We like race drivers and we think they’re always interesting people, even aside from their everyday occupations. When we had the chance to meet up with boss road-racer Mike Skeen, we were pretty amped. He might not be a household name, but Mike has driven just about everything. He made the jump from club-racing champion directly to 800-horsepower Trans-Am Series Corvettes in 2009. Since then, he has piloted the Lone Star Racing Viper (video below!), stock cars, and just about everything else under the sun. Oh, he’s a class winner at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, too.
Since our chat, Mike has announced he’ll be racing Lone Star’s new car, a thundering Mercedes-Benz AMG GT3, in IMSA competition this year. While we had his attention, we talked with Mike about Roadkill-style adventures in a BMW, his start in racing, those awesome Vipers, Pikes Peak, and more.
Roadkill: Tell me how you got into racing and where that started from.
Mike Skeen: When I was a kid, my dad and I played around with cars and screwed around in the garage. He got into go-kart racing before I was actually old enough to do it so I started following him to the track. I loved it so I started racing karts when I was old enough. We did that for a couple years until I was old enough to do car stuff. About that same time, we moved and were pretty close to Virginia International Raceway, so we started to do track days and stuff there.
Then, I started instructing at some race schools and worked at the Richard Petty Driving Experience for a little bit. Not so much doing their stock car program, but more doing arrive-and-drive stuff for Mercedes. I traveled around doing a bunch of that. Then I built myself a BMW Spec E30 to club race. I did that for two years and won a bunch of races and championships. This was like ‘07 or ‘08, I ran that. Then I was on the TV show called Setup on SPEED Channel. That got me a bit of exposure and I met a guy through that who became a fan and wanted me to drive his Trans-Am Corvette in 2009. I won some races, did pretty well, and won Rookie of the Year. From that, I met a World Challenge team and in 2010, I won the very first World Challenge race I was in.
RK: So it’s been kind of one thing leading to another?
MS: A slow progression.
RK: You said you used to build cars in the garage with your dad. What was your first car?
MS: My first car—I still have—it’s an ‘86 BMW 535i. My dad bought it from his coworker, who was the original owner so I’ve known the car forever. This was ‘96 when he bought it. We’d tinker on that a lot: taking engines in and out, doing suspension and brakes, all kinds of stuff. When I was in college, I turbocharged it and did MegaSquirt engine management. I drove that around for 40,000 miles or so, beat the crap out of it and burned off the tires.
I parked it for a little while, sold the turbo kit off it, and recently did an LS1 swap with a T56. Even more recently, I had my buddy Rick Fred at RF Engines build an engine so it has this built LS1 in it now. It makes like 500 horsepower, probably way more than the suspension and rear end can take. So far, so good. My theory is to keep really crappy tires on there and you won’t break the driveline.
RK: I like it, CraigsList tires on there. Given how many cars you’ve worked on, you probably have some Roadkill-style stories of improvised repair.
MS: The most recent one, I’d say, is that my buddy and I built this $1,200 BMW 330 into a rallycross car. We lifted it a little and put big BFG KO2 tires on it. We drove it from his home in Lake City, Florida, to Baja. My buddy has a rally school in Austin, so we stopped and played around a little there for a couple days.
Yeah. We went out to Phoenix and drove a bunch of trails and went up Mount Ord and a bunch of stuff. Then we went from San Diego down to Baja to watch the rally a bit. So there was lots of hooning and a few roadside repairs. Fortunately, we’d done maybe a little more prep than you would usually see on a Roadkill episode so the car did pretty well. We had an electrical issue on the way back on the way back through El Paso. The battery terminal in the front almost melted out and caught on fire, so we had to lop off the cables and bolt it back together in an AutoZone parking lot.
After beating it up on the rally courses, one of the front strut hats was worn out a bit so the front toe would change up every now and again. So we would have to readjust the toe in a rest area. It kind of side-swiped a big dirt mound so we had to do a little bodywork with a dually and tow strap, but it was good.
RK: Talking about taking cars off-road, you probably saw that we did that with a Viper. You drove a Viper this year that looked badass. How was it to drive?
MS: It was badass. It’s a little bit older of an older-generation GT3 car than a lot of the stuff out there so it’s wasn’t quite as good as some of the other cars, but it has really good power. It’s kind of a different car to drive but doesn’t have quite the level of grip in the corners and braking and stuff. Depending on the track, sometimes you were fighting with tire wear a bit more, but it was a really, really fun car to drive. It’s a shame that it’s not going to be legal for IMSA moving forward.
RK: Along those lines, you’ve driven everything, pretty much. Is it pretty easy for you to get acclimated to a different car when you’re jumping from that to a Trans-Am car?
MS: No. A lot of it, I would say, is that I’ve done a lot of driver coaching in different cars that I’ve been able to drive. So after that, you’ve kind of built up this database of information in your head and you’re like, “I can kind of relate this to something else I’ve driven.” Early on, I went straight from a 150 horsepower Spec E30 to an 800 horsepower Trans-Am car in a weekend. That was a little different, for sure.
It’s all physics. You’re doing the same thing, just with different inputs. It’s really just building up the expectation of how the car is going to react just so you can anticipate more. You can always react, but you want to be driving ahead of the car a little bit more.
RK: I know you’ve done a lot of testing and were one of the leads on the Trans-Am tire testing this year…
MS: Really? How do you know this?
RK: It was in a press release. What is a day of testing like, since most people are never going to be part of that?
MS: I would say it’s not real glamorous, but it’s fun. For me, this was the first time I’d done real tire development and been part of that kind of program. It’s one thing to take a tire and learn how to make that tire go fast. It’s completely another to compare different constructions and different compounds. You do long and short runs on a number of different kinds of the same tire, basically.
The engineer doesn’t want to tell you what it is because they want to get unbiased feedback so you try to go out there and be super-consistent, that’s the main thing. You want to be running over your own tire tracks every lap, every corner, so that’s a challenge. Being able to remember every little detail of what the steering saturation feels like, the initial turn-in is, the forward bite, all this different stuff, and making sure that the tire is going to give you that over a long distance is the goal.
RK: What’s your favorite race car you’ve driven?
MS: People always ask that and it’s a tough one to nail down because there’s different stuff that’s fun about different cars. For me, I would say probably some of the stock cars and Trans-Am stuff just because there’s a lot of power and a little less grip than usual so you’re always having to work for it a bit more. On the flip side, a prototype that’s real lightweight with downforce and little less horsepower, you have to commit, especially at high-speed corners because you don’t get that speed back with horsepower. You kinda just have to nut-up and go for it.
RK: You’ve driven Daytona, Sebring, some NASCAR. What’s the big goal for you? Is it Le Mans?
MS: It’s certainly high on the list, I’d say. Obviously, the history behind it and the attention it gets is really cool. I also, just being a big race fan and knowing all the other cool races that maybe don’t hit the mainstream much, just as much I want to do the Nurburgring 24 and Bathurst 12 Hours, those bucket-list races.
At the same time, I’d love to do more open-wheel, do more prototype racing, and do more stock-car stuff, do some dirt racing. I really want to run a sprint car, go back to Baja, do Pikes Peak again.
RK: You did Pikes Peak in an…Audi?
MS: [Nissan] GT-R.
RK: Sorry, I knew there was a switch in there. So how was Pikes Peak? I’ve talked to a couple people who have run it and they said it’s just not in your mind that there’s 4,000 feet of space off the edge of the road.
MS: Yeah, that’s true. You can’t really think about it. There are some corners where maybe when you’re doing the pre-running, you think “I’ll remember to be a little careful on this one.” For the most part, it’s cool. I love it because you can show up with anything you want to build and run. That’s something you really can’t do now, except for a couple of select events. That’s a cool part of it and the history and just the fact that not a lot of people get to do it. I think we’re one of about 12 to have done [the climb] in under 10 minutes the first time, which is really cool.
Obviously, with it paved, it’s a little bit easier maybe, but having talked with some of the guys who did the old dirt layout and the current layout, maybe it’s a little faster in some ways, but it’s bumpier at the top because they can’t repave it every year where they would just grade it before. And it’s a lot narrower now because there’s now a shoulder and dirt, which you can’t use.
It’s a really cool thing and I want to go back again. You always feel like you leave something on the table.
RK: What would you take now to Pikes Peak if you could take anything?
MS: Now, I’d say it would have to be anything like an LMP [Le Mans Prototype] car, an LMP3 car with a big motor or an LMP2 car with a big turbo for the altitude. I think that would be the ticket.
RK: Which Roadkill car would you take home?
MS: That is a tough one…probably Stubby Bob. The Vette-Kart is pretty cool. I’m pretty sure I’ve watched every episode. I do the OnDemand and watch them. It’s a blast. I think the first episode I watched was the the Army Jeep where they drove it out into the desert. There’s a lot of cool stuff.