Previous Columns
"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Ryan Briscoe arrives with Penske

by Gordon Kirby
He may not have won this year's IndyCar championship for Roger Penske but Ryan Briscoe proved he's championship caliber material. In his second year with Penske's IRL team Briscoe became the team's de facto number one driver, winning the season-opener while Helio Castroneves was distracted with the final stages of his tax evasion trial.

Castroneves had a turbulent year with his trial in April followed by an anxious acquittal and return to action at Long Beach. Helio then enjoyed a dreamlike month of May at Indianapolis, qualifying on the pole and winning his third 500. But the rest of the season didn't go so well. Castroneves endured a series of incidents and accidents and often he wasn't quite able to match Briscoe's pace. Next year, Penske hopes to run three cars in all the IRL races for Castroneves, Briscoe and Will Power who scored his first win for the team at Edmonton in July before breaking his back in a nasty accident at Infineon Raceway at the end of August.

Meanwhile, despite two or three mistakes Briscoe stayed in the thick of the championship battle all year going down to the wire at the Homestead-Miami Speedway two weeks ago. Briscoe didn't win as many races as Dario Franchitti or Scott Dixon but he put together a tremendous run of seven second places to augment his three wins at St. Petersburg, Kentucky and Chicago before it all came down to the season finale at Homestead, winner take all.

"It was a great race," Briscoe says ruefully. "Unfortunately, not enough for the championship. It's certainly been a great year. All in all, it's been very successful. It's just a shame we didn't get the championship. When you sit back and look at it, it has been a fantastic year. I made a couple of mistakes and they ended up being very costly. It's clear they were my fault, but I think I can also be very proud of many other things that I achieved this year.

"It was a tough championship," he adds, "a very tough run with Scott and Dario. As soon as you let your guard down, they were right there. It was relentless all year long between the three of us and it was unbelievable how it came down to the last race where whoever was going to win that race was going to be champion."

Briscoe believes he turned in his best performance of the year in the Homestead finale and remains frustrated about losing the race, and title, because of fuel mileage.

"I think Homestead was maybe my best race," Ryan says. "I raced my butt off there. I drove the car right on the limit for 200 laps, non-stop. We raced Scott, got the most laps-led, and beat him to the finish. Unfortunately, the fuel mileage thing didn't work out. But with the pressure and what we needed to do in that race, I think we really executed."

Briscoe is quick to add that he's equally proud of his winning drives at St. Pete and Chicago. He took particular pleasure from his narrow win over Dixon at the Chicagoland Speedway at the end of August.

"I think Chicago was right there as well," he remarks. "It was probably one of my best performances. And again, enjoying side-by-side racing with Dixon. I just think there's always something extra-special about a result when you beat the guy that you believe is the best one out there. To have gone head-to-head with Scott at Chicago and just nipping him at the line when it could have been either one of us, that was a great result."

Contrastingly, he freely admits he made a costly mistake in Japan when he crashed while leaving the pits.

"Japan was terrible," he shakes his head. "The timing was not good."

Briscoe says it's very satisfying to triumph over the mental demands of racing an IRL car wheel-to-wheel in very close quarters on high-banked ovals.

"Before entering those races like Chicago and Texas, and all the high-speed ovals, a little bit of a fear factor kicks in," he observes. "You understand what you're going to be going into and how fast and close the racing is going to be and the danger that's at stake. So you tend to feel fairly nervous before the start of the race. It takes so much focus and concentration and the racing is very intense, but very exciting at the same time. The gratification you get from having a good race on those sort of tracks is just immense. It makes you keep wanting to come back for more."

Briscoe was very successful as he climbed the European open-wheel ladder between 2000-'03, culminating in taking the European F3 championship in '03. He started working in 2001 as an F1 test driver for Toyota and spent all of '04 as Toyota's lead test driver and third, Friday practice driver at three Grands Prix. Briscoe came to the United States in 2005 to drive a third car for Chip Ganassi's then Toyota-powered team. But he had a frustrating year which came to an end near the end of the season with a bad accident at the Chicagoland oval.

"The only time I haven't really had a stable situation, quite honestly, was with Chip," Briscoe says. "When I started in cars I raced for the same team through Formula Renault and Formula Three. Then I went with Toyota for a few years and did the F1 testing. The only reason I went away from that was because there wasn't going to be a race seat opportunity available to me in F1.

"But with Chip they couldn't manage a three-car team and it ended abruptly. They cut back to two cars and that left me out. So I spent one year free-lancing. But thankfully, that was short-lived, and now I've had three years with Penske. I feel like I'm at home with Penske and that I'm growing together and learning with them. Hopefully, I can be with this team for a long, long time. It's the best drive I've ever experienced."

Briscoe joined Penske's ALMS Porsche LMP2 team in '07 and was promoted to Penske's Indy car team in '08. He won three IRL races that year and finished fifth in the championship before this year's close run to third in points. Needless to say, Briscoe is very impressed with Team Penske.

"It's very structurally sound from top to bottom," he relates. "Everyone has a job and knows how to do it, and they're honored to work there. I think that's important. It's an honor to work for Roger Penske. And the attention to detail is second to none. The engineers, the mechanics, everyone is just so precise with everything they do. And especially in Indy car racing on the ovals, I think that's what makes the difference."

Briscoe takes great confidence from having a guy like Rick Mears readily available whenever required.

"Rick's always there and he always has the right thing to say when you need it," Ryan says. "In a pressure situation, especially at Indy throughout the month, he helps keep your head clear and focused on the right objective. He's never told me how to drive the race car, but he certainly helps with keeping the focus and thinking ahead. He's a smart man."

Even more important is having Roger Penske as his race strategist.

"For me, from a learning standpoint, I think having Roger call my strategy for three years now, that's been the biggest thing for me. Hearing his voice in my ear telling me when it's time to be patient and when it's time to push, that's been the biggest learning curve for me."

Aside from getting married in December, Briscoe's schedule for the next few months is pretty relaxed.

"There's no testing planned at this point," he says. "But I'm sure something will come up. I get bored and frustrated when we have one week away from racing. Now I'm looking at six months off. So it's going to be tough. I might go to a few of the NASCAR races with the team and hang out and support those guys. Hopefully, Kurt (Busch) can do well in 'The Chase'."

Ryan will tie the knot with ABC/ESPN NASCAR reporter Nicole Manske in Hawaii on December 19th. The newlyweds will honeymoon in Fiji, then fly to Sydney, Ryan's hometown.

"We plan to get to Sydney for New Year's Eve and spend a few days there. Then head back to Charlotte in time for the pre-Daytona 24 hours test days."

Briscoe hopes to kick-off his 2010 season by co-driving Penske's Riley-Porsche in the Rolex 24 at Daytona at the end of January.

"I think that's the plan," he says. "But I'm not sure what's going to happen yet. I'm hoping it does because I love doing that race. It's a good way to kick the season off."

Next year, of course, aboard one of the most prized seats in American racing, the pressure will be on Briscoe to win the championship.

"Well, now I know I can do it," he remarks. "This year, I went in with the goal of going for the championship. I was believing in myself that I would be able to do it, but I hadn't done it before. It was going to be a new challenge. Now, I know I can do it. So the goal is going to be the same, but I think I'll be able to do it better. We'll see.

"It feels good. I don't want to sound greedy. I'm extremely grateful to Penske for giving me this chance and being able to prove myself. It feels great."

And so it should. At 28, Ryan Briscoe is in the prime of his life and racing career.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

Top of Page