Menards Infiniti Pro Series An Interview With: Brian Stewart, Jesse Mason and Leonardo Maia Part 1 of 2 MODERATOR: Brian Stewart is well recognized due to his involvement in motor sports for more than 35 years. He formed his own racing team...
Menards Infiniti Pro Series
An Interview With: Brian Stewart, Jesse Mason and Leonardo Maia
Part 1 of 2
MODERATOR: Brian Stewart is well recognized due to his involvement in motor sports for more than 35 years. He formed his own racing team in the 1970s and was one of the most successful team owners in Indy Lights, winning two championships. Some of his former drivers have included Paul Tracy, Cristiano da Matta, Bryan Herta and Jaques Lazier, and he moved his team to the Menards Infiniti Pro in 2002. Thanks for joining us today.
BRIAN STEWART: Thanks a lot.
Q: You've been around racing for a long time. What are some of the reasons that made you decide to bring your team to the Menards Infiniti Pro Series?
BRIAN STEWART: I was with Indy Lights for 15 years, and I had good success there, with winning and with taking young drivers along and moving them up the ladder. I thought when they stopped Indy Lights or when CART stopped Indy Lights, I could have gone to Atlantic, but I didn't want to go there because I thought it was a step down. And Roger Bailey was telling me that they were going to do a similar series to Lights in the IRL, and that he was going to be in charge of it. So, I dealt with him for 15 years, and felt comfortable going over there with him. You know, signed up right away.
Q: As you mentioned, you've got a history on the Indy Lights, and now the Menards Infiniti Pro Series, the developmental series. Do you as an owner have a long-term goal of moving into a bigger series or is this your niche?
BRIAN STEWART: You know, the next step is so huge, you could go bankrupt doing the next step. I feel comfortable with the money that's involved in doing this series same as I did in Indy Lights. And the next step is just so huge, it's not something I personally can do. So unless a really big sponsor came along or, let's say, a person with a lot of money who wanted to be involved in racing, I couldn't make this step on my own. I'd have to have help to do it.
Q: Obviously, you've developed a reputation, I read off that list of drivers that have worked with you in the past, of really developing the young driving talent. To what do you attribute that past success?
BRIAN STEWART: Well, our team is slightly older. If you go around the paddock, you'll see that everybody is a bit older than the other teams. And I know that crashing is part of racing, and you know we never, ever get angry when a driver crashes or does anything like that. I think we are more tolerant. I don't know if that's the right word for it, but we just tend to make the driver feel more comfortable racing. The Toronto Star did a story on da Matta, and I remember the story because it was quite complimentary. He said that I showed him how easy racing was. You just surround yourself with the right people, drive the car and then you'll win. That's what we've tried to do all the time.
Q: Do you specifically seek out younger drivers to develop or what are you looking for?
BRIAN STEWART: This is my 40th year racing cars. I was a driver myself and then I became a car owner in '73. And so, I've had a lot of fun just taking young guys and making them win. Sometimes they don't know they have it in them, and, you know, you just kind of put the heat on them to get them to do better than they think they can do.
Q: Obviously, there's a lot of young drivers out there, are there specific characteristics that you look at when you're looking to add somebody to your team?
BRIAN STEWART: It's real hard to say because a lot of times, you do the deals over the phone, and I look at where they are coming from. If a guy has raced in Formula Ford or Formula Vee, or let's say the Barber Dodge series, you know that there's a lot of competition there. And, you know, as soon as the league phoned me up about Leo Maia, and he won that championship by something like 80 points, so you know that he had to be a good driver. I ran Bryan Herta on the same deal where the Barber Dodge, or the Skip Barber Racing School, gave him that driver enhancement award, so he got $100,000 towards his budget, and Herta turned out to be a winner. I know before that Robbie Buhl was a champion, so I knew that some good drivers were the champions there and that Leonardo must be pretty good. And of course, Jesse Mason, he was Canadian Formula Vee Champion when he was 16, and he did Formula Ford and he won there, and now he's gone over to Britain to go to school and to race, and then also race back here.
Q: How exactly did you and Jesse come to work together?
BRIAN STEWART: Well, you know, I don't live very far from Mosport, and on the off-weekends, I'll go down there and hang out and just look at the Formula Vee guys and the Formula Ford guys and just hang out in general, and, you know, I've known that Jesse was there and I just started talking to his father. And you know how it all works, he ends up coming and doing a test and racing.
Q: He's had a really strong start with a third in his debut race at Miami Homestead. What kind of future do you see for Jesse?
BRIAN STEWART: Well, I think he could be a professional race car driver. He's going to be a mechanical engineer to enable himself to be a better race car driver. So he's making a big commitment that way. I think he can drive good enough, and he'll have the technical background to go on to the bigger cars. Nobody wants the guys with the big balls anymore. You used to hear that years ago. They still have to be there, but the guy has to be technically sound.
Q: We're coming off of the test here at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last Friday, and looking forward to the Futaba Freedom 100 in a couple of weeks. As a guy who has been around racing for such a long time, what does it mean to you as a team owner, and secondly, what do you think it means to the young drivers on the team and in the series to be able to run at one of most storied racetracks in the world?
BRIAN STEWART: Well, for me, as a team owner, I think it's probably the pinnacle of all racing in the whole world. You know, although we are the next level, I still think it's really important to win there. I've got a speech all prepared. That's all I can say. It's just incredibly important to win there from a personal standpoint. When we were with CART, I had won on every racetrack that we ever ran on with the exception of Vancouver and Laguna Seca. And I got da Matta, and I said, 'You know, I don't want to put any heat on you, but I never won those two races.' And so he won Nazareth, won Vancouver and he won Laguna Seca. I said, okay, good. So Indianapolis, I would say it would be a goal for me.
Q. You talked earlier about the importance of a technical background. How important is it for a young driver to have that engineering background, or at least to have a knowledge that he can, from the cockpit, talk to his crew members about what the car is doing and what it's not doing?
Well, it's incredibly important. I've had drivers over the years
'How is the car?'
'Well, what's it doing?'
'Well, it's pretty good.'
You feel like saying, well, how come you're not first? Because they can't tell you what's going on with the car. Over the years, I've had, not every driver, but Tracy stuck out in my mind that he could tell us what was going on with the car. Of course, da Matta could, Gualter Salles, there's a whole line of drivers that just technically were really, really good explaining what was going on with the car. And then the engineer can figure it out and make it better. So the driver really has to know what's going on.
Q. Young Mason now, do you see him in a mold of anybody or are all these new drivers coming up the same sort of -- I hate to use the word "technocraft," but they seem to know the car so well; that they have had a good foundation.
BRIAN STEWART: Well, you know, it's like we were at Homestead there at the first test, and Rick Mears is our (series') driver/coach, and Jesse did pretty well. We went over to Phoenix and he was also doing well there. He was setting the pace for that day, and Rick was talking to me about him. I said, 'You know, Rick, this guy is going to be a graduate mechanical engineer before he's 20 years of age.' He's doing that just to be a better race car driver. Rick was listening to the whole deal, and that's the very same thing that Ryan Newman did in NASCAR. You know, Penske hired him right out of school to be a race car driver, and he had that engineering background. Jesse has taken a similar path, and, we were flying out of Phoenix the next day at four in the afternoon, so I grabbed Tom Wurtz from Penske and I said, 'Tom, I have a kid you have to keep an eye on here.' He said, 'Listen, Brian. He was the subject of our dinner conversation last night with Rick and Roger and Tim and myself.' So the big thing is you have to get them looking at you, and then once they are looking, you have to get a few good results and we ran the race at Phoenix just exactly the way we laid it out. They called the race two laps early at Homestead. We did the Homestead race just the way that we had kind of talked about it the night before, but then they called the race two laps early. So Jesse wasn't able to be first, he was third. But he was like, I forget what the exact time was, maybe a hundredth of a second behind second and two seconds behind first. So we were on the move. One of the things was we decided to conserve our tires because the tires were, I don't want to say -- bad is the wrong word, but they were having tire problems Firestone-wise, and people were beating their tires up. We decided just to conserve our tires and be moderate and then at the end of the race, go for it, which we did. When they called it two laps early, it screwed us up.
Q. Mason is taking to the ovals well, but he obviously didn't have much background in oval racing, did he?
BRIAN STEWART: Like a duck to water.
Q. How did that come about? Obviously some guys have troubles with ovals after they have raced their whole young career on the road.
BRIAN STEWART: Well I don't know what to say. We went down to Nashville for a test and he did pretty well. We had pinned the car to the ground, and we gave it a lot of aerodynamic downforce so it couldn't get away from him. He did really well at the test. Then we went to Homestead and we started to trim the car out and he was going good. And, you know, the same at Phoenix. Phoenix I considered to be a lot harder than Homestead, and he was the one setting the pace on test day. We ended up stepping over the line and he had a big crash, but it didn't seem to take the steam out of him because we went back to Homestead and finished third and then at Phoenix, for the first 97 laps, he was third and then he got passed by his teammate and ended up finishing fourth.
Q. Did you have to tell him anything about driving ovals; ovals can get scary, especially when the speed picks up.
BRIAN STEWART: No. The way you run the cars -- I'm the car owner but I try not to interfere with the engineers. The engineer I have, Doug Zister, I have him from Indy Lights and he's a graduate from Waterloo, and he and Jesse are both quiet guys, and they kind of talk in the same level, which is over my head.
Q. Do you miss the road racing at all?
BRIAN STEWART: I do. But I know for sure we're going to go back road racing. I've already got the word.
Q. With the Menards Infiniti Pro Series?
BRIAN STEWART: Yeah.
Q. You might end up back here in Canada racing again?
BRIAN STEWART: I don't think there will be any doubt about it, Rick.
Q. I wanted to ask you about Leo. Were you surprised at such a good finish in his first outing with you guys?
BRIAN STEWART: I was. The deal came together so quickly. I have a tractor trailer, and the two cars were loaded, ready to go to Phoenix. The league phoned me up and said, 'Listen, we got this driver, Leonardo Maia, and if we can put the deal together, will you run him at Phoenix?' And I said, 'Well he has to do a rookie test, and so I phoned up, and of course on the way, you don't have that many racetracks. I'll phone Texas Speedway and see if they are available.' Monday he showed up at Texas, did a rookie test, Johnny Rutherford was there, oversaw the rookie test. When you go to a rookie test with a brand new driver, what you do is you raise the wings up so that they are providing more downforce. Of course, they made the car a little bit slower, but what it is, is you want to keep the car safe so the guy doesn't put it in the wall. We went there and he was like 3/10ths of a second off of the pole from the year before, which is really, really excellent. You know, he did the test and never got the car out of shape at all. We went to Phoenix, and when he qualified, I believe he qualified 7th, which he was really unhappy with, but he said he had screwed up in qualifying, and in the race, he would do better, which he did.
Q. What are your plans for him for the rest of the year?
BRIAN STEWART: Same as Phoenix. Just give him a good car, and I think that we'll have a dogfight on our hands between the two of them.
Q. Did you know much about him before the league told you that they had him?
BRIAN STEWART: I had never spoken to him or anything like that. I knew they had won the Barber Dodge Championship but I didn't really know anything else about him. I thought he was a Brazilian, but it turns out he was born in Brazil but he's lived in the U.S. for 19 years.
MODERATOR: We look forward to seeing you in Indianapolis in a few weeks.
BRIAN STEWART: Thank you.