IRL: Focus on a Small Team. Part 1: The Manager/Owner Ken Plotkin Motorsport News International Take a walk down Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and you'll see plenty of new faces. Lots of familiar people, and...
IRL: Focus on a Small Team. Part 1: The Manager/Owner
Ken Plotkin Motorsport News International
Take a walk down Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and you'll see plenty of new faces. Lots of familiar people, and some familiar teams, but a lot of change, too. So where exactly did these new teams come from? How do they feel about being at Indianapolis? What's the lowdown on the "opportunity" that the IRL is supposed to provide? And just what's the deal with some of the small teams with the nerve to assault the Greatest Spectacle in Racing?
One of the smaller teams at the Speedway these days is LP Racing. On Carburetion Day, MNI had the opportunity to speak at length with LP Team Manager (and owner) Larry Nash, driver Sam Schmidt, and driving consultant Gary Bettenhausen. Over a series of articles we'll share those conversations.
In 1972, high school senior Larry Nash came to Indianapolis as a spectator. He fell in love with the place and promised himself, "One of these days I'm going to work on these things."
Larry occupied himself with drag racing until he felt the call to work on the cars he had loved for so long. In 1982, he decided the time for Indianapolis had come. He made the move and began knocking on doors. The door that opened was Gary Bettenhausen's. For the next five years Gary served as Larry's mentor. Larry worked on Gary B's asphalt sprinters and dirt cars, as well as his CART Indy car. He worked his way up to being Gary's crew chief for one of those years. He also traveled to England with Galen Fox to build a March-Chevy that Steve Chassey drove to a long-standing record for a normally aspirated car at the Speedway.
Then he decided to take a step down from the big time so that he could build something of his own.
"What happened is I had such an interest in doing different types of racing that I decided that I would basically bow out of the Indy car arena...back up a little bit", Larry explained. "I wanted to get more involved with my own operation instead of just being an employee. I wanted to take some pride of ownership. I felt that was the only way I could get a controlling interest in what was going on. I backed up a little bit and got into a position running sports cars and other formula categories so that I could become an expert in all areas, not just specifically one area."
That was the start of LP Racing, which is 12 years old this year. It's a small company, with a total of six people. Small, but diversified, keeping with Larry's plan to learn all he could. "We typically do 2 or 3 forms of racing," he said, "be it some sort of sports car and/or club activity ... and then occasionally we do something that's totally off the wall, like restoration or hot rod fabrication and building. So we've done a lot of different things."
LP is a fully equipped prep shop. "We do the majority of everyday preparation and equipment. There are a few things we work with outside vendors on, because they require a special piece of equipment or some specific expertise that we're not exposed to every day. For the most part we handle everything else." That includes engine work. Back when Larry was running the Shelby Dodge Series, he oversaw the entire Shelby engine program, in parallel with Galen Fox who was doing assembly and dyno work.
Larry very much enjoys what he is doing and what he has accomplished. "The most gratifying part of running the operation is to do well with what we have to work with. That's the most gratifying part. Obviously we don't have the [big] budget and the people. We do have a number of years of expertise. The most rewarding part is doing well with what we do have."
Recalling what he learned from Gary B, he likes being a mentor himself and giving something back. "The other thing is, we really enjoy helping folks who want to be part of the industry. Especially young folks who are upcoming. I enjoy the teaching aspect of it, the mentoring aspect of it. In parallel with what we do every day we're able to help folks to some of their goals. So it's a very people oriented thing. And we have a great deal of fun with it as well."
LP is currently running two series: Star Mazda and the Indy Racing League.
The Indy Racing League? A small, six person outfit running with the big guys at Indianapolis? Well, Larry is a seasoned hand at Indianapolis, and the IRL presented an economic situation that appealled to him. He saw that he didn't need an operation with 20 or 30 or 40 people. He looked at the situation and said "We can make this happen."
He brought in some outside help. He turned to NAC to build his Olds Aurora engines, where he draws on Mickey Nickos's 32 years of experience with racing powerplants. This year he brought old friend and mentor Gary B back to accelerate the Indianapolis learning curve for his two drivers Scott Harrington and Sam Schmidt.
But at the core is LP's experience over the years, which he felt was a major asset. "One thing people fail to realize", he pointed out, "is that while there are people in the IRL arena who run 8 races or 10 races a year, we've been in the sports car arena running 20, 30, 40 races." That adds up to a lot of seasoning and track savvy. "When it comes down to outright experience there is no question that we have probably more total miles, in some cases, than a lot of people."
And the jump from sports cars and smaller formulas to the big cars? "There's a lot of things that are very specific to this particular type of car. However, the fact of operating a team and developing people's skills and finding people's expertise in certain niches - all of that sort of thing is, of course, definitely expedited by having simply more track exposure."
Larry is aware of the criticism of the IRL. He views that as a lack of education on the part of its critics. "It's real easy to be negative about things. People that are most negative about a particular type of car or series, I find, are people who are not educated in that particular set of rules, have not been out in the arena, have not been exposed to it." As far as the IRL's success, he pointed to the number and quality of teams that have been showing up and participating. "I think it's very, very evident this thing's everything it was portrayed to be."
While convinced that the IRL is living up to its promise, he does not toe the party line on everything it does. He views this year's shortened month of May (one week of practice instead of two) as a double-edged sword. He does think it's good for the fans. "From the fan area it is nice to have a more concentrated environment to focus on activities they could be part of. I think that was the reason they did it." But from a team manager's perspective, the designated time isn't enough. "If you want to get on top of this thing it's obvious you've got to get as much seat time as you can. From the standpoint of the teams, I think what it does is really just simply force us to test outside of the given designated period of time." This year he saw teams that were able to test outside of that period, and noted that people had to adapt. "It doesn't necesarily dampen the ability to make things happen. It simply makes you plan a little differently - take a different approach on how to make things happen."
Part of LP's approach was to operate two cars at this year's 500. LP's arrangement is somewhat unusual in that his two drivers each own their own cars, and come to LP for a team. From the beginning of the IRL, Larry's been coming to Indianapolis with Scott Harrington. The pair have been teamed since 1985, and have worked their way up from SCCA Spec Racer through Formula Atlantic and on to Indianapolis. Joining LP racing late last season was Sam Schmidt. Sam has been racing cars since 1992. He moved up quickly, staying in each lower class long enough to be succssful but not long enough to get stale.
Despite the separate car owners, Larry says "We work it as a team. One of the reasons we took on the second effort is to increase the ability to learn and have more tools to work with. We felt that to try two different things on two different cars simultaneously is better, learning more in less time." Both drivers get along well, and information freely passes between the two of them.
In addition to becoming a two-car operation for Indianapolis, Larry felt he needed to do more to compensate for the shortened month. He brought in Gary B to be a mentor to both drivers. There is no subsitute for seat time, but Gary's 21 years at Indianapolis helped his drivers make the best use of the time they had.
Next time: Sam Schmidt on his rapid ride up, what it's like to be a youngster at Indianapolis, and the experience of learning from Gary B.