Pro racer Josh Pierson began driving at age 2
Most of us remember our first time getting behind the wheel. For those into motorsports, you can probably remember your first time out on a track. American racing prodigy Josh Pierson was too young to remember any of these first-time experiences because he was two years old when he first hit the track.
He has been racing ever since.
Pierson, now 16 years old, is the youngest driver ever to race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He recently signed a three-year contract with IndyCar’s Ed Carpenter Racing, and just competed in this year’s Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, in the #35 TDS Racing LMP2 car.
An early start
Greg Pierson, Josh’s father, remembers when he first realized his son was interested in motorsports. On several occasions, he took his five-year-old daughter karting, with two-year-old Josh in tow.
Greg would repeatedly find him wearing his sister’s helmet (oversized for Josh), sitting in her kart, pretending to drive. Chris Egger, owner of the Portland kart track Pat’s Acres Racing Complex, took notice. He had a crazy idea.
“Meet me here on Monday when we are closed,” Egger instructed Greg. “But don’t make a big deal out it.”
That Monday, they placed Josh, diaper and all, into a kart. Rather than starting it, they pushed Josh around the track with another kart. With his giant helmet bobbing side to side, Josh learned how to steer in and out of each corner. After he picked that up, they increased the pace, teaching him how and where to brake on the track. Not long after, they fired up his kart.
Josh was driving around the track. At speed. At two years old. Of course, there aren’t classes for kids that young. Still, he was competing in kart races by age four. Before many even start preschool, the little tyke had already won real races.
“I look back and think, ‘What nut job would let their kid get on track like that?’” Greg says, laughing. “He was literally still in diapers, but somehow, he figured out the pedals, learned how to turn, and was making laps by day one.”
Greg, who raced in Spec Miata and SCCA GT2, wanted to expose his kids to motorsports. He could tell karting wasn’t his daughter’s passion. Josh was different.
“The natural talent was there. More importantly, Josh was full of joy when we were at the track. Early on, I could see racing might turn into a real thing, so we came up with three rules for his career. We would keep supporting him if he was having fun, getting better, and running competitively.”
“Here we are, 14 years later, and those rules still apply.”
By the time he turned seven, Josh was racing karts nationally. He is very quick to point out some of the factors that got him there.
For one, he lived near a top-tier karting track. Also, the owner Chris Egger literally gave his dad the keys to the track to practice while he was still a toddler. Egger introduced them to an amazing driving coach, too. The Pierson family also happens to live by Rolison Performance Group (RPG), one of the best karting teams in America.
“Where I am now, it’s all thanks to the people around me. I loved coming up through karting because there is such a fun family atmosphere between teams there.”
With the support from RPG, he was able to represent the U.S. in the “Olympics of Karting” twice, first in Portugal and then in Italy.
Before the race in Portugal, Greg did some research on the track and learned there was an 80 percent chance of rain that time of year. “We are crazy fanatics when it comes to racing,” Greg said. “We went to Pat’s Acres Racing Complex and literally dug trenches and ran pipes to install sprinkles at the track. This allowed Josh to practice in the wet to get ready for the karting world championships.
“And no, if you must know, it didn’t actually rain that year!”
After 11 years in karting, Josh transitioned to cars, racing in open-wheel minor leagues. Starting at 13 years old, he competed in F1600 and USF2000’s in the Road to Indy series as the youngest driver on the grid.
Throughout his early career, Josh watched The Truth in 24 incessantly. He estimates that he viewed the 2008 documentary about Audi’s attempt for a fifth straight Le Mans victory over 200 times, dreaming that one day he would be able to compete in the famed endurance race.
In 2021, opportunity knocked. Word about Josh had somehow caught the attention of Zak Brown, the chief executive of McLaren’s Formula 1 team and co-owner of United Autosports, which campaigns LMP2-class cars in the World Endurance Championship (WEC), whose racing roster includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
One day, while Josh was racing at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama, Greg received a text from a number he didn’t recognize. “Hey, this is Zak. I want to meet your kid. If you’re still here, come to my trailer.”
It took Greg a minute to figure out who was texting him, and then another few minutes to believe Brown was inviting them to hang out in his trailer. After the meeting, Brown invited Josh to come to the Red Bull Ring in Austria for an LMP2 test.
Josh turned heads in Austria, hitting faster times than experienced drivers. “Josh is an extremely talented driver, mature well beyond his age and fast,” Brown told reporters after the test. United Autosports signed Josh for 2022 WEC competition, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
In February 2022, at age 15, Josh became the youngest driver to ever compete in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. Then, in June, Josh became the youngest driver to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He also competed in the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship. Josh was rewriting age records left and right.
How did he perform in his transition from open-wheel to sports car racing? Well, in his first two races, Josh was undefeated, winning back-to-back in the Asian Le Mans Series with co-driver Paul di Resta.
A few months later, he faced a grueling test at the 1000 Miles of Sebring, an endurance race in Florida known for its intense heat, sharp turns, and punishing bumps. United Autosports’ strategy was simple but risky: Josh, in his first-ever WEC race, had to perform a rare, and strenuous, triple stint to grab an early lead.
This strategy requires a driver to stay in the car for three times the typical length of a driving shift, on the same tires throughout the run. Josh’s strategists believed he had the skill to handle it—and, perhaps, that his youthful ignorance would come in handy. “He doesn’t even know any better,” one strategist said.
“It was pretty difficult, especially in the late stage of the last stint on the tires,” Josh told reporters. “But the strategy was right, and we won the race as a team.” In his debut race, Josh became the youngest winner in WEC history.
Josh worked hard to get to Sebring’s top step. He missed out on a lot of typical teenage activities to either train or travel. His parents encouraged him to sample nearly every sport growing up—and Josh even learned to play three instruments—but he only wanted to race.
His commitment has endured over a decade. “It’s wild, but he knew what he wanted to be as a toddler,” said Greg. “He is incredibly focused and mentally tough.”
Josh is known to have calm demeanor and mature presence at the track. He attributes this to years of preparation. Growing up, Josh practiced in karts that were faster than his class, similar to how baseball players warmup by swinging heavy bats. For his sports-car racing efforts, he spends hours in the simulator.
His training also involves some unique methods that seem to be paying off. He likes to train by playing ping-pong with PitFit Senaptec glasses that block part of his vision with a strobe effect. The process teaches his brain to fill in what he can’t see. It also trains the brain to make quicker decisions.
In 2022, Josh competed in two championships, on five continents, across eight countries. He drove in 15 races for a total of 124 hours and 15,322 miles. He captured three wins in one year—not bad for a kid who just got his driver’s license.
Josh likes to compare his philosophy on racing to a game of chess. “There are so many decisions made each lap. Especially in sports car racing, passing is about the long game. I plan how and where to pass cars two to three laps in advance,” says Josh.
“I’m trying to balance when to make a pass while still lifting in some corners to save gas, conserving tires, and defending my position.”
2023 and beyond
Despite his early success in sports cars, Josh is excited to get back to open-wheel competition with Ed Carpenter. There, he will be the team’s first-ever development driver in IndyCar.
He—and his dad, because Josh is 16—agreed to a three-year deal. The development role takes the pressure off a young driver, allowing him a couple years to grow and learn. Often, an Indy Lights driver will only get a couple races to prove themselves. Josh and his dad didn’t want that, so they created a multi-year plan that was more attractive to sponsors.
Josh wants to fit in a bit of karting into his five-year plan as well. “Shifter karts are the most physical thing I’ve ever driven, so I’d like to get back and at least race the SuperNats this year.”
“I have two dreams in motorsports. Racing in the 24 of Le Mans and the Indy 500. I’ll be back at Le Mans again this year. And hopefully Indy in a couple years.
“Of course, I wouldn’t turn down an F1 opportunity, but Indy is the dream. Racing is so much closer in IndyCar. Plus, I will get mentored by team owner-driver Ed Carpenter.”
To start the year, Josh raced at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, reaching speeds close to 200 mph. After leading most of the race, a spin with 20 minutes remaining left the team in 4th place for LMP2. Throughout 2023 he will be racing for three different teams in three different series: for United Autosports in WEC, for TDS Racing in the IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup, and for HMD Motorsports in Indy NXT (formally Indy Lights).
Josh knows that it takes a lot more than talent to become a successful race car driver. It takes a team, and it takes his family.
“I was most proud of Josh after one of his races this year,” his father said. “It wasn’t one of the victories. It was after a race in Bahrain, where the team ended second. A team mechanic pulled me aside to tell me how respectful and hardworking Josh has been this year.
“As a 16-year-old!”
Josh, whose grandfather has Alzheimer’s, uses his platform to raise awareness for the Alzheimer’s Associations. Check out the link if you’d like to learn more about Josh’s burgeoning racing career.