Circuit de la Sarthe is one of world’s most legendary racetracks, hosting the 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race. For the general public, whose idea of speeding is going 70 in a 65, being on the track in France, where drivers consistently hit 200 miles per hour, would feel a little out of place.
For 19-year-old Matt McMurry, pulling onto the speedway feels like home.
“People would always ask me if going 200 miles per hour was scary,” McMurry said. “It’s funny, going 200 on the straightaway is actually the easy part, because you don’t really have to do anything. It’s the turns at 150 mph that are tricky. Those require some skill.”
McMurry has spent a good portion of his life trying to be the opposite of normal. Five years ago, he appeared on the cover of the Arcadia News as a 14-year-old for quite an usual reason; he was trying to achieve his goal of becoming the youngest driver to ever participate at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Setting that record was something McMurry had decided to shoot for several years earlier. The son of Chris McMurry, winner of the 2005 12 Hours of Sebring, racing was in McMurry’s blood and he got an early start by driving go-karts at the age of four. Through elementary school, go-karts were his way into the racing world, as he competed at local karting tracks around Phoenix. In seventh grade, he was given an assignment to write an essay on something he would like to complete before high school. His answer was the goal of becoming the youngest driver to race at Le Mans.
“That was when I went all in,” McMurry said. “From 2011 to 2014, it was all about getting to Le Mans. That was my main focus.”
The clock was already ticking, with the previous record, held by Ricardo Rodriguez, being just 17 years and four months. At 12, McMurry took classes at the local Bob Bondurant School of Performance Driving and became the youngest driver to pass the course, while still using a go-kart, since his feet couldn’t quite reach the pedals in a car. The next four years were spent traveling frequently in and out of the country to compete in more than 60 races, all while McMurry was a student at Brophy College Preparatory.
Finally, after finishing his sophomore year in 2014, McMurry headed to France to race with Greaves Motorsport at Le Mans. He was accomplishing his goal and setting the new record at 16 years old.
“There was a point that I took it all in when I was first out there driving,” McMurry said. “I just had this moment where I thought, ‘wow, I’m really here.’”
Along with co-drivers Chris Dyson and Tom Kimber-Smith, the Greaves team finished 25th overall. McMurry broke another record, also becoming the youngest driver to finish the race at Le Mans.
With the goal complete, life changed for McMurry over the next few years. It is common for drivers to stay in the same series for multiple years, in order to better hone their skills. McMurry didn’t have that luxury while racing against the clock to get to Le Mans, and was just focused on moving up.
“Once there wasn’t a time constraint, it became more about building a career and name for myself,” McMurry said. “I wanted to drive with the best teams and drive multiple years with the same people. It becomes easier when you don’t have to change teams every year.”
Instead of racing at Le Mans again in 2015 and 2016, McMurry continued to work on his craft, spending time with the same teams in a quest to become an even better driver. His goals had changed, and he was ready to move away from the ‘youngest’ label, and become known just as a great driver.
In 2017, McMurry has been balancing his 10-12 weeks of racing with his course load at UC Irvine, where he is studying aerospace engineering.
“Trying to make a career for yourself in racing is a lot of hard work,” McMurry said. “Mostly because of trying to go to school at the same time. But it’s been fun to get to drive a lot the last couple years. Fun, but it is certainly a lot of work.”
When McMurry finished his spring semester for this year, he packed up and headed back to Le Mans, to race with Algarve Pro Racing Team from Portugal. It was the first time he had been to Le Mans since 2014, and his team once again finished the race.
Not everyone who writes down their ultimate goals in a seventh-grade essay gets to live them out in reality. Whether he spends the next 20 years as a driver or an aerospace engineer, McMurry is already living the dream.
For more info: mattmcmurry.com.