SONOMA, Calif. (Aug. 19, 2008) -- With all the recent buzz surrounding the goings-on in Beijing and the Games of the 29th Olympiad, the exploits of record-setting U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps and his eight gold medals has had SunTrust Racing driver...
SONOMA, Calif. (Aug. 19, 2008) -- With all the recent buzz surrounding the goings-on in Beijing and the Games of the 29th Olympiad, the exploits of record-setting U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps and his eight gold medals has had SunTrust Racing driver Max Angelelli not-so-fondly recalling the days of his Italian youth, when his family had him chasing a decade-long dream toward Olympic swimming greatness of his own -- or so they thought.
From age six until a racing career of a completely different kind began to take hold at age 16, Angelelli remembered having to endure "agonizing" and "monotonous" daily workouts in the pool during the week, then constant travel on the weekends from swim meet to swim meet throughout his native Italy. And he didn't much care for it, he admits to this day, because he just wasn't winning races nearly often enough. Mostly to blame, he says, was his flat-out style right off the starting block, which more often than not led him to run out of gas -- figuratively -- while competitors in the lanes around him beat him to the finish. He does cherish, however, a picture he once had made with another American swimming great, Mark Spitz, whose 1972 record of seven Olympic gold medals was surpassed by Phelps in Beijing just last weekend.
As Angelelli and co-driver Michael Valiante take their No. 10 SunTrust Pontiac Dallara of Wayne Taylor Racing (WTR) to Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., for Saturday's Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series Armed Forces 250, the Italian driving ace hopes to take another long-overdue trip to the medal stand -- er, podium -- as the SunTrust team looks to finish out the final three events of the season with a much-needed flourish.
While 2008 is an Olympic year, a leap year and a U.S. presidential election year all rolled into one, it has also been the most trying campaign on record for a proud SunTrust Racing heritage that, in the four years preceding it, has earned a Rolex Series championship, three other top-three finishes in the season-ending points, 11 victories and a seemingly unheard-of 30 podium finishes in 52 races.
Oh, there are certainly moments to be proud of for Angelelli and Valiante this season, from their season-opening fifth-place run at the Rolex 24 At Daytona alongside team owner Wayne Taylor and his 18-year-old son Ricky, to the introduction of the ever-so-promising Dallara chassis at Homestead, Fla., in March, to the overwhelming response from the Grand-Am community that got WTR back on track just 19 days after a devastating transporter fire, to the pole position and podium finish at the team's very next race at Watkins Glen, N.Y., and three pole qualifying efforts and 63 laps led in all thus far.
Still, for drivers and crew who are accustomed to hoisting trophies and spraying champagne after almost 60% of the races they had run prior to this season, it's been a difficult season to endure, but nothing that a three-pack of podium finishes starting this weekend at the scenic, 2.52-mile, 12-turn road circuit at Infineon, with a victory or two to boot, wouldn't cure.
Angelelli, for one, is more than ready to mount one of his all-out sprints to the finish. And strapped comfortably in the seat of his high-powered SunTrust Racing machine, rather than splashing along in lane four at the "Water Cube" in Beijing, he has no doubt he'll have enough in the tank to get him there.
Max Angelelli, co-driver of the No. 10 SunTrust Racing Pontiac Dallara:
This is your third visit to Infineon Raceway with the Rolex Series after posting fourth-place results the past two seasons. Do you suppose, with the new SunTrust Pontiac Dallara, that this third time will be a charm?
"I have a very interesting reason for thinking that we will have a very good weekend in Sonoma. Infineon is a race track that hasn't brought us a good result, so far. Now, I have looked back at all the race tracks we have gone to this season where we always seemed to have good results in the past, and where we expected to have good results this year because of that, and we have come away disappointed. So, if Sonoma has not brought us good results, and if we go there thinking it will be very difficult again for us this weekend, then I think this time we will have a good result. That makes sense, doesn't it? Seriously, we are still working hard and fighting our way through various things that need to be worked out with our new car. It's been hard and it's been a difficult season, as everybody knows. A lot of times, it seems we are still fighting an uphill battle. But I know I have to be positive. I am positive. It's just that we keep saying 'you'll see, you'll see, you'll see.' Hopefully, this weekend we can have that great result where we can finally say, 'you see?'"
You say it's been a difficult year in a lot of respects. Despite continued nagging problems or incidents on the race track, you've recently posted three consecutive finishes well inside the top-10. Does that offer any indication of good results down the stretch?
"It's amazing what a difference a year makes. Last year, we were complaining when we were finishing third or second. I remember very well last year when we finished second at a race and everybody was so mad. This year, we've only had a single podium finish, so far. That's really difficult when you consider this has been a racing program that, in its first four years, was on the podium almost 60 percent of the time. Obviously, our new car is still a work in progress. But we really couldn't blame the car for a lot of the finishes we have had this year that were not so good. Despite all of that, we are all very positive and we will keep working hard. The podiums and the wins will come."
In the spirit of the Olympic Games that have captivated the sporting world once again these last few weeks, you are reminded of your days as a competitive swimmer when you were a young boy. Did you have Olympic dreams?
"I don't think it was my dream as much as it was my family's dream. I swam for 10 years, every single day. I would practice for hours at a time. I would go racing all around Italy. I did it for so long. I even had a picture made with Mark Spitz when he was at one of my swimming meets. I was just going and going and going from the time I was six until I was about 16. I just couldn't do it anymore. I hated it so much. I wasn't winning. Maybe that's why I didn't like it. I was always leading up to the last 25 meters, but then I was done. All the way I was flat out. That was the problem. I am so happy that I had the opportunity to get into car racing. I still go flat out all the time, but in car racing we have yellow flags, so we can catch our breath every once in a while. You don't have those in swimming!"
Michael Valiante, co-driver of the No. 10 SunTrust Racing Pontiac Dallara:
Considering Infineon Raceway is a track you lived near and were based at for two years, you haven't had a great deal of actual racing experience there. What do you think about coming back for this weekend's Armed Forces 250?
"I lived just outside of downtown Sonoma for two years (2002-2003) when I raced for the Lynx (Champ Car) Atlantic team, which was based there. I love it. If I couldn't live in Vancouver, I'd live in Sonoma, for sure. Oddly enough, we never raced there in Atlantics. They thought the track was too dangerous for those cars. I've raced Grand-Am there a few times. We finished sixth there in 2006 (with Rob Finlay and the Essex Racing team). It's one of the most challenging tracks on the schedule. I really enjoy it. It's a really nice facility and I'm looking forward to going back there. It's challenging because it has huge elevation changes, and it'll be another hot race, which will make it physically demanding, as well. Technically, with the elevation changes and the fast corners, you have to have your car set-up just right to be able to run well there. With our new Dallara there for the first time, I'm confident we can come up with the right combination."
Wayne Taylor, owner of the No. 10 SunTrust Racing Pontiac Dallara team:
What are your overall thoughts as the series heads out west to Sonoma this weekend?
"We did a tire test the Monday after Watkins Glen and the team has done a really good job rebuilding the car for Infineon. On one hand, I'm not quite sure what to expect. It seems every time we go into a race feeling positive, something seems to happen to make things difficult for us. I think the biggest thing is that we're still playing catch-up when you think about everything that's happened to us this year. Simon (Hodgson, general manager,) and the guys have worked the whole (off) weekend, once again, to make sure everything is right for Infineon. We didn't have a winning car at Infineon last year. But that's not to say our new Dallara, in its first race there, isn't going to deliver a really strong result."
With the season down to just three more races, how is everybody holding up considering all that has gone on, and what do you hope to accomplish by season's end?
"Well, there's not been a year for this SunTrust Racing program where we haven't won at least one race. So, with three more races to go, we want to do everything we can to keep that streak alive. This year has definitely turned into a development year for us. It's definitely been trying, at times. We need to win for so many reasons. We just need to go out and figure out, once and for all, how to win a race this year. We've done it so many times before. It feels like it's been such a long year, and sometimes I wonder if we can just keep everyone's morale up. The guys are amazing, but they're also human. A win would cure so many things. Let's just go out and give it our usual maximum effort for what's left in the season and make good things happen."