To an outsider, Bell Motorsports car owner/driver Forest Barber would probably come off as just another mild-mannered father of two. He's not flashy in the least, and even though his team has fought back from dead last in the point standings to...
To an outsider, Bell Motorsports car owner/driver Forest Barber would probably come off as just another mild-mannered father of two. He's not flashy in the least, and even though his team has fought back from dead last in the point standings to only point out of first, you'll never catch him strutting through the garage with an ego. That's just not his style. Instead he appears quiet and reserved, but that's only until he gets behind the wheel, as Daytona International Speedway's Mark Lewis recently found out when he went one-on-one with Forest Barber.
Let's cut to the chase. What's it like to be in the thick of the fight for the championship in your first year as a prototype driver?
"Well it's surprising honestly. We thought this would be a learning year for us and to be in the middle of the fight for the championship is really gratifying and a bit of a surprise. Make no mistake, it's pretty exciting."
How big a help has Terry (Borcheller) been in a year of transition for you? (Laughs)
"Terry has been instrumental in the process! Not only as a great coach and mentor and friend, but he's also an incredibly focused race car driver. We would not be where we are without Terry and Jim Bell and the rest of the team for sure."
You're also a powerboat racer!
"True, my previous racing experience was in powerboats."
What's the greatest difference in the two from your perspective?
"I think that car racing is more personally satisfying. In a powerboat you have a throttle man and the driver together. But whenever I'm in the car, it 's up to me to do well. It's more gratifying when I'm in the car and do well per se than when it was in the powerboat, because I always had someone beside me. Don't get me wrong, powerboating is a team experience, but the car is more gratifying on an individual basis."
How did your partnership with Bell Motorsports begin?
"Through Terry. I met Terry a couple of years ago when I was competing in the Ferrari Challenge Series, and Terry had worked with Jim Bell in the past and won championships with him in Grand-Am Cup competition a few years ago. Terry thinks that Jim is the best engineer around, and I certainly believe that. I don't have a lot of experience, but Jim has pretty good magic. He can make the car work for both me and for Terry too."
What was your first Rolex 24 like?
"Oh, it was a disappointment obviously. Exciting to be there, but it was such a rush to get there. The car showed so much potential for a car that wasn't finished. We set quick time for part of the race at least. It was a shame we couldn't have gone further but our performance showed we could make a pretty good car from what we had."
You've not only become a good road racer in this process, but you've also become a pretty good dealmaker, and that's pretty important in this business. What's more of a challenge for you - the competition or business side of motorsport?
"Well, I would say that I'm more comfortable with the competition side of it than I am the business side, but I'm very comfortable working with like-minded people who are trying to accomplish the same goals, meaning Jim Bell, Terry, etc. It's a strange environment for me to be involved in as far as people who are powerful and experienced in sports car racing, and sometimes a little bit uncomfortable, but I enjoy it, and I'm really grateful and humbled by being able to be a part of this."
You hang out on the Grand-American website Message Board from time to time. What do you gain from your interaction with the fans in that forum? (Laughs)
"At times it has been sort of hilarious! I gain a lot in that I get some pats on the back and some encouragement and some socks in the eye sometimes on that board. It's been gratifying to see that people in general are enthused about the DP class. I think I'm beginning to earn some respect from the fans in general in sports car racing which is important to me. I want to do well and I appreciate when the fans perceive me as making progress. In another way, the board has been useful in keeping me up to date on what new things might be happening in sports car racing in general. What' s been funny is seeing the shift in temperament of people who come on to the board that might not be Grand-Am fans, and especially not fans of the Daytona Prototype in particular. I think that people are jumping on the bandwagon now who might have been real nay-sayers about the class earlier in the year."
What will be your focus in the off-season?
"I'd like to run two cars next year if we can possibly do that. It makes sense. In the off-season we just continue to work hard to improve the car, and I'll work hard to improve myself. There's not a lot of off-season time, frankly. When you get to the Finale, you're suddenly looking at the tune-ups for the Rolex 24 and the Test Days, so there's not a lot of off time to be had. We have some plans of things we would like to do to the car to improve it. We've worked closely with Kevin Doran, and we continue to learn new things about the car and rub on the things we already know. It's going to be a very competitive year next year with so many new teams coming with a lot of well-established people. That is going to make for a very competitive season."
Race by race, you and Terry get closer to a possible championship. That means an unexpected rise in your popularity. Can you get through the paddock now without being stopped by the fans or media?
"Well I think it's usual business to be stopped by the media in the thick of a championship chase, but it's quite bewildering to me to be stopped by a fan asking you for an autograph. I think to myself 'How come?' It's gratifying when I think about it, but it's an unnatural thing for me personally. Terry is a known guy and he's fast and a champion, and I'm beginning to get a little bit of recognition, but it's nothing like the buzz and hum of people all around like it is in NASCAR. Someday I think we'll get 30 cars out there and there's going to be a good fan base and some sponsor recognition, which is what we need."
What about you would people find surprising?
"Just how competitive I am at heart and how intense I can be when I want to achieve something. Typically when someone asks what I do, if I ever say that I race cars, they step back and say 'Well you don't look like a race car driver.' Well, I guess I don't. I was even confused with Paul Newman recently! (Laughs) I think people find the amount of drive that I have to accomplish a goal surprising for someone of my demeanor."
If Bell wins this championship, what will be a bigger thrill for you - holding the championship trophy above your head or being called a champion?
"I think the biggest thrill for me will be being a part of a championship effort. It is by no means a single person who's going to win a championship. All of the people who work with us on the team, all the car builders, the engineers, the guys over the wall, Terry -- they're good people. It'll be a thrill if we win the championship and we get to hoist that trophy, but there will be a group of 20 people there helping me hold it up."
Can you win the Rolex 24 in 2004?
"Well, I don't know. I think we'll be well prepared to make a strong effort for it. There are so many elements that come in to winning any kind of a race be it two hours or 24. We've surprised ourselves so far this year, so we hope to continue to do great things. To win the Rolex 24 would also be a surprise, but it's out there to win for both our team and our fans as well, and we'll be working hard for that surprise."