Modern race car paintwork is typically bold, aggressive, and, more often than not, forgettable. Most contemporary liveries are more reflective of the racing endeavour’s funding sources than of any genuine artistry; despite the best intentions of their graphic artists, many unfortunate race cars resemble discarded Affliction t-shirts.
In the cold and calculated business environment of today’s motorsports, the interests of a team’s marketing partners and sponsors come before those of the people behind the wheel or the pit wall. Even so, sometimes entirely by accident, a team can end up with a livery that does more than stick in the memory of the team spotter—it resonates with fans around the world.
That’s exactly what happened with “the plaid Porsche,” the current fan favourite of IMSA.
Toronto-based Pfaff Motorsports has been involved in motor racing for decades and, until recently, was campaigning 911s in the one-make Porsche GT3 Cup. It transitioned to the competitive Pirelli World Challenge (PWC) championship in 2018. For the 2019 season, Pfaff had planned to continue with its PWC program but, with some encouragement from Porsche Motorsport, decided to move up to the IMSA WeatherTech Championship with a 911 GT3 R.
Before the 2019 season began, Pfaff Motorsports and its partner Castrol ran a livery contest in which fans could submit designs for the 911’s race garb. But by the Roar Before The 24 at Daytona, the early January warm-up for the around-the-clock race, there were no plans beyond leaving the race car in its solid red finish—which was already rather patriotic.
To the rest of the world, Canada’s cultural identity is dominated by the ever-iconic maple leaf, its popular gastronomic choices of poutine and Tim Hortons, and musical exports like Nickelback and Justin Bieber. There’s also the widely-held assumption that all Canadians liberally sprinkle conversations with “eh.”
If Canadian fashion is known for anything, it’s a very short list indeed: toques, the Canadian Tuxedo (a denim jacket paired with jeans), and the lumber jacket, which is typically a casual, winter-weight coat made of red-and-black plaid wool. Heck, even I wear a lumber jacket when the weather turns cold. As it turns out, so do many members of Pfaff Motorsports.
Laurance Yap, creative director for Pfaff Automotive Partners, paints the scene. “It’s December 27, 2018, and in typical race team fashion, there’s a bunch of guys hanging around the shop loading up the trailer, and between Steve [Bortolotti] and Zach [Robichon] and a number of the crew, there was a whole lot of plaid happening at the shop that day because, being December 27, it was pretty cold.
“I believe it was Steve who commented on how Canadian this whole scene was. Steve and I and Jordan [Lenssen] all looked at each other and somebody said, ‘Well, that would look kind of funny on the race car.’ We grabbed a computer that had Photoshop on it and I hastily mocked up what our red race car would look like plaid. We all looked at it and went, ‘That looks kind of cool.’”
Yap sent the mockup to his contact at Castrol, who agreed with the design’s cool factor. Final approval was left with Chris Pfaff, President and CEO of Pfaff Automotive Partners. “With a little trepidation,” Yap says, “We sent the image over to Chris, whose reaction was something like, ‘I don’t get it, but if you guys want to do it, go ahead.’”
“We were at the airport,” Pfaff driver Zacharie Robichon tells me, “going to the Roar right after Christmas and Jordan said, ‘Hey, I’ve got something to show you. I think you might like it.’ It was a Photoshop on the then-red car as a plaid car. For those who don’t know me, I think I own ten shirts and six of them are plaid, so it was right up my alley.” Robichon is serious—he’s had plaid on his helmet for years.
Images of the car were released before the 2019 Rolex 24 at Daytona and it immediately resonated with Canadian fans, including your humble writer. I’d missed the Roar, but I had planned to attend the Rolex 24 at the end of January. I was staying with some Canadian friends that weekend and, somewhere in the planning of the trip, someone suggested we wear plaid shirts to support our fellow Canucks from Pfaff. Since then, other fans have done the same.
“That’s where we identified an opportunity to sell shirts,” Yap laughs. “One of our videographers had a contact with a clothing company called TeamLTD and they were super keen to do a shirt for us, a limited-edition run of three hundred plaid shirts with a graphic of our race car on the back.”
Professional motor racing isn’t all fun and games and cheeky car designs, though; it’s a serious business that demands performance from all team members. You might assume a plaid paint job wouldn’t make a difference to the team’s practical operations—but you would be wrong.
Sam Myers, the man behind my American racing successes, is a spotter for Pfaff Motorsports, relaying crucial information to Robichon and his codrivers over the radio during all on-track sessions. Myers says that his job was easier when the 911 GT3 R was solid red. Now that the car is plaid, it’s a little more difficult to find in racing traffic. However, like all competitive outfits, “the team makes the effort with lighting and other accents around the car to make it stand out in the crowd.”
Jordan Lennsen, Pfaff Motorsports’ photographer, lives for shooting trackside. His passion for on-track action shows in his work, but he admits that the plaid livery has made his job more complicated. “It’s funny, because I love shooting the car—but from a technical standpoint, there’s so much black-and-red checker going on at the front of the car that, for some reason, when the car is coming at me at full speed, the autofocus tracking seems to get lost a little bit on the front of the car.
“If I can see the Motul logo on the hood or if I can grab the KW suspension logo on the corners, then I’ll usually pick a spot like that. From a technical standpoint, I wouldn’t say it’s the easiest car to shoot, but definitely it looks beautiful, so when you hit it, it’s definitely worth it.”
Pfaff Motorsports manager Steve Bortolotti is perhaps the team’s fiercest competitor, and he’s proud of what its plaid livery has accomplished both on and off track. “If you ask our competitors, I’m sure everyone treats us as a threat every time we hit the track,” Bortolotti beams.
The attention that the plaid car brings to the Pfaff organization is more than a marketing success. “It gives us a sense of pride,” Bortolotti says, “not just for us as race team members, but for the people who are working in the dealerships who ultimately make it possible for us to go racing.”
At the 2020 Rolex 24 at Daytona, Bortolotti surprised the factory Porsche drivers who teamed with Robichon with custom race suits that looked like lumberjack shirts paired with jeans.
“Lars [Kern] is German and he thought it was funny and he has a good sense of humour. Dennis [Olsen] is from Norway and he thought it was pretty funny. Patrick Pilet, from France, didn’t really understand the humour in it at all,” Bortolotti laughs. “They don’t wear them in most conditions, but it makes for some cool photo ops and a couple of chuckles during driver introductions, and that’s part of why we do it.”
Robichon says that plenty of teams in the business of motor racing can be intimidating to fans. If you’ve ever seen the walled-off paddocks of some teams in IMSA, you’ll know what he means, but that attitude doesn’t extend to Pfaff Motorsports. Its livery is a welcome beacon for fans.
“Let’s keep in mind where this idea came from,” Robichon recalls. “It came from the fact that we’re a bunch of guys working in the shop and because it was cold, this is what we wear. We are just like all the fans—everybody on our team started off as a race fan and I would say we’re approachable because we wear plaid.”
In its short time in IMSA, the Pfaff team has proven that it has the performance to compete against the established teams; but according to Yap, the plaid theme has transcended the race car’s appearance and communicates its Canadian identity.
“I don’t think you can underestimate the power of alliteration, and the hashtag #plaidporsche became a thing,” Yap says. Social media and sim racing are filled with tributes to the eye-catching design.
Whether he wants to admit it or not, Yap is a motorsport livery superfan and has a unique perspective on Pfaff’s car’s design. “I think it was Steve who identified the potential of the [plaid] movement to become a talking point, because what it accomplished was a way to communicate the Canadian-ness of the team,” he says. “And I think he was I think he really was quite right about that.”
Even today, Canadian race teams will plaster their roofs and fenders with maple leaves, but the red-and-black Porsche communicates Pfaff’s homegrown attitude in a different way. “I think that the livery is representative of the ways that we go about doing things, and that we are taking our work seriously and racing seriously—but not taking ourselves too seriously—without resorting to Canadian clichés,” Yap says.
Robichon is clearly proud to be the driver of the plaid Porsche and is more romantic. “I hope the car stays around forever,” he says, “And I can say I was the first one to drive it. It’s something that I’ll always remember.”
DISCLAIMER: Not a single “eh” was uttered by anyone during the interviews conducted for this story.