CHAMPCAR/CART: John Ward interview

The chief engineer for Patrick Racing, John Ward, has had a large hand in the success enjoyed by driver Adrian Fernandez and Patrick Racing this season. Currently second in the chase for the CART drivers' championship, a mere five points behind ...

The chief engineer for Patrick Racing, John Ward, has had a large hand in the success enjoyed by driver Adrian Fernandez and Patrick Racing this season. Currently second in the chase for the CART drivers' championship, a mere five points behind leader Gil de Ferran, Fernandez heads to the California Speedway this weekend for the Marlboro 500 where he looks to defend his race title. A member of Patrick Racing since 1996, Ward not only is in constant contact with Fernandez during the race, but also is responsible for determining the set up of the #40 Tecate/Quaker State Ford-Cosworth and managing the team's strategy during the race. Ward's gamble on fuel strategy paid off in the most recent race in Australia where Fernandez earned his second victory of the season. Ward, whose career in racing spans nearly 30 years, reflects on the team's 2000 season thus far, Fernandez's ability as a racer and strategist, the relationship between Fernandez and his teammate, Roberto Moreno, and looks forward to this weekend's Marlboro 500.

JOHN WARD - Chief Engineer - Patrick Racing - WHAT KIND OF A SEASON HAS IT BEEN FOR YOU AND PATRICK RACING? "It's actually been relatively difficult in some ways. We started off running fairly strong but not finishing races, and then we've sort of ended up the opposite of that here at the end. Although we're running reasonably well, we're not qualifying very well, but we're finishing all the races and that's kind of been the story of our season. I think we're close to the top of the list in miles completed and laps completed, so part of where we're at is due to the fact that we've been finishing races. Adrian is a good racer - that's the big key there, he's very good in the actual race. If we could get him a car that would qualify a little bit further up (the grid) - do our job a little bit better that'll help everything. Unfortunately, later in the season we haven't been able to do that quite so well."

LIKE YOU MENTIONED, ALTHOUGH ADRIAN HAS STRUGGLED AT TIMES TO QUALIFY WELL, HE ALWAYS SEEMS TO HAVE A FAST RACE CAR. WHY IS THAT? "Well that's number one - he's quite a good racer. He never gives up and is exceptional at race strategy, so that's a big key. But some of our qualifying efforts look worse than they are and we actually have a better car than it looks like. We have a better 'race'car than it looks like, and we try and think about the race a little bit, too. That's not an excuse for not qualifying well, but we do seem to end up having a reasonable race car by Sunday afternoon in most places."

A BIG KEY TO THE SUCCESS YOU'VE ENJOYED THIS SEASON HAS BEEN YOUR CONSISTENCY. YOU'VE MANAGED TO SCORE CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS IN 12 STRAIGHT RACES AND IN 16 OF THE 19 EVENTS THUS FAR. WHAT HAS BEEN AN IMPORTANT INGREDIENT TO THAT CONSISTENCY? "It's finishing - you have to be mechanically reliable. And for the most part we have been, other than the first few races of the year. I believe that Homestead and Long Beach were two strong races we had where we qualified well and ran well but didn't finish by luck of the draw. Over the last half of the year we've been running reliably - almost completely reliably. I believe we dropped out in Detroit, and that's maybe the only one. We've had phenomenal performance from the engines and the transmissions, and the guys prepping the chassis have done a terrific job. And that's a key - a big key."

IT'S WELL KNOWN THROUGHOUT THE PADDOCK THAT BOTH ADRIAN AND TEAMMATE ROBERTO MORENO ARE ABLE TO GET VERY GOOD FUEL MILEAGE DURING THE RACE. WITHOUT GIVING ANYTHING AWAY, HOW ARE BOTH DRIVERS ABLE TO GET SUCH GOOD FUEL MILEAGE WHEN THEY'RE RUNNING VIRTUALLY THE SAME EQUIPMENT AS OTHER DRIVERS WITH AN EQUAL AMOUNT OF FUEL? "Since I've been at Patrick Racing, we've actually practiced getting good fuel mileage. Once Adrian came to grips with what it was - we all figured out what it took to get good mileage without slowing us down - he basically continued to work on it. And Roberto has picked all that up and done a terrific job of absorbing that information and making good use of it as well. I mean, it's an art to get good fuel mileage and still not go slow. As a matter of fact, with what we've found we can get good mileage and still go reasonably quick, so it's just working at it. It takes a lot of work and you have to devote some of your time to accomplishing that, and Adrian has devoted a large amount of time to doing that."

LOOKING FORWARD TO THE RACE THIS WEEKEND, ARE YOU PLANNING ON DOING ANYTHING SPECIAL IN YOUR PREPARATION OR ARE YOU APPROACHING IT AS YOU WOULD ANY OTHER 500-MILE RACE? "It's just like any other race to us. We'd like to win it and that's our goal, but I think the points will take care of themselves. You can get awfully confused trying to figure out all the scenarios that could happen should this happen or that happen, but in the end if we just do what we can do, which is win the race, then everything else will take care of itself. If we win it, then we've done the most we can do, so we're essentially just approaching it like any other race. We've got to do the same job we've doing all year and not get too nervous about it or too keyed up because it's just another race. There's a lot at stake and you can worry about that, but it really doesn't do you any good. What does do you some good is to do the same job you've been doing all year to try and win it."

IT CERTAINLY SOUNDS LIKE YOU'RE NOT FEELING ANY EXTRA PRESSURE AND ARE TRYING TO DOWNPLAY WHAT'S AT STAKE. "Well, yeah, you try and downplay it. I'm sure everybody realizes what's at stake and realizes the fact that in life you don't get too many opportunities like this one. Everybody realizes that, but the trick is to not become consumed by worrying about what's going to happen. In the end the only thing you have control over is what you do, and essentially the key here is to just do the job we've always been doing and do the best we can to try and win the race. I'm sure Adrian approaches it the same way. That's all we can do. We can't control anything else. We can't control anybody else on the track or any of the conditions we're going to race in -we can only influence what's going to happen to us, so we've just got to concentrate on that. And that's what we do anyway, so it's really no different than any other race for us, this just happens to be the last race of the season. There've been 19 races before this and we've done the same things at all of them, so I guess we'll just continue to do what got us here."

WERE YOU SOMEWHAT SURPRISED TO BE IN THIS POSITION HEADING TO FONTANA CONSIDERING HOW THE FIRST TWO DAYS WENT FOR YOU IN AUSTRALIA? "Well, I think the whole season has been somewhat of a surprise in that the last two or three years we've become used to somebody running off into the distance points-wise and sort of dominating the championship race. This year, obviously, has been nothing like that at all. I think when Jimmy Vasser won in 1996 it was a little more like this season. I don't know what's normal or abnormal, but yeah, it's a little surprising. We got the most that we could in Surfer's (Paradise), and we had said all along that we really needed to win a couple of races to do well in the championship, not even thinking about winning it, but just doing well. We had to keep going fast because it was so close that five or 10 points could drop you back four or five places, so you really had to keep focused here. We ended up coming out of Australia with 20 points and fortunately for us, but unfortunately for them, (Paul) Tracy, (Gil) de Ferran, Michael (Andretti) - a lot of the guys who were right in there didn't get anything, so they must be terribly disappointed. So, yeah, we're fortunate and somewhat surprised."

ADRIAN AND ROBERTO SEEM TO SPEND A LOT OF TIME DEBRIEFING WITH EACH OTHER ON PIT ROAD FOLLOWING SESSIONS, SHARING WHAT WORKED AND WHAT DIDN'T WORK. HOW MUCH HAS BOTH ADRIAN AND ROBERTO MEANT TO EACH OTHER'S SUCCESS THIS SEASON? "Everything we have is shared. This team truly works as a team, so there's nothing that's held in secret from the other team. Ed Nathman is Roberto's engineer, and we sit together in the office and debrief the drivers in the same room after each session. It's normal for conversation to take place between the drivers and the engineers, sharing information to try and come to a rationale for what happened and maybe a plan for what to do next. I really don't know how other teams work and I'm sure they're all different to some extent, but I know that at Patrick Racing the 'books are open,' so to speak."

THAT WOULD EXPLAIN WHY BOTH DRIVERS ARE WITHIN 22 POINTS OF LEADING THE POINTS CHAMPIONSHIP WITH ONE RACE REMAINING. "Roberto brought quite a bit to the team, and he's very young for his age. He's got that youthful enthusiasm and he really brought a spark and new ideas and new energy to the team. Adrian or any driver deep down inside wants a teammate that pushes them hard, and at times you would question whether Adrian was pushing Roberto or Roberto was pushing Adrian, and it was very close all year long between the two guys. It created sort of a 'healthy tension' within the team and makes each of them strive to be better than they are right now. Sometimes if you can see that your teammate has done this, it makes you think, 'well, by golly, I ought to be able to do that, too.' It's been quite good and I think it's been beneficial, and as you say, it's been very, very close. I think it's a shame that either driver has to end up behind the other one because they've both helped each other and respect each other as drivers."

ADRIAN HAS BEEN VERY SUCCESSFUL IN 500-MILE RACES. THE DEFENDING CHAMPION IN THIS WEEKEND'S RACE, HE HAS ALSO POSTED THREE STRAIGHT TOP-FOUR FINISHES AT THE CALIFORNIA SPEEDWAY IN ADDITION TO RUNNING WELL AT MICHIGAN. IS THERE SOMETHING YOU SEE THAT MAKES HIM SO SUCCESSFUL IN 500-MILE RACES? "Hmmm, I don't know exactly what that would be. He really likes that sort of track as much as any driver can like a place like Fontana or Michigan. My take on Adrian after working with him for so many years is that he likes ... the faster the better. He likes Elkhart Lake for instance. Heck, not only likes it - he loves Elkhart Lake, and that's a fast road course, so I think that sort of thing just suits him to a 'T' in a way. I think the fact that he's such a good racer and a strategist as a racer that these 500-milers end up being strategy-type races. He's able to think on his feet and you can have a conversation with him while he's out there (on the track) and you know he's thinking clearly about the strategy. He'll ask you a question about something, 'what can we do from here?' He's always thinking about saving a pit stop or whatever happens to be what we're trying to achieve, so I think it's a combination of all those things. But he's very quick on those types of tracks anyway - they just suit his style, and then you combine that with his race strategy, I guess. I just hope that's not going to be bad luck for us this weekend (laughter)."

IT SOUNDS LIKE HE'S SIMILAR TO A 'PLAYER/COACH' IN BASKETBALL, AND IS A REAL STUDENT OF RACING. HE DOESN'T JUST GO OUT ON THE TRACK AND DO WHAT YOU TELL HIM TO DO, BUT IS INVOLVED IN THE DECISION-MAKING PROCESS. "Absolutely, he knows intimately what's going on. We typically have a meeting before the race with (team owner) Pat Patrick, (general manager) Jim McGee and the drivers and engineers for both cars where we'll discuss the strategies and how they might evolve during the race, so it's not a one-man thing by any means. There's a bit of a plan involved for as much as you can plan for the future. Although I realize that no one really knows the future, you can think about what might happen and play out various scenarios to try and understand the best decision you can make to give you the best chance of success. The whole thing is not a one-man or a two-man thing, it's a whole team involved from Pat Patrick on down trying to achieve this goal, so there's lot of discussion about strategy. Pat Patrick loves that part of the business - he enjoys that aspect. I think he likes to play poker."

WELL IT APPEARS THAT MORE GAMBLES HAVE PAID OFF THAN HAVE NOT PAID OFF THIS SEASON. "So far. But we've had some that didn't pay off - they just don't say too much about those (laughter)."

ALTHOUGH IT'S EARLY, HAVE YOU ANY THOUGHTS ON WHAT KIND OF STRATEGY YOU PLAN TO EMPLOY IN THE RACE THIS WEEKEND? "We did a test there a couple of weeks ago and developed our Fontana set up, which last year was okay but not great. Speed-wise we were okay, not great. I think towards the end of the race, specifically the last segment, we actually got the set up pretty close by manipulating the tire pressures and the wings and such. But we thought we needed a little bit better chassis than we had before, so we ran a two-day test with Adrian and Roberto and we think we've improved it. We did a fair bit of work out there, so hopefully we've got a better set up going into the weekend. And that's about the only strategy you can have at this point. We've just got to make sure we get ourselves as good a race car as we can get, and Adrian has a pretty good feel for what a good race car is. The driver needs to have a feel for that to know, 'yeah, that's a good race car,' or 'this car's going to have trouble later in the race,' and he's pretty good at picking that out. So probably our primary focus is going to be getting a good car for the race because you can obviously win this race from the front of the field or the back of the field - it doesn't really matter."

SOMETIMES DRIVERS WILL NOT QUALIFY WELL, BUT REMAIN CONFIDENT THAT THEY'LL HAVE A GOOD CAR FOR THE RACE. "To some extent on a road course, a qualifying car and a race car are not necessarily the same - they're not going to feel the same. But that's true to a much greater extent on an oval track. Whatever you qualify with on an oval you'd better not try and race with it - you need to have something a little different for the long race. Ovals are particularly that way, and Adrian's got a good feel for that."

LOOKING TO THIS WEEKEND, WHAT THINGS CONCERN YOU ABOUT A 500-MILE RACE SUCH AS THIS? "Reliability - we want to be able to run all day. If we can run all day, we think we'll be okay. That's our number one concern, and is probably everyone else's concern. Five hundred miles is an endurance race for us - we don't do it but twice a year. And getting a good race set up - that's probably number two. The thing I can influence the most is being helpful in getting a good race set up for the car."

AND, OF COURSE, THERE IS THE ELEMENT OF 'LOTTERY.' YOU CAN BE RUNNING ALL BY YOURSELF AND SUDDENLY GET CAUGHT UP IN ANOTHER INCIDENT AND YOUR DAY IS OVER. "Oh yeah. That can certainly happen and there's many, many things can happen in a 500. In almost any race you can say that, but in a 500 there's probably going to be more stories about things that happened. Hopefully, we'll just have a nice, clean race like we've had in the past, run all day and see where we end up at the end. Hopefully, it'll be good enough."

WHAT WOULD WINNING A CHAMPIONSHIP MEAN TO YOU, TO PATRICK RACING AND TO ADRIAN? "Pat Patrick has won them before, but there's a lot of guys on the team that haven't, so it would be a huge milestone in anybody's career in racing - to be involved with a championship-winning team. For a driver, it's kind of a seal of approval. Anytime you're introduced from that day forward you're going to be introduced as a champion. It's probably like winning the Indianapolis 500. It's one of those things that's a milestone - a mark on your career that you put a bullet-point next to and say that's one thing that he's done. So I think it would be huge - it would be a big thing for Adrian, that's for sure, and it would be huge for the rest of us on the team. We don't get too much out of it monetarily, but we get the satisfaction and the enjoyment of being involved, and Adrian's going to get that part of it too, if we do it. But we don't want to get our hopes up. We don't even want to think about it (laughter)."

Be part of something big

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Gil de Ferran , Jimmy Vasser , Adrian Fernandez , Roberto Moreno