IRL: Conversations with Team Menard. Part 1 - The Manager

(Editor's note) During the IRL's midsummer swing through NASCAR's high bank territory, Ken Plotkin had a chance to speak to Larry Curry and Tony Stewart of Team Menard. In the first installment of MNI's two part series on Team Menard, Ken focuses...

(Editor's note) During the IRL's midsummer swing through NASCAR's high bank territory, Ken Plotkin had a chance to speak to Larry Curry and Tony Stewart of Team Menard. In the first installment of MNI's two part series on Team Menard, Ken focuses on Larry Curry, Menard's team manager since 1995.

Conversations with Team Menard. Part 1 - The Manager

by Ken Plotkin Motorsport News International

Two of the most recognized figures in the Indy Racing League today are Larry Curry and Tony Stewart, team manager and driver for Team Menard. Together, they have accumulated three wins and nine poles in this young series. Stewart is defending champion, and is in the thick of this year's championship.

Larry Curry has been involved in Indianapolis car racing for over twenty years. Coming from drag racing, he started in Indy car racing with a small team out of Cincinnati, Ohio, where his position was best described as "gopher". Over the years, he worked for many owners, including Jim Hall, Vince Granatelli and Pat Patrick. In 1993, he joined Team Menard, and became Team manager in 1995.

Larry knows what it's like to work for the big teams, and small teams. While Menard is one of the bigger teams in the IRL, he points out that in 1993, as an Indianapolis-only effort, Menard was a relatively small team.

The team grew in 1996, with the IRL. "We changed from running just one race a year to the whole season," says Larry, "so it's a pretty big change." Today's team has all the same people from the old days, but personnel have been added to accommodate the longer schedule.

To most outside observers, Team Menard looks like a gold-plated operation. The beautifully painted cars. The matching paint jobs on the pit equipment. The in-house engine development and fabrication. And those fancy car covers.

Larry bristles at the concept of the team putting on a fancy image. He pointed to the rather Spartan interior of their transporter, which isn't exactly the fanciest one around. Plywood cabinets. No well-appointed office. "We spend our money on racing and testing. We don't have the fanciest shop. We have an adequate shop." He acknowledges the sanitary operation, but explains that it goes with the territory. "We demand out of our people that we always portray a very professional image at the race track. We want our cars to be immaculate. We want our pit equipment to look nice. But that isn't about trying to put on a show. It's when you get to this level of motorsport you need to be a pro. And you need to conduct yourself as a pro."

Fabrication?  The team has its own engine program.  They build their own
suspension.  They do some of their own car development.  They have the
budget to for a full test program.  But that's the extent of it.

The fancy car covers? Team public relations manager Becky Brayton admits that the covers give a bit of a luxury image, but points out that the covers keep the sponsors visible even when the cars are wrapped up.

Larry enjoys the level of competition in IRL. While the team was famous for its special Buick engines during the turbo era, he does not consider the more restrictive IRL formula to be a let-down. "I think that the tighter the regulations are the harder it is to get an edge", he explained. "In this series, the formula's pretty tight and it's very difficult to get an edge that you keep very long. So it's pretty tough."

He seems to enjoy tough, and was looking forward to the high banks at Dover and Charlotte. "I enjoy running high banked fast race tracks." Recalling that they were bitten by the Dover Monster Mile even before the race - their car crashed when a shock failed in testing - he had no illusions about what Dover had in store for them. "It's a tough race track, it's gonna be a tough race. I think it's gonna live up to its reputation." He was still confident that the series would keep on top of speed and safety.

"I just think that we have to always keep in mind - and I know the IRL looks into it because they're very safety conscious - our cars are different than a stock car. When we hit the wall, different things happen. We just have to come into these facilities with that mentality, that the facility has to meet our safety standards."

He expects the IRL to adapt to these tracks, but without changing the basic formula. "I don't think there'll be any major changes, but I think as the season starts to wind down they'll look at some things. Part of the reason the IRL was formed was to curtail 230 mph laps. I don't see them going in and redoing the whole car because of that. For instance, after how we all tested here they're making us run a little more rear wing than we tested. So I think there's going to be that philosophy throughout every season."

Besides continuing with that type of aerodynamic control, he feels there is room to do things with the engines, such as cutting the rpm limit from 10,500 to 10,000 at some tracks. He definitely sees the IRL formula remaining stable, without any big changes at the end of the current three year specifications.

The biggest change Larry sees for next year is the loss of Tony Stewart behind the wheel. Tony is contracted to a full Winston Cup season with Joe Gibbs. Larry hopes to get Tony for two or three races next year. That includes the Indianapolis 500, when Tony is planning on doing double duty, Indianapolis and Charlotte.

But that's next year. This year, Larry and Team Menard are concentrating on winning races and, even more, on winning the championship. The high banks at Dover and Charlotte were not kind to them. After winning the pole at Dover, and dominating the early laps, they were slowed when the rough track shook the instrument cluster loose, then fell back when the right rear suspension failed. The team never lost sight of the championship race, working feverishly on pit lane to replace the suspension. Their efforts were rewarded with an eighth place finish, and 24 championship points. At Charlotte, with another pole, they were out early with a blown engine, but not until after a tenacious attempt to fix the oil leak that started it all.

Back on a flatter track at Pikes Peak, and with Robbie Buhl back in the second car, the team took second and third place after a wise decision to make late race splash-and-go fuel stops. Tony Stewart's third place finish keeps him in strong contention for the season championship.

As IRL moves back to the high banks - Atlanta this weekend, and Texas three weeks later - Team Menard is still the team to watch.

Next time: a conversation with Team Menard driver Tony Stewart.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Tony Stewart , Robbie Buhl