Encinitas driver Max Root reaches Le Mans pinnacle at 21

Max Root at 24 Hours of Le Mans, which starts Saturday, Sept. 19.
(Courtesy of Matter Real Estate Group)

Pepperdine senior calls it culmination of ‘long journey’


For anyone who races sports cars, the pinnacle of their career is landing a spot in the 24 Hours of Le Mans — the premier and oldest endurance car race in the world.

Max Root of Encinitas will be making his first start at Le Mans this weekend.

“This is the culmination of a long journey,” Root said last week as he prepared to leave for France and all the preparations leading up to Saturday’s start.

Root is 21.

“OK, it seems like a long journey to me,” said Root, a senior at Pepperdine majoring in business administration. “I’ve been chasing this dream for 15 years. When I got the invitation two weeks ago, at first I thought it might be a joke.”

No joke.

Root could be the youngest driver in the race, which draws 60 cars from the leading sports car factories and racing teams in the world. Each car is shared by two to four drivers.

Root will be teamed with sports car veterans Jan Magnussen, 47, and Richard Heistand, 37, in a Ferrari GTE EVO in the GTE division — which is the largest and most competitive class at Le Mans ... although the cars are less powerful than the featured prototypes.

The invitation is doubly rewarding for Root because he drives for Porsche in the factory’s development system.

“I always thought that when I made it to Le Mans or the 24 Hours of Daytona, it would be with Porsche,” said Root. “But there was an opening on the Magnussen team and someone at Ferrari called Porsche and asked if they could borrow me. It’s quite an honor.”

The honor stemmed from Root’s performance last November during the World Endurance Car tests in Bahrain. Although it was Root’s first visit to the WEC tests, he was turning some of the quickest and most consistent laps — two keys to success in endurance racing.

And he was a perfect fit for the team led by Magnussen, who has four class wins, four runner-up finishes and a third going into his 22nd straight start at Le Mans.

Because of COVID-19, Le Mans is being run three months later than usual in 2020. The race normally is run during the time of the year with the most daylight.

“I’ve been told I’ll be doing a good chunk of the driving at night,” said Root. “My eyesight is excellent. They know that. And the course is extremely dark at night.

“As a team, we have a cool combination. Jan has as much experience in these cars and on this course as anyone in the race. Richard will start the race and is excellent in traffic.”

But the obstacles in front of the car are not the only concern for GTE drivers. The prototypes are more than 50 mph faster. GTE drivers have to be aware of what is overtaking them. The Le Mans course is 8.4667-miles in length. Prototypes are lapping the slower cars every 6-7 laps.

“The Mulsanne straight is four miles long with a couple chicanes,” said Root. “A prototype you won’t even see in your mirrors at the entrance to Mulsanne will pass you by the end. Much of the success in this race is traffic management. And there’s a little luck involved. Some things happen that you have no control over.”

Root has practiced on a Le Mans simulator. He has talked with Magnussen over Zoom. Upon arriving in France last Saturday, Sept. 12, he began a routine of daily COVID-19 tests and more runs on a simulator. He was expecting to have two or three practice sessions in the car before Saturday’s start (at 5:30 a.m. PDT).

All drivers on a team are required to drive at least six hours. Root has been told to be prepared for up to 10 hours.

Root got his start in racing at the age of 6 on 50cc minibikes on the Barona Oaks motocross course. He raced 125cc motocross until he attended the Skip Barber School at Laguna Seca Raceway at the age of 15.

“Once I drove that Formula Ford open-wheel car, there was no going back,” said Root, whose career in cars quickly advanced. He is now driving Porsches on the GT-3 World Challenge America circuit where he has 40 podium finishes in 55 career starts with one season championship and a share of a second. In 2018, Root won the IMSA Hurley Haywood GT-3 Cup scholarship.

— Bill Center is a freelance writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune.