A professional GT driver tends to fit a certain profile. They come up through karting before moving to the junior categories, generally competing in single-seaters. Most will have moved into the GT ranks by their early-to-mid-twenties, perhaps establishing themselves within a team or being hired as a factory driver. There are certainly some fascinating characters among them, though it is also fair to say that they have a similar set of experiences.
But there is no fixed profile for amateur racers, whose lives away from the circuit can be dramatically different. Sometimes, the only link they share is a deep passion for motor racing.
There are those that have found success in business, others who count royalty among their relatives, and some whose life away from the track is a closed book. They can range from their twenties through to their seventies and have very different levels of on-track experience.
One of the European scene’s biggest characters is Dr. Stephen Earle, a respected spinal surgeon based in Texas. Remarkably, he is the fifth generation of his family to follow this path – the first, he says was « in South Carolina in 1732, before the American Revolutionary War. »
The combination of Earle’s profession and his penchant for Italian racing machinery has earned him the nickname ‘Il Dottore’– The Doctor. Having dominated the Iron Cup class of Blancpain GT Sports Club in recent years, he is also known as ‘The Iron Doc’.
The weekend ahead will see Earle travel to the Nürburgring to contest the season’s penultimate Blancpain GT World Challenge Europe round with his long-time friends at Kessel Racing. That falls outside his normal programme, but with a long gap between GT Sports Club events he was growing restless.
« When I’ve been home too long and haven’t been in the car, my wife says I start to get on her nerves. She calls up Ronnie Kessel and says: ‘Look, you need to give Stephen a test or something, because whatever you’re charging him, the divorce will be more expensive!' »
A chance introduction
Having gone through the rigorous education and training required to work in spinal surgery, there was little time for motorsport during Earle’s youth: « I used to race motorcycles in my teens, before I went to college, » he explains. « But I got injured, and then with medical school and residency and starting a family I didn’t have time for it anymore. »
For many, that would be the end of the story. But, by chance, his passion for speed was rekindled more than two decades later in 1992.
« There were two brothers I’d gone to high school with, one of whom happened to be my attorney. They were racing a Chevrolet Camaro in IMSA, but one of them didn’t want to do it anymore. They had two cars, so the younger brother, Michael, asked me if I’d be interested in driving. »
Earle agreed and sought to obtain the necessary licence. The course concluded with a race between the students and their instructor; when Earle finished second, with only the expert ahead, he had an inkling that he had made a smart decision.
He began competing at the wheel of a Chevrolet, but this was merely an introduction. Anyone who has followed Earle’s exploits in Europe will know that he is loyal to one very famous Italian brand.
« Ferrari had just started an amateur series called Ferrari Challenge, » says Earle. « Each dealer had to have a representative, so the dealer in San Antonio came to Mike and I to ask if we’d be interested in driving. We thought about it for maybe a millisecond and said yes! I started with that in ’93 and we ended up winning 11 championships in America, six for the team and five individual. »
From this point onwards, Earle has been a Ferrari devotee. He recalls his early introduction to the brand: « My dad was in the military. We were stationed in Madrid in the late fifties and early sixties, so I got to see the Formula 1 race and back then Ferrari was the best car. »
He first owned one of the Maranello machines in the early nineties, when he part-exchanged his Lotus Esprit – « a great little car that handled well, but it had a cracked block. » In its place he acquired a white Testarossa.
« From a driver’s standpoint, the difference between Ferrari and all the other brands is that they make no pretence whatsoever about trying to insulate you from the road. You feel everything and when you get close to the edge you can correct it. »
He adds: « It’s not logical at all and it’s probably more expensive than it should be, but I wouldn’t do anything else. »
Becoming ‘The Iron Doc’
In 2001 Earle lived his boyhood dream by driving a Ferrari at the Le Mans 24 Hours, joining up with JMB Racing. He continued with the Monegasque outfit for the next few seasons, including an assault on the inaugural FIA GT3 European Championship in 2006. The following year would be pivotal, as it brought him to the attention of the team that has been his home away from home for more than a decade.
« In 2007 I did Italian GT with JMB. I missed the first four races, but then won six of the last eight and ended up second overall. Loris Kessel asked me if instead of driving against his team I would come across and drive for them. I’ve been with them ever since.
« Once you find a good team, you just want to stay there, » he explains. « People ask me all the time: ‘Why do you race in Europe? Why not race in the States?’ And I say: ‘Well, because Kessel doesn’t come to the States!’ It’s a very stable organisation and they’re very driver-oriented. »
That stability has not come easy, however, particularly following Loris Kessel’s untimely death in 2010.
« Ronnie was only 23 when his dad passed away, » says Earle. « The family business landed in his lap and we all did our bit to help him. He’s done a great job and even expanded the business. »
It was with Kessel and Ferrari that Earle won the 2017 Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup title in the Am class, while helping his close friend and coach David Perel to take the overall Am crown.
He has remained with them to conquer Blancpain GT Sports Club’s Iron Cup class, which is reserved for drivers over the age of 60. Earle made his first one-off appearance in the series during 2015; he went full-time in 2016 and finished as runner-up, a single point adrift of champion Martin Lanting.
He was on the other side of that experience in 2017 when he beat Klaus Dieter Frers to the title by one a point, though 2018 was a little more dominant as he beat the German driver by two points! This year has been a much simpler affair, with seven class wins from eight races ensuring he captured the title early at Spa-Francorchamps.
« I’m comfortable with the team, with the SRO organisation and with Blancpain GT Sports Club. It allows you to race against people of your own calibre without having to worry about going up against a factory driver.
« It’s like a big family, » he continues. « People race hard and they take risks, but they don’t do stupid things. So you can race people closely without worrying that someone will wreck you to get ahead. The administration is fantastic as well. We have dinner and lunch together and people bring their families. It’s really nice. »
Sharing the passion
On the face of it, there are no transferable skills from spinal surgery to racing a GT3 car. However, Earle points out that his day job can involve complicated operations that last for many hours. For someone with his background, concentrating for 30 minutes during a sprint race is easy by comparison.
« The thing about racing is that you’re so consumed, » he adds. « Once I’m at the track, I don’t think about anything else: about work, about insurance companies, about attorneys. It’s like I’m cleansed. So when I get back to work on Tuesday, I feel like Superman. And when problems start showing up or there are issues with people, I know I’m leaving again in three weeks! »
Some amateur racers are reluctant to share their on-track experiences with their professional contacts; some even compete with pseudonyms to ensure that the two worlds remain separate. It is a personal choice, but Earle takes the opposite approach.
« My whole office looks like somebody’s race car library! » he says. « There are pictures of all the cars, there are models and hero cards. The patients really enjoy it; they ask me how I did last time and when I’m going again. It’s not common to have a physician, especially a surgeon, who does this. »
Earle’s passion for the sport seems stronger than ever. This leads
to the question: does he ever plan to stop?
« I’m 67 now, 68 in January. I have to work out every day, so this keeps me physically healthy and mentally healthy. As long as I have the ability to win I’m going to keep doing it. If you’re just driving around with no shot at winning, what’s the point? »
Passionate and pragmatic. Stephen Earle is a true racing doctor.