Sean Heckman’s known for many things in the world of motor racing, and it’s his latest turn as Magnus Racing’s race strategist that has added a fascinating layer to his body of work in sports car endurance racing.
He first rose to prominence as the public relations mind who crafted all manner of hilarious press releases and social media posts for Magnus during its GRAND-AM Road Racing days. After GRAND-AM’s merger with the ALMS and rebirth as IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Heckman continued with the John Potter-owned team, but eventually stepped away from the PR side of the sport a few years ago to focus on his filmmaking career and the growing Dinner With Racers podcast he created with Ryan Eversley.
It was a move to Aston Martin’s Vantage GT3 model by Magnus in 2022 that opened the door for Heckman to reunite with the team, where his process-driven approach and deep interpersonal ties with Potter and co-drivers Andy Lally and Spencer Pumpelly stood out as having value in a different capacity.
“They realized there was a gap in terms of communicating between some engineers that came in, and drivers like Andy, Spencer, and John had different expectations on communication than what they were getting,” Heckman told RACER.
“From an engineering standpoint, nobody had any complaints; there was just a gap in terms of how they ran a race and how they communicated with their drivers. And somehow, my name came up among those guys. These are people I’ve known for almost 20 years, and so I think there was a level of comfort with me as somebody that can speak to them in a way that was familiar.
“Most people would know me from the podcasts or as the weird PR guy, but I don’t think a lot of people know that I have a whole other background, having driven, having been involved in the sport in different capacities, and even though PR was what I was doing publicly with Magnus, there were always little management items that I was involved in. So when it came time to use somebody to fill in these gaps, it brought me back to the racetrack in a capacity that was not PR, which I’ve lost interest in.”
Magnus’s program being limited to the endurance-only rounds gave Heckman the ability to return for a handful of races without having to commit to a full season of racing. To prepare for his race strategy debut, Heckman began doing research on the flow of a 12- or 24-hour endurance race and how best to manage driver rotations that play to their strengths, meeting their respective minimum drive-time requirements, making the optimum use of the team’s tire allotment, planning the servicing of the twin-turbo V8-powered GT machine, scheduling meals and rest for the Magnus crew between stops, and all of the other intricacies involved with calling the plays at a Daytona, Sebring, or Petit Le Mans.
His structured approach was immediately welcomed by the Magnus crew and drivers. But after spending all those years in a non-competition role with the team — where PR reps are routinely dismissed as the least important person in the garage — it took a moment for Heckman to feel comfortable in his new position.
Heckman likens calling the shots for Magnus’s Aston Martin Vantage GT3 to being like an NFL coach – go in with a plan, but be ready to improvise when things inevitably go off-script. Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images
“Coming from my PR background, one of the positives is that once people get to know me, I’m not a threat,” Heckman said. “Given my background in production, I tend to be good at filling voids. This sounds like a bad thing to people from the outside, but in a sport where clear leadership is key, it’s common for someone like a performance engineer to need extra help in the way of keeping contact over the radio or focusing purely on race strategy, and a guy like me isn’t a threat to take their job. It’s been the most relieving part in my experience with the engineers from Prodrive. They’ve grown to trust my thought process, but know I’m not looking for their job.”
Heckman will return to Magnus in 2024 and has come to enjoy the new chapter he’s writing as a key contributor to the team’s fortunes. He’s also fully aware of the rarity with the move; it’s not uncommon for drivers and crew members to develop secondary careers in the media, but Heckman’s a unicorn when it comes to members of the racing media going straight to the timing stand and becoming the lead orchestrator of a team’s race.
“I absolutely love it,” he said. “And I liken it a lot to NFL coaching. That may be a little bit overzealous in that statement, but what I’m learning as I’ve done this for a year and a half is it’s certainly not all improv, and I never thought that it was, but you also can’t script it. You can’t sit there and say, ‘This is how we’re going to run the race when there’s so many yellows and so many variables.’
“But if you go in with no plan, you’re also going to fail. A good NFL coach develops a playbook and leans into the strengths of his team, and based on how the game is going, they’ll continually adapt and keep trying to win the game. I do a deep dive with several reports after every race about what other teams did well and what I did wrong, or what I did right, etc., to improve for the next one.
“The thing that I never really got out of the PR side of the business was the deep, deep love of competition, and doing race strategy fulfills that need inside me.”
As Heckman prepares for his third season on the timing stand, there’s one lesson he learned from January’s Rolex 24 At Daytona that also fits in the ‘things you cannot script’ category.
“The biggest challenge of doing strategy that nobody talks about and nobody acknowledges is having to s***,” he revealed. “We were in a place after 13 hours where we were about to go a lap down, and you know the minute you step away from the pit box, something’s going to go wrong, so you can’t leave, which meant I had to fight having to s*** for the last 11 hours of the race.
“And once it was over, I absolutely destroyed the bathroom in the Daytona media center, for which I’d like to apologize to IMSA.”