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December 14, 2017

Jeff Segal – Back in the big time with Acura

Jeff Segal – Back in the big time with Acura
Photo Credit To Michael Shank Racing/Brian Cleary

Left without a ride following the unification of the American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am, Jeff Segal carved out a niche in part-time drives and developed a knack for collecting wins at the world’s biggest endurance races, including Daytona (2014), Sebring and Le Mans (2016). Now back in the IMSA SportsCar Championship full-time with Michael Shank Racing, Segal is setting his goals high in the first year for the new Acura NSX GT3. Ahead of the 65th Sebring 12hr this weekend, he shared his hopes with James Newbold

There’s an iconic scene in the Cohen Brothers’ 1998 crime caper The Big Lebowski where Dude, Walter and Donny encounter the eccentric Jesus Quintana at the bowling alley. After celebrating a Strike and provocatively shining his ball, the character confronts the three friends before departing with the immortal line “Nobody f**ks with the Jesus.”

Would the movie be remembered as so fondly without it? Perhaps, perhaps not. John Turturro’s unforgettable cameo helped earn the film cult status and turn an already good movie a truly great one. No surprises then, that when Turturro was given permission to reprise his Quintana character in the upcoming film Going Places, it peaked the interest of The Big Lebowski’s legions of fans and the media at-large.

But it’s not just Turturro that can take a supporting role and still turn in a scene-stealing performance. It’s commonplace in the world of motorsport too, and Jeff Segal has made it into something of an art form.

A two-time GT class champion in the Rolex Grand-Am Series, the 31-year-old was considered one of the rising stars of US sportscar racing at the turn of the decade, but found himself without a full-time seat following the merger with the American Le Mans Series in 2014.

Rather than complain at the injustice of it all, Segal set himself up as the man to call upon for endurance races and got off to the best possible start at the Daytona 24 Hours by winning the GTD class with Level 5 Motorsports. This earned him a part-season GTE-Am campaign in the FIA World Endurance Championship, which included the unforgettable experience of sharing a Ferrari 458 GTE with Emmerson Fittipaldi at the 6 Hours of Sao Paolo, before joining Scuderia Corsa in 2015 as a foil to Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler. Together, they finished third in GTE-Am at the Le Mans 24 Hours, before Segal stepped up to the plate at a water-logged Petit Le Mans to help Bell and Sweedler snatch the GTD title from under the nose of Christina Nielsen.

2016 was perhaps Segal’s most successful yet. Now partnering Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan, he qualified on pole and delivered the Ferrari 488 GT3’s first competition victory at Sebring, then followed up with another victory at Watkins Glen to put his team-mates in the driving seat for Scuderia Corsa’s second consecutive GTD title. If the North American Endurance Cup title was a nice little bonus, Segal crowned the year by storming to victory on his return to Le Mans, coming within 0.03s of the Am class Fastest Lap.

But rewarding as part-time rides in top-end teams were as a means of filling his trophy cabinet, there were plenty of drawbacks too. Getting his Miami-based simulation company GPX Driver Development Lab off the ground kept him busy, but the prolonged periods out of the cockpit were beginning to wear thin.

A man in demand after his sterling performance at Le Mans, Segal began talks with Michael Shank Racing and signed a deal to head up the development on the brand-new Acura NSX GT3 for 2017. Having spent the last three years in a supporting role, he’s now relishing the chance to be the leading man once again.

“It’s a great opportunity for me and I really appreciate the confidence that everybody from HPD, from Acura and from Michael Shank Racing have shown in bringing me on board here,” Segal told Racing.GT.

“I went from being a full-time driver, then the situation in US sportscar racing changed and I found a nice little niche in part-time rides. It’s been crazy to look back at the last three years and having these limited season programmes, but I’m thrilled to be back full-time, it’s really nice to be able to sink my teeth into the development and everything that goes into it.”

The NSX has several visual similarities to the 488 GT3 he raced last year and showed excellent pace in the wet en-route to sixth on debut at Daytona, but has had nothing like the mileage of fellow IMSA newcomers Lexus and Mercedes-AMG.

Indeed, with only Daytona – an unrepresentative outlier on the IMSA calendar – and two short blasts around the streets of St. Petersburg in Pirelli World Challenge under its belt, the Acura’s real strengths are yet to be properly established.

“We’re learning it, the truth is it’s still early days in the project,” said Segal.

“The Acura is very unique in how it responds, the way you’ve got to drive it is completely different [to the 488]. We’re working on that now, but we’re still so early – we’re quite a bit newer to this car than meets the eye and things are changing quickly.

“That’s a positive thing, but I think it will probably be a couple of races into the season before we flatten our learning curve.”

All the same, Segal sees no reason why Acura can’t contend for silverware in its first season.

Together with full-season co-driver Oz Negri, Tom Dyer and IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, Segal leads the NAEC standings heading to Sebring this weekend, having accrued the most points across the six, 12, 18 and 24 hour stages at Daytona, with three rounds – including Sebring – still to go.

The sister car driven by Andy Lally, Katherine Legge, Mark Wilkins and Graham Rahal also led laps at Daytona before retiring in the closing stages as a legacy of losing the bonnet on the front-stretch.

“For me the goal is really simple, which is to be a contender for the championship,” he said.

“Whether you have a proven car and a proven team, or something completely new like we have, the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring are tricky because anything can happen – you can get caught up in somebody else’s accident and it doesn’t matter how established or proven your team or your car is.

“The beginning of the season is really about survival and that works for us, we’re really just trying to learn as much as we can about everything that’s new, then as we get into the balance of the season, hopefully that’s when we’re hitting our stride and gelling. That’s when we need to be collecting points and see where that takes us. It’s an ambitious goal, but it’s where we should be.”

However, Segal isn’t too proud to reprise the supporting role when the need arises.

Since Acura will not be present at Le Mans, Segal could reasonably expect to return as Scuderia Corsa’s party piece were it not for his driver rating being upgraded from Silver to Gold over the off-season. However, he has pledged that if he is unable to defend his victory, he will turn up in support of Bell and Sweedler regardless.

“If that opportunity arises, I’ll be there and I’ll grab it with both hands, but owing to the driver rankings changes, at the moment I am not able to accompany my team from last year,” he said.

“If I’m not driving then I’ll be there anyway with Bill and Townsend. We have a great friendship, we had great results together and anything I can do to help them if I’m not racing, I’ll be happy to do.”

About The Author

James Newbold

James Newbold is Racing.GT's Editor. He graduated from a politics degree at the University of East Anglia in 2015, which should help him navigate through the political minefield that is GT racing. He likes Marmite on toast and Oreo cookies. Speaks Spanish, but only when no one is looking.