The Free Press, Mankato, MN

June 23, 2013

Downs realizes bucket-list dream at LE MANS

Local optometrist tests endurance in 24-hour race

By Jim Rueda jrueda@mankatofreepress.com
The Mankato Free Press

---- — Right about the time you read this story, North Mankato resident Matt Downs will be one tired race-car driver.

Downs will either be closing out or have just competed his performance in the 90th annual Le Mans 24 Hour race in France.

Downs entered the race as one of three drivers for the Boutsen Ginion Racing team out of Belgium. He shared the driver's seat with Thomas Dagoneau and Rodin Younessi, two competitors he never drove with or met prior to arriving at Le Mans.

For the 40-year-old local optometrist at Carlson-Tillisch Eye Clinics in Mankato and New Ulm, getting picked to drive in Le Mans was a bucket-list checkoff he simply couldn't refuse.

"My dad was a race-car driver, and I became interested at a very young age, too," Downs said. "I raced for awhile when I was younger and then took some time off when I went to college and optometry school."

After graduating from optometry school in 2002, he got back into racing. One of his bosses at Carlson-Tillisch was also a racing fan, so Downs received plenty of support from work.

Since picking it back up, he has raced in cities all across the country, including the Children's Grand Prix in Minneapolis. Last fall, he decided to put his name and resume out there to racing teams and Boutsen Ginion selected him as one of their three drivers for Le Mans.

"It's thrilling to get to compete in this race," Downs said before he left for France. "Le Mans is considered the premier endurance race in the world."

Downs joins Dagoneau and Youness as the driving team for the race. None of the three has competed in the race before but all have enjoyed success in other endurance-type races.

The threesome races in shifts of about two hours apiece (depending on how long a tank of gas lasts). The car that completes the most laps in the 24-hour period wins, and there are numerous classes of competition. The Boutsen Ginion team is entered in the LMP2 Class which has 22 entries.

Downs began training in the middle of winter. Drivers need ample upper body strength to keep their neck and shoulders from hurting due to the strain of all the braking and turning on the course.

In addtion to the support of his employer, he has the backing of his wife and family as well as some financial support from Butterfield Farms. His wife, Lynn Schreiner, is an audiologist, and together they have three children.

Being a first-time entrant, Downs knows the odds of winning are slim.

"For me, it's the dream of a lifetime," he said. "Our goal is just to finish. If we can do that, it would be great."