IRL: Focus on a small team. Part 2. The Driver Ken Plotkin Motorsport News International On Carburetion Day before this year's Indianapolis 500, MNI had the opportunity to speak at length with LP Racing's team manager Larry Nash, driver Sam...
IRL: Focus on a small team. Part 2. The Driver
Ken Plotkin Motorsport News International
On Carburetion Day before this year's Indianapolis 500, MNI had the opportunity to speak at length with LP Racing's team manager Larry Nash, driver Sam Schmidt, and mentor Gary Bettenhausen. Part 1 focused on Larry Nash, and can be found on MNI's web site at
<A href=http://www.motorsport.com/Issues/16915.html>Larry Nash Story</A>
In this second article, we recount our conversation with Sam Schmidt.
Sam's press kit opens with the question "Who the heck is Sam Schmidt?" For starters, he's a very pleasant, soft-spoken 33 year old. Well educated: MBA in International Finance from Pepperdine. Put that together with the cell phone that often seems to be attached to his ear, and you'd peg him for another rising business tycoon.
If you have considered driving race cars at over 200 mph to be a business, you wouldn't be far from the mark. If you thought "life" rather than "business", you'd be even closer. Sam has been racing all of his life. His father had an automotive business, and the family was always involved with racers, including part ownership in an Indianapolis effort for a couple of years. Sam began racing motocross when he was nine, but quit after several years when his father was hurt in an off-road racing accident.
In 1992 he began racing again, this time on four wheels. His rookie year, in SCCA Spec Racer, was very successful. Eight wins. Nine poles. Rookie of the Year. Southern Pacific champion, and fourth in the SCCA national runoffs.
Over the next several years, he moved up from class to class. "Basically, every year we had a fair amount of success, so we just kind of took it from there." The path took him through SCCA Formula Continental, Shelby Can-Am, USAC Hooters Cup, and USAC Formula Ford 2000. He collected an impressive number of wins, championships, and high placings.
In 1997, he was ready to move up again. The next logical step would have been Atlantics or Indy Lights. "But", he recalled, "we just couldn't rouse any interest in sponsorship for any of those." He explained the economic and marketing situation: "What it takes to do a really good program in Atlantics or Indy Lights now is not a whole lot short of what it takes to run the IRL. So when you consider the Indy 500 and the prestige and the marketability and everything else that goes along with the IRL this is a really good economic situation"
Did he miss anything by taking this jump? "I'm sure we did. I think it would have been good to have some experience in Atlantics and Indy Lights. There's nothing like seat time, and when you can run anything it's advantageous. Once you get to this level every lap costs a lot of money. Any time you could have raced and had the opportunities in any other series is good."
Sam does not underplay the jump. "It's a lot quicker, and seeing everybody that's here, this is definitely a big step up. The marketing aspect; the money aspect; the preparation aspect: it's a pretty huge step up." Looking at his goals, however, he does not second guess his decision at all. Speaking as a true racer, he said "It's either be here or not run at all, so I'd always take the chance to run the Indy 500."
Despite the jump up, he approached Indianapolis with his usual methodical style. But the jump from a 150 mph Formula Ford to a 220 mph Indianapolis car is huge. The driver has to have faith in the equipment and work up to it. "You don't just go out and barrel into there at 220," he explained. "You work up to 180, then 190, and 200. The car is certainly capable of maintaining its trim at that speed. So it's just a function of what the car can do and working up to that pace."
With that methodical approach, he was not surprised with his second row qualifying position in this year's 500. "It's kind of what we expected, actually. We ran well here in testing in April. We had the third quickest time, which was fantastic. Of course, AJ's kids [Boat and Brack, who qualified on the front row] didn't run that test. So that kind of gives you an idea where we we wound up at the end - exactly where we expected to be." He did allow himself to be pleased with the result: "Sixth fastest - second row - that was a great accomplishment for us." And also with his performance: "It was basically all the car had. I was flat out all four laps." He admitted getting loose once or twice during his run, but he kept his foot in it.
Confidence in the car and crew were also a factor. "We have a good package. We have a good car. We have a good engine. We have an excellent team. The preparation staff. There is nobody I'd rather have working on the car, at 200 mph, than this crew."
Besides having Larry Nash and the LP Racing team behind him, Sam had the benefit of coaching from Gary Bettenhausen. What was it like having Gary there to help? "It was fantastic. If we had all the money in the world we couldn't run as many laps around here as he had. Particularly in the learning curve side of things. It's really helped us to speed up the learning curve without putting me at risk. Being able to do things conservatively and quickly."
Sam felt that Gary's help was split 50/50 between technical and mental. "He knows what I'm experiencing in the car, so it's very simple for him to help me make changes. Mentally: to drive the right line when the track is bad or when the air is turbulent. You can't just make adjustments for that: you have to drive your way through it. He's been helping us to overcome problems like that."
The experience of working with Gary went beyond specifics. "It's just everything. He can stand 50 feet away and look at a tire and tell you if you need castor or camber. He's just got a real good sense of everything. The car, the motors, the engineering side of it, the downforce side of it. He's just a really unique individual."
Next time: a conversation with Gary Bettenhausen, mentor, and unique individual.