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John Hennessy: A Winning Retirement Strategy

Two years after he began racing, John Hennessy took first place at the Lamborghini Super Trofeo World Finals in Italy.

“I wish I’d started earlier” is something you commonly hear from people taking up performance driving at retirement. But rarely do those drivers end up world champions. John Hennessy, who ran his first novice race in mid-2019, and hadn’t driven a Lamborghini until a little over a year ago, took first place in the LB Cup class at the Lamborghini Super Trofeo World Final races in Misano Adriatico, Italy this October.

The Road to Italy

“I wasn’t even sure I was going to do the Super Trofeo finals,” says John, who is still “stunned” by the experience. “I had high hopes for the 2021 season, but fifteen minutes into my first race at COTA I had an accident.” A torn thumb ligament put him out of action for more than ten weeks. “It looked as if my dream of winning the North American championship was gone.”

However, he did well at Road America and Laguna Seca, and told himself he was going to go all out for the remainder of the North American races. “I drove twice a week, every week, whether it was at Pacific Raceways with ProFormance, the Ridge, go-carts, Dirtfish, whatever it took, as long as I was behind the wheel.”

The team that made it happen: Coach Jon Branum, lead race technician Garrison Master, John Hennessy, and race tech assistant Johnny Rodriguez

Apart from the constant practice, John credits his new coach, Jon Branum, who changed his driving style, getting him to stay focused, hit the apexes, come out of the corners firm and fast. “It slowed me down, but it made me quicker in the long run.” Despite missing five races, he made it to the world finals.

Winning the Hard Way

John’s first experience driving in Europe was gripping in every sense. The track was superior: freshly paved, with abrasive material on the curbs to enhance traction. In the first of the four Italian races he beat the second-place finisher by 14 seconds.

The real nail-biter was the last World Finals race. John spun out on the first lap, having been taken out on turn four. “There I was, dead last, with no hope of winning the race, much less the world title.”

He clawed his way back, and had caught up with the top three drivers with nine minutes to go in the race. Then the leader bobbled, and number two moved over to give him room, so John floored it and got by him. In second place, he found luck on his side: the leader spun out, and the yellow flag froze the pack with John in the lead, all the way to the finish line.

“What an amazing result John achieved at the Lamborghini Super Trofeo World Finals in Misano.  HE is a WORLD CHAMPION! All of us at IMSA are super proud of his achievement and how he represented us on the world stage.  Perhaps even more important is how John rebounded from the opening round of the season at Circuit of the Americas.  John’s passion for OUR sport, his energy to win, his spirit and enthusiasm when he reaches the top step of the podium, the sportsmanship he represents, and his approach to racing are an example for all of us to follow and replicate.  Congratulations from your IMSA family, John.

John Doonan, President, International Motor Sports Association (IMSA)

Discovering a Passion

Racing came late to John Hennessy. After 30 years in the demolition business, John retired in 2016 and decided to get himself a Ferrari 458 and do some track days. A friend who noticed his penchant for speed suggested he get a used race car because, “if you go off the track it’s gonna hurt.”

Eventually his friends at Ferrari Seattle suggested he try his hand at racing, so he took the Two-Day Competition Race Licensing course at ProFormance. He first raced in the summer of 2019 with SCCA. “That feeling of competition, of passing and getting past, just the excitement of it all, it was me. It was what I needed and wanted to do.”

Lamborghini: The Nature of the Beast

John picked up a Lamborghini Super Trofeo, took it to Pacific Raceways, and ran it into a wall after about seven laps. That was dispiriting, but ProFormance Chief Instructor Don Kitch, Jr. encouraged him to refocus and commit to becoming a race driver.

Lamborghinis are not easy to drive. “The way people described it to me – and I think it’s accurate – the car just wants to go straight. It takes a lot of work to muscle it around the corners. You’re constantly catching the car. You can’t be lazy with a car that wants to snap on you at any moment.” He was even told that the car just wants to kill you. “That’s an exaggeration, but it’s a handful.”

People Make the Difference

Apart from his coach John Branum and US RaceTronics’ Shane Seneviratne, John cites two people who were instrumental in helping him get to his world title: his wife Kathy, who encouraged him not to give up his dream even when things weren’t going well, and Don Kitch, Jr. at ProFormance.  “Don had the world-class racing experience and knowledge. He saw my strengths and weaknesses, worked me through things in a way that I understood, and gave me the tools to go out and practice and improve.”

Next on the Starting Line

Not one to slow down literally or figuratively, John plans to keep on racing, now that he has, in his words, repurposed his life. He’s planning on competing in the next Super Trofeo series, and will also be showing up at some SRO and SCCA races in his BMW M2 CS.

He’s constantly honing his skills, noting that the more he improves, the harder he wants to work. In particular John admires drivers who keep their foot to the floor, maintaining speed, even when the car is spinning or moving around. That, and their ability to do “slow-in-fast-out,” are signs of drivers who are at the very top of the game.

Still, anyone watching John Hennessy’s progress would say that if he’s not at the top of his game, he’s pretty close. The journey has been short but very arduous, focused, and determined. John also credits good luck. “Why it happened I’m not sure, but I’m glad it did!”

Watch the point at which John Hennessy joins the front of the pack with nine minutes to go in the race.