Former two-time Le Mans winner and 2013 DTM champion Mike Rockenfeller talks about the differences between racing in the USA compared to Europe, his love for NASCAR, American beer being underrated, and why being related to the Rockefeller family isn’t all it’s made out to be…
After leaving DTM at the end of last year following 15 years with Audi, I decided to race in America for 2022 and hopefully beyond. There are two things I always get asked about racing here: 1) What are the biggest differences between racing in Europe and racing in America? 2) Am I related to the Rockefeller family?
Well, the biggest difference between being a race car driver in America and Europe is how relaxed things are Stateside. On the whole, Americans are more open and positive than us bunch in general, and that is reflected in how American teams go about their racing.
In an American team, whether that be Action Express Racing or whoever, they are all very serious about winning. But there is also more of a feeling of “let’s go racing and just enjoy ourselves” with a little about how things turn out in the end. For example, both races in Daytona and Sebring this year didn’t go our way through luck.
In Europe, we’re very focused on our own business and there is an obsession of not wanting to lose, so the blame game creeps in. You can guarantee that in Europe, after a race, there will always be someone — and not necessarily the driver — who gets really pissed off and their attitude brings the atmosphere of the team down.
After Daytona and Sebring this year, I have to admit that the results with the #48 haven’t been there with two P5 finishes. But this American positivity of believing in people’s abilities really made things easier for everyone on the team to digest. It was more of a case of “oh well, shit happens” and we go for it again next time out.
Despite the results, we still went out for beers and steaks after the cars were packed up after the race. For me, that’s a reflection of the American philosophy that life shouldn’t be taken too seriously, and we’re all very lucky to call this our “profession” and shouldn’t get too wound up about it.
Talking about how more laid back racing is in the USA, one thing that always makes me laugh is how American teams have a tonne of snacks in the garage, and I’d be lying to you if I said they were all healthy. In Europe, that would be unheard of in case you gained an extra pound of weight that had the potential to slow the car down by a tenth of a second here or there.
In IMSA, we have European teams competing and they go about their racing in a very European way. Ultimately though, they’re no quicker than the American outfits despite being more strict about things. Live a little. Have that donut. You know you want it.
Another thing is the differences between fans on both sides of the Atlantic. Don’t get me wrong, they’re both wildly passionate about their chosen categories of motorsport. However, in Europe, fans tend to support a brand or team. When I was at Audi in DTM, fans would support Audi first, and the driver - myself or Nico Müller or Mattias Ekström whoever - second. In the USA, it’s the opposite way around: the driver comes first. The team is second.
Let’s take Jimmie Johnson for example. He attracted a tonne of fans when he was racing in NASCAR and they’ve followed him to endurance racing and to IndyCar. Out of all of us drivers on the #48, Jimmie is the one who gets asked for the most autographs and selfies. He’s a proper gent, so he always makes time for them.
As a driver - and I’m also a fan of motorsport at the end of the day - it’s nice to see in America that most people are happy to admit they’re a fan of NASCAR, IMSA, IndyCar, and even things like F1 and RallyCross.
I’ve been racing in America for almost 20 years now — since I was a Porsche Junior Driver — and NASCAR is something I got the taste for back in 2003. I attended the Daytona 500 as a spectator, and it blew my mind. As a form of motorsport, NASCAR is awesome. The sheer size of the grandstands, the noise, the power of the merchandise, and how the drivers are transformed into heroes is incredible. It’s also incredibly open.
I remember walking down pit lane, and there was just an engine outside one of the garages. It wasn’t covered up or anything. It was just… there. People were just walking around it, and fans and team staff were taking pictures of everything like it was the most normal thing in the world. In Europe, someone would have been fired for leaving an engine about. It’s unthinkable! In racing, we’re all about ourselves and we cover every little nut and bolt up to not give our competitors an advantage.
After I did a NASCAR test in 2005 at the Kentucky Speedway, I quickly learned that NASCAR operates massively in the grey area. That’s where the advantages can be found. So at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you have an engine laying around, because your crew knows what to do to get the best out of the car. The speed — I found, at least — is in the details that you can’t always see.
I’ve gotten deep into NASCAR, and been fortunate enough to get to know not just Jimmie, but other guys like Chad Knaus — who is our crew chief on the #48 Cadillac — as well as Jim France and Richard Petty who need no introduction. If you take NASCAR at face value, it’s very easy to take the piss and say “ah, it’s just driving left.” That’s far from it.
The cars have very little aero, they’re extremely heavy, and when I tested the Gen 4 car way back when, it had an H-shift gearbox. The Next Gen cars run sequential transmissions, which I imagine makes things a bit easier.
Irrespective of iteration though, a NASCAR is very physical anyway. Running in the pack with another 40 cars around you at 200 mph requires a level of mental strength that you can only acquire from racing ovals from a young age. It’s very, very hard.
Racing a road course though? I think with a good car and a bit of practice, I think I could give the regular guys a bit of a hard time, so if you’re reading…
Anyway, it’s probably about now that I should answer the Rockefeller question. Well, yes, I am related to them. However, my bank account would dictate otherwise! Where I’m from in Germany is a town called Neuwied, and Rockenfeller is a unique surname to that area.
My grandfather did some research and it turns out that the Rockenfeller name originated in a small village called Rockenfeld which no longer exists. Those of us Rockenfellers who stayed in Germany kept the ‘n’ in the name. The Rockenfellers who went to America dropped it. So yeah, I’m related to them, but unfortunately not closely enough to get a windfall.
Oh, and one more thing I wanted to mention about America before I go. Remember, I’m German, so we’re not shy when it comes to meat and beer. I can honestly say that you guys do BBQs better than we do, and your beer doesn’t deserve the “piss water” reputation it sometimes gets. Some of the best IPAs —probably my favourite style at the moment — I’ve drunk have been brewed in America!
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading my first monthly column for Jalopnik. In the meantime, stay in touch with me on Instagram at @mike.rockenfeller, and I’ll have some news for you soon…