This week in Ford Racing 2001-08-07 CART FedEx Series Neil Micklewright, who joined Forsythe Racing as Vice-President of Operations in 1994, has been involved in auto racing for more than 25 years. Under Micklewright's guidance, Player's...
This week in Ford Racing 2001-08-07
CART FedEx Series
Neil Micklewright, who joined Forsythe Racing as Vice-President of Operations in 1994, has been involved in auto racing for more than 25 years. Under Micklewright's guidance, Player's Forsythe won the 1995 Indy Lights Championship - the team's first title - with driver Greg Moore. Micklewright took some time before the Miller Lite 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course to talk about the team's recent run of success and reflect on his drivers, Patrick Carpentier and Alex Tagliani.
NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT - Vice-President of Operations, Player's/Forsythe Racing
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE SEASON THAT THE TEAM HAS HAD THUS FAR?
"Obviously, our season started off not as well as we hoped it would. Purely from a reliability point of view I think with the exception of Nazareth, where we shot ourselves in the foot, basically we've been very competitive. And that's the result of some fairly major changes that we made internally during the offseason as far as moving people around and restructuring the team and bringing aboard Bruce Ashmore and Tony Cicale to work with the drivers. We had high hopes and certainly we showed up at the first few races where we were competitive but we did have some reliability issues which stopped us from scoring the points that we felt we should've gotten early in the year. Since then we haven't made any drastic changes because we had a fundamental belief in the procedure that we were following and now it's starting to bear fruit."
WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO MAKE THOSE OFFSEASON CHANGES?
"You take a look at the last few years and one of my jobs is to try and identify the areas of weakness within the team. Obviously, we have a fine sponsor in Player's and an unusual situation in that both Player's and Gerry Forsythe both own 50 percent of the team. So it was really a question of me looking and trying to identify what I felt was holding us back. What I found was over the last couple of years we had certainly taken care of an awful lot of issues here and there, but now it was a question of where do we go from here? I felt that the engineering department needed help and that we needed to restructure that area and go in some different directions as far as overall development was concerned. We're a team that historically had not had a particularly large and/or ambitious development program, so we decided that was an area that we needed to concentrate more on and to recruit the personnel necessary to run that properly."
WHAT LED YOU TO HIRING BRUCE ASHMORE AND TONY CICALE?
"Specifically, it pretty much began with Bruce Ashmore. Bruce and I have known each other for many years and I've always had a great deal of respect for him and his achievements as a racecar designer and engineer. We've never had a technical director in the past and I felt that a technical director that could firmly take hold of the whole program and steer all the various attributes of our development program would be a key person, so he was the first on board. Then we got into discussions with Tony and Tony very much looks for a challenge in what he's doing and he felt that certainly [Alex] Tagliani was still pretty raw and rough. But he also thought there was an opportunity for him to enjoy what he does best, which is to get inside a driver's head and help him with that respect, so it was pretty much a natural domino effect of one thing after another."
WITH THAT BEING SAID, HOW DIFFICULT WAS IT TO ENDURE THE BEGINNING OF THE SEASON AND THE DISAPPOINTING RESULTS?
"Well, it was terribly rough, but I think as in most endeavors it's all in the recovery. At the beginning of the year when we said we have Bruce Ashmore and we have Tony Cicale, a much expanded development program and specific aims and goals to come out and be competitive and then not be able to get the car to finish a race was very frustrating. And of course it created quite a bit of tension, not necessarily within the team, but from perhaps with observers on the outside the team. But as I mentioned earlier, with one exception perhaps in Mexico, I think the failures that we had on the cars were very much in the 'freak' category; things that habitually do not fail or things that we haven't had fail in the past. We had some weird things going on and I think a lot of that goes down to luck. So it was certainly tough and it was frustrating for the guys, especially after we had probably our best ever offseason testing sessions as far as being competitive and being 100 percent reliable. We'd never enjoyed that kind of record before so it was even more of a crushing blow to get to Mexico and the few races thereafter and find that we couldn't make the cars run race distances after we'd done so many race distances during the winter. But again, it's in the recovery and I think that we all had the confidence that what we were doing was correct and recognized freak issues for what they were instead of overreacting. We basically said that we were going to make this work and areas on the car that we felt were weak or unreliable were addressed in a very aggressive way."
AFTER BOTH OF YOUR DRIVERS FAILED TO FINISH ANY OF THE FIRST FOUR RACES, YOU'VE HAD JUST THREE DNF'S IN THE LAST SEVEN RACES. WHAT HAS CHANGED FROM THE BEGINNING OF THE SEASON UNTIL NOW?
"What happened immediately after Motegi, and I think Motegi if anything was almost like the cherry on the cake because enough was enough because during the course of qualifying we failed both motors during qualifying. I've never had both engines from both cars blow up in qualifying on an oval in my life, so I'm standing there thinking, 'I can't believe this.' And during the race itself Patrick was running reasonably well and we split open the auxiliary oil tank, which we've never had happen before. I mean, the thing is only on there to give us a reserve of oil, so have that split was disappointing, especially since it was a brand-new item. And on Tagliani's car we broke an input shaft, and as a team we've never broken an input shaft before. We're very careful with the mileage and the life we put on those, and in that particular instance when that failed it was with 183 miles on a brand-new component, and that made me stop and wonder what's going on. So I made a decision right then to temporarily put a brief moratorium on any development, so what we did immediately after Motegi was to concentrate solely on mechanical reliability and integrity. Basically, I got everybody on the team together and said that if anybody knows of, thinks or suspects any item on the car that is less than 100 percent to bring it up so we can investigate it. We did that and didn't really find anything of a major nature because what had been happening had been freakish in the first instance. Thereafter we started to bring more of the development things back into the scene and since then everything has been going fairly well for us."
BOTH PATRICK AND ALEX EXPRESSED SOME RELIEF FOLLOWING THE RACE IN MILWAUKEE BECAUSE THAT WAS THE FIRST TIME ALL SEASON THAT THEY BOTH WERE RUNNING AT THE END.
"Exactly, and I think what I did was ask everybody to concentrate all their efforts on getting to the end of the thing. If we finish last, we finish last; if we finish first, we finish first, but first and foremost was to actually get to the end. I think it needs to be stated as well that with the various changes we made and the addition of personnel, we also had a fairly major shuffle within the team. Nobody was doing less than a stellar job; it was just very, very strange things that were biting us. When you've got components at Motegi in the form of an oil tank that's brand new and you've got an input shaft that has 183 miles on it, which we would normally run to 1500 miles, when those things break it's not good. Subsequent to that Reynard has redesigned the auxiliary oil tanks and redesigned the input shafts, but it just happened to be us that were bitten by it. Again, kudos to all of my guys here because everybody applied themselves and we covered every possible base that we could. We did fine some things that were only 98 percent instead of 100 percent and corrected those. I can't say that we'll never drop out of a race again because they're race cars and they are by their nature always on the edge. But I do feel that being able to finish the race at Milwaukee proved to everybody internally that there's no magic to this; we can finish races, and since then we've progressed fairly well."
HOW HAVE YOUR DRIVERS CHANGED FROM LAST YEAR TO THIS YEAR?
"Last year, to be honest, the whole team in general, whether we want to recognize it or not, were still suffering a little bit from the loss of Greg [Moore], not only from a performance point of view, but more specifically from an emotional point of view. Although everybody's heart was in what we were doing and we were trying hard, we were working hard but we weren't working very smart. And I think that was one of the things that I was able to identify during the season that led to some of the changes that we made. Specifically with the drivers, Alex in his rookie year had some high times and he had some low times and he has learned during the offseason how to handle his frustration better. As much as he's now able to turn his frustration into something positive rather then it being something which is the first nail in the coffin of everything falling apart. And the same goes for Patrick. I think Patrick came in knowing that we as a team have done everything that we possibly can to give both he and Alex every possible advantage and the support necessary to do well in this series. And I think it would be fair to say that we've pretty much left no stone unturned. The better understanding of where we were, the restructuring we've done within the team, the development program plus the drivers knowing that everything is there for them now, I think that those things all combined and mixed together properly have certainly turned us into a much stronger team."
PATRICK MENTIONED EARLIER IN THE YEAR THAT HE BELIEVES THAT HIS RECENTLY BECOMING A PARENT HAS HELPED HIM TO BECOME A BETTER RACE CAR DRIVER. INSTEAD OF SPENDING HIS TIME AND MONEY BUYING THINGS LIKE MOTORCYCLES, JET SKIS AND FAST CARS, THAT EFFORT IS NOW GOING TOWARDS BEING A FATHER. WOULD YOU AGREE WITH THAT ASSESSMENT?
"Absolutely. I think it's had a very positive impact, but I also believe that that realization was coming to Patrick even last year. Race car drivers by their very nature can be very mature on the track but quite often can be somewhat immature off the track only because their lives tend revolve around one specific thing and that's going racing. In both of our drivers I've seen a tremendous increase in their overall maturity. It might be fun to say I'm a race car driver and I go racing every weekend, but at the end of the day it is a job and it is something that I do because I'm particularly talented and I need to make the most of it. Certainly in Patrick's case I think his focus and dedication to what he's doing in being the best that he can be has certainly been the strongest the latter part of last year and the entire part of this year than we've ever seen."
HOW MUCH DO YOU THINK PATRICK'S FIRST VICTORY MEANT TO HIM, ESPECIALLY CONSIDERING THE PATH HIS CAREER HAS FOLLOWED?
"It was huge, and it was huge because I think it proved an awful lot of things. It proved, hopefully, that the direction I've taken the team, and I'm not trying to sound conceited, but it proves that the direction I've taken this year has probably been the correct one. It also proved to the guys that with dedication and if we believe in ourselves and if we keep trying that there's nothing that we can't achieve. And I think it was the same for Pat as well because I think that Pat subconsciously had perhaps had gotten to the point where he thought it was never going to happen. And to be perfectly honest with you I was as pleased at Chicago as I was with winning the race in Michigan because I think Chicago gave us an opportunity seven days later to say, 'Hey, we really are here,' and we're not just having a good day. Prior to Michigan with Alex finishing second in Toronto was a very, very big issue for us, not least of which because obviously our sponsors are Canadian, our drivers are Canadian, we tend to be viewed at times as a Canadian national team. To finish on the podium at what is ostensibly our home race was very big, and basically we've had three weekends back-to-back and we've had one of our drivers on the podium at each event. The sum total is huge and I think the fact that we were able to win the second race of the three in a row is just icing on the cake."
DO YOU THINK THAT THE TEAM PICKING UP PATRICK'S OPTION THE 2002 SEASON PLAYED ANY ROLE, EVEN SUBCONSCIOUSLY, IN HIS VICTORY AT MICHIGAN?
"One thing that we've talked about, we being myself, the team manager and my colleagues at Player's, is that Pat is not an easy person to read. I've found during my career that many drivers you can pretty much figure them out fairly quickly what motivates them and then move forward. But it's not necessarily the same with Pat and it's taken a time to discover that the thing that best motivates Pat is if we show demonstratively that we have confidence in him. And that might just be a word, it might be a pat on the back, it may just be a smile, but the more confidence that we show in him the better he performs. That's something that we've learned and I think a lot of that came from him showing more confidence in himself. We had an issue last year where there was a delay in resigning him for this season for perfectly legitimate reasons. But what it meant was for the first time Pat had to drive and do his job with the pressure, concern and worry about his future on him at the same time. Now some people might've just folded up and disappeared into nothing with that amount of pressure and concern going on in the back of their minds and it was the first time that Pat had had to face that. But he turned to me and said hey, what will be will be, but I need to get on with my job and do my thing, and I really do believe that that was a major breakthrough for Pat. This is a professional sport where he's a professional athlete and when you get to the level that he's at, that kind of pressure and uncertainty about the future will exist and it's something that has to be dealt with. Consequently, he dealt with it admirably and I think he become a much stronger person as a result of it."
HAVING SAID THAT AND AFTER HIS WRIST INJURY LAST YEAR, DO YOU THINK THAT THE INJURY HE SUFFERED TO THAT SAME WRIST IN LONG BEACH THIS SEASON REINFORCED THAT THOUGHT EVEN FURTHER?
"I think so. Again, he was running well there had he not been taken out and I think a lot of the things that Pat used to do when he was away from the track, a lot of those things have fallen by the wayside. He's just basically taking his job a lot more seriously now and the results are there to show that."
PERHAPS NOTHING SPEAKS LOUDER ABOUT THE MATURITY OF ALEX THIS SEASON THAN SEEING THAT HE'S SCORED POINTS IN SIX OF THE LAST SEVEN RACES, INCLUDING THE LAST FIVE. WHAT DOES THAT SAY ABOUT HIS DEVELOPMENT FROM LAST YEAR TO THIS?
" At this point in time, I'd have to say that Alex is grossly underrated, not least of which because we did go through a lull during the latter part of last year with Alex where we failed to score points in like eight of the last 10 races or something. His way of dealing with frustration was not necessarily the most positive way of dealing with it, but everybody had said when we brought him into Champ Cars that he was going to be crazy, that he was going to be tearing cars up and blah, blah, blah. I can tell you that the crash damage for Tagliani since he's been with this team has been less than any other driver that we've had on board, and he has a reputation, which is not necessarily justified. From a pure talent point of view he is exceptional and one of the reasons that he's working now with Cicale is because he's almost a foil for Alex. Cicale is very calm, very deliberate and has been around so long that he really understands what's going on. He's had a massive effect on Tagliani as far as getting him to understands what really matters, what's important in what we're doing and how best to achieve his goals."
EMOTIONALLY, HOW DIFFERENT IS ALEX THIS YEAR AS COMPARED TO LAST YEAR?
"I would say that he's got better control of his emotions to a very, very great degree. I think he's been used to all his life, whether he was driving karts or whatever he was driving, to always having to fight for everything. Here he is in what I consider to be one of the top CART teams with all the advantages that we can bring to the table. But it took him a little while to understand that he needed to concentrate on driving the car and to allow the personnel around him to do their jobs. If he fulfills his role and allows everybody else to do their thing, great things can come of it because he is a truly exceptional driver."
IT SEEMS LIKE IT'S ALMOST A MATTER OF TRUST. HE NEEDS TO TRUST THAT EVERYBODY ELSE WILL DO HIS OR HER JOBS.
"Well I think it is, and I think that stems largely from the past where everything he's had and everything that's gone well has been something that's he's had to fight tooth and nail for. To suddenly be put in a situation where everything is laid out before him and all he has to do is drive the car and he doesn't have to think about how the car is going to get to the next race, how it's going to be paid for, how it will be funded and so on and so forth. I think it's taken him a little while to unlearn some of the habits and attitudes that were necessary to his survival earlier in his career."
HAVING JUST PASSED THE HALFWAY POINT OF THE SEASON, WHAT DO YOU NEED TO DO TO ENSURE THAT THE TEAM'S PERFORMANCE CONTINUES TO IMPROVE AS IT HAS OVER RECENTLY?
"What I feel that we internally have proven to ourselves is that the goals and objectives that we set for ourselves this year are attainable and the program, procedures and strategies that have been used to achieve those goals are viable and will work. What's important now is for us not to say okay, we've won a race and we've had three good finishes in three races, but to see this as the norm, believe that we can do this and to continue doing it. We're certainly aware that we cannot stop from a developmental point of view because nobody else is going to stop, so I think we just have to be very careful with the developments that we bring to the table with the way we incorporate those into our racing. Essentially, we need to keep our eye on the goal and not rest on our laurels."
HAVE YOU HAD ANY PLEASANT SURPRISES OR GOALS THAT YOU MIGHT NOT ACHIEVE THIS SEASON?
"Really the only I can say there is the negative impact of not being able to finish races reliably at the beginning of the year. First and foremost, what we operate are motor vehicles, and the second most important thing is that they be fast motor vehicles. I think our inability to show that we could build good, solid cars from the get go hurt us from where we'd like to be in the points at this particular point in the season. I would say there that from the goal of total number of points that we have at the end of the season is still achievable, but only if we continue on this upward trend and we apply ourselves at each event."