Cloaked in immense respect from those who competed under his command, the sight of Marty Kaufman at an American Le Mans Series or IMSA event brought a sense of calm and confidence. The veteran race director, whose steady hand and warm character ensured the spotlight stayed on the stars of the sport, died Thursday night at the age of 82 after myriad health issues.
Brought home from hospice during the recent 12 Hours of Sebring, the native of Fresno, California, died at peace with his wife Jan and other family members at his side.
The son of a performance auto parts store owner, Kaufman was an avid drag racer in his youth before turning his attention to volunteering at Sports Car Club of America events as a race steward. By 1962, he joined USARM — the United States Auto Race Marshals organization – while contributing as a member of the San Francisco SCCA region’s board of directors.
Through the SCCA, Kaufman was appointed as race director for its pro racing Trans Am series in the mid-1980s, and in 1986 he was courted by IMSA to oversee its wildly popular championship. Before retiring in 2010, Kaufman would ascend to considerable heights, spending 25 years as the race director for IMSA and the ALMS, and in an honor for an American at a distinctly French event, he earned the trust of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest — organizers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans – and was installed as its assistant race director for a decade.
Kaufman’s approach to presiding over a motor race was decidedly ‘old school.’ He held firm to remaining in the background and making calls without the intrusion of cameras and microphones being inserted into the process. He also embraced another time-proven method of governance by limiting his time in race control to only the periods where the cars were on track. As endurance racing’s top referee, Kaufman spent the majority of his days in the paddock, fellowshipping with the drivers and mechanics and team owners to form strong bonds that ensured his decisions — often to their detriment — came from someone they knew and understood on a personal level.
Despite wielding considerable power to judge and penalize, Kaufman was well-received by the paddock as a result of his continual efforts to erase any notion that he was different or more important than the men and women competing in the races.
“Marty was the face of IMSA way back when I began,” said Bill Auberlen, whose Hall of Fame driving career began around the same time Kaufman arrived in the series. “He was a quiet supporter of mine and would always send a congratulations after an event. I’m sure he did that for the majority and that gives you an idea of how always thoughtful a person he was. The world has lost a great man.”
Rob Dyson’s teams were a fixture in IMSA and the ALMS where the championship-winning Dyson Racing program became part of both series’ lore.
“Marty Kaufman was a man who was always consistent, paid attention to detail and was fair–key ingredients to being a race director,” Dyson said. “He was always available and was easy to discuss issues that occur every racing day. I have to admit, however, I don’t think I won one argument over the decades of his stewardship, which for me and my fellow competitors, was probably a good thing. He was unflappable under the pressures any race director experiences. Never lost his cool. And was a dear friend for the rest of his life. We share our deepest condolences to his family and all of our mutual racing friends. Rest in peace, Mr. Kaufman.”
Doug Fehan led the iconic Corvette Racing institution in the ALMS, and beforehand, he was involved with other efforts dating back to Trans Am and the glory days of IMSA GTP where Kaufman’s touch was felt across hundreds of events. It was a disagreement between the program manager and race director that revealed another important aspect of Kaufman’s character.
“We butted heads on more than one occasion and we had one big issue where Marty made a ruling that adversely affected the program on which I was working; it was a serious issue,” Fehan said. “And as time went forward, he found out that he was incorrect and that my position was actually the correct position on the matter. He could have just said, ‘OK,’ and left it there, but he didn’t. He came to me and apologized profusely and said, ‘You know, I’ve got to learn to listen better.’
“From that point forward, we had a great friendship. Our bond grew after that to the point where I can tell you this right up until his retirement, we communicated after every race. Every race that Corvette raced, we would communicate and we remained friends after he retired. That’s how our relationship deepened, and that’s the respect that that that we had for each other. It came from the respect he had for competitors.”
Renowned crew chief and race engineer Brad Kettler was a big part of the ALMS with the Champion Audi and Audi Sport prototype efforts. Like Dyson and Fehan, he got to know Kaufman from semi-frequent visits for reckonings with the person running the show.
“I was still pretty young in the business when I made crew chief and engineer status,” Kettler said. “This included going to the tower to see the race director. The walk to the tower was the right amount of time to compose oneself and prepare your argument. Marty always met me with civility and reason. This can come off wrong to someone who is mad as a hornet. Nevertheless, I always appreciated his manner and even though I seldom got what I came for, I was usually satisfied with the outcome, or had to be. My appreciation for him grew during the formative time of the ALMS.
“Introducing a whole new set of rules and actions was quite a transition for sports car racing here in the States, and our wild pair of drivers in 2003 were Johnny Herbert and JJ Lehto, which brought frequent trips to the tower for myself or Mike Peters. These would occasionally end up in some spirited discussions with the race director and stewards. This led to the invention of the ‘anger management’ program as we called it at Champion. Patches were made for the drivers suits and the back of their gloves. The logo was a clenched fist in a racing glove.
“This was a symbol to the drivers to temper their actions just a little and to everyone else to make sure they were aware of the scrutiny we’d receive. The drivers had some fun with it practicing their deep breathing exercises, and in the end, it was all a reaction to a strong set of rules fairly applied. Marty Kaufman was a big part of that.”
Adding to the thoughts from those in the paddock, Kaufman was steeped in respect and appreciation by those who worked alongside him, including the man he succeeded.
“In the late 1980s, John Bishop, George Silbermann and I chose Marty to take George and my place as IMSA’s race director in race control, allowing us the opportunity to grow into larger roles within IMSA,” said Mark Raffauf, IMSA’s senior director of competition.
“Marty had worked with us for many years already supporting us at West Coast events and we knew he had the right stuff. In a time where the race director made all of the calls by himself, and directed all of IMSA’s series at each event, Marty met that challenge seamlessly by maintaining IMSA’s ‘racing with a difference’ philosophy. For over a decade, he steered IMSA through all of the events with integrity, consistency and calmness. Even those who may have been on the wrong side of a decision would admit after the fact that Marty was fair, which is the highest compliment one can give a race official with that high level of responsibility. He always knew what the ‘right thing to do’ was. May he rest in peace.”
And before he became the president of IMSA in its modern guise, John Doonan ran Mazda’s factory ALMS prototype campaigns and credits the Army veteran’s philosophy and style of race management that carries on today in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
“He always had a reverent tone on the radio, which earned respect – respect that he deserved,” Doonan said. “I thought that he was very common sense in his decisions and the way he managed the races, and I think he was the ultimate teacher on what we do and why we do it the way we do it.
“I know maybe specific regulations have changed over the years, but for the most part, we’re still using and applying many of the lessons we learned from him. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Jan, his family and his many friends and colleagues throughout the IMSA paddock.”