When Colin Thompson was deciding what team to race for, it wasn’t a phone call from the team owner that helped him make his decision. Instead, it was the countless calls from drivers who had previously raced for the team that got Thompson thinking about signing with Kelly-Moss Road and Race.
And two years later, he was adding a second championship trophy to his mantle on his way to being picked up as a factory shoe.
The team, which won its very first race (IMSA Firehawk event at Sebring International Raceway in 1989) is based in Madison, Wisconsin and has established a reputation for not only developing race cars, but also the drivers that pilot them.
Last weekend at Daytona International Speedway, another Kelly-Moss Road and Race graduate added a career accolade to his resume as Jesse Lazare won the Rolex 24 At Daytona in his first-ever run in the huge IMSA endurance classic.
The win capped an incredible run of success for Lazare, who won the 2016 IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama with Kelly-Moss Road and Race and positioned himself as a top pick for the 24-hour race on board a potent Porsche GT3R machine.
Steered by Jeff Stone, Kelly-Moss Road and Race has stayed true to its Porsche roots through the decades - having competed in every single GT3 Cup Challenge USA event since the series first formed in 2005.
Beyond well-prepared and engineered Porsche machines, Stone has also established a reputation for his fierce support of and guidance for his drivers under the Kelly-Moss tent. For Stone, he has a very clear curriculum for his young charges when it comes to installing a professional approach to the sport.
“The first thing is focus, followed by patience,” says Stone. “They have to have 100% trust in the team and the machine we place them in and always follow our plan. It's easy for young drivers to have aggression but they have to learn the long game and always understand and maintain a championship mindset, not a single race goal. Most important is to keep their mind right when things don't go perfectly and understand that the fight is never over until the last checkered flag.”
The driver roster at Kelly-Moss has traditionally featured drivers with different ages, different goals, and different backgrounds. That mix of talent, fostered by Stone’s design, is one that helps to pay dividends for all involved.
One driver who has proudly worn the Kelly-Moss suit for years is Bill Peluchiwski, who met Stone during a PCA driver event and eventually grew his pursuit of driving into becoming a racer.
“When I was first at the events with my street 911, Jeff was always helpful and generous with this time—if I had problems with the car they would happily help me figure it out,” said Peluchiwski. “That then grew into me getting my first race car and now I’ve been with the team for several years. You have to be able to trust the team with your life, really, and with Jeff I feel fully comfortable doing that. He’s phenomenally honest-when you are doing the right thing, and when you are doing it wrong! And that is the quality that you are looking for in that role.”
While Peluchiski has different goals each weekend than Lazare, he still feels as though having young chargers on the team is helpful.
“Jeff (Stone) is keen to have these young drivers on the team and works a lot of magic for that to happen. It really raises the level of camaraderie on the team—they can give you a lot of confidence. If you are looking at their data and thinking ‘oh, there is no way that I could do that,’ they are right there to show you how it can be done. So I’m grateful to have that kind of reference point and for those interactions. It makes for a great team spirit.”
That forward progress doesn’t always just happen behind the wheel, and with the mix of ages, the learning can go in both directions.
“I’ve known Jesse (Lazare) since he first came to the team a couple of years ago and he was kind of just a normal teenager-focused on the internet and a little more absorbed in his own experience,” observed Peluchiski. “But you could really see him develop and mature substantially since then, he’s asking me about the business world, and he’s just taking in so much more of what is going on around him. This year, he showed so much maturity--he’s a smart kid and he’s going to go places-in racing, and in life.”
That progression, both in and out of the car, is one that drives Stone forward.
“After nearly 30 years of racing at all levels around the world there is nothing that brings more satisfaction to me and our whole team than seeing our drivers succeed and achieve their goals no matter their age or skill level,” added Stone. “Working in a development series like IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge is especially rewarding as you see drivers progress quickly due to such close competition. Whether the goal is to become a professional driver by earning a living in racing or just to become the best driver they can be as a hobby, it's always our goal to push them to their best.”
One of the investments that Kelly-Moss Road and Race makes in their drivers is in driver coaches, with fabled GT pilots Jeroen Bleekemolen and Andrew Davis regularly offering data analysis and feedback for the Kelly-Moss drivers.
"I'm very proud of my long lasting relationship with Kelly Moss Road and Race,” said Davis. “Jeff Stone and the entire crew have always shown unwavering support of all of my racing endeavors, so it's nice to have them cheering in my corner when I'm out there behind the wheel. I think this year's Rolex 24 at Daytona took things to a completely different level in regards to the success of drivers associated. We populated the top five of the most competitive GTD field in history. And to have young gun Jesse Lazare go straight from winning the IMSA GT3 Challenge to grabbing that coveted Rolex Daytona, just remarkable! It's proof and validation that our program gets the job done!"
Another key factor for any team is engineering. And for Kelly-Moss, that is not only an area of excellence, it is also part of the family feeling that the drivers enjoy.
“My engineer Chiel Bos is a very important counterpart to me and the whole Kelly-Moss family and we have become very dear friends,” said Stone. “We share an intense love for racing and developing these drivers both young and old and just as important we both have an insane passion for fishing - we are both fierce competitors no matter what we are doing! We try to fish together at least a few times a year and involve the team and drivers for a team building experience. We are very lucky to have such an amazing team and I respect and thank every person on the team and hold them in high regard as professionals in this crazy sport.”
While young drivers are always looking to race their way up to the next level of the sport, there are also a lot of Kelly-Moss Road and Race drivers that are purely focused on getting faster, and having fun.
“We stay very involved in club sport and vintage racing series to provide a clear path up the ranks for these drivers,” said Stone. “Once they progress through the Porsche Cup series, we can move them into higher levels of both Prototype and GT racing in series like IMSA WeatherTech, IMSA Prototype Lites and the Pirelli World Challenge. Many of our drivers have goals like racing in the 24 hours of Le Mans, 24 Hours of Daytona, 24 Hours of Dubai, 12 Hours of Sebring and Petit Le Mans. We have many years of experience in all of these races and always enjoy getting our drivers into these world class events whether as a career or a bucket list check off.”
Thompson won the 2014 IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama championship and then moved up with Kelly-Moss to take the 2015 GT Cup Championship in Pirelli World Challenge competition.
“At the time, I hadn’t been thinking about Kelly-Moss as they mostly just had gentleman drivers so it hadn’t come into my mind,” said Thompson, about first joining with the team. “But then looking at the history of the team and talking to Jeff (Stone) and recognizing the vision he had for me. He wanted to have me become not only a successful driver on his team, but also learn how to be successful in the future no matter what or where I was racing. How I was outside of the car, the entire presentation that you give, Kelly-Moss Road and Race coached me through all of that.”
For Thompson, the move was a big one as he’d only raced for his family-run squad before.
“We had our own team in 2013, and thought we could do it but we struggled a lot, we just didn't have the whole package,” added Thompson’s father John. “When we went looking for a team, Jeff (Stone) at the time, had mostly gentlemen drivers but had expressed a desire to have a young driver racing for the team.”
“When we decided to look at teams other than our own, Jeff (Stone) took a personal interest in Colin (Thompson) and his development, and that was the biggest thing,” said John Thompson. “Jeff takes a personal interest and a passion for developing these drivers so they can go on and become successful, and that still continues today. We still go back to him to lean on him or run ideas by him or ask him for a recommendation. Jeff has seen a lot and been through a lot, and he will cut to the chase and let you know what it is. He’s had Colin’s back since we've started with him. Now he’s done that with Jesse (Lazare) and you can see he will now do that with Jake (Eidson).”
“Winning championships back to back with Kelly-Moss was unreal,” continued Colin Thompson. “My history of winning with Kelly-Moss is off the charts. The first year (2014), we won in the rain in the final race of the season and it was very stressful, then in 2015 we were able to wrap it up with three weekends still to go in the championship. And now, I’ve been coaching Jesse (Lazare) so I'm helping to keep in it in the family and develop talent. There is such good energy inside the Kelly-Moss trucks during the weekends. You have guys there that just want to have fun and get better at driving and others that are working on a career in the sport—but it’s all one big family, all comparing notes. You don’t just go there to win, keep in mind, you will win, but you go there to have to have fun. Jeff (Stone) was a key part of all of that for me. Half the time when Jeff calls, I answer ‘oh, hey dad!”
On hand for the big run to victory at Daytona was other supportive figure in Jesse Lazare’s career--his father, Gordie. But he was not there alone.
“Jeff (Stone) was there all week—he was cooking for Jesse, he did everything - I can’t tell you how much it meant to both of us!” said Gordie Lazare about the Rolex event weekend. “When Jesse got off the track, he’d say ‘I need to go talk to Jeff.’ He is like home, like a second father for Jesse when I am not around. Jeff was there at Daytona because of Jesse--he knows racing more than just about anyone. But it wasn’t just the racing he was supporting him with—it was love, really.”
The relationship between Stone and the Lazare family developed over the course of a few racing seasons.
“We were with other teams in other series, they weren't bad experiences, but we were very clear about what we wanted—we knew what we had with Jeff and we knew that we wanted to have that professionalism and the knowledge he (Stone) brings,” said Lazare. “This is such an expensive sport, you can’t make mistakes. You have to make the right call when you decide what team to be with and Kelly-Moss had a winning formula. It’s too expensive to take a chance on a team that thinks they know how to win. You have to be where you know you can have results.”
With Thompson having grown and progressed in his two championship years with Kelly-Moss, and Lazare parlaying his GT3 Championship into the big prize at Daytona, the stage is set for another young talent that is joining the team in Jake Eidson, 2017 Hurley Haywood Scholarship winner.
“I am sure a lot of folks are aware of the Kelly-Moss Road and Race development program,” said Eidson. “Trying to squeeze the most out of their drivers and everything —that was obvious with Jesse (Lazare) last year. He dominated the season. That’s my goal this year - to have that kind of year and follow in his footsteps and win the championship thanks to getting with this team, and to the Hurley Haywood Scholarship and the help from Porsche and Yokohama. Without that, and without everyone who is behind it, I wouldn’t be in this position.”
That chance for a championship would likely not have even got to the track if it weren’t for Stone’s enthusiastic push for Eidson to move to GT racing and earn the support of the Haywood Scholarship.
“A big part of it is Jeff’s participation in making it all come together,” said Mark Eidson, Jake’s father. “He was flexible in what we need and meeting our needs to figure out the budget. We’ve been pretty creative to come up with the budgets. So he’s been a huge help in that regard, just being so flexible. He was the one who encouraged us to apply for the scholarship and that was a huge bonus for us - that sealed the deal. Also he has the insight that we lack, and a lot of experience. He’s given us some very sound advice and has a plan moving forward, which is also very important to us. He shares our passion for this, and seems to know a lot of people not only in the Porsche world, but in all of the series. He’s looking down the road, and has a vision for Jake (Eidson, son). The team is very professional, from top to bottom.”
With the record of success that Stone and Kelly-Moss have established, the team is well placed to continue that tradition again in 2017. The first race of the season will be at Sebring International Speedway—where it all began in 1989.