Photo credit: Lira Motorsports PR
At 17 years of age, Port Orange, Florida’s Michael Lira has already compiled an impressive record in auto racing for a driver of such a young age.
Already a veteran of 20 starts in the ARCA Racing Series and a driver in this year’s running of the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona in the GTD (GT Daytona) class, Lira looks ahead to a 2015 season consisting of 16 ARCA starts along with starts in IMSA and in late models at New Smyrna Speedway.
In the return of The Fourth Turn’s ‘Talking Racing’ series, we speak to Lira not only about his views on the upcoming racing season, but we also get an insight into what inspired him to become a race car driver and what his formative years as a racer were like.
Let’s start off by going way back. Can you remember what moment in your life was the moment that made you decide that you wanted to be a race car driver?
The biggest thing is that my dad (Carlos Lira) has always been a sports car driver. He’s raced SCCA around Florida and the southeast and he even made his way into Grand-Am a little bit, racing in what’s now the Continental Series and IMSA. I watched him for a long time when I was little and that kind of inspired me to want to do that myself. I always loved going to the race track and watching and then one day I decided ‘You know what? I want to try this myself.’
I take it that your dad is one of your heroes in racing; who were your other racing heroes?
Growing up, I definitely looked up to Jeff Gordon a lot. I think there’s a picture of me – I used to have this Jeff Gordon Power Wheels and I wouldn’t drive it without the suit and helmet, I had like a whole costume. I was a big Jeff Gordon fan as a kid. I think he won the [Daytona] 500 the year I was born (1997), so that kind of means something. He’s definitely one that I looked up to.
Was your mind already set on what your career path in racing was going to be when you were younger? Were you already set on going into stock car racing or maybe sports car racing?
The reason that I ended up with stock car racing was my dad’s co-driver in Grand-Am, his son had been doing quarter midgets at New Smyrna – which was circle track. He tipped my dad off on it that it was a good program and it was fun, and so he had me try it with his son, so we were racing together and that’s how I got started with the circle track stuff. I just kind of worked my way through the ranks there and never really tried any road course stuff until just about last year. I’ve been exploring the road course stuff more lately, but I’m pretty set on stock car racing.
There are a lot of young drivers coming up in the stock car ranks that are children of either current or former stock car drivers; considering that your father is a sports car driver, do you feel as if there were still any advantages in your oval career that came with having a father that happened to be a race car driver, even if he wasn’t a stock car driver?
It’s funny, I actually think that him knowing less about stock car racing is actually an advantage, and here’s why – being a father and being a race car driver, when you’re talking to another driver, that’s different than when you talk to your own son. It’s kind of a weird thing – sometimes fathers, they don’t sugarcoat things, you know what I mean? Sometimes when I was a kid, it would be kind of harsh, but once I got through the ranks he knew less and less about stock car racing so it was really between me and my crew chief. Then he could kind of back up and just kind of watch, I think that’s better for him.
We’re going to jump ahead a little bit to the present. Thus far, you’ve had two partial seasons in the ARCA Racing Series with Kimmel Racing, if you were to evaluate those two seasons, how would you say they went?
One word I’d say is ‘learning.’ Definitely important to go to all of the race tracks or most of them that I was allowed to go to and have to learn and get laps. My equipment wasn’t the greatest, it was a little older, but that was okay for me to start with. The Kimmels are great people and were very patient with me while I was learning and I had a lot of fun to them. They’re a great team and they also taught me a lot. Now, I feel like I’ve been to all the tracks and got the experience – I’d never run a 200-lap race and never done a pit stop, but now I’ve done that. This year, I want to do better … top-fives.
This year, you’re going to be racing with your own team, Lira Motorsports, can you talk about what led to the decision to move over from Kimmel to your new team?
We’ve been building up this team, Lira Motorsports, that started as my trucks (FASCAR PRO-TRUCKS) and then I moved into late models. The last few … we’ve been dabbling with development driver stuff with Ricardo Flores running for us a couple of times and we found that we think it can grow into a really big, good program. We’ve decided to take it to the ARCA Series as well.
You’re scheduled for 16 starts this season in ARCA, but Daytona is not one of those 16 starts (due to age restrictions.) Even though you’re unable to compete in the season opener, you were able to get some track time in the ARCA car during January’s open test. How would you say your test went?
It went fine, except for the fact that my Ilmor motor blew up, which was kind of disappointing. It’s definitely always good to get laps there at Daytona because Daytona isn’t a place like New Smyrna Speedway that you can just rent out for a couple hundred bucks and go practice for a day, you can’t rent that track. Any track time that you can get on a superspeedway is invaluable.
Is there any particular track on the ARCA calendar that you’re most looking forward to going to this year?
Definitely Salem Speedway and Winchester too, those two are my favorite tracks. I think the high-banked half-mile short tracks are so cool and I had one of my best finishes at Salem in my fourth start – seventh-place. I really like that track. I’m looking forward to those for sure.
There are a bunch of changes effecting the ARCA Series this year with new composite bodies from Five Star Bodies and new engines from Ilmor being available for use by the teams. Are you expecting much of a difference in terms of how the cars will behave this year compared to years past?
It will be a little different, but we’ll get our hands on that body and the new motor and everything and test it out and find all of the bugs with it. There’s always bugs with new rule changes like that. I feel like those two rule changes are definitely something that’s going to better the series in the future. Having the same motor for everyone is just going to make the playing field more even. The body is lighter so you can put your weight more down low and it’s also cheaper, which is really good for the short tracks because it’s hard to get out of one of those bullrings without bumping into somebody with those big heavy stock cars.
It’s not that often that 17-year-olds go out and compete in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. What was that experience like?
That was really cool. We didn’t run up front or anything, but it was definitely an honor to be there. It was so cool, like driver introductions and everything, the fan walk was nuts – just thousands of people there. We had a mechanical issue and were in the garage for a couple of hours but I still ended up with about six or seven hours of track time. I was really happy to just be out there with DPs (Daytona Prototypes) flying by you and all that. It was amazing.
Are you looking at any other sports car races for this year?
Yeah, I definitely plan on running a few more IMSA races. The IMSA schedule goes with my ARCA schedule pretty well from what I’ve seen, so we’ll see how that goes. We were pretty successful with the first race. I don’t have a lot of road course experience, but I feel like even though stock car racing is my focus, any car with four wheels on it on any type of track that you can drive makes you a better race car driver in general. I know it’s helping me for sure.
Outside of ARCA and IMSA, what are your racing plans looking like for this year?
Any off weekends that I have, I’ll be running my late model at New Smyrna and hopefully a few other tracks this year. We’re looking into it. We definitely want to get to the point where we’re dominant in a Super and a Pro late at New Smyrna this year.
Follow Kyle Pokrefky on Twitter at @KPokrefky