RAY PUMPED UP AFTER INITIAL TEST SESSIONS WITH TEAM MENARD INDIANAPOLIS, Dec. 4, 1998 - Make no mistake about it: Greg Ray is one pumped-up race driver. "You can tell by the sound of my voice I'm excited," Ray said. Ray had...
RAY PUMPED UP AFTER INITIAL TEST SESSIONS WITH TEAM MENARD
INDIANAPOLIS, Dec. 4, 1998 - Make no mistake about it: Greg Ray is one pumped-up race driver. "You can tell by the sound of my voice I'm excited," Ray said.
Ray had just completed a Firestone tire test at Texas Motor Speedway, his third since replacing Tony Stewart in the cockpit of the Glidden-Menards-Special Dallara/Aurora/Firestone for the 1999 Pep Boys Indy Racing League season. The team, owned by John Menard and headed by engineer Thomas Knapp, previously had tested at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Fla.
Next weekend, Team Menard will return to Orlando for the league's Open Test, joining many other teams in a tuneup for the season-opening Indy 200 on Jan. 24.
Ray and Knapp have been reunited with one of open-wheel racing's finest operations. Their small team was one of the endearing success stories of the 1998 Indianapolis 500, as Ray qualified in the middle of the front row. Ray also drove as an injury replacement for A.J. Foyt driver Billy Boat for two races in 1998.
"Our No. 1 goal is to win," said Ray, who also nearly won the True Value 500 in June at Texas while driving for Knapp's low-budget team.
"Our realistic goal for '99 is to win no less than four races. I'll be disappointed if we don't. We have all the elements to win the championship and to win the Indy 500. I hope to live up to our potential."
Ray and Knapp have been together since 1992. When Knapp was hired in October to replace Larry Curry, he suggested to Menard to hire Ray as the driver.
"John needed a little time to think about it," Knapp said. "If we are to get results, Greg will make it a little easier in the short term."
Ray, of course, knew Stewart would depart the Menard team at the end of the '98 season to drive for Joe Gibbs in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. He began talking to Menard in June and persisted, although he had other exc iting offers.
Ray, from Plano, Texas, had a "wish list" as he sought the right combination for the coming season.
No. 1 was that Knapp be hired as the engineer. Second, he wanted to maintain his relationship with Firestone. Third, he preferred the Dallara chassis.
"My fourth wish was that we have a single-car team," Ray said. "I like the chemistry where it is one for all and all for one. Now I have all the basics for a dream come true."
But Ray emphasized that he was in no way following in Stewart's footsteps.
"I don't believe that at all," he said.
Ray said a driver couldn't find a better owner than Menard, whose major business is running his chain of home improvement stores.
"He's a diligent, intelligent person who loves racing," Ray said. "His No. 1 goal is to win. I knew most of his decisions are made on performance rather than financial burden."
Ray said this season will be a collaboration between him and Knapp.
"He's a very down-to-earth guy, a pragmatic guy," Ray said of Knapp. "We don't believe in black magic. We believe in hard work. He gives me confidence that he will put me in a totally safe car.
"We are two totally different people. But he never questions that I'll drive the car 101 percent, and I never question that he won't give 100 percent in preparing the car."
Knapp, less vocal of the two, says the same thing in fewer words.
"He respects what I do, and I respect what he does," Knapp said. "That makes the difference in performance."
Knapp said the team turned in good performances in all three early tests and notes, "We should have a pretty good deal."
At Texas, the team ran for the first time with the new 10,300 rpms rev limiter. He said the car was slightly slower that last June's pole speed of 224.448 mph by Stewart. But Ray expects the qualifying gap from first to last next June to be only one second.
Ray, 32, said his life is at its best familywise (wife, two children), businesswise and professionally.
"I'm in as good physical and mental health as I've been in my life," he said. "I'm ready.
"It's put-up-or-shut-up time for Greg Ray. There is no crutch. Now is the time to show what Greg Ray is made of."