DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dr. Robert Masson annually performs more than 500 spinal surgeries, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro seven years ago and once was on a career path to become a space shuttle astronaut.
But behind the wheel of an LMP2 car this weekend at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the 56-year-old overachiever will be a relative novice with an unusual teacher: Kyle Masson, his 22-year-old son and a pro driver.
“The hardest balance is sometimes (Kyle) forgets where I’m alpha,” said Dr. Masson, a trained neurosurgeon from Windermere, Florida, who specializes in microsurgical spine reconstruction. “But when it comes to racing, he is clearly alpha. He’s my mentor. He’s my coach, and I think one of the really phenomenally cool things for me has been that role reversal.”
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The father-son duo will be racing the No. 38 ORECA for Performance Tech Motorsports. Kyle Masson will be making his fourth start at Daytona (including a class win in the 2017 Prototype Challenge) while his father, who began pro racing only three years ago, will be making his second consecutive start at Daytona in LMP2.
Dr. Masson’s sports car career began as a direct offshoot of his son, who began showing an interest in racing while playing video games as a child. Kyle soon progressed into go-karting and then into training for full-bodied cars.
It was while chaperoning his son to Skip Barber Racing School that Dr. Masson discovered his own passion for motorsports. After suffering a spinal cord injury and herniated disk from a wakeboarding accident in 2011, Dr. Masson underwent a neck reconstruction. As part of his recovery, he climbed Kilimanjaro in February 2014.
Six months later, he was inspired to enroll in Skip Barber by his son.
“I love recovery goals, and racing kind of became my next level of recovery goal,” said Dr. Masson, who rekindled a childhood dream that was born out of watching “Speed Racer” reruns on early morning TV. “The way I justify this racing journey is my ability to inspire people towards general physical wellness and health. I think too often after age 40, people at large throw in the towel on their physical performance. So I’ve brought a healthcare mind set, a wellness and preventative health mindset to racing.”
Dr. Masson entered the IMSA Prototype Challenge Series in 2017 (the same year Kyle won the championship in the MPC division), earning seven podiums and a win at Road Atlanta. Last year, he made his debut in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship LMP2 class with tutoring from his son, who is running his second full season in LMP2.
“It’s kind of different to balance all of them being the “coach” at the same time as the son, it’s a tough balancing point, but we definitely have a lot of fun,” Kyle said of working with his father. “He’s definitely become my best friend over the last four years, so it’s definitely a unique situation, and I’m thankful for it and I will be for the rest of my life.”
His father might be labeled as a “gentleman driver” (the catch-all term for the affluent executives and professionals from all walks of life who moonlight as sportscar pilots), but he might be better classified as a renaissance man of the Rolex 24.
The foray into auto racing is just the latest detour of a life that also included planning to become a NASA mission specialist. He was a senior in medical school and training in the Navy when the Challenger disaster of 1986 occurred, causing him to focus on neurosurgery.
“I love to compete, and I love to push,” said Dr. Robert Masson, who has performed more than 13,000 microsurgical spine procedures and founded the Masson Spine Institute in Ocoee, Florida. “I study performance, and I’m involved in a lot of innovation and technology development, design and ultimately implementation. So the whole racing paradigm fits well into the way I practice neurosurgery of pushing limits and testing boundaries.”
He and his son found the boundary of the podium in the 2019 Rolex 24, finishing second in LMP2.
“I want to be on the top step of the podium,” Dr. Masson said. “To be on the podium with Kyle last year was unbelievable. Emotionally, I don’t think I can match that, but competitively we sure as hell want to try.”
Kyle said his father has improved his lap speeds in the past year by focusing on a racing simulator. That also is where the coaching can get even more intense, leading to some “heated moments” of instruction from his son.
“He’s an amazing coach, amazing performer and intuitive about racing,” Dr. Masson said of Kyle. “He gets it at a very internal four-dimensional level. I love that and I’ve learned so much from him and I feed off of his enthusiasm for this sport.
“He’s my coach in this space. He just needs to remember that it’s this space.”