While there has been no shortage of young talents pouring into endurance racing in recent years, most of the time the switch is made once every avenue in single-seater racing has been exhausted; either through a lack of performance, a lack of finance, or both.
The same can’t be said for American teen racer Josh Pierson. After two seasons in USF2000, he eschewed the usual ‘Road to Indy’ route to IndyCar in favour of a switch to the LMP2 class of the World Endurance Championship, despite having the chance to take the more conventional step up to the next step up on the US ladder in Indy Pro 2000.
It’s a move that’s paid off in terms of getting the 16-year-old on the map, with both his debut WEC win at Sebring and his record-breaking participation in the Le Mans 24 Hours generating headlines, while also giving him the kind of valuable experience that is sure to have made many of his rivals in USF2000 from last year envious.
Indeed, after hearing Pierson’s rationale for moving to the WEC with United Autosports, where he has shared a car this season with two true sportscar aces in Oliver Jarvis and Alex Lynn, it’s almost a wonder that we don’t see more drivers of his age trying similar moves.
“I had the offer from United for WEC and I had an Indy Pro 2000 offer, but for me it was kind of a no-brainer which one to go for,” says Pierson, who placed fourth in USF2000 last year. “WEC has some media presence and Indy Pro 2000 doesn't really, and I wanted to get my name out there.
“But more crucially it was about the experience. And I think there's no better experience than what you can have on the sportscar side of things. You get to drive with two professional drivers that are always at the top of their game and that have lots of wise words to tell you and have tons of experience.
“Getting to learn from guys like Alex and Oliver is something special and you know that they're always giving you helpful advice because it's a team thing and we want to win. It’s something that I don't think you would get the chance to do anywhere else, especially to drive the exact same car as them with the same set-up.
“It was a decision that I took with my family purely because it was the best offer I had at the time and it was where I was going to learn the most and really help accelerate my career.”
Pierson caught the racing bug at an early age from his entrepreneur father Greg, an amateur sportscar racer. The Portland, Oregon native admits that his whole life up to this point has largely involved “racing, or watching Formula 1 or IndyCar”. Even school is taking something of a back seat for now: since the onset of COVID, he has been taking his school classes online, and doesn’t expect to get his high school diploma until 2025.
"I got in for a triple stint, which was an aggressive strategy, and although I was really tired at the end, it worked out for us and got us into that commanding position. And as soon as we got to the lead, we kind of just ran away with it" Josh Pierson
It’s clear from talking to him that he has a maturity well beyond his years, and Pierson says that being on the road so much has been a more-than-adequate replacement for the social life he has missed out on by not being at school. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise when he has spent so much time around drivers like Jarvis, who was already racing in British Formula 3 when Pierson was born in 2006.
With an impressive CV in karting, Pierson transitioned to cars full-time in 2020 when he entered USF2000 with Exclusive Autosport. Moving to Pabst Racing last year, he placed fourth in the series, but it was his driver coach Stephen Simpson that steered him towards the sportscar racing path, believing it to be a good fit for a driver who describes himself as “very methodical” and someone who “likes to take my time” in getting up to speed.
Since taking the plunge in LMP2 not only with United in the WEC but also the IMSA SportsCar Championship with LMP2 outfit PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports, Pierson has been on a whirlwind tour of many of the globe’s most iconic tracks. He was still 15 when he made his debut in the Daytona 24 Hours for PR1, and days after his 16th birthday in February he made his United bow in the Asian Le Mans Series, sharing a car with Paul di Resta in Abu Dhabi and winning both races, admittedly against a fairly thin field of LMP2 competitors.
Then came Sebring, which was where Pierson really announced himself to the sportscar racing world. Overcoming the challenges of the idiosyncratic Florida airfield track, he, Jarvis and di Resta - filling in for Lynn, who was focussed on his IMSA efforts for Chip Ganassi Racing that weekend - took the victory, making Pierson the youngest-ever WEC race winner at just 16 years and 32 days.
Despite admitting to feeling nervous about making his WEC bow on home turf, Pierson acknowledges that knowing the track from his US single-seater testing exploits and having the Prologue pre-event test made Sebring the ideal place to make his debut. The rest was down to United getting the set-up spot on and the speed of his two team-mates, particularly di Resta, who took on the bulk of driving duties.
“Fortunately it was a track I was pretty familiar with, which is not something I could say for the rest of the tracks on the WEC calendar,” he recalls of his Sebring experience. “So we were lucky there, and it was clear that we had a good car. I think even at the Prologue, we were only working on really some minor kinks that we wanted to figure out. But as soon as we figured those out, we had a really fast car.
“I think I spun in practice at Turn 1, but other than that there wasn't a lot really that was super-eventful. We just had a fast car, Paul and Oliver were driving great, and it just boiled down to having almost a perfect weekend. I got in for a triple stint, which was an aggressive strategy, and although I was really tired at the end, it worked out for us and got us into that commanding position. And as soon as we got to the lead, we kind of just ran away with it.”
After rewriting the record books at Sebring, in June, Pierson duly beat Matt McMurry’s eight-year-old record for youngest Le Mans starter at 16 years and 118 days. Although an early puncture and two penalties restricted he and his team-mates to sixth and two laps down behind the faultless class-winning #38 Jota machine, it was still an experience that left a big impression on Pierson.
“I remember the first time out of pit lane was very surreal,” he recalls. “It’s your first time heading out on a track that you've grown up watching. I remember the feeling, especially in USF2000 and getting to drive a lot of the street tracks that IndyCars would run on and tracks that I've only really watched, so there's always a special feeling to that.
“But Le Mans in general, it had a bit more presence to it. It's a bit more historic, so for sure, a super-special experience. And I'm really fortunate to be able to do the race again next year and have another shot at it, because obviously it would be a dream come true to win Le Mans.”
Following Le Mans, the next two WEC races at Monza and Fuji only produced fifth-place finishes, while over in IMSA, third place in the Petit Le Mans season finale would be as good as it would get as Pierson swapped back and forth between PR1/Mathiasen’s two entries.
That just leaves one race left on Pierson’s calendar for 2022, which is next month’s Bahrain WEC finale. He and Jarvis still have a mathematical chance of the title, but face a daunting 28-point deficit to Jota trio Antonio Felix da Costa, Will Stevens and Roberto Gonzalez. Nothing less than a win will be enough, and even then, only if the #38 car contrives to finish seventh or lower.
“I've definitely learned a lot this year in both categories,” Pierson reflects. “IMSA has been more of a struggle. I really did that just to get the experience of racing against all the pro guys and kind of test myself in a way, forcing myself to have to be that guy in the car that has to get in and perform and take the car to where it needs to be. And I had decent showings in those races. The results weren't there, but I had pace, and especially at Mid-Ohio I was really strong.
“We've had ups and downs on the WEC side, but we've had some great comebacks. And it's because of that that we're still in a position to fight for the championship heading into Bahrain. It's a little bit of a bigger gap than it was to the #38 crew, but we're for sure going to fight as hard as we can for it. I think we've done well to be where we are. And because of that, I've been able to learn a lot to help me going into next year.”
"I've got a long way to go in my career. I'm super-young, so I've got a long time to progress and to get to that point. I’m focused on the learning and I'm not rushing it" Josh Pierson
Speaking of next year, it’s already confirmed that Pierson will return to United for a second season of the WEC, with IMSA title-winning duo Jarvis and Tom Blomqvist having been recently named as his team-mates. But instead of doing another full IMSA season, he is also returning to single-seaters, effectively skipping a rung of the Road to Indy ladder to race in Indy Lights with HMD Motorsports.
“One of my dreams growing up has always been racing in IndyCar,” says Pierson. “That's why I started out on the Road to Indy and that was what I initially set out to do. But I want to win Le Mans and I have another chance at that. And I still want to see what I can do in a formula car.
“I don't think I would do the full IMSA season like I did this year again. If I did it again, I would probably only do the long-format [Endurance Cup] races as the silver. But I'd love to do those.”
It seems Pierson is hedging his bets for the time being, and despite his ‘youngest to…’ accolades it’s also clear that there’s no huge rush to ascend to the top of the WEC ladder and land a drive in the burgeoning Hypercar category just yet. That’s something he seems confident will happen naturally sooner or later if he carries on with his current startling rate of progression.
“It would be nice to hopefully have some of the manufacturers looking at me, watching and seeing what I'm doing this year," he says. "But I've got a long way to go in my career. I'm super-young, so I've got a long time to progress and to get to that point. I’m focused on the learning and I'm not rushing it.
“For me it's not all about being the youngest. I've got time and I'm going to take my time and find my way into a stable spot where I can stay hopefully.
“I'd love to end up in one of those drives. But I think it's unrealistic to say that I would maybe end up there next year or even in two years’ time. I want to keep improving and they're going to come to me, hopefully. I'm just going to keep my options open and keep improving and keep learning. And I think that opportunities will come.”
Whether it’s in a prototype or a single-seater, Pierson seems destined to have a big future ahead of him. And should he go on to win Le Mans or race in IndyCar, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see more 15-year-olds picking up the phone to WEC teams in future.