DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (March 6, 2015) – Like any concerned father of a teenager, Joe Catania looked at the Porsche in his garage and saw a beautiful car but also a potential problem.
He imagined his 16-year-old son, Lucas, grabbing the keys, sneaking out in the high-performance sports car and driving too fast on the picturesque, winding country roads around their lakeside home in the upstate New York village of Cazenovia.
So Joe Catania suggested to his son that they both head to Lime Rock Park in Connecticut to take a Skip Barber Driving School course.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to get it out of his system and take him to Skip Barber, and we’ll spend a weekend learning how to drive a car and then we’ll go home, forget about it and drive 55 mph,’” Joe Catania said. “But we laughed the entire way home. We had so much fun doing it. I said, ‘This can’t end after one weekend.’”
It didn’t. It still hasn’t.
The Catanias began club racing and advanced together to spec series on a regional and national level. This year they are climbing the biggest rung so far in their personal motorsports ladder by racing in the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama for NGT Motorsport.
Lucas, now 21, will race in the Platinum Cup class; Joe, 54, will race in the Gold Cup Masters class. Both will make their series and International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) debuts March 18-20 at Sebring International Raceway in Sebring, Florida, as part of the prestigious Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida race week.
“Once you get the bug, it’s hard to get it out of your system,” Joe Catania said.
The Catanias were not usual suspects to compete in motorsports.
Joe is a doctor in Syracuse, New York, specializing in non-operative spinal care. He had no motorsports experience or background in his family before attending the Skip Barber school with his son at Lime Rock.
Lucas was an elite high school athlete in hockey and lacrosse, starting for state title-winning teams in both sports his senior year at Cazenovia High School. His only connection to racing before attending driving school was many fun hours playing console racing video games such as Forza Motorsport and Need For Speed. He even convinced his father to buy a Lotus Exige based on his love of driving the car in Need For Speed.
After returning from Skip Barber, the Catanias took that Lotus to Monticello Motor Club just north of New York City and participated in members-only club races at the circuit. That satisfied their need for speed for a while, but sharing one Exige neutered some of the fun Joe wanted from the experience.
“It was kind of impractical – one car, two drivers,” Joe Catania said. “I wanted to spend a weekend at the track with my son, but I would get out of the car and he would hop in, and he would hop out and I would get in. We weren’t together. We were just running the car around.”
That problem was solved when Joe sold the Exige and used the proceeds toward the purchase of two Porsche Boxster S cars. Two cars, two drivers, sheer joy. And Joe Catania discovered his talented, athletic son also had an aptitude for another sport.
“The reality is, we started out in the exact same cars, and I could never catch him,” Joe Catania said. “He was always faster, no matter what we did. Equal car, but not equal drivers.”
Joe and Lucas raced the Boxsters at Monticello and then graduated to a season of Porsche Club of America racing once Lucas turned 18.
Lucas faced a crossroads after graduating from high school. He struck a tenuous balance in high school between racing and hockey and lacrosse, but he needed to make a choice as he headed to Hobart and William Smith Colleges in nearby Geneva, New York, pursuing a taxing course load while majoring in biochemistry.
Hockey? Lacrosse? Racing?
“The transition after I graduated, we definitely got into more racing,” Lucas Catania said. “It really took over our lives at that point.
“I still dabbled in hockey and lacrosse. I still played club lacrosse my freshman and sophomore years in college. At that point, I didn’t want to get injured. We were definitely more into racing. That’s what I see myself doing.”
So the Catanias took the next racing step – together, as always. They sold the Boxsters after the 2012 season and moved to Spec Miata competition in 2013. Then they climbed in tandem to the national level in 2014 in the Mazda MX-5 Cup championship.
Lucas finished fourth in the series standings, the top-placing rookie. Joe finished a solid 11th in points.
The Catanias already were thinking about their next step during the MX-5 season last year, wanting to continue in a single-make series because of the emphasis placed on developing driving skill and racecraft.
Joe and Lucas often walked the IMSA paddock when MX-5 was part of the event schedule at TUDOR United SportsCar Championship weekends, looking around at potential series for 2015. Last August at Road America, they were welcomed into the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama pit area of longtime series standout NGT Motorsport, where owner Ramez Wahab showed them around.
“We really fell in love with their setup and what they do to support the car and how they’re always prepared and don’t skimp on any safety measures and provide really good coaching and support,” Lucas Catania said. “We’ve always wanted to race a top-of-the-line supercar, and I think it’s a good way, especially with Porsche Motorsports Young Driver program, for me to keep exposing myself and really learn how to drive a proper GT car in hopes of advancing my career in the future.”
The Catanias’ step-by-step plan since they graduated from sharing an Exige at Monticello wasn’t plotted years in advance. It was more of a byproduct of managing Lucas’ desire to constantly learn and sharpen his craft.
“He’s navigating the ship,” Joe Catania said of his son. “I feel like I’m with a heavyweight boxer who I’m protecting until he’s ready to go to the next level because he’s hungry all the time for more.
“I just felt we needed to slow down, learn how to handle the car. The best drivers are the ones who can communicate with his crew. Lucas is now very good at telling the crew whether the car is pushing or not rotating or whatever the case may be. Until you’re able to do that, it’s really not as simple as pushing the gas pedal. You need to be a member of that team.”
Those teamwork skills were bred for Lucas during nearly 15 years of playing lacrosse and hockey, which culminated in two high school state championships. Knowledge gained from tough math and science courses at Hobart and William Smith – where he is in his senior year – also are helpful when working with engineers and mechanics.
“Motorsports is definitely a team game,” Lucas Catania said. “Without the help of NGT and all the guys in that program and the guys at Porsche, I wouldn’t be able to turn one lap on the track. Hockey and lacrosse have taught me to stick with a team and work together and be as efficient as possible.
“Guys aren’t necessarily your friends out there (in hockey and lacrosse). The tenacity and relentless nature carried over to racing.”
Joe Catania’s training as a physician developed mental discipline that he carries to the racetrack. He keeps focus while poring over data even in the waning moments of a 12- to 14-hour day at the racetrack.
“I was completely overwhelmed and underestimated the amount of intellectual preparation motor racing takes,” Joe Catania said. “For every 30 minutes we’re on the racetrack in the race car, we’re looking at computers, analyzing data, studying track lines for probably two hours. When I say we’re spending only half a day at the track, that’s 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and that’s if we get out early. There are many days we’re there from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
“From my all my development and years of training to be a physician, it’s really the pursuit of perfection and the long hours of enduring incredible amounts of fatigue to study and focus. It’s probably been the best part of what my background has given me, the ability to endure the off-track studying.”
The bond forged over a weekend at Skip Barber continues for the Catanias. They’re in different classes this season in the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama but still racing on the same track at the same time.
Lucas is aiming for podium finishes and a run toward victories and a possible championship, hopefully catching the eye of Porsche while trying to advance his career to a higher level. Joe wants to continue to improve and hone his skills as a driver against his fellow Masters competitors, continuing to savor the experience with his son.
“I encourage Lucas,” Joe Catania said. “I give him 100 percent support to follow his dreams. But clearly, he is very thoughtful and has a plan in mind where he wants to be. We’re on the doorstep for that. It’s time to get into the game now.”