After Braun and Hernandez debacles, more fans should view racers as role models

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The notion of professional athlete as role model is a romantic one, born to children at the moment they watch their first home run, first touchdown, first three-point buzzer beater or first slapshot goal.

The heroes are those they see as infallible, who bring joy by their efforts on the battlefield. There is no notion, initially, of these athletes as thugs, criminals, or cheaters.

And then you have the last month in sports, where two of the best at their respective disciplines are going away for a while because they screwed up.

Ryan Braun cheated, which isn’t new and doesn’t particularly sting. But he did lie, he did throw a guy under the bus, and he did dupe an entire team and entire city – my hometown of Milwaukee – into believing he was the golden boy who could save baseball in Beertown. Instead, we all feel like drunks who had too much in the moment, enjoying his efforts on the field but now have awoke with a hangover the size of Bernie Brewer’s head.

Meanwhile Aaron Hernandez has been charged with first-degree murder. He starred on the field for the New England Patriots for three years, and was a key part of a generation of new tight ends who were changing the NFL in a way it hasn’t been given the increased passing attacks. Now, the aftermath and fallout has turned his name and his image completely toxic.

It’s with these two recent examples – the latest in the long line of stick-and-ball athletes who find a way to throw it away – that I wish more sports fans would look to racing drivers as their professional role models.

From an access standpoint, racing drivers in North America are far more reachable to the common fan than any in the four major sports. Think for a minute that you, as a fan, have the opportunity to walk the grid of the Indianapolis 500 – the single largest one-day sporting event – mere hours before the 33 drivers take the green flag. And throughout the month of May, or at any IZOD IndyCar Series event, you can brush shoulders with them at any moment in the paddock.

From a professional obligation standpoint, racing drivers have to be clean. Drivers so infrequently get arrested, have DUIs, or do lascivious acts away from their discipline that when you do, it’s a shock to the system. As for their jobs, they are racing inches apart from each other at 200 mph for two to three hours. It takes trust in the entirety of the field that they are all clean, not performance enhancing, to be able to make races safe, clean and enjoyable for the fans.

Now, granted, there is plenty of cheating that occurs in racing. But it’s not inherent in the drivers; it’s more performed by the crews. There are two old adages in racing: “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying,” and also, “It’s our job to cheat, and it’s their job to catch us.”

In a homogenized and increased spec-car era of racing that permeates most levels of motorsports, the window for innovation is so small that performance gains have to be pursued in such tight areas. In NASCAR, it’s splitters and spoilers. In IndyCar, it’s dampers. In Formula One, it’s about finding aero tricks given the tight regulations. Go mere millimeters outside the regulations, and it’s penalties out the wazoo for you.

So in that respect, racing does have its link to stick-and-ball sports in that someone, somewhere is always trying to create a performance advantage. And sanctioning bodies make sure to crack down where possible.

But in terms of the participants themselves, most drivers have such an edge on most stick-and-ball sport athletes, it’s not even funny. Drivers take the time to appreciate their fans, via autograph sessions, fan forums, random moments and conversations and now, engaging via social media. They have to be clean to do their jobs accurately and safely.

They are still real people beyond the stereotype of being a standard, blasé corporate mouthpiece for whatever sponsor it is that supports them.

They are definitely greater role models for kids to look up to.

Pfaff Motorsports parks in premier territory while punching above its weight in GTD Pro

Pfaff Motorsports Rolex 24
Jordan Lenssen/IMSA
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – After his team won the Rolex 24 at Daytona in one of the most stirring slam-bang finishes in the storied endurance race’s history, Steve Bortolotti’s phone blew up.

The general manager of Pfaff Motorsports received 370 text messages about the No. 9 Porsche being driven to the GTD Pro victory by Mathieu Jaminet over the No. 2 KCMG Porsche of Laurens Vanthoor (who helped Pfaff win the 2021 GTD title).

“I’ve never had my phone blow up like ever,” Bortolotti told NBC Sports. “I was like, ‘What the (expletive)? This is better than the actual race! It was awesome.”

His phone blew up again last week at Daytona International Speedway – but for an altogether different reason.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

The Pfaff Motorsports truck driver proudly had sent a photo to the team’s group text chat, showing that the No. 9 was parked directly beside the gleaming haulers for the new Porsche Penske Motorsports.

As the defending series champions in GTD Pro, Pfaff was situated beside the nine cars in the ballyhooed new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category with the next-best spot in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship garage.

It’s indicative of Pfaff’s impressive growth curve over less than a decade in IMSA, building in stature from plaid-clad Canadian underdog to GT powerhouse while continuing to punch above its weight against the biggest factory teams in sports-car racing.

Steve Bortolotti, general manager of Pfaff Motorsports

“Everyone is like, ‘That’s awesome, we’re on the front side of the garage!’ ” Bortolotti said. “That’s really cool for my guys. I never even thought that it mattered. I just was like, ‘Oh shit, there’s going to be a lot of traffic and people around because we’re beside Penske.’ They’re looking at it as, ‘This is really cool and something I’ve always wanted.’ You really don’t know what motivates people, and they probably didn’t know they wanted that until they had it.”

Bortolotti has been leading Pfaff Motorsports, which is based in a 20,000-square-foot shop 20 minutes north of Toronto, since its inception in 2015.

Chris Pfaff (the team’s CEO and president) entered sports car racing as a sponsor promoting the Pfaff Automotive dealership network in Canada. He founded Pfaff Motorsports after discovering many of the Pfaff Automotive employees worked in racing on the side (and often competing against the Pfaff-sponsored car).

Within five years, the team realized its goal of reaching IMSA’s national series in 2019. Within the next three years, it had two championships (in GTD and GTD Pro the past two years) and the 2022 Rolex 24 victory.

“It all starts with a vision to know what you’re striving for or else, racing becomes a fast waste of money if you aren’t chasing something,” Bortolotti said.

It’s been a memorable run for a team that has only seven full-time employees and celebrates its gritty spirit as a Porsche customer team beating factory-backed operations with budgets that could be up to 50 percent larger. On the Pfaff Motorsports website, all of its team members are featured with mug shots and titles – as well as “Turbo Ted,” the shop dog.

Pfaff Motorsports general manager Steve Bortolotti chats on a golf cart in front of the Pfaff Motorsports, hauler, which is parked next to the Porsche Penske Motorsport truck in the Daytona garage (Nate Ryan).

Bortolotti is proud that the team has been kept mostly intact over the past eight years with technical director Andrew Marangoni (who started as an engineer) and car chief Corey Whiteman among the stalwarts in another example of quality over quantity.

“I’d rather have seven extremely talented people,” Bortolotti said. “I’d put my seven up against anyone … give me seven in those equal jobs in other teams, I bet mine are better. I think that confidence I have in them, and they need confidence in themselves but can’t be cocky. There’s a very fine line between confidence and arrogance. I’m glad that most of my guys are confident in their abilities and not here to become celebrities. They’re just here to win races.”

With an influx of cash and staffing this year in GTP (which added Porsche and BMW), Bortolotti fretted that some of his team would be peeled off by the premier prototype division, but its tight-knit culture held firm against recruitment from the factory programs.

“One gentleman was approached hard by two manufacturers and told them ‘I go racing because I enjoy it here,’ ” Bortolotti said. “He’s worked for those programs, in Formula One and elsewhere. He said, ‘Look, I wake up every day and enjoy doing stuff with (Pfaff). It’s not worth another however many thousands to (leave Pfaff).’ That was nice to hear we’re building something great.

“I’m very adamant there aren’t a lot of egos within our team. I feel that’s a huge detriment in racing.”


Pfaff’s lowest moment came just before its biggest successes.

The COVID-19 pandemic was doubly hard for the team, which faced the specter of economic hardship layoffs mixed with quarantine restrictions that lasted through June 2021 and made travel extremely difficult across the border.

But Pfaff soldiered through and added Vanthoor (who was left without a ride Porsche shuttering its GTLM team) to pair with Zacharie Robichon for the 2021 championship season.

“The worst year of my life was 2020,” Bortolotti said. “I never knew if we were going to get back here. A lot of people had to make a lot of sacrifices. Everyone took it with a smile on their face. Leaders of companies are really judged on how they handle those situations.

The Pfaff Motorsports No. 9 Porsche on track during the 2023 Roar Before the Rolex 24 at Daytona (IMSA).

“As much as it hurt not racing in 2020, it was the way we handled it and came back, which allowed us to continue building what we had started in ’19 and ’20. If you look at ’21, you see a huge ramp up of our results after Watkins Glen (in late June). We finally got to go back to testing and learning and getting back in the swing of things.”

After winning the 2022 Rolex 24 and the GTD Pro championship with Pfaff, its trio of Jaminet, Matt Campbell and Felipe Nasr moved on to Porsche Penske Motorsport in GTP. It’s another sign of Pfaff’s appeal to world-class drivers.

“They want our car,” Bortolotti said. “I feel this pressure that these guys are finding me on Instagram and DM’ing to request us. That’s kind of cool. You have the seat that everyone is wanting.”

Steve Bortolotti, Pfaff Motorsports general manager

He believes the team’s success of as a customer team that can beat factory-backed operations is a preview of the future in GT professional racing.

“They’re spending how many of millions to compete, and we’re paying them to do it,” Bortolotti said. “So from a business standpoint, it’s quite attractive for them to be in this situation.

“I think the days of a full factory effort, as financial changes happen in a global economy, are numbered. The way we’ve done it with commercial support and raising money and partnering with a factory where they put some in, we put some in. I think that’s truly the way forward in pro level GT racing because there is something to sell. There is no reason for one manufacturer to have to pay for it all themselves. It doesn’t really make sense at the end of the day if one person is spending $5M to go racing.”


The team will have a factory-level talent with the return of Vanthoor as its endurance driver in a lineup that also includes Patrick Pilet (a 2015 GTLM champion and 2014 Rolex 24 winner) and Klaus Bachler. In addition to new drivers, the team also has a new car in the Porsche 911 GT3 R (992).

There was no bitterness over a reunion between the team and Vanthoor, who was lobbying Bortolotti to return just months after his heartbreaking defeat in last year’s Rolex 24.

Daytona is the only long-distance race missing from the CV for Vanthoor, who has won the 24-hour races at Le Mans, Spa and Nurburgring. The Belgian driver told NBC Sports he “cried like a baby” on the cooldown lap and then needed 10 minutes alone to regain composure.

But he then sent congratulations to his former and future team.

“With Mathieu and Pfaff, that was the first thing I did was congratulate them and give them a handshake because they are very good friends,” Vanthoor said. “And we were there trying to win and they fair and square won. There’s nothing to be angry about; I have a ton of respect for them. And that was it.

“There were no hard feelings. I was very happy for Pfaff to win it.”

Laurens Vanthoor has rejoined Pfaff Motorsports after a one-year absence (Jordan Lenssen/IMSA).

Bortolotti said Vanthoor requested a spreadsheet with mugshots of all the Pfaff team members so he could greet everyone by name upon his return.

“After (the 2022 Rolex 24), I gave him a big hug, and I was heartbroken for him because I knew how bad he wanted it, how hard he tried and how great a fight he put up,” Bortolotti said. “I’m excited to have him back. He’s a great guy. We want redemption for him as a team as much as he wants redemption for the finish last year.

“It’s almost been a cool way to motivate our guys to try to do it again because we got it last year, let’s get it for Larry this year. We’re extremely motivated to get him his Rolex this year because we get ours last year.”

A Pfaff Motorsports mechanic works on the No. 9 Porsche during a December test at Daytona (Jordan Lenssen/IMSA).