This week in Ford Racing: Scott Roembke, the long-time General Manager of Team Rahal, was elevated to Chief Operating Officer at the end of last season. Since joining Team Rahal in 1992, Roembke has been one of the driving forces behind the ...
This week in Ford Racing:
Scott Roembke, the long-time General Manager of Team Rahal, was elevated to Chief Operating Officer at the end of last season. Since joining Team Rahal in 1992, Roembke has been one of the driving forces behind the success of the Hilliard-based organization. Roembke oversees the day-to-day operation of the 90-member Champ Car team, which is owned by three-time CART champion, Bobby Rahal, and his partner, talk-show host David Letterman. Not only is Roembke responsible for all facets of the team's operation, he oversees the coordination of the race operations while keeping the business and marketing side on track. He also serves as the chief strategist and primary communicator with current championship points leader Kenny Brack during the race. Roembke took some time to talk about Team Rahal, the success it has enjoyed this season and what Bobby Rahal and the team have done to try and promote young American drivers.
SCOTT ROEMBKE - Chief Operating Officer, Team Rahal
KENNY BRACK HAS WON TWO RACES AND CURRENTLY LEADS THE CHAMPIONSHIP, AND MAX PAPIS HAS WON THIS SEASON AS WELL, SO COULD YOU TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE SUCCESS THAT TEAM RAHAL HAS ENJOYED THIS YEAR?
"Certainly we're pleased with our early results, but at the same time we feel like we've been in contention to win a couple of more races as well. At this level with the on-going support of our sponsors, that's why we're here; to win races and try to compete for the championship. I guess it's gratifying to see all the work that we did during the offseason to try and solidify the team has paid off. But we also realize that there's still a lot of racing left and in order to win the championship we're going to have to win more than three races. Certainly we're going to some tracks in the coming weeks where we've done well before, but in this series you just don't know. We had an advantage earlier in the year on the ovals for sure with the Lola, but Reynard has come up with basically a whole new car. We've got five ovals left on the schedule and I think that they've done a great job developing their car, so we've go to take things race by race."
YOU MENTIONED THE CHANGES THAT THE TEAM MADE DURING THE OFFSEASON TO IMPROVE FOR THIS SEASON. IS THERE ANY ONE THING THAT YOU COULD PINPOINT THAT HAS MADE THE DIFFERENCE OR HAS IT BEEN A COMBINIATION OF THINGS?
"I think it's been a combination of a lot of things. One of the things we wanted to do during the offseason was increase our depth. We've always had a lot of good people here, and we added to that with people the quality of Mark Johnson [Director of Operations] and John Dick [Miller Lite Engineer]. Through those additions and our ability to keep some of the people we already had throughout the organization, we were lucky enough to make ourselves a deeper team."
THERE WAS A LOT MADE AT THE BEGINNING OF THE SEASON ABOUT TEAM RAHAL SWITCHING TO THE LOLA CHASSIS, AND I THINK SOME PEOPLE HAVE BEEN CAUGHT BY SURPRISE AT THE SUCCESS YOU'VE ENJOYED. ARE YOU SURPRISED AT HOW WELL YOU'VE DONE?
"I don't know if we were surprised, but obviously if you make a change that big, you do so for reasons. Those reasons have proven to be accurate and justify our decision, and certainly it was a decision we didn't take lightly. We had a situation where we had been with Reynard for four or five years and just the sheer financial expense of switching chassis is a huge undertaking. I think it says a lot for Bobby [Rahal] that he asked us make that decision in a vacuum based purely on what we thought would be the best performing car. I don't know that we're surprised as much as feeling a little justified in the decision that we made."
HOW BIG A CHALLENGE FOR YOUR ENGINEERS AND DRIVERS HAS IT BEEN TO MAKE THE ADJUSTMENT FROM THE REYNARD TO THE LOLA?
"It has been, and I'll be honest, maybe bigger than we anticipated. I think if you asked anyone at Team Rahal going into Mexico if we thought we were as comfortable with the Lola as the Reynard, they probably would have told you no. But we always felt from day one that the upside potential of the Lola was why we had made the decision and that has remained correct. Yeah, it's been a big learning curve, but Lola supported us well and our engineers have adopted and responded to the challenge."
KENNY [BRACK] HAS HAD A STRONG SEASON AND BEEN ONE OF THE FASTEST DRIVERS WEEK IN AND WEEK OUT. ALTHOUGH HE STRUGGLED IN THE LAST TWO RACES IN PORTLAND AND CLEVELAND, WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO DO TO KEEP HIM IN CHAMPIONSHIP CONTENTION FOR THE REST OF THE YEAR?
"Well, we have struggled the last two races, at least from where we want to be, but some of that has been due to circumstance. We had a very fast car at Portland, but had some problems in qualifying that prevented us from starting up front. In Cleveland, we qualified poorly and raced pretty well and had a relatively good result, but for us our goal is always to qualify in the top five and finish in the top three, so by that measure we haven't been there the last couple of races. As for what we do for the rest of the year, I just think our goal right now is to go to each race and try to win it. It's much too early to try and concentrate on championships and point ramifications because if you do that I think you can get backwards in a hurry. We're just trying to go to each race and attack it like we did the first one, and I think if we do that at the end of the year you just add up the score and see who comes out on top."
MAX [PAPIS] SEEMS TO HAVE COME ON LATELY BY SCORING POINTS IN FOUR OF HIS LAST FIVE RACES, INCLUDING HIS SECOND CAREER VICTORY IN PORTLAND.
"Certainly Max struggled earlier in the year, but we feel Portland was not an aberration at all and that he and his engineer are starting to gel. He's always done well at some of these tracks and I think we'll see him run up front again before the year is over."
DO YOU THINK MAX HAS HAD A MORE DIFFICULT TIME ADJUSTING TO THE LOLA THAN KENNY HAS?
"I think he'll be the first guy to tell you that it's a car that requires a little different style, but I'll take the blame and put that on us because we haven't been able to make the car do what Max is asking. It's certainly a different type of animal, but it's the team's responsibility to get the car where the driver needs it to do his job. We were slow in doing that, but I think we've made great strides recently and have caught up to where we need to be."
WITH THE STRUGGLES YOU HAD IN THE LAST TWO EVENTS, DOES THIS BREAK IN THE SCHEDULE COME AT A GOOD POINT FOR YOU?
"I think it's a great time for everybody. This is a brutal schedule, and for the mechanics, truck drivers, engineers, engine builders, drivers and management it's just a good opportunity to catch your breath. Now we're going back into five more races in six weeks, so I think any break you get in the summer time is a good break."
WHAT HAS THIS YEAR BEEN LIKE FOR YOU PERSONALLY? YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES HAVEN'T REALLY CHANGED, BUT HAS THIS YEAR BEEN DIFFERENT FOR YOU?
"Well, Bob's not around as much as he used to be. Quite honestly the biggest change has been some of the things that we've done with the team to try and strengthen it in the racing division. My duties haven't really changed all that much, but like anything else when you're forced to, I think Bobby and I may communicate even more often and better now than we did when he was based in the States. The year has been good, but we all look at this as a game and we've only played the first quarter."
WHEN BOBBY COMES TO A RACE, DOES THAT CHANGE THE DYNAMIC OF THE TEAM? DOES HE BRING EMOTION?
"I don't know about emotion, but he brings tons of experience. I mean, the guy has won countless races and championships and all that, and I can't think of any team in the paddock that wouldn't like having a resource with his knowledge and ability at their disposal during a weekend. What he brings is just another person that you can look to when you're trying to make tough decision."
SO WHEN HE'S NOT AT A RACE WEEKEND, HOW DOES THAT CHANGE THE WAY THE TEAM OPERATES?
"Well, he called from Germany last week and gave me the weather report in Cleveland, so I think he stays on top of it pretty well. He knew what the weather was going to do in Cleveland better than I did because he used to live there. But quite honestly, we've built the team to operate without Bob being present, so when he's there, it's just an added bonus. When he's not there, we don't change how we do things, and when he is there, we don't change the way we do things, but we do have an added resource to utilize."
YOU'RE WORKING TO EXPAND YOUR SHOP IN COLUMBUS. WHAT IS THAT GOING TO DO TO CHANGE YOUR OPERATIONS?
"Well it'll relieve a lot of my headaches when we finally get it done, I'll tell you that. I've learned more about building a building than I care to know. We currently have 28,000 square feet, and we're just running out of room. What we're going to do is build 22,000 square feet next door that has been designed to serve as Phase I of what will hopefully over the years become a completely new facility. We'll move the race team and the engineering department over into the new facility, freeing up some much-needed room over here. For the first time our trucks will have a properly-covered place to park that's close to the race team, and it's just going to make it a better working environment for our employees."
WHERE DO YOU SEE TEAM RAHAL IN FIVE YEARS? DO YOU HAVE A VISION OF WHERE YOU'D LIKE THE TEAM TO BE?
"We have different plans, but unfortunately in this business sometimes you're dealing with a five minute plan because you have to react to the circumstances that may or may not affect your particular team. Certainly I believe Bobby and David Letterman have goals on where they want to be, and we want to be the preeminent team in CART. Now, I realize that that's much more easily said than accomplished. We've worked really hard to get the team to where it is now, but the key is to be able to sustain that and then carry it on year after to year. If you look up and down pit lane today, you'll see that's no easy task."
SINCE YOU DIDN'T FINISH VERY WELL IN THE TWO PREVIOUS STREET RACES IN LONG BEACH AND DETROIT, HOW DO YOU PLAN TO APPROACH THE RACE THIS WEEKEND IN TORONTO?
"Well we did struggle in Detroit, but we're optimistic heading to Toronto because in Long Beach Kenny started from the front row and Max was well on his way to a top five finish before he was taken out. Detroit is kind of a different little animal, but Toronto presents it's own little set of problems. We've had fast cars at Toronto in the past so we're going up there pretty optimistic about both of our drivers. We think we've really climbed a hurdle with Max in the last couple of races to get him up where he deserves to be, and based on the fact that we continue to familiarize ourselves with the Lola chassis, we're pretty optimistic."
DOES TORONTO PRESENT ANY CHALLENGES THAT ARE DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHER STREET COURSES ON THE SCHEDULE?
"I think the street courses are all slightly different, but they're all pretty much the same. Toronto is obviously a course where you've got to be able to get down the back straightaway, but you have to be able to have the car stable under breaking. You also have to try to start up front because it is difficult to pass. In this series the cars are all so close that it doesn't really matter if you're faster because if you're behind a guy it doesn't take a lot for him to keep you there. You have to focus on grid position, and as always on the street courses, the yellows during the race make it very interesting on the strategy side."
TEAM RAHAL TESTED KASEY KAHNE EARLIER THIS YEAR ON THE ROAD COURSE AT THE HOMESTEAD MOTOR SPEEDWAY. COULD YOU TALK ABOUT HOW THAT TEST WENT AND WHAT YOUR INITIAL IMPRESSIONS OF HIM WERE?
"Well, Ford came to us and asked us if we'd give this young man an opportunity, and Bobby has in the last two or three years been the hallmark of an opportunity for a lot of these guys. He's done quite a bit for some young drivers in the junior ranks that ask him for advice or solicit his opinions. Perhaps it's a situation like Buddy Rice where we are publicly supporting him or Casey Mears where we ran him in a race or several other drivers who have used him as counsel as they make a career decision. I think Bobby is trying to help these guys as much as he can, a lot like Jim Trueman assisted him, so when Ford asked us to test Kasey it wasn't a problem at all. We were quite impressed with Kasey, and he's quite an impressive young man. He had never been in a Champ Car before and he did a great job, so hopefully in the future we'll be able to give him some more experience in the car as he continues with his development."
BOBBY AND TEAM RAHAL HAVE BEEN VERY ACTIVE IN PROMOTING YOUNG AMERICAN DRIVERS, BUT CAN YOU IDENTIFY A REASON WHY MORE ISN'T BEING DONE?
"I don't know if there's not enough being done, but it's like anything else and sometimes you just have to do it. At the end of the day if there's a ride open in CART, Ford and our sponsors want us to hire the best guy available. Very few sponsors come along and say that he has to be an American or he has to be Swedish or he has to be Italian because they're all going to look at you and tell you that they want to win. I think there's a lot of young Americans that are capable and if given the right opportunity to showcase their talents, whether it's through Stars of Tomorrow or these things, they'll get their opportunities. I think Memo [Gidley] is a perfect example of a guy that took advantage of his opportunity and did a great job with it."
SOME PEOPLE HAVE SAID THAT IF THE CART TEAMS RAN A LIGHTS OR ATLANTIC CAR THAT IT MIGHT HELP GENERATE MORE OPPORTUNITIES FOR YOUNG DRIVERS.
"I don't know. I know how hard we worked just to get the CART team to what we would call an acceptable level. If you look down South, you don't see a lot of Winston Cup teams running in the Busch Series, very few as far as I'm aware of, because of the resources and time commitment that it takes to race at the top level. It certainly sounds good that if we all ran a car that there'd be 24 cars in Lights and all that, and we support Lights. Team Rahal has run a Lights car [Mike Borkowski, '98], and we found out pretty quickly that the guys who just concentrate on Lights did a better job than we did. I'm not saying that's a poor idea, but like anything else, I think financially and sponsor-wise there's a lot of questions that would need to be answered first."
AFTER WINNING THE MANUFACTURERS' CHAMPIONSHIP IN ITS FIRST SEASON, COSWORTH RACING HAS WORKED HARD BOTH BEFORE AND DURING THE SEASON TO CONTINUE PERFORMANCE DEVELOPMENT OF THE XF ENGINE.
"Through these trying times of spacers and all that, I think Cosworth and Ford have done a great job of just trying to stay on the curve. From their point of view, they just kept their heads down and kept trying to give us the best motors possible. We're working with them daily to make sure they have the information they need to do their jobs, so we are quite pleased with our engine program."
COULD YOU TALK A LITTLE ABOUT THE RELATIONSHIP THAT HAS DEVELOPED BETWEEN TEAM RAHAL AND FORD-COSWORTH AND HOW IT HAS CONTRIBUTED TO YOUR SUCCESS THIS SEASON? I KNOW KENNY AND MAX HAVE BEEN VERY PROACTIVE IN THEIR FEEDBACK REGARDING THE PERFORMANCE OF THE ENGINE AND MAKING SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENTS.
"I don't know if this is different from other teams, but we look at this as having three major partners: the Miller Brewing Company, the Shell Oil Company and Ford Motor Company. You can have the best car and driver and all that, but if the motor is not the best then you're going to have a hard time winning in this series. It's easy to just sit there and say, 'it's no good,' or 'fix it, it's broken,' but our drivers and engineers have taken a very aggressive approach with Ford and Cosworth to try and help them understand exactly what issues we have with the motor and to come up with solutions and ideas on how to fix them. Instead of just waiting for the things to show up in boxes and putting them in our cars, we're very aggressive with our communication. I know Kenny was just over there last week visiting [Cosworth Racing CART Program Manager] Bruce Wood, and I know we've been working with the folks at Ford's transient dyno facility in Dearborn [Michigan]. You can write down what a motor does, but sometimes it takes a driver sitting there explaining it in person, and I'd like to think it's helped the program. I've told the folks at Ford and Cosworth that if my drivers and engineers get too bothersome to let me know because sometimes I'm worried that they're just driving those guys nuts, but I haven't heard anything so far so I assume it's all still constructive. We've always tried to be very open with our partners, whether it's been Ford and Cosworth, Reynard or Lola. I think Lola is another company that has been surprised with how open we'll be with our information. We only do that because it's easy to stand back and criticize, but if you want to help solve the problem you have to get involved. We look at these people as our partners so we're going to be involved."