John Blakely/Performance Tech Motorsports

The doctor who became a driver takes racing lessons from his son

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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.”

The No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports ORECA LMP2 during the Roar before the Rolex test (courtesy of IMSA).

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.”

Attention NASCAR teams: IMSA drivers available for Daytona!

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NASCAR will be making its debut on the Daytona International Speedway road course next month, and there’s a big fan who’d like to join the historic weekend.

This fan actually has impressive credentials, too — a few thousand laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile layout that annually plays host to the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

In 2014, the winning GTLM team in the sports car endurance classic included IMSA Porsche driver Nick Tandy, who rabidly has followed NASCAR for more than 30 years since growing up in England.

So why not try racing NASCAR? Especially because Tandy has the weekend of Aug. 14-16 free.

He’s not picky, either — offering up his services on Twitter (as well as those of Porsche teammate Earl Bamber) for an ARCA, Xfinity, trucks or Cup ride.

Tandy’s affinity for American stock-car racing runs deep.

His first trip to the World Center of Racing was as a fan attending the 50th running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, 2008. During Rolex testing in January, Tandy, 35, said he hadn’t missed a Cup race on TV in 15 years.

Among his favorite NASCAR drivers: the Earnhardts, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. When IMSA ran the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2014, Tandy stayed a few extra days at the Brickyard and bought Kyle Busch gear for himself and his children.

He briefly took the stage during a NASCAR weekend last October. After IMSA’s season finale at Road Atlanta, Tandy made a few demonstration laps and a burnout in his No. 911 Porsche before the Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

He also has some experience in stock cars, having raced Modified-type grass-roots series on England’s quarter-mile short tracks.

Couple that with a Daytona road course record that includes two consecutive podium class finishes (including last Saturday) and a sports car resume with 13 IMSA victories and an overall win in the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans … and maybe a NASCAR team should take a look.

And Tandy isn’t the only IMSA driver who likely would be available.

Corvette driver Jordan Taylor, who won the 2017 Rolex 24 overall title with Jeff Gordon as a teammate (and the inspiration for his Rodney Sandstrom persona), also tweeted his availability for the weekend on the high banks.

Sports car veteran Andy Lally, a GTD driver with multiple class wins in the Rolex 24 as well as 38 Cup starts (he was the 2011 rookie of the season in NASCAR’s premier series), also hung out his shingle.

There also is AIM Vasser Sullivan’s Jack Hawksworth (who just won at Daytona last Saturday), the Englishman who teamed with Kyle Busch at the Rolex 24 in January and made an Xfinity start at Mid-Ohio last year with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Many sports car drivers (such as Taylor) already live in Florida, and many are hunkering down in the Sunshine State with IMSA returning to action at Daytona last week and Sebring International Raceway next week. Because of COVID-19-related travel concerns and restrictions, several IMSA stars who live outside the country are riding out the pandemic within a few hours of Daytona with nothing to do.

Why not a weekend at the World Center of Racing?

Over the years, scads of “road-course ringers” (including some Formula One veterans) have tried their hands in stock cars at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.

How about considering the many sports car drivers who already have reached victory lane at Daytona by making a few right-hand turns, too?