Drivers, Sunshine & Good Times – Part II

I’m a woman of my word. I promised you a second portion of highlights from media day, and here it is. I hope you enjoy this half as much as I enjoyed putting it all together. My excitement for this season is just constantly increasing. It’s going to be a special one, I can tell already. It’s actually kind of hard to believe that the 2014 IndyCar season opening weekend is merely 4 weeks away in St. Petersburg, Florida. Let’s see what the other half of drivers had to say about the upcoming year… you’ll laugh, you’ll cry… heck, you might even cry FROM laughing. And if you want to make your MTAF serving a double today, make sure you also check out the first part of this column.

MA3Marco Andretti’s session is going to kick us off this week. He discussed strategy for racing and his mindset going into this new season. He has learned a lot about what works, what doesn’t and when he needs to push himself just a bit further in order to get another victory. He found himself on the podium twice last season, but both of those finishes were in 3rd (St. Pete’s & Sao Paulo)… his last win was at Iowa Speedway in 2011. He explained the importance of qualifying towards the top and how where you start is very important in the sport now, particularly with the spec cars. Marco was not shy in voicing his goal of being in the Fast 6 as often as possible in 2014 while also improving on his road & street races… hopefully enough to produce wins. “I think the races we know we can win we just have to win.  If we’re able to do that, string a few together, I think we can be champions.” The interview sounded focused and proved beyond a doubt that he is well aware of the shoes he has to fill due to his name and family legacy. I liked the confidence he exuded and look forward to seeing how that translates to the track.

CMStaying in the Andretti Autosport family, we move on to their newest driver, rookie Carlos Munoz. One of the topics he addressed was building up the IndyCar fan base, particularly drawing in a younger audience and getting them excited about the series, in order to bring back the excitement to open-wheel  racing in America. He spoke on how having young drivers with styles of driving that some call “reckless abandon” could help draw attention back to IndyCar, as it has to other series – particularly NASCAR. “I hope that we can help to bring young people and more fans.  As you say… me and Sebastian (Saavedra) are kind of aggressive.  IndyCar wants drivers really constant that don’t do a lot of mistakes, to finish all the races. But now they’re giving the opportunity to young drivers, the people in Colombia are following the IndyCar again. We can attract more people. That’s the goal not only for me, but all the drivers, to build IndyCar as it was back then.” It’s always good to hear a rookie speak on the importance of the fans and the attention that their series is receiving – I think it shows professionalism and an educated response on their part, as they are able to see the whole picture and not just a narrow perspective of what a lasting career requires in racing.

HCOne racecar driver who understands that balance and has shown exactly HOW to achieve that elusive balance, is Helio Castroneves. During his time at Media Day, he had some kind words regarding his fellow driver and former competitor, Dario Franchitti. You can always count on Helio to be honest and humbled in his words at the same time. While he is aware of his many achievements in IndyCar, he is not arrogant about them, nor does he believe that he came into this success solely on his own accord. He acknowledges that losing a driver like Dario from the track, affects everyone, including him. “Not having Dario, for sure I’m not going to be as good as I was before. However, he accomplished so much in his career. For me at least I’m going to be happy to see that he’s still here with us. That for me, it’s happiness. It was a scary accident — it was shocking for me. I’m glad at least I’m going to see him around.” Helio is of course, referring to the accident during the 2013 Houston double-header which put Dario into a catch fence, mangling his DW12 and leaving him with multiple, but thankfully non-life-threatening, injuries. This accident is what forced Dario’s retirement in December 2013.

Helio did manage to have some fun during this time on panel, not that that surprised anyone. At one point someone asked him if he knew who his race strategist was going to be this year, his reply was simply, “Yes. Do you want to know?” He also joked about Ryan Briscoe not being categorized with the “young” drivers anymore and how it only took him 14 years to get the message and stop asking Roger if he could drive in the Daytona 500. There is truly never a dull moment with Helio… especially if he has a microphone.

SDScott Dixon, the current IndyCar Series Champion, fielded a lot of questions regarding other drivers – his relationship to them on and off the track, etc. Like Helio, one of the drivers he discussed in depth was Dario Franchitti. He admitted that not having Dario on the track and in the paddock as a teammate will prove to be noticeable but he is hopeful that the role Dario plays with the team will be significant and they can all continue to learn from him, not be mention by pushed to be their best by him. Of course there was commentary from the media about his new teammate Tony – not sure if they were looking for a flat-out comparison of Tony vs. Dario from Scott, but what they did get was rather humorous! He joked about communicating with Tony, saying that when they do talk it’s with Portuguese and broken English. He confirms what most fans of the sport already know, saying Tony is quite a character but at the same time, a great driver. He mentions the benefit Tony has, of keeping the same engine setup with Chevy, since signing with Ganassi. Scott also had some really nice words about Charlie – basically saying he is one to keep your eye on, he’s gotten stronger – more of a formidable competitor over the past couple years, particularly after getting his first series victory at a tough course like Mid Ohio. He also respects him for handling his diabetes so seamlessly, always keeping his health at the forefront of his priorities so he can get in the car and pursue his passion.

RBAnother Ganassi driver who is truly motivated to pursue his dreams is Ryan Briscoe. Outside of his times of injury, Briscoe seems to always be racing in one series or another. And honestly, even when he is injured, you can probably still find him at a track – I even ran into him myself last year at Mid Ohio while he was recovering from his wrist injury. Keeping with that “eye on the prize” mentality, Ryan will be racing in the 12 Hours of Sebring in just a couple of weeks with the TUDOR sportscar series. He will get behind the wheel with the Corvette team again, just as in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona last month. “It’s an awesome car.  I’ve never raced GTs before, so I was a bit apprehensive going in. The thing drives unbelievable. It really drives more like a sports car. Good downforce, lots of fun.  From here I’ll be heading down to Sebring for testing this week.  Anytime at the racetrack is good fun for me.“

maFebruary has really picked up the pace for race news across the board, regardless of your preferred series. However, we are not the only sport getting an influx of attention this month… most obviously of course, being all the featured sports in the winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Now, in general, I tend to probably drive my friends and family crazy with my little game of being able to relate almost anything back to racing or IndyCar – but in this case, it’s very true and it happens to be the first time in history, so it’s kind of a big deal. That’s right, Russia is a part of an IndyCar milestone this year – Mikhail Aleshin is the first Russian driver in the series! He will be driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in the #17 alongside teammate, Simon Pagenaud. Mikhail is very proud of his home country and is excited to bring the world of open-wheel racing into the lives of the people there. He discussed how his involvement is making a difference in Russia’s observance of the series, as well as what his expectations are for the attention they will receive, saying, “In the moment before this year, IndyCar was not shown in Russia. This year we going to change the situation in a good way. Russia is getting bigger and bigger every year in motorsport. Now for last like five years, they built like five or seven good tracks in Russia. In the end of this year, we’re going to have our first Grand Prix, Formula One, in Russia, in Sochi.  I think all these things shows that Russia is interested in motorsport as one of the main sports in the world.“ Always encouraging to hear about International appeal for this series and the sport as a whole – I am hopeful that Russia’s exposure to motorsports, on a more personal level, will be a positive one as well.

CKWhen we speak about the worldwide industry of motorsports, we always have to talk about the fans. Without a fanbase, success in sports – or perhaps even the basic existence of sport as entertainment – wouldn’t be the phenomenon that it is in our world. One driver who completely understands the importance of connecting to fans and truly building a career with the foundation of that fanbase to support you, is Charlie Kimball. He started off by mentioning the “Off Season” YouTube videos with Hinch, Will Power & Josef (Winter 2012-2013): “It was a lot of fun. I hope at some point we’ll be able to do more of those because I think the opportunity to show our personalities, show our colors outside of a racecar, out from under a helmet, is really helpful as a series, and also for us as drivers.” He made note of how connecting on a personal level with fans, is how you establish a fan-for-life. That is essential to this sport, and specifically this series, succeeding and thriving in the long term.

Charlie also touched on how valuable Dario will be as a coach this season. “He (Dario) used to say, Just because I taught you everything you know doesn’t mean I taught you everything I know.“ Charlie’s poise on stage and in person has always impressed me, he is very charming in his way of answering questions and interacting with others, infusing a light-heartedness into the moment without losing any professionalism.

JHSpeaking of light-hearted attitudes… let’s talk about James Hinchcliffe. As expected, he brought the comedy to Orlando. Now granted, he had some really thoughtful and reflective moments during the session at Media Day… but this two-part column is about MY favorite moments from the driver’s Q&A’s and that’s why I have to list this next example verbatim. When I read this part of the transcript, I was waiting in a crowded movie theater lobby with my earbuds blasting a P!nk song into my head, blocking out all outside noises… therefore I am not certain EXACTLY how loud I laughed… but I do know it was loud enough to make people turn around and look at me with furrowed eyebrows. Oh, and in case you were wondering… I continued reading and yes, continued laughing. Hey, we were in line to buy popcorn, not in the theater. It’s not that serious, people. Much like Hinch. So, anyways, someone asked him if he stole Josef’s engineer and without missing a beat, this was his brilliant response:

“I did. I went to his house where he normally keeps his engineer in a cage in the basement. I broke in while he was sleeping. Nathan made a lot of noise, rattled the cage. It woke Josef, which made for an ugly altercation on the main floor. I was able to use chloroform. I said, Josef, does this smell like chloroform? Then Nathan and I made it out the window.“

The person asking the question then followed up, inquiring whether there were any repercussions. Hinch replied, “No. We were just goofing around outside. The chloroform had a destructive effect on his memory and he thinks Nathan is still in the basement. He hasn’t figured it out yet.“

Anyone that really follows IndyCar and the drivers themselves, is not surprised by this colorful off-the-top-of-my-head kind of story from Hinch. He’s a true character, which his owners, teammates and competitors seem to verify whenever his name is brought up in conversation. He has a large fan base due to his charisma and approachability in the paddock. A driver like this has to have a sponsor that “gets” him and isn’t worried about the inevitable goofiness & sarcasm that is a very organic part of his brand. He touched on this during his session as well:

“I’ve been pretty lucky. Obviously with Go Daddy I had this irreverent sponsor who were not super in-the-box corporate image people.  That kind of allowed me to be the natural jackass that I am. With UFD, though not publicly the kind of company you know them as, the people behind them are very much fun-loving. They’re rock stars. It’s essentially owned by the band LIVE. My owners are rock stars. They get it. They don’t mind having fun, letting me be off the wall. I’ve been fortunate. I think this partnership is going to produce some pretty fun things on track, off track.”

I for one can’t wait to see what kind of things they come up with this season. And with any luck, a few of those things will involve standing atop some podiums.

JWThe last driver I want to spotlight is certainly not the least. Justin Wilson took the opportunity at Media Day to chat about his accident at the end of last season and how it has actually led to safety updates on the DW12. The side intrusion panels have been redesigned, creating an even tighter space for the drivers, as well as a stronger tub or “survival cell” as many refer to it. “The key is getting the car safe and safer, the safest racecar possible,” he explained. While the drivers may have to get used to a more snug fit and a different way of steering the car under pressure, those are minute changes to become accustomed to in the grand scheme of things. Justin and his teammates will adapt to these changes and simply work them into their routines and personal habits of racing.

Having to alter the way that we do something that we are already comfortable with and may already have “down to a science” can be a frustrating ordeal. Sometimes it feels like we are fixing things that aren’t broken. In IndyCar however, changes usually come down the line because something IS broken – a policy, a car part, an ego… but the other reason things change in the world of professional sports so often is simply because there is always room for improvement. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone took on this perspective? Not just athletes and engineers, but all of us. Imagine if we woke up every day with the conscious desire to work harder than the day before and strive tirelessly towards becoming the best version of who we are. Don’t get me wrong, I think a lot of people do that already – I like to think (and I hope) that I am one of them – but how great would it be if everyone entertained the idea at some point? As I write this wrap-up, I realize that I’ve brought this topic of “change” up in the past… but hey, sometimes the good ideas are the recurring ones. And while they may come back into focus with a lack of intent, they still provide us with plenty of drive.

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