Nearly sixty years ago, a relatively new American sports car, with an American team entered the 24 Hours of LeMans for the first time. Almost sixty years later, the legendary Corvette has had a storied history in racing throughout the world — and has had numerous victories in the iconic 24 endurance classic. From the C1s of Briggs Cunningham in the beginning to John Greenwood to Pratt & Miller, who carry the flag today, the Corvette has become one of the most recognized marques and has seen amazing success in raising the consciousness of the racers, the fans, the dreamers…
For Dan Binks, veteran Pratt & Miller crew chief, known in the racing world as ‘the man who gets it done,’ his passion has transcended the past, present, and into the future. This team boss has been all over the world with the Corvette team. Binks’ racing history in racing goes back much further, with numerous successes, most notably in IMSA, WEC, and Trans Am. Just ask four-time Trans-Am champion Tommy Kendall who greatly benefitted from working with Binks many years ago, “For my money, he is the greatest crew chief of all time.”
He has also published a terrific book, in the past two years, with co-author and childhood friend, Norm DeWitt, called “Making it Faster: Tales from the Endless Search for Speed” — a worthy read for anyone who seeks to learn about an illustrious technical racing career — with great secrets of attaining that next tenth of a second. We had the opportunity to catch up with Binks and the Pratt & Miller Corvette Racing Team, competing with the IMSA Weathertech Sportscar Challenge at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Born in San Diego, California, Binks was raised in an active racing family. From a very early age, he was exposed to the sport as both mom and dad were enthusiasts. His dad, Phil, raced an MGTD and later an Austin-Healey Sprite. His mom actually met his dad when they struck up a conversation about Sprites at Del-Mar raceway. Young Dan watched his dad working on the machinery in the garage and took an early interest.
“There are not many times in my career that I didn’t make the right choice. I don’t know how it would have been different but it really could not be any better,” states Binks. He has become a highly sought-after mechanic, fabricator and restorer by many in the industry. Amongst the many stops on his journey in motorsport, Binks has worked with Clayton Cunningham on the IMSA GTU championship-winning RX7s for Jack Baldwin and Tommy Kendall; the Cars and Concepts Beretta GTUs for Kendall in both IMSA and Trans-Am; the GTP Intrepid program for Pratt and Miller again with driver Tommy Kendall; then to Jack Roush where he and Kendall scored 3 Trans-Am championships in a row. He has since returned to Pratt and Miller where he has been successfully running the Corvettes with ex-F1 star Jan Magnussen and a plethora of co-drivers including current driver Antonio Garcia.
“This is not a one guy sport,” declares Binks. “This is a fifty guy sport. the challenge is how do you get everybody pulling the rope in the same direction — despite all the egos. With Pratt and Miller and Corvette Racing has done well is let everybody do their job to the best they can and with fifty people all going in the right direction, we can win a lot of races. in this day and age it is harder than ever.”
His role as crew chief is a busy one. Like the maestro conductor of the symphony, he lends help to those who need it and keeps the team focused on preparation, set ups and changes during the race. All data is shared between the two cars. “I just make sure that if we are doing any changes during a race, that everyone knows what they are doing and if there’s a problem I try to help them. I actually changed tires up until last year. Kyle Millay does all the engineering debriefs with the drivers. In the old days I would do the set up, but with computer simulations, we leave that to the engineers. Both cars and groups need work together. With two cars we get double track time. If we get one Corvette into victory circle, we all win. Long Beach was a perfect example. One car got in trouble the other one won. If that’s your bad day, its not that bad.”
The namesakes of Pratt and Miller have taken winning very seriously for several decades. “We believe in our commitment to our customers… we have to win,” states Jim Miller. While Gary Pratt says, “The success and the passion that we have for motorsports permeates throughout the entire building.” Considering the eight LeMans victories and numerous championships, clearly the passion of the founders reverberates with everyone in the 300-strong staff, from the engineers and drivers to the guy who sweeps the floor. Beyond the Corvette Program, Pratt and Miller has other race build and military contracts.
In letting each person do their job, Pratt and Miller has built upon each success. The personal mantra of Binks matches the company’s approach: “Do the best job every time, no matter what somebody else thinks, Dan said. “When you are working for people and they say it should be done this way or that way or whatever, do it the best way you know how, don’t make compromises — it will work out.”
Street racing is difficult at best for GT cars. The circuits are narrow and crowded. At Long Beach, 35 cars in three different classes, representing three different speeds, started the race. Trying to run your race while avoiding collisions with faster and slower cars through the narrow k-rail and tire barriers is high pressure for the drivers, who depend on a chief to orchestrate the team to set up the car to meet these stringent demands.
“For me the differences are substantial. When you go to Sebring or LeMans or Daytona the car has ninety percent new parts on it. For a race like Long Beach, you put all the parts you don’t want anymore. This is because, while your hoping it won’t happen, you know the cars are going to get smashed. This year our car made it three quarters of a lap before the front was smashed in…” Banks Laughs. “So we use our old parts, knowing that the car is not going 3000 miles and they are expendable. VIR (Virginia International Raceway) ends up being a demo derby too. We changed three noses in one race.”
Needless to say the Long Beach race was all that — and the finish was crazy! The Corvettes were one-two in class ahead of the Ford GT, all in tight formation, as they made the final pass of the Southern California street circuit. Up the road, turning in late for the final hairpin, the 3GT Racing Lexus RCF GT3 of Robert Alon and Jack Hawksworth, began a three car pile-up that blocked two-thirds of the track, dead-on at the corner’s exit. This caused a traffic jam of race machinery as numerous cars scrambled and stopped, trying to find a way past the melee. The leading Corvette of Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia, went just slightly wide and found themselves completely blocked. This left the door open, as two stopped prototypes found their way through, handing the GTLM victory to Milner and Gavin.
“Our strategy early on was to stop as soon as we could,” recalls Binks. “We were a little worried we might have to stop right at the end, but with all the yellow (flags), we were able to make it. the last five laps were pretty crazy. The Lexus made a crazy move. We wondered how we were going to get through there. We told Tony, ‘inside, inside!’ He went just a little wide and got blocked… I have won a lot of races and lost a lot of races, but never lost one like that.”
Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin won over the Ford GT of Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe as the other Corvette managed a path through the mess to take the checker. In the pressroom both Milner and Gavin seemed disappointed — despite the victory. Clearly they were happy with the victory, but disappointed with the finish. “Nobody wants to win like that,” said Binks. They want to fight for the win, not win because of someone else’s stupid move.”
Speaking of crazy finishes, Corvette racing had a very exciting and disappointing LeMans 24 race. With just minutes to go, the Corvette was leading the Aston Martin in the GT class at Circuit la Sarthe, when the left front tire began to lose pressure. Third driver Jordan Taylor suddenly shot straight across the dirt in a chicane. What auspiciously looked like a mistake, was actually a tire failure. The Aston managed past the Magnussen/Gavin/Taylor Corvette with a lap to go for the win. Jordan limped the smoking car across the line for third.
“Obviously it was a disappointing finish. But if you look at the whole 24-hour race, we weren’t always up front. So leaving with a podium finish is something we can be proud of, said Taylor. “When you come so close, extremely close, that is the frustrating part. I think we showed a never-give-up attitude. We went two minutes down early in the race and fought back from there. A lot of people doubted that we could bring it back. I think everyone executed well and unfortunately it just wasn’t our day.”
Binks talks about some of the crazier races he has had throughout his career — citing endurance racing at the top of the mayhem. “A couple of times in France (LeMans) where we had trouble right off the bat and had to work on our car and were able to go again — then at the end someone else had trouble and you get by them. It seems at LeMans, that happens a lot. At twenty hours, you will be neck and neck and you will have a little issue and the other guy will have a little issue and somehow or another you end up on the same lap and you will win one you didn’t expect. That’s not as fulfilling as the times you race all day and kicked everybody’s butt. But it always feels good to win.”
Dan Binks is a car guy through and through. His lifelong passion doesn’t end at the conclusion of a workday in the shop or the close of a race weekend. The joy of mechanics and fabricating is never lost on the veteran crew chief. We asked how much of a fan he remains to this day, during a follow up conversation. He chuckled as he sent us a text with a picture of his driveway in Michigan at that very minute. There sat the famed Mazda RX7 GTU and the Roush Trans-Am cars, now in the hands of private customers, being prepared for vintage racing events.
It was obvious he just couldn’t keep his hands off of cars. On his days off, he works and prepares race cars for collectors including Bruce Meyer, Tommy Kendall and Colin Comer. He has made numerous friends over the many decades in motorsport. He gets calls from numerous collectors needing work done of familiar cars. “It’s one off those things that… who do you say ‘no’ to?”
Passion has led to skill, which in turn has led to storied success. Just like the tradition that is Corvette Racing, Binks is a key part of that success. His contagious enthusiasm inspires the car guy in all of us. As he says: “I love race cars more than anything.”