SCI Interview: Tommy Milner

Photos by John ThawleyAt only 26 years old, Tommy Milner has a very impressive racing résumé. He made the move into sportscar racing after starting his career as a teenager in the Formula BMW USA series in 2004 and has had great success, helping to bring the ALMS GT manufacturers championship to BMW in 2010 and getting a huge win for Corvette Racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2011 along with Olivier Beretta and Antonio Garcia. Milner has also raced in the Grand Am Rolex Sports Car Series and has competed in the Nürburgring 24 Hour race. With five podium finishes in the first seven ALMS races this season, including wins at Long Beach, Laguna Seca and Mid-Ohio, Milner and co-driver Oliver Gavin are in a great position to win the driver’s championship in the highly competitive GT class, as well as help to bring Corvette the GT manufacturers and team championships. We caught up with Milner at Mid-Ohio to get his view on the season so far.

SCI: You’re in your second year now as a Corvette driver. How do you like it?

Milner: It’s been great! I’ve had great teammates for both years that I’ve been here and it already feels like family with all the guys here. 

SCI: How does the atmosphere on the team compare to the Rahal team? Is it any different?

Milner: I would say it’s pretty similar. You have a lot of interaction with the crew guys and they’re all the same kind of people, and the engineer’s all have a certain sense of humor. It’s changed for sure – you obviously have new people to meet and to work with, but once you get settled in it all feels pretty similar.

SCI: Do you feel any kind of extra pressure with being the only American driver for Corvette Racing, with Corvette being such an iconic American brand?

Milner: It’s a full-time commitment for all the drivers, but they use me a little bit more for public relations stuff, but that doesn’t bother me at all. Most of it is fun, so I can’t complain. There’s nothing really tough that they ask me to do, and it was fun doing the commercials for Corvette. I went to VIR with them to first do a bunch of online videos, and they said there was a chance they might make a TV commercial out of it and they did. It’s fun to see. (watch it here:

SCI: How do you like being at the track now as a Corvette driver? There always seems to be a lot more Corvette fans on race weekends than any other marque.

Milner: That’s one thing that’s really special about Corvette Racing. One thing Doug Fehan asked me when I first came on the team was if I was ready to be a rock star, and you certainly feel that way with the number of people that are Corvette fans and all the cars that show up at the track on race weekends. They love their cars and love the race team and all the drivers. I see a lot of the same people at the different tracks we go to, and we always have a huge line for the autograph sessions. It always sucked being on one of the other teams when it came to the autograph session, because the Corvette team always had such a bigger crowd than anybody else.

SCI: Are you getting recognized more?

Milner: Corvette people do for sure, but the first real random time that happened was once when I was walking to baggage claim at Dulles airport and another guy about my age came up to me and said congratulations on my Le Mans win last year, so that was pretty cool. It was the first time a total stranger out in public came up to me.

SCI: How much better is the Corvette this year than it was last year?

Milner: It’s a big difference from last year to this year. The car is two inches wider and the rear wing is a bit higher than before, though I think the Porsche and BMW both still have theirs higher than ours. It also has a wider track and Michelin has new tires for us, with a taller tire in the front. All those changes add up to be pretty significant. Last year we struggled to be competitive in a lot of places, and this year we’re on pace. With the wider car, our top speed may be down from last year a little bit, but the improvements have made up for that with faster corner speeds.

I give credit to IMSA too. I think going into this season, a lot of people thought we would be the dominant favorite, but if you look at our pace throughout the year, we’ve been fast but others have as well and our successes have come from not just outright speed, but from not making many mistakes.

We’re faster, but the lap times for everybody have come down and the balance of performance right now in the class is pretty good.

SCI: Do you and Oliver like a similar setup with the #4 Corvette?

Milner: Oliver prefers a car that is neutral. With the downforce we have now we kind of struggle if we’re behind other cars that make good downforce because of their wake, at least in the front, so I prefer to be a little bit neutral to even on the loose side for the racing. Last year, Olivier (Beretta) liked a car that was pretty secure on entry and that ultimately had a little bit of understeer, and I’ve driven with other guys that like a car to understeer and some that like a car to oversteer. When I was at BMW, Dirk (Müller) liked a car that was a little loose, and Bill (Auberlen) liked a car that was super secure on entry.

SCI: How does the Corvette now compare to where the M3 was when you drove it in the 2010 season?

Milner: BMW made a lot of big improvements to the M3 in the off-season before the 2011 season, after I had come over to Corvette. They ended up winning the championship and we could see that they were managing their pace at the earlier races (in 2011) and then they got a smaller restrictor for this year which put them more in line with everyone else. I think in the press release that BMW put out after Mosport this year they were asking for something. That’s part of the game but I think IMSA has been pretty good about not making changes when it’s not necessary.

SCI: In what areas do you think the Corvette has an edge on the competition in the ALMS GT class right now?

Milner: We’re pretty strong under braking, and our downforce levels have improved significantly, so that’s an area where we’re pretty competitive again. It’s really splitting hairs to talk about where our cars are better than the others. It really comes down to how well the car is setup for whatever track we’re racing on.

SCI: Are you happy to see the Viper back in the series, with the history that Corvette and the Vipers have from back in the earlier days of ALMS?

Milner: I remember watching the races on TV when the Corvettes were battling with the Vipers in GT1, and one race I remember very well is the Petit Le Mans when they were racing hard into the nighttime. That rivalry is pretty storied and it’s been a big battle. Obviously the Vipers are not on the pace yet, but they look great and sound great, and it’s good for our class and for the series to have them back. I have no doubt that they will be fast soon.

SCI: Were you surprised when SRT announced Tommy Kendall as a driver?

Milner: It’s been a while since Tommy has driven a race car, but I think he still has talent. It’s good that he will bring even more attention to the class and it will be fun to say that I beat up on Tommy Kendall!

SCI: There seem to be a lot of incidents this year with the GT cars mixing it up with the Prototype Challenge cars as well as the GTC Porsches. Would you say that’s been an issue this season?

Milner: As it is now, the GTC cars are pretty fast in a straight line and it takes us a while to get by. The PC cars struggle a bit with getting their tires warm. We saw that at Lime Rock quite a bit, though it wasn’t as bad at Mosport. The P1 and P2 prototypes get by us quickly, so there’s not really an issue there, but with the PC cars there are times when I know that I’m holding them up and there are times when they’re holding us up. It’s frustrating for all of us, because we have to fight for every tenth of a second we can get on the track. It’s great those cars are there and they put on a good show, but it’s my opinion that if they could make it viable in the future, it would be nice to have an ALMS Challenge class, where you have the PC cars and the GTC cars racing together, and then put us with a combined class with the faster prototypes. That would give you more of a split with the different speeds of the cars. If the PC cars had a little more horsepower and the GTC cars had a little less, that would also help things out.

SCI: Have you done any other races this year besides ALMS?

Milner: I drove for Autohaus Racing in their Camaro GT.R in the Daytona 24 Hour. I also did the Nürburgring 24 Hour with Haribo Racing. We didn’t finish the race, as we had a flat tire early on that delaminated and ended up ripping through the wiring harness. We lost of lot of time there, but it was still fun. I qualified the car this year and it was pretty cool to get a whole lap on the Nürburgring with a low fuel load and sticker tires. That track is the greatest race track in the world and the most fun to drive. For a driver, it is the place.

SCI: How much would winning the GT drivers championship this year mean to you?

Milner: That would be big! I feel that every race weekend Oliver and I have a chance to win and we’re starting to think about driver’s points more now. Just to win a manufacturer’s championship in this class with how it is so competitive now would be great and that’s the priority with the team, but it would also be really special to win a driver’s championship. 

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