As he stood on the podium following a third-place run in the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans, Cooper MacNeil didn’t want to leave.
“For me to see that and to have that experience was truly amazing,” MacNeil recalls. “I actually didn’t even want to get off the podium. They had to grab me and pull me off to do whatever else they were doing. I’m really looking forward to getting back there and hopefully standing on that podium there.”
MacNeil — who drives the Scuderia Corsa-prepared No. 63 WeatherTech Racing Ferrari 488 GT3 full time in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Daytona class — is returning to Circuit de la Sarthe next week for his fifth attempt at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He will share the No. 84 JMW Motorsport Ferrari 488 GTE with Jeff Segal — with whom he co-drove to a fifth-place result in last Saturday’s Chevrolet Sports Car Classic in Detroit — and British driver Liam Griffin.
The No. 84 WeatherTech-sponsored Ferrari is one of 13 entries in the GTE Am class. MacNeil likes his and the team’s chances.
“The biggest thing at Le Mans is experience,” he says. “I mean, you can be the best driver in the world, but if you’ve never been at Le Mans before, you’re going to have a tough time. So, heading back there with the team that won (last year), with a co-driver (Segal) that’s won the race before, in a super-strong car being a Ferrari, I think we have a lot of the right tools to bring it home on Sunday.
“We’ve got to keep our nose clean. It’s a very long, very fast-paced, grueling race, the toughest in all of motorsports. Basically, if you just run clean, consistent laps — they don’t even have to be the fastest laps in the world, they just have to be consistent — then you’ll be there at the end. That’s the important part at Le Mans is just being there.”
One driver who’s definitely “been there” at Le Mans is Segal. In his first appearance back in 2015, Segal finished third in GTE Am alongside co-drivers Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler. The next year, the same trio of drivers won the GTE Am class in the No. 62 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari. This will be Segal’s first race at Le Mans since then.
“We could have chosen a handful of professional drivers to drive with me at Le Mans, and we chose Segal, because the first time he was there, he was P3,” MacNeil said. “The last time he was there, he won the race. We have to keep his podium streak going.”
If they’re successful, it also will start a podium streak for MacNeil. Last year, it was Bell, Sweedler and MacNeil sharing the No. 62 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari at Le Mans, which came home two laps and two positions behind the race-winning JMW Motorsport Ferrari.
“We were pushing hard for our own entry through Scuderia Corsa, obviously that didn’t happen, so our next best option was to join the team that beat us last year,” MacNeil said. “(It was) the team that won the race last year in a Ferrari, which made all the sense in the world to me.”
The 25-year-old MacNeil has experienced a lot in his previous four runs at Le Mans. Enough to know that this race is truly unpredictable.
“It’s such a long week and there’s so much going on,” he says. “There’s so many different things that can happen that you never know what to plan for. For instance, a few years ago, it was my teammate crashing the car and my team having to rebuild the car overnight the night before the race. Then, we were forced to just do the race with two drivers [Jeroen Bleekemolen being the other], moving up to a Pro category, which we finished fifth in, which I was very proud of.
“Two years ago, I had a 103-degree fever the night before and the morning of the race and we couldn’t drive. You really have no idea what to plan for. You can’t plan for anything. Basically, you just have to hope for the best and hope things go your way. That’s exactly how the race goes.”
A lot can happen on a racetrack with 38 turns that measures nearly eight and a half miles in length. Many portions of the circuit use what normally are public roads the rest of the year in Le Mans. That’s all part of the attraction for MacNeil.
“When I drive around that racetrack and I do 190 miles an hour down the Mulsanne (Straight), and I could basically take a nap while I’m doing it for as long as the straightaway is, it’s pretty cool,” he says. “You kind of sit back and smile.
“I get a big ol’ smile on my face that I’m doing 190mph on some road in the middle of France in a Ferrari. Yeah, I’m happy. That’s my happy place.”
So too, is the Le Mans podium.
“The fans make the podium what it is,” he says. “Obviously, standing up there higher than everybody, you’re looking down on everybody and you have a feeling like you’re on top of the world. But without their true passion for the sport, it would mean nothing.
“It could just be a sea of people and it wouldn’t mean anything. But it’s a sea of people that have been there, have been up all night, have been there all week, have been camping there and really wanted to see you and other people on the podium just to be a part of that.”
On-track activity for the 24 Hours of Le Mans begins next Wednesday, June 13. The race will run June 16-17. Live coverage of the race in the United States will be on Velocity.