A new team to the CART FedEx Championship Series, Sigma Autosport turned in an impressive debut performance in the first race of the 2001 season. With a limited amount of offseason testing under his belt, Servia managed to qualify his Ford-powered...
A new team to the CART FedEx Championship Series, Sigma Autosport turned in an impressive debut performance in the first race of the 2001 season. With a limited amount of offseason testing under his belt, Servia managed to qualify his Ford-powered Lola eighth on the grid for the inaugural Grand Prix of Moneterrey (Mexico), where he finished 14th out of 28 cars. Although this is the team's first foray into Champ Car racing as an organization, the people who lead Sigma Autosport are not lacking for experience. Team owner Tom Wieringa, who is a successful businessman with ventures in real estate and food distribution, is no stranger to motor racing. A graduate of the Skip Barber High Performance Driving School, Skip Barber Racing School and Bridgestone Racing School, Wieringa also has experience competing in 125 shifter karts, as well as in Formula F2000 and Toyota Atlantic cars. Likewise, Sigma's race program director, Paul Cherry, brings a wealth of racing experience to the team. A veteran of both Formula One and Champ Car racing, Cherry's background also includes experience with AGS Formula One and Shadow. Building a Champ Car team from the ground up is no small feat, and both Tom Wieringa and Paul Cherry commented on their motivation for starting the team, the challenges they've endured thus far, and their impressions of the team's first race results in Monterrey.
WHAT WAS THE MOTIVATION FOR STARTING YOUR OWN CART TEAM?
Tom Wieringa - Owner, Sigma Autosport
"I became interested in the CART series in part through my friendship with Walter Payton. Walter was a friend of mine and before his untimely death least year we were working on some other business ventures together. As most people probably know, I've competed as a driver in the Toyota Atlantic series the last two years, driving car #34, which was Walter's jersey number when he played for the Chicago Bears."
WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE BEHIND THE NAME, 'SIGMA AUTOSPORT?'
Wieringa - "When we were coming up with names for the team, it was a group effort with everybody sort of throwing names into a hat. One thing we didn't want, and it's kind of funny, is usually in racing the name of the team incorporates the owner's last name, and that's not what we wanted to do. We wanted to have a name that was fresh, modern and meant something, so the Sigma name stuck. 'Sigma' means a process of change, and we're trying to be perceived as very high-tech, very high-profile and doing things right the first time."
WAS THERE EVER ANY THOUGHT TO STARTING AN ATLANTIC TEAM WITH PLANS TO MOVE THE TEAM TO CART IN THE FUTURE?
Wieringa - "It's not like I'm totally new to the sport - I had done Atlantics the last couple of years. I think we had the added advantage in that it was a lot easier for us to start the team realizing that we had a lot of the equipment, resources and facilities available to us already. I operate several other businesses, including real estate and food distribution, and we've got a lot of different buildings across the country, which made it fairly easy to establish a racing facility. Now I don't want to say it was easy because it wasn't - it was like going to war. But it started with Paul Cherry and I talking about a year and a half ago before actually beginning to build the team about a year ago."
WHAT IS YOUR ROLE WITHIN THE TEAM? ARE YOU A 'HANDS-ON' OWNER OR DO YOU LET PEOPLE DO THE JOB THEY WERE HIRED FOR?
Wieringa - "I think I'm somewhere in the middle. When it comes to race day I really don't have any specific job in terms of running the racecar itself, however I'm very heavy into the entertainment side of it, working with sponsors and associates. My specific job within the team are largely 'big picture,' financially related and somewhat creating strategy with what we want to do. I'm letting these guys do what they do best and I look at myself as just another spoke in the wheel. I certainly have input to what we're doing, but we're all on the same level and we operate as a committee. The people that we have working here have a lot of talent but in a lot of varied areas, so that when we put our heads together collectively we come up with a winning combination that I think people are taking notice of already."
WHEN WAS THE DECISION MADE TO START A CART TEAM?
Paul Cherry - Race Program Director
"Well, you'd have to rewind a fair way. Tom at that time was driving Atlantics, and we spoke about starting an Atlantic team and then building on that over a number of years. But the more I looked at it, although the investment to do an Atlantic team was not the same as CART, it wasn't a whole lot more to do CART, and if that's the direction you're heading in, why tread water for a couple of years? It's very hard to step up unless you get very good results because then you have a history behind you, but if you start with a clean sheet of paper to both sponsors and promoters, nobody has any idea. Instead of saying, 'well, you're not up to it,' they can't say anything and you can do what you want, so ultimately we decided that the smart thing to do was to set up a CART team."
WHAT WAS THE PLAN FOR FORMING THE TEAM AND WHEN WAS IT PUT IN MOTION?
Paul Cherry - "January 2000. For the first three months I was the only one in the company before we took on our first marketing person. We added three more marketing people in the next couple of months before we took on our first mechanic in September to start sorting through things. However we didn't really take on a considerable number of employees until October, and then it snowballed quickly from there. We took delivery of our first car in August and we had our first engine in the middle of October. When I first started I had a small office in a truck repair bay as part of Tom's empire here where I worked from for four months while Tom was completing a new office complex within a facility here that we ultimately moved into. He has 500,000 square feet of warehouse space, and our shop is located within one of his warehouses."
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES YOU'VE FACED IN THE FORMATION OF THE TEAM?
Wieringa - "I think Paul does a great job. He confronts the challenges a lot more than I do because I have a lot of different jobs with different businesses that I'm responsible for while he's solely responsible for Sigma Autosport. He makes it a little easier for me because he rises to about every challenge and is very, very good at managing the team. One of the bigger challenges for both of us was hiring the right people that didn't have any egos but had a lot of talent and could work together. He was very, very successful in accomplishing that goal and I'm really, really proud to work with the people that we have here now."
Paul Cherry - "When you work for a race team, as I have for 26 years, you take for granted that when the guys go in the truck there's always something in the drawer. You assume that when they go back to the workshop there's always something on the shelf and that there's a process in place to ensure that it stays that way. But when you start literally from ground zero the task is unbelievable, absolutely unbelievable. I loved pulling it all together and doing it, but let me tell you it's been very, very hard. And I suppose that we had three lucky breaks - Robby Gordon went out of business so we bought his transporter and a lot of his pit equipment; Dan Gurney went out of business so we bought even more pit equipment and more stuff from them; then PPI went out of business and we bought a lot of consumables and other things from them. If we had to go out and commission a new truck and commission pit equipment and whatever else, that would've been monumental, absolutely monumental. The fact that there were teams that decided to go to other series, or whatever, made a big difference."
HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT HIRING YOUR PERSONNEL?
Paul Cherry - "Between November and January I'd say that we hired four-fifths of our people, although I'd say that we had reached agreement with 50 percent of the people prior to the close of the season. I'm not one for going and stealing somebody from under somebody else's nose during the middle of the year because that doesn't endear you to anybody. Most of the people here are extremely experienced and I have worked with most of them over the years, which is a big, big thing. I have a way I like things done and I need to know that if I ask for it to happen a certain way it will happen that way, so it was very important to get people who were interested in the way I like to do things."
TALK ABOUT THE CHALLENGES YOU'VE EXPERIENCED IN TRYING TO SECURE SPONSORSHIP FOR THE TEAM?
Wieringa - "Although I don't think it's every easy to secure sponsorship, I think our company is radically different from other race teams. We do operate this as a business - I have been in business myself for 22 years and we approach it as business. We don't just want to get the money from somebody, throw a sticker on the car and say, and 'thank you very much.' Sponsorship these days is much more than that, and many times it's associated with a lot of different factors. In reality, sponsorship is a lot more like a partnership now. I work a lot on sponsorship, and I think you have to prove to the sponsor that they can actually make money off of their investment. You have to put complete marketing plans together and show them how they can make money with their sponsorship. These days I don't think too many of the companies that operate in the United States have that much discretionary income and I think the whole landscape of investment in racing has changed quite a bit. However, I think we're unique in that we do a good job making money for our clients while also having a good time. At the end of the day we're going to have fun doing this or else we're not going to do it."
Paul Cherry - "Without a doubt, if you look at our car right now it is a myriad of different sponsors at the moment, although we are still finalizing a deal with a title sponsor that we hope to have completed in the near future. Being a new team, while a lot of sponsors are very interested in joining us, they want to see how we go. In fact, the phones were very busy immediately after Monterrey because there are people who initially said, 'Well, we'll see how it goes,' suddenly realized that they had missed an opportunity. This is a global series, more so than ever before, and it needs to be a global series because of the money it needs to generate. We cannot just concentrate on the North American market anymore because there are not enough sponsors in North America who are willing to make that type of commitment."
DO YOU HAVE A GOAL OF WHERE YOU'D LIKE TO SEE SIGMA AUTOSPORT IN, SAY, FIVE YEARS?
Wieringa - "We have a plan in mind, but it's a calculated plan. We are running one car currently for a reason - we want to do it right, but our plan is to go to two cars next year. We'd also like to create a good base, which I think we've done so far, and keep improving on the base we've developed. But we want to win. We are not out there just to show up - we want to win, and we want to be among the top guys all the time. I personally don't have to do this but I want to do it, and if I'm going to do it I'm going to do it right."
Paul Cherry - "Within five years we want to be a consistent threat to win races and perhaps challenge for the championship, but it's not going to happen this year without a huge dose of luck. It might happen next year, but I think it's much more likely to happen in years three, four or five. No matter what you say, you have to pay your dues, you have to lay the groundwork and you have to get everything together. We're great with what we've got, but there's more we can do."
WHAT HAS BEEN THE REACTION FROM THE OTHER TEAMS AND OWNERS IN THE PADDOCK TO THE TEAM?
Wieringa - "Well I'm blushing a lot lately. I can't believe the amount of people that have talked to me personally, sent me e-mails, talked to other members of our team and wrote articles - it's just fantastic. I think people are pretty impressed and we're happy that they're impressed, but I have to say that they haven't seen anything yet!"
Paul Cherry - "I don't think anybody expected us to do anything more than a couple of (offseason) tests before disappearing into the distance. We're here for the long haul. I don't think anybody has really said, 'it's great to have you,' or 'I hope you fall by the wayside,' because I think everybody is too busy with their own program."
WHAT WERE YOUR IMPRESSIONS OF THE TEAM'S PERFORMANCE IN THE FIRST RACE OF THE SEASON AT MONTERREY?
Wieringa - "I thought we did quite well considering that we qualified eighth and by the first lap we were running in seventh, so I think we turned a lot of heads. At Monterrey we wanted to run a conservative race and wanted to make sure we finished the race, and that's exactly what we did. We probably would've liked to have finished a little bit better than we did, but I think 14th out of 28 cars wasn't too shabby, and qualifying in the top 10 was a pretty good feat for a new team. A lot of people call us a new team and wonder what's going to happen, but I have to point out that we have seasoned veterans on our team and we're new at working together, but certainly not new to the sport."
Paul Cherry - "I'd have to say that we were extremely pleased with our practice and qualifying results, and we were pleased with our reliability. We didn't have a single glitch all weekend, and that was really the main focus for our first event. We were a bit disappointed in our performance in the race, purely because we started so well and weren't able to keep our driver at the front. However, we had already planned a very conservative pit stop strategy to ensure that we didn't screw anything up. The whole focus of the weekend was to get the car to the finish, which we accomplished."
DID YOU GO TO MONTERREY WITH ANY EXPECTATIONS?
Wieringa - "Actually, no. We were just hoping to do the best we could and then build on the foundation that we're laying. Now, we've raised the bar for the race in Long Beach and we've got a significant amount of work to do to make our processes more efficient in terms of setting up the car, running the car, pit stop strategy, fuel strategy and pit stop operations."
Paul Cherry - "None whatsoever. My goal for the weekend and what I emphasized to everybody was that I didn't want us to look like fools because we were a new team - no matter how experienced you are you can make silly mistakes. The whole purpose was to make sure that the car was in good shape the entire weekend - not breaking down with things being left off and getting black-flagged for stupid reasons, and we accomplished that very well. We have a very good engineering group here, and I was reasonably confident that we would qualify somewhere between 10th and 15th, so to qualify eighth was very good. Then we made decisions on Sunday morning that we would pit with the leaders no matter where we were and we would inevitably try to stay on the lead lap and finish where we finish. We're a little saddened that we didn't finish in the points, but that's motor racing and I do think we made a few people sit up and take notice."
WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACCOMPLISH THE REMAINDER OF THE SEASON?
Paul Cherry - "Realistically we'd like to try and score points in every race. It's a very, very long season and the opportunity to build upon your points total is literally every other week. We definitely have the equipment to do that, but this is an enormously competitive series."
IS IT MORE IMPORTANT FOR YOU TO FINISH RACES OR TO GAMBLE AND TRY TO FINISH HIGHER IN THE ORDER?
Wieringa - "I think it's more important for us to finish the race and I don't think we should be trying too many things that are risky. Saying that, I don't think we should go ultra-conservative, but I think there's probably a blend of that. If you're not jumping in the water you'll never find out how deep it is, so although we'll be trying some different things, we'll be taking calculated risks."
- Ford racing