All Work and All Play for the French Family
Work and play look a lot alike for James French, the main difference being if the cockpit is open or closed.
When French isn’t at the track with Performance Tech Motorsports running the No. 38 Centinel Spine/ Restitute Health LMP2 he’s working on his 1997 Jordan 197 Formula 1. The car, previously driven by Ralph Shumaker, reaches speeds of up to 205mph and runs unmatched by most on any given historic weekend.
“I love this car because it was made right before regulation started slowing the cars down,” James French said. “Evolution in regulations changed the tub from the low shoulder tub to a safer, taller tub. 1997 was the last year they used slick tires with the wider body. After that, they used groove tires and narrowed the car to slow it down.”
However, no competition at all wouldn’t be the ideal scenario. Frenchs father, Brian French, is there to keep his son honest with the 1997 Benetton B197 Formula 1 of GerahrtBurger. Where James French’s Jordan produces 750 horsepower, Brian French’s tops out at 800. The main difference being the Judd engine that now powers the two F1 cars. The Jordan has a 4-liter Judd while the Benetton boasts a 4.2-liter.
Over the course of the year, the French men set aside four different weekends to run their formula cars. Most recently they took part in the Brickyard Vintage Racing Invitational ran at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, June 15-17. The invitation includes 10 groups of different historic cars; fans find their favorite Formula and IndyCar competitors in Group 9, the Boss Class, in which the Frenchs compete – and win.
“This year my dad took home the win, and I got second,” James French said. “I had a gear break in qualifying, and they start you based off where you finish so I started last. My dad started on pole. I got about two laps before my car broke, but we had it fixed for the race. We had the exact outcome I had for that weekend.”
As with most historic cars, the Jordan doesn’t run without a few hitches now and again. The Judd engine provides more torque than expected for the gearbox. Where a typical gearbox will handle a minimum of 300 miles, this gear handles 100. The limited space for the gearbox leaves French in the position to either slow down or become a gear collector.
“The last couple of years we didn’t have any manufacturer to buy gears from,” James French said. “We would wait months at a time for a gear. So now we’ve built up an inventory. When something breaks, we can fix it quickly and get back on track. It would be contradictory to slow the car down, so we collect gears.”
Competition aside, James French points out that they aren’t at the track to win but to enjoy.
“The weekend is about pure driving and enjoying,” James French said. “Not that an IMSA weekend still isn’t fun, but we have a lot of work to do on those weekends. On a vintage weekend, it's more relaxed. It’s truly fun. I’m just hanging out with my dad and enjoying track time. The event is just about staying safe, having fun and keeping my car running.”
Of course, a bit of work must take place to enjoy any track thoroughly. Learning a tracks nuances while driving at 200mph can often add to the difficulty. However, the French’s work together to overcome each obstacle.
“The speed of an F1 makes learning a track difficult,” James French said. “It’s not about winning it's about helping my dad so he can have as much fun as I do. At Road America, it’s our home track, so we have a ton time there, and he’s up to speed. But at first, the car felt really fast there. Focussing further ahead was hard. You just have to learn to relax.”
It’s hard to imagine James French not relaxed behind the wheel of any race car. He notes the significant differences between driving the No. 38 LMP2 and Jordan 197 but admits it’s just two different styles of fun. As to which is his favorite? That is up to Performance Tech Motorsports and which step of the podium the team lands on at the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen. James French and Performance Tech Motorsports take on Watkins Glen InternationalJune 28- July 1 for Round 6 of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
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