San Jose: Rafa Matos on team communication

Rafa Matos Benefits from the Strengths of Communication between Driver, Engineer and Crew SAN JOSE, Calif. --- Chemistry between two people can make all the difference between a long-lasting, fruitful relationship and one that ends in disaster.

Rafa Matos Benefits from the Strengths of Communication between Driver, Engineer and Crew

SAN JOSE, Calif. --- Chemistry between two people can make all the difference between a long-lasting, fruitful relationship and one that ends in disaster. Raphael Matos, Rafa as he is best known, has learned a lot about chemistry the last two seasons of the Champ Car Atlantic Series. In 2006, the chemistry was strong within his No. 6 ProWorks-Sierra Sierra Enterprises team. However, the chemistry between Matos (born in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, now living in Miami) and his car's engineer, probably the single most important relationship on the team, was not there. While both worked hard, they could not seem to express to one another what each needed. The marriage ended early. 2007 has been different, much different. From the first test that Matos and legendary engineer/designer Lee Dykstra (Indianapolis, Ind.) worked together the chemistry was instantaneous and the results have followed. Since then, Matos has been in a class by himself.

"It is easy to make a car good if the driver is adapting to the car," commented Matos on what the engineer must do. "But, when the engineer understands what you need in the car and he gives it to you, then you have good chemistry. Lee is a great guy to work with and our ideas meshed right away. I try to give Lee the best information to make the car right for my driving style. Lee is always trying to improve from the last time we ran. So, when we get to the track we have a setup and we are just fine-tuning the car."

Chemistry is a hard thing to define. When it is there, it is obvious and when it is not, there is no hiding the results. It has quite obvious to the Sierra Sierra team, and even more so to the competition, that Matos and Dykstra have it. The easy flow of information between the two men led to complete domination of the early season with two pole positions and three straight race wins to open the year. Even a brief slump at the two- race Portland weekend in the middle of the season didn't slow the veteran engineer and the young driver. Matos won the pole and the race at Cleveland the next round. Since then, the No. 6 has been sending teams back to their trailers looking for anything to beat the Nevada-based program. With a much firmer lead in the points chase, Matos, Dykstra, Team Manager Richard Raeder and driving coach David Empringham all determined that finishing the next two races in the rain was wiser than going for the race win. They qualified and finished second at a rainy Mont- Tremblant and won the pole but fell back in the wet-dry Toronto street race with a goal of protecting the points lead.

"Lee was the final piece," continued Matos. "He is the biggest thing because the car is much more consistent. It is a car that we are up front with all the time. Last year it was much more difficult to be up front all the time. I am more mature and I understand what I need in the car because I have more experience. So, it is much easier to make the decisions. You have to change you mindset sometimes and you can only do that with experience. Naturally you want to go for it because that is what racing is about but sometimes you have to back off. This year the car is easier to be more consistent and I am more confident."

If there is any one venue that Matos' maturity as a driver has shown it is Edmonton. Last season Matos dominated the weekend up until losing focus and hitting the wall within just a few laps of the checkered flag. A wiser Rafa Matos learned his lessons well winning both of the weekend's events there this year.

"I think I can teach him as far as what things to do to make the car better," replied Dykstra on his role in the 2007 success. "I try and teach him as much as I can car dynamics so that he knows if he makes a certain change, something will happen. We can formalize what he knows into the engineering aspects of a car. I have told him that as he moves up, at each level he will be asked more and more questions and will have to communicate what is going on in the car and what he needs."

In the engineer-driver relationship, communication might be another way to define chemistry. The stronger the communication the easier it is for the driver to explain what the car is doing allowing the engineer to return with a better car setup the next session.

"Communication," Dykstra offered immediately when asked what the key part of the driver-engineer relationship is. "Certainly, what has to happen is that we both have to be on the same wavelength. If there is a problem during a session he can communicate to me what he needs in the car and I need to be able to interpret correctly to be able to modify the car. That kind of thing in a lot of cases can be difficult. That has not been the case with Rafa."

"What I need is a driver that can go out and put the car to the max and come back in and say: 'this is what I need'," continued Dykstra. "If you have a driver that doesn't give 100% then you can make changes but never know if the car is better. When we make a change with Rafa and he goes slower then we know we made the wrong change."

Another element playing a major role in the chemistry of the team is driving coach Empringham. While his primary task is to work with Matos on things like the racing line and driving strategies, the 1993 and '94 Atlantic's Champion also acts as liaison when the lines of communication are blurred between Matos and Dykstra. Empringham's skill as a driver and understanding of the mechanical aspects of the cars allows him to translate between the sometimes conflicting worlds of seat of the pants driving and computer-precise engineering.

"We interact very well," said Matos about his driving coach. "We are very, very close. David is in the middle between me and Lee. He understands my side as a driver because he has been there. He can see from the outside what the car is doing because he has had that happen to him. He won an Indy Lights Championship with Lee so they had a relationship before that helps all of us now."

"David does an excellent job because he acts as an in- between," Dykstra picks up where Matos left off. "He can think from a driver's viewpoint and to a certain extent to the engineer's viewpoint as well. We can go around the race track and he can say 'Rafa, you need to do this and this' which isn't on my page. I have a lot of respect for David. I think he does an excellent job. He is certainly the best driver coach I have ever worked with."

At the end of the day, especially with a young driver, it all comes back to the chemistry between Matos and Dykstra.

"Lee has a really good understanding of the car and what changes he can make," said Matos. "That is what makes me more confident about it. I know we will move forward. Sometimes the change may not be better but the base is so strong that we will figure it out. Since the first day I drove the car at the Sebring test I knew I had a winning car."

Matos is far from Dykstra's first young driver. His resume reads like a list of hall of fame inductees. Parnelli Jones, Al Holbert, Danny Sullivan, John Paul Jr., David Hobbs, Bobby Rahal, Hurley Haywood, Emerson Fittipaldi, Bryan Herta and Robby Gordon are but a few of the drivers that have had their careers advanced by the technical know-how of Dykstra. Dykstra was even the CART Technical Director from 2002-2005. That list forces the question, 'where does the young Matos stand in comparison?'

"I think Rafa is right up there," reflected Dykstra. "His basic skill is in line with some of the very good drivers I have worked with. He is very hungry. He wants to do well. He wants to learn, which is great from my standpoint. I am catching him at a younger part of his career than some of the other drivers I have worked with. I won a similar championship with Bryan Herta and he is at the same level or beyond where Bryan was in the Indy Lights at that time. He is going to be a great driver and, in fact, he is a great driver now."

With two races remaining in the 2006 Champ Car Atlantic Series, Matos can clinch this year's title, and the $2 million career advancement prize, this weekend in San Jose, Calif. Matos is the defending winner on the 1.5-mile street course having led the 2006 event flag-to-flag for his first Atlantic's victory. Should events not work in Matos' favor on Sunday he can clinch the title at the long and fast Road America circuit in Elkhart Lake, Wisc. on Sunday, August 12th at the season-finale.


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Series Atlantic
Drivers Robby Gordon , Bobby Rahal , Bryan Herta , Parnelli Jones , Hurley Haywood , David Empringham , David Hobbs , Al Holbert , Emerson Fittipaldi , John Paul , Rafa Matos