Drivers, Sunshine & Good Times – Part I

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Last week in Orlando, there was a whole lotta fun going on. Now, that might not sound surprising considering that the city is one of the top family and vacation destinations in the United States. But instead of cartoon characters, rollercoasters & superheroes… they had racecar drivers. Which, when they think about it, kind of have aspects of all three of those things within their personalities & careers. So I suppose the location of IndyCar Media Day couldn’t have been more appropriate.

19 full-time drivers did interviews throughout the course of the day and while just about all of them touched upon changes to their team dynamics from teammates, sponsors and/or engineers, as well as their reflections on 2013 and outlooks on 2014, they each had some personalized aspects to their Q&A sessions that were entertaining, enlightening, and sometimes even inspiring. I want to share some of my favorite moments from these informative panels.

grGraham Rahal kicked off the day with Takuma Sato. Graham’s session revolved around his new partnership with the National Guard, as expected. You can tell he is truly excited about representing this group and working with them this season – he will be handling a time-consuming schedule with this sponsor but it is well worth it to be part of something so incredibly important, not to mention the humbling experience it will prove to be for him, in his own words. He is honored to be visiting wounded soldiers at stateside hospitals in the near future, to thank them for their work and go on to assist with recruiting & retention. The excitement of the partnership is certainly mutual. The respect from National Guard towards Graham is obvious, they are proud to have him on board as an American driver and an upstanding individual. The only other American driver to receive sponsorship with the National Guard was J.R. Hildebrand – Graham commented on his, making reference to how much this means to both sides, but not forgetting the partnership that the late Dan Wheldon enjoyed with them and why his birth nation didn’t seem to make a difference in his representation of the Guard, “Dan is an exception because I think Dan was Dan. The personality that he had, he was such a charismatic guy, I think he could pull it off.” I don’t think any of us would or COULD argue with that. It was a poignant mention, with the season kickoff coming up next month in the Wheldon family’s adopted American hometown of St. Pete’s next month. Graham is feeling more confidence due to this sponsorship, in addition to the engineering changes and opportunities to improve the #15 car this season. He has high expectations that his Indianapolis 500 run will be better this May with the combination of all these aspects and of course, with the addition of the new Honda Twin Turbo engine.

tsTakuma Sato also commented on the Honda twin turbo and his high hopes for how he believes it will translate to success this season, for his ABC Supply team with A.J. Foyt Racing. His sentiments have echoed much of what we’ve heard from the camp in the off-season – the hope of adding to their success in Long Beach last season, where Sato found his first IndyCar Series victory.

Another driver who is looking to build upon his shining moments of 2013, is Team Penske driver, Will Power. He admitted to learning a lot more about pack racing last year, pushing himself and his car to  race harder and discovering the kind of results that can yield. He stated that he intends to race the same way in 2014 and continue his growth & learning in the series. There is rarely time off for these drivers, which Will eluded to in a rather significant comment to the close competition within the ever-changing series:  “Every off-season, all these small teams, including us… close the gap. The gap gets smaller and smaller. It’s a different series or different intensity of competition, you could say, to what it was two or three years ago. It’s really ramped up. No one just takes all the poles. It’s quite difficult to get a pole, let alone get in the Fast Six now, which is great. It’s a good, tough series.“ wpWill also went on to mention the specific team changes within some camps, confirming that even though the look of the Ganassi team is different this year, they are four drivers to watch (Dixon, Kanaan, Kimball and Briscoe) and a team whom he expects to be very competitive. He is looking forward to having them on team Chevy and working together in order to make the engine the best it can be and then taking to the track to see who handles it best.

Speaking of learning to handle the car again, Juan Pablo Montoya returns to the series this year and has been  taking advantage of as many open-testings as possible. His time on the panel last week, started off with a comparison of his driving experiences between NASCAR and IndyCar machines: “This (the IndyCar Series) is the opposite because in NASCAR the limit of the car is very easy. You can get to the limit of the car very easy. The big thing is you’re driving it too hard. In IndyCar, you can’t drive it hard enough, or at least I can’t yet.” I love hearing this and of course I am biased towards IndyCar being the best driving series in North America, but it’s nice to hear observations from someone who has spent significant time in both series. Montoya has not been shy about his excitement to be back in IndyCar and his praise for the series has been relatively vocal thus far.

jpmNow, this is kind of an off-shoot but for some reason, I keep getting this sense that Montoya and Power are going to have some kind of internal struggle within Team Penske this year. Not sure where I get it but it’s just a gut feeling when I read & hear comments from them about one another. Again, I can’t pinpoint it, but I’m definitely interested to see the season unfold and see if my instincts are picking something up or not. Am I the only one noticing a sort of uneasiness between these two?

Heading back to the panel, we find Andretti Autosport driver, Ryan Hunter-Reay, back in the #28 this year. When asked if he was concern about the fact that there was no American rookies this season, Ryan discussed the international talent and diversity of the IndyCar series and how this is a positive element and certainly not a negative. He stated that we, as a motorsports series, aren’t missing anything – the talent is top notch:  “That’s the best part. Whether he’s from the UK or Germany or the U.S., I think IndyCar is all about that diversity, every different discipline of racing, street courses, road courses, ovals. Hopefully, truly it is the best in the world. There’s been a lot of American talent. We have the veterans, myself, Marco, Graham. Then the guys that have come in lately like Charlie Kimball, J.R. Hildebrand, Josef Newgarden.  I think there’s plenty of American talent going through the IndyCar Series.“

rhrContinuing on with the idea of looking at the bigger picture, Ryan referenced his racing career as a whole, outside of the current full-ride with IndyCar:  “I raced the endurance races, IMSA, Daytona 24, Sebring 12, Atlanta 9. I would have done the Le Mans 24 this year, but Detroit conflicted with the official test there, so couldn’t do that. I’m up for driving anything as long as it’s the right deal, and you get a fair shot at winning and succeeding… couldn’t be more thankful for the position that I’m in.” Five years with Andretti Autosport and multiple years working with Marco Andretti & James Hinchcliffe has given the teammates the benefits of clear communication and shared information. Ryan couldn’t pass up the opportunity to discuss the fun they all have off the track as well, however: “It’s a lot of fun on the side, too.  James, he’s a living, walking comic show.  Never a dull moment with him, that’s for sure.  You know the Go Daddy commercial, with the band, that sums him up to me right there.  I just wish he would wear his band hat all the time. What do you call that guy… (the) Conductor? They have a baton. I just wish he would wear that more often, use the baton. It fits him.”

You have to love the relationship between these drivers – their respect and comradery with one another is obvious and let’s admit it, downright hysterical at moments throughout the year. I am sure we will have many more of those to look forward to in 2014 as well. I for one, can’t wait.

ecEd Carpenter was next to field questions and in doing so he expressed his hopes for a successful season in the Fuzzy’s Chevrolet, not only as an owner but as a driver, sharing the seat with Mike Conway throughout the season. The two will be sharing driving duties by splitting up the season into their personal track specialties – Carpenter on the ovals, and Conway on the street circuits & road courses. While this is an unorthodox set-up, it looks like it will work well for ECR racing and hopefully give them to the results they are looking for.

Sebastien Bourdais is looking forward to working with Sebastian Saavedra again but not so much as a reliance factor. He’s more of a straight-laced solo driver than anything else, focusing more on his own car and findings with his team than collaborating. I don’t see this as a negative though, as many might. I see it as confidence and capability. He knows how he works best in the paddock & on the track and just because it may not be the norm, doesn’t mean it’s not a successful route. The man DOES have an elite standing through multiple series in his career with numerous championships and victories. sbSebastien has developed a specific method to his racing and it’s proven legit over all these years, his record showing he is certainly doing something right! I found it interesting that he made a comment about how racing has a short-term memory because I’ve personally thought he was a dark horse in this series. In fact, last year at Mid-Ohio, I had a conversation with one of the turn announcers about this exact thing when he asked me who I thought was the most underrated driver in the series.  I feel like we will see continued and elevated success for Sebastien in 2014, leading to more podium finishes. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing his progress as he works with the current Indianapolis 500 winning team of KV Racing.

Bourdais’ fellow KV Racing teammate, Sebastian Saavedra loved having the opportunity to talk about his home nation of Columbia. He takes a lot of pride in representing his country in the IndyCar series and he made sure to voice the importance of having three Columbian drivers in the same professional series/sport and what that national & international recognition means to those at home. The government, local businesses and civilians themselves taking notice and backing him and all Columbian athlete’s legitimacy and success is deeply meaningful, “It’s insane. It’s huge. Sports in Colombia has been growing exponentially in the past 10 years. Last year we won our first gold medal in BMX actually. It’s something that we’re very proud of…” He was asked whether he feels pressure to compete well, more from himself, his sponsors or his country, replying that, “…In general you just want to be the best of the best… just winning the race or the season. In this case, yes, you want to be the best of your country, but you also want to be the best in North America. I see the big picture more than just this regional goal.”

spBeing the best driver in the series is certainly the ultimate goal of our full-time IndyCar drivers. And while their motivations may come from different places, many of them have commented on the level of respect they have for the series and why being here is the premiere market for racing on this continent. Remember earlier, I shared with you some positive comments from Juan Pablo Montoya, regarding the IndyCar series in this light. He was not alone in giving this praise on Media Day. Simon Pagenaud divulged,

“I think IndyCar is where I want to be for the rest of my career, to be honest. I love the series. I love the competition. I love the venues. I love the Indy 500. I want to excel at it. I want to be better and win races & win championships.”

Hearing the commitment he has to the series is inspiring and gives the fans a great feeling, knowing that the drivers we love watching in this sport, love it just as much as we do. Simon went on to say, “I think the level of competition is so high, there’s so many factors that come in during a race, it’s not comparable to Formula One, it’s a different kind of racing.”

jnSarah Fisher Hartman racing driver, Josef Newgarden, also had reflection to share on the series, his coming from a more personal place. He admits that the progress from 2012 to 2013 was difficult to see outright and some areas he felt they didn’t move forward, specifically in the results category. However, this is driving the team to make themselves more noticed in 2014 and he feels with their new team engineer, Jeremy Milless, and a renewed energy and outlook, they will be ready to contend. “Jeremy has never actually been a primary engineer of a racecar. I feel like he’s had a lot of opinions and views… It’s his opportunity to put that into full effect. It’s been fun because he’s had a ton of energy over the last three, four months. It energizes everybody when you have an engineer that’s fresh and wanting to improve. He’s like leading a charge almost.” SFH Racing will continue to learn – from car & driver improvements to communication styles. I believe that looking at everything as connected and all-encompassing, will allow this team to have more of an impact on the track and their season overall. It should prove exciting to see what these changes do for Josef’s standings this season.

Now, for those of you keeping track, I’ve only shared commentary from and my reaction to 10 of the 19 drivers. For highlights from the other half, please check back here on More Than a Fan Wheels later this week, when I will discuss them in Part II of this column. To make sure you don’t miss it, or any of the other material released by the MTAF writing staff, please go to the site & sign up to receive our weekly newsletter, follow us on Twitter, here AND here… and of course, like us on Facebook.

*Please note: All photographs used in this column are the property of IndyCar and used with permission.