I think of Tom’s greatest drives, one stands above all the others: Le Mans 2008 (ABOVE).
Peugeot’s rocket-fast 908 LMP1 diesels made Audi’s R10 diesels look antiquated, and with the French manufacturer running away with the race, it took a torrential downpour around 3 a.m. Sunday morning and Kristensen’s inch-perfect, attacking style to claw back the big lead held by the Lion.
I’d nodded off at my desk overlooking the front straight, and once TK started taking chunks out of Jacques Villeneuve’s lead, my friend Sam Collins nudged me and told me to keep an eye on the timing and scoring screen. The lap times being produced by Kristensen were simply unbelievable, and with his comeback performance at night in the driving rain, win No. 8 was all but certain.
“That year we knew we had one time to have a half a chance and that was it,” McNish explained. “What Tom did through the night was he stuck the knife in, but he also twisted it as well. Pulled back a deficit to Jacques and then overtook him. I think it’s unfair on Jacques because, clearly, the Peugeot wasn’t that good in the wet conditions. But the opportunity was there. Tom grabbed it and he ran away with it very, very quickly and left Jacques to struggle and left Peugeot on the back foot.
“It was that through-the-night period was when the race swung from being theirs to being ours. We were the chasers taking the big risks and then suddenly it was six in the morning, they were the chasers taking the big risks. It was a stunning display, no question about it. That’s one area where I think Tom had a skill: to be able to drive and suit himself to the circumstances. He’s very agile. I would say he’s was very adaptable in that respect. That is what you need at Le Mans. That is what I think he had in an absolute abundance. That was an example – it was bloody wet, big rivers. The car was nice to drive, but in those situations you were hanging on all the time. There was not a second in the car where you were relaxed. Like I said, it was a fantastic example of Tom doing what Tom does.”
TK’s retirement severs the final strand to Audi’s original group of Le Mans drivers. We’re doing more than saying farewell to TK; we’re farewelling the last active member that launched Audi’s history-making Le Mans program. McNish, as usual, placed the perfect exclamation point and period on the conversation.
“It’s an end of an era, no question about it,” he said. “It was always coming. It came I think at the right time; I’m very pleased for him, actually. Very proud that he was able to get out on his terms in the way he wanted to do it with the speed that he had this year, which was pretty bloody impressive.
“I think we had something very, very special. Me, Tom, Dindo – the three of us; it was superb. 12 months ago when I retired, I said it’s like the closing of the chapter of a book. It’s not the closing of the book; it’s a closing of the chapter. But at the same time, you also need to let the young blood flourish and come through. There’s a new crop of guys coming through and it’s good to see that. They need the opportunities as well.
“As much as you look and think, yeah, I’m sad that era’s gone, there is an element and always will be of when it lasted it was absolutely superb, but it must come to an end. That is where we are today. Less than two weeks’ time, that whole era will definitely have come to an end in Tom’s last race for Audi. In reality, it started coming to an end when Dindo retired. So it is been a gradual process. We’ve been weaned off the way of working, if you like, and Dindo and I are very relaxed and happy in what we are doing now. Tom will be, I’m very sure, come the turn of 2015. But he’s got one more race to go before that so he’s got a get his backside in gear.
“He knows he’s got to turn that chapter and look towards the future. Whatever that brings for TK, I know he’s still going to be involved with Audi, there’s no questions about that, in a similar way that there was very little questions that Dindo and I were still going to be involved. I just want to be able to sit down with him and Dindo and have a beer at Le Mans and enjoy it without having the intensity of one of us having to get in the car.”
And when might that happen for TK, wee Allan and Dindo?
“Well, we’re going to start drinking at the beginning of the race!” he said with a laugh. “3 o’clock, that’s a good time to crack it open.”
Thanks for the memories, Tom.