Same race team, different series
Andretti Green's first foray into ALMS features a driver who's done it all.
By KELLIE DIXON
Published March 30, 2007
Why did you decide to switch from IndyCar to American Le Mans?
I always loved road racing, and the stars just aligned for this. XM has been my sponsor in IndyCar racing for the last three years, and they wanted to come over and do this. I have great relationships with (Acura, Honda and IndyCar), and then of course Andretti Green Racing is who I've been driving with for the last four seasons in IndyCar. It's really such an easy transition; like a lot of the same people. It's just a different car, and I get to go road racing every weekend. For me, it was a really easy decision. I like this style of racing. I guess if I was 29 years old (he's 36), I'd be more keen into wanting to do the IndyCar thing. But I've been fortunate to do it for 13 seasons so it's time to give some of the newer kids a chance and do something different.
The business transition might have been easy, but what were the initial test runs like?
In the beginning the worst thing ... was we had a really good first test. We left feeling really good about things, but in the second test reality set in. We started having problems with the car. We had a series of some really difficult tests, which are not fun, and I think that was a good kick in the pants for all of us to realize, 'Hey, this is going to be a lot of work.' So now as we're on the eve of this (12 Hours of Sebring, where his team finished second), we realize how big a challenge it is in front of us. But that's also what has made it so interesting for me. I've had to take myself out of my comfort zone.
What were some of those earlier challenges?
We had a lot of problems with the starter motor in the car, trying to understand the brakes. We used carbon brakes on the ovals in IndyCar, but we used steel brakes on the road courses, and we really didn't know how to get them operating correctly at the right temperature. ... Having headlights. We don't have headlights in IndyCar so making sure the headlights are aimed correctly or how bright should the dash be. The first time we tried to test at night, the dash was so bright that it was blinding us. It was like having a flashlight shined in your face. So just all those things.
What did you think coming back to Sebring International Raceway?
Every time I come back to Sebring my thought is, 'Man this place is bumpy' because it is. It's the roughest race track in the world, I think. But there's so much history here and it's one of the truly important motor races around the world. There's probably eight or 10 really historic important motor races around the world that any driver would love to put on his resume and this is one of those on that list. I think you just get on with the job and we do here what we do every weekend.
Driver changes are a critical part of some ALMS races, especially the 12 Hous of Sebring. What were those initially like for you and your team?
They're getting better now. They were terrible at first. God we were just awful at them. It's not an easy thing to do because we're not used to it. When you're getting out of the car, you're hot and tired and sweaty. You've got a helmet on, HANS device; you don't have a lot of vision. It's hard to look down to see, and on top of that we just didn't know how to do it; how to work with the seat back; everything to make it a smooth transition. We've gotten better. We're not the best out there, yet. But it's definitely an area we've got to keep working on. Our first few driver changes were comical. It was something out of a Three Stooges movie - bumping into each other, sitting on seat belts.
Did anything transfer over for you from IndyCar to ALMS?
Once you understand the nuances of the car, you're still pushing hard, trying to get every bit of speed you can out of the car and trying to balance the car as best you can. Those things are the same.
How much does your pure race experience help?
That will suit us well, especially when you start racing in traffic and you have to make a lot of decisions out there that can be the difference between getting through traffic or getting tangled up and ending your race. That's where the experience really comes into play.
You drove the St. Petersburg course in IndyCar. How does that give you an advantage for the ALMS?
We have very little practice time in the American Le Mans Series. For me that's great because I know the course. I know where the bumps are, and I know where you can push. I know where the danger areas are so I don't have to spend the first 15 minutes of a test learning what I already know. I can really just get set into improving the car. I think that will prove to be a big advantage.