CHAMPCAR/CART: Chicago manufacturers' forum

Participants: Russ Cameron, Pac West (Mercedes-Benz) Tony Cotman, Team KOOL Green (Honda) Mark Johnson, PPI (Toyota) Ken Siwieck, Newman-Haas (Ford) Q. Halfway through the season, tell us where each of you are at with your teams? Ken...

Russ Cameron, Pac West (Mercedes-Benz)
Tony Cotman, Team KOOL Green (Honda)
Mark Johnson, PPI (Toyota)
Ken Siwieck, Newman-Haas (Ford)

Q. Halfway through the season, tell us where each of you are at with your teams?

Ken Siwieck (F): Halfway through the season, we're finishing up three in a row which is very difficult thing for all the teams. The level of competition in this series is so close. It's difficult to keep everbody focused to finish the rest of the season hard.

Mark Johnson (T): Running back-to-back-to-back it's been extremely hard, specifically on a team based in Southern California like PPI. It's been extremely difficult on the entire crew itself. Trying to keep everyone's motivation and focus between the race season and the test season is becoming increasingly difficult. But, I know the guys will finish up here this weekend and then we've got a test at Elkhart and then they've got a well-deserved weekend off. From a competition standpoint, we're extremely pleased with the progress that PPI has made, and specifically the progress Toyota has made with their engine program. We are extremely excited about heading into the second part of the season. We started off a little bit slow this year. We had a little bit of a restructuring at the beginning of the year - both in management and with the crew. Our Telefonica deal came together at the 11th hour - literally - and it take a little while, like anything else, to meld the team structure with new drivers and new engineers. But the results the last few weeks have been extremely encouraging on behalf of both Cristiano and Oriol. We are really looking forward to the second half of the season.

Russ Cameron (MB): I wish I could be as positive as Mark. We've had, obviously, a struggling year this year with PacWest. Our highlight was a second-place finish at Nazareth with Mauricio. We've had our ups and downs - a pretty severe crash with Mark. It hasn't been great, but we have a great team of engineers and mechanics at PacWest. We've got good support back at our workshop. The schedule is very difficult. I hope the owners will make some moves to help us for next year. All in all, I think it's gone well so far. We haven't been at the front, but I think by tail end of the season we'll move forward.

Tony Cotman (H): We pretty much started the season very well, especially with Paul. We went on a pretty good string of podium finishes. That's what you have to do to accumulate points. Dario's coming on real good right now. It's more tough right now with these back-to-back races, but it's the same for everybody. We're extremely pleased with the performance of the Honda and right now I feel we've got the best package out there. So, we're looking forward to a strong finish.

Q. Expansion of the schedule, how difficult is it to retain your crewmen and team members.

Cotman: I think you've just got to maintain a good team atmosphere. If you can keep your guys happy then they aren't going to go looking around. Obviously, results have a lot to do with it. If you're running up front it makes it a little bit easier. We've got plenty of races, but everybody's in the same boat. It's an issue (to retain crew members) every year. It's nothing to do with how many races or that the season's changed and we're going overseas. Some teams have it more than others, but you're always going to get turn over. You just have to keep it to a minimum and make it a little easier.

Cameron: I agree with Tony 100%. It depends on the owners and how organized they want to be with the schedule. I think the series is what keeps the mechanics we have involved. They know it's a very professional series. When you win in this series or do well, that's a real accomplishment. That's why we keep good people here.

Q. What about the two teams that aren't based in Indianapolis. What problems do you have?

Johnson: We're being cautiously optimistic (about PPI's move from Calif. to N.C.). With motorsports elevating itself over the course of the last 10 years or so, it's business, just like any other business. I know from our standpoint, we go the extra mile to take care of our people...whether it's insurance benefits, a 401K program. Whether it be with the quality of life they live. We try to provide as many resources as we can. Being based in California has been extremely difficult. I'm not sure how much of a benefit it's going to be to be based in North Carolina because demographically it's still not Indianapolis or Chicago. It should be a little bit better for them. We estimate we can get them home for another 30 days than we've got now where are guys are spending about 200 days a year on the road. We try to offer the highest quality of life we can. We try to be very family-oriented. Every place we go, we try to get wives in or girl friends in or get the guys home when we can. I think you just have to pay a lot of much attention as you can to quality of life, specifically with the mechanics who are down in the trenches every day. They do have a series right across the street in Indianapolis and we're fortunate that we don't have the problem with where we are at right now, but in North Carolina, take it from me that's a tough schedule as well. With 36 races and the amount of testing that's done down there. They bill it as a very limited testing schedule down there, but what most people don't know that is if you want to test down south, you can test 365 days a year if you would like to. You just can't test at the tracks you race at.

Siwieck: You have to take care of your people. With the IRL as a competitive series, it's made skilled help more difficult to attract. I think that management really needs to recognize it and really look after your people and make sure they are happy. If they are happy, you need to keep them happy or otherwise you're going to have a problem. I think all of us recognize the need to keep good people with us...we're not here to lose them.

Q. Should there be a training ground for new mechanics?

Siwieck: You're absolutely right. The CAM (Championship Auto Mechanics) organization has started a little school and that's started to come on. I know we've talked to some of their candidates there and there's a lot of potential. With our situation being up in Chicago, we're not in Indianapolis, it's a little more difficult on our team trying to hire people away from that environment in a competitive labor market. So we have to work a little harder to get people to come up here and consider working for us. We do have a benefit with some of the travel. With O'Hare you can get a direct fly to just about anywhere in the world where I know that a lot of the guys in Indy have to make connections and it stretches out there trip a little more.

Cameron: It is a struggle to find and train and keep people in this series if they haven't really grown with. When I started this series we were doing 14 or 15 races and there was a totally different atmosphere than there is today. So when you get new people and introduce them to 180 days on the road and that sort of thing can be very difficult. We use the CAM organization as well, we also bring people up from our Indy Lights organization. We give them some training there before they move into Champ Cars. You just have to look everywhere. Aviation schools, anywhere you can find people that are trying to find the more technical aspects of aircraft, cars or whatever it amounts to.

Cotman: We use our Indy Lights program to bring people up. They can get a little training. They can help you out a little on a few tests here and there when they can. It just makes it very important that if there's guys you want to keep you better take care of them.

Q. How can they make things better with the schedule with 22 races?

Cameron: There's a few simple things that I could start with. If races could be positioned on our calendar geographically. Specifically, if they were close to each other. If you went road course to road course, it's better than going from road course to oval or vice versa. Back-to back events can be very difficult, but if you go road course to road course like Elkhart to Mid-Ohio those sort of scenarios don't work too bad. But a one-day turnaround from a road course to an oval is very difficult and I think CART has failed to understand the logistics of that. I think it's forced owners to get more people and more equipment and that unto itself has created more headaches.

Cotman: I think the worst thing is the 500s really. At Michigan, you come from a road course and you're expected in 2 or 3 days to turn your car around to run Michigan. I don't think it's good for safety. It's too hard on your guys. By the time you get to Michigan, you're already worn out. Then you have to tool up and get ready for a 500-miler. I just think it's a little difficult. Back-to-backs on roads, back-to-backs on ovals. I'm in favor of limiting testing even more. It wouldn't bother me if we didn't have any testing in-season because you've got enough races now that I think we can limit it to maybe 50% percent or something like six in-season test days would be more than adequate.

Johnson: I think that Bobby (Rahal) has brought forth some real good ideas. Actually being in the trenches and dealing with the problems on a day-to-day basis, he has some real creative ideas as it pertains to testing and race weekends. All I can do is mimic the same thing. I think we all run into the same problems with logistics and turnarounds. I think we need to be extremely careful from a safety aspect. You can't turn these things around in one day from a road course to a super speedway and then expect these guys to go out and run 240-250 mph. I think we're starting to stretch things a bit. I really don't think we can lose sight of the safety aspects of things. The guys working on them are no different than you or I. They work hard, unfortunately, they can't make mistakes or it can cost us big. We really need to work a lot smarter, but we need help from the sanctioning body on the logistics part of it.

Siwieck: In a meeting last week, Bobby did have some good ideas and he bounced some of them off us and he's coming with some good direction for the series. With all of us working together, he's asked for some more input from the managers to give him some better ideas instead of just delegating stuff without any feedback. There's talk of some small committees being formed to work with the CART administration to get things flowing smoother so that when we do arrive at these events some of the tech procedures can be improved, some of the scheduling, configuration to configuration on consecutive weekends is very helpful. We can't push these guys too far. If something does happen, it's not a little mistake it can be very costly. Not only in dollars, but in somebody's life. They need to recognize that everybody has their limit, we're just human beings. If they work with us a little bit and listen to some of our ideas that I think we're going to move this series forward to where it needs to be. Maybe some ovals you could even trim them back to two-day events. On Friday, you set up, on Saturday you practice and qualify and race on Sunday. There's some room for improvement and with Bobby's leadership and his ideas are really going to take this series farther.

Q. Have you had that kind of commitment solicited in the past?

Siwieck: This is my first year as a team manager and with Andrew Craig, in my previous capacity, I always thought that a deaf ear was turned on to some of the ideas from within the series that it was more of an administrative task. I think that Bobby is seeking help and ideas from within and it's going to be extremely helpful to the series.

Q. How were things when you only had 14 races to now?

Siwieck: I think what you're obviously going to have to do since the number of events has grown you have to work more efficiently. You have to streamline things with more spares. If you do a lot of testing, you need a test team and that calls for a lot more equipment, trucks and personnel. We've grown probably 10 to 12 people which is not enough. I think we all could go out and hire another 10 or 20 people and they would be absorbed because the work load is so great. The preparation on these cars is so intricate. It's a very fine piece of machinery that's apart more than it's together. The attention to detail. You need more people and good people.

Johnson: Certainly, I think that if you're going to increase the races, you need to decrease the amount of testing and that's what we're looking at for next year. With the increase in races and the logistic nightmares it's going to create and whether we like it or not, it's going to force everybody to look at different way of doing business in some degree than we have in the past. I know with the chassis freeze and the transmission freeze, hopefully we're going to roll some cars over at the end of the year. I know for us specifically, we're starting to lay things out to have specific road course cars and specific oval cars. We've learned a lot this year in the NASCAR formula and how things rotate things in and out every week. If they have two cars at the race track, there's six cars being prepared for subsequent weekends. Essentially, the guys at the race track go in and work on the cars, go home and pick up the cars for the next week. They put the cars on the set-up pad and if they're wrecked, they go to the chassis shop and I think we're going to have to look at a lot of those things. It's one of the things we're going to have to work harder with next year.

Q. What about second shifts?

Cameron: We haven't actually done a second shift, but he have done some off-set hours very early mornings for the shop people to come in get things apart and that seems to be enough. We're staffed pretty well. The key to scheduling next year is that if they want to add races, I don't think that's much of an issue if they really make sense of our testing and cut back on that. It really doesn't help us much if we only have a couple of back-to-back races in the year and then every gap in there is filled with a test. Essentially to us, test days are as hard as race weekends - they're harder. You spend more time having to be focused on race cars than you might at a race weekend. I think if CART can get control of the testing that most of the teams are prepared to do more racing.

Cotman: We just use guys at the shop to come in a little earlier and get some cars apart for us by the time the race crews come in. You really just have to streamline stuff. It's efficiency. If we ever get to the situation where we've got 10 cars like PPI that we can turn around like that, great, that would be a luxury. I don't see it getting like that for most the teams will get to that. It's just got to be more efficient. I don't have a problem with more races, providing the testing is more limited.

Q. What would you suggest to change the grind on the teams?

Cameron: If you think back to Michigan just last weekend. I thought the schedule there, with an 8 a.m. practice on Saturday morning, that's a grind. Most teams stayed in Ann Arbor - 30, 40, 50 minutes away from the race track - and these engines require a couple of hours of maintenance in the morning before they go on the race track. That's when it really catches up on you. It really is a grind. The guys get tired and that's where your big teams really do have an advantage over the smaller teams. They can stick fresh people in there or get guys time off to spend with their families. I know some of my guys went home from Michigan and I gave the guys Monday off and a lot of them slept til 1 p.m. Those are tired people.

Q. What do you think of stretching the season to 12 months?

Cotman: No, we need vacations, too (laughing). I think you can stretch the season out a little bit - 9 or 10 months max. We need down time and time to prepare cars for the upcoming season. I really don't agree with a 12-month schedule. You know you're working 12 months now doing the same thing, but I don't want to race for 12 months.

Q. What do you suggest for pit lane safety?

Cotman: The first thing I'd try to do is make bigger pit boxes. There are a few races that we do have bigger pit boxes. I'm not saying that's the answer because we have had a few incidents with reasonable size pit boxes, but it certainly would make a difference if we could get a little more room to work around. A couple incidents, our incident, that happened was a mix-up with a driver leaving and driver coming in and those things happen and one of our guys got run down on the way in because I feel it was too tight. I feel in that situation that if we would have had a bigger pit box I think everything would have been ok. There's always going to be incidents, we just have to minimize them and look toward safety. You know we can't go out there in full body suits. It's just a fact of life that we have six guys over the wall and it's a risk every time you get over there. They're looking at some good ways at refueling the car and there might be a couple of new ideas that might be in for next year. We just need to work with the other teams and come up with the best solution we all agree on.

Johnson: It's a complex question. I think there's a lot more to it than what can we do to make the pit stops safer? I think right now everybody is pushing the envelope so hard in the pits because of the, let's say aero packages we have on the track that's forcing the racing to be so close and everything is so close - whether it's superspeedways or short ovals that it's no secret that the easiest place to make spots right now is in the pits. So we've been forced into a situation that we have to cut every corner we can feasibly cut to try to find as much speed as we can. That's just the nature of competition. On the otherhand, I know that we're all beating this logistics thing as hard as we can and taking care of your people to a fault, but we've had a couple of incidents the past two years - last year with Scott Pruett in Japan and last week at Michigan. After watching the video tape over and over again, I'm still not convinced that our mistake was nothing more than fatigue - mental fatigue. We made a very serious mistake in the pits last week. After reviewing the videos, I, for the life of me, can't come up with anything other than mental fatigue. Our guys have been on the road for pushing six weeks now and they're tired after these turnarounds. Again, I think it's a lot more complex question than how can we make pit stops safer. I think it reverts back to the race track and logistics and so on.

Q. Why are you guys still here - what keeps you working in the sport?

Cameron: I know a lot of people who have popped in and out of this series but they've come back because it is a close fraternity of really quality professionals. It's enjoyable to come in and work with these people. People that care so much about what they're doing and about the series. I think that's the key to it.

Johnson: I feel like a rookie in this series. I've been here for six years, but I've been involved in motorsports for over 25 - specifically on the motorcyle end, everything from Grand Prix racing to factory motocross and I think that everyone strives to be the best. Everybody wants to be involved with the best organization. I think the reason that we're here and haven't been lured away by another series is because we honestly do believe it's the most professional and upstanding of all of the organizations out there. I really feel that with Bobby's leadership. As committed as he to this thing right now, that we have a real opportunity here to take this thing a level higher than it's ever seen before. The quality people like these guys (fellow team managers) and everybody else up and down the pit lane that makes the series what it is today.

Siwieck: I find it very gratifying to be associated with an esteemed group of people - all professionals. If you achieve some success in this series competing against quality people like this. If you have the good fortune to win one of these deals it's just something that's difficult to describe. It's a pleasure to be a part of it. It's something that doesn't come in your paycheck, it's just something that comes from inside.

Cotman: I like it because you can see your buddies every week-in and week-out and catch up on all the scoop. You can try to whip up on them on the race track or try put a beating on them in the pits. For some reason, when you get into racing, you just can't get out.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Scott Pruett