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

The Way It Is/ Reflecting on an epic career

by Gordon Kirby
Last weekend's Rolex 24 hours at Daytona produced a superb one-three result for Mike Shank's pair of Ford-powered Rileys. It was the biggest win of Shank's career as it was for his drivers A.J. Allmendinger/Justin Wilson/Oswaldo Negri/John Pew. I've covered the details of their triumph in my blog posted today at Motor Sport's website

Meanwhile, I sat down at Daytona with defending Grand-Am champion and nine-time Rolex 24 winner Scott Pruett to talk about his long and varied career and the challenges of Grand-Am racing. Over the past eight years Pruett has won four Grand-Am titles, all with Chip Ganassi's team. Scott has been racing cars since 1985 and won two IMSA GTO and three TransAm championships during his early years before moving on to race Indy cars, NASCAR Sprint Cup and then Daytona Prototypes.

Pruett is an interesting fellow who has authored four children's books with his wife Judy and also owns and runs his own winery called Pruett Vineyard in Auburn, California, about an hour north of the Napa Valley.

"I do most of the work," Scott grinned. "I do some of the pruning and all the watering. I do all the vinting myself and the bottling, labeling, capping--the whole thing. It's a passion and we're always going to be no more than 500 to 700 cases per year. Part of my tagline is, 'I touch every bottle'."

© Paul Webb
He takes pleasure from the wide differences in his profession of racing and hobby of making wine.

"Wine-making and racing are almost at opposite ends of the spectrum," Pruett observed. "In racing, things happen in seconds and you can change the outcome at the end of the race for better or worse depending on the moves you make. But wine tells you when it wants to harvest, when the fermentaton is done and when it wants to be bottled. You're just along for the ride and it takes years to produce."

Scott discussed how demanding the Rolex 24 Hours is on the drivers.

"It's really interesting to see where this race has gone conceptually over the years," he said. "One of my first big wins was with Roush and also with TWR in the Jaguar XJR12. In those days there were so many things about the car you had to be careful with and the differential between the winner and second or third place was laps rather than seconds. You would be up ten laps and have a problem and then you would be down a bunch of laps. It was always measured by laps.

"But especially in the last five years it's become a sprint race. Last year we had five cars going for the victory at the end. That's pretty stellar. You've got to try to limit the amount of contact you have with other people and as far as the cars themselves are concerned there's nothing you have to take care of. It's flat-out. We do three planned brake changes and the days of taking care of the brakes or the gearbox are gone.

"This is a tough race. I've won Le Mans and I've won Sebring and I can tell you Daytona is tougher. It's a 3.5-mile track and with almost 60 cars you're so busy all the time. Plus, it's hard pace. All the time you're on top of the car. You get a bit of a rest when you come out of the bus stop chicane, but on the banking you're still weaving your way through traffic so you don't really rest. And once you get to turn one and the infield you're working the whole way through it. At Le Mans you've got Mulsanne to relax and you've got eight miles with fewer cars than here."

He says the repaved and much smoother banking at Daytona is a big improvement.

"It's good just because it gives you more rooom to run. Before, if you were running on the bottom it was rough. The car was hitting the ground all the time and was trying to walk up the track as you were trying to pass guys. That part of it is better, especially with the GT traffic."

Reflecting on his long and varied career the 51-year old Pruett says the massive improvement in safety is the most impressive thing he's witnessed over three decades of racing.

"I've been very fortunate," he remarked. "I've won ten major road racing championships and more than eighty races. I've enjoyed an unbelievable road racing career from the eighties and the nineties through the turn of the century and beyond. It's incredible to see how much the technology has changed over that time. I worked on the prototype of the Hans device and I was on the board for the driver safety committee in CART so I was privy to a lot of the data from crash testing and all that stuff. I just applaud all the many, many people who've been involved in moving this thing forward.

"I remember the pushback from so many guys on the Hans device. A lot of them said they weren't going to wear it because it was going to make them claustrophobic. Now, you talk to anybody and they wouldn't even think about getting in the car without a Hans device. So it's been really good for me personally to see all this stuff come along.

"I'm certainly at the top end of my career, however long it lasts, and I see a lot these young guys are going to have incredible careers in cars that are so much safer. I look back at some of the cars I drove in the eighties and I wouldn't do it. I would not do it! Some guys ask me from time to time to come back and do some historic racing in one of my old race cars. And I say, 'No thank you'."

© Paul Webb
Twenty years ago Pruett suffered serious leg and back injuries when he crashed a Truesports Indy car during a winter test session. He was out of action for a good part of a year but came back to take his career to even greater heights. But the residue of the accident remains with him.

"Everything hurts," he says. "My knees hurt because I broke both of those. I broke my back as well, so my back is full of hardware. So it gets sore and my ankles are junk. At some point I'm going to get my ankle replaced or get it fused. There's good technology today to do that. But I need six or eight months to recuperate and I don't have six or eight months to be out of the car."

Pruett recalls how the drivers sat almost between the front wheels in both F1 and Indy cars from the era of his accident.

"Back then your feet were so far forward that it just crushed everything when you crashed. After my crash they moved the driver back so that their ankles were behind the front axle. They also strengthened the bulkheads and improved the footboxes. There were some bad crashes and new technology came about to make the cars safer. It's good to see that the safety of the cars has come so far in motorsports in general."

He also recalls one car in particular where the designers neglected to give driver comfort any consideration at all.

"I remember testing the Jaguar Group C car that was a Formula One car with a body. I got in it and they had designed it so tightly that you had to drive it with your head tilted. Your helmet would be hitting the roof all the time. Bang! Bang! I said to them, 'You can't drive this thing like that.' They didn't think about the driver actually driving the car and really, that's not a very safe situation."

Pruett says the cars he most enjoyed driving were CART's Indy cars from the mid-nineties through the turn of the century.

"We were running cars that had close to a thousand horsepower and 8,000 pounds of downforce and there was a tire war going on. Every weekend you had new tires that were stickier or faster. They were incredible cars to drive--wicked fast and great fun to drive. So I'm very pleased I drove Indy cars in that era.

"It was singular and it had built over many years from the sixties and the sprint car era and all the great names from Foyt to Mario, Parnelli Jones, the whole Unser clan, and guys like Johnny Rutherford and Rick Mears. People just adored it. It was fantastic from a driver's standpoint and from the fan standpoint.

"I remember going to Indy before the split and it was such an awesome thing to be there. You had to get police escorts in on raceday and you couldn't move in the pitlane or anywhere. It was just an ocean of people and excitement. It was truly an incredible time. I remember looking at demographics and TV numbers in some pitches for sponsorship and NASCAR and CART were neck and neck. It was tremendous racing and as we look back the split was tragic."

Pruett recalls his duel with Al Unser Jr. in the 1995 Michigan 500, which drew the highest TV rating for any CART or Indy car race outside the Indy 500.

"To this day almost twenty years later people still come up to me and say, 'I was there. I was on my feet, yelling and cheering.' They say it was one of the most incredible races they've ever seen."

Scott analysed the problems with today's IndyCar rules package.

© Paul Webb
"Here's the reality," he began. "I don't know how many IRL races I watch and I'm not trying to bash on the IRL. But I don't know how many races where we've seen crashes where you just cringe and say, 'I hope that guy's okay.' Then you hear later that he's okay. But you knew at places like Texas and the superspeedways that it was bad.

"It's no different than when NASCAR goes to the superspeedways. What do you hear? 'We're waiting for the big one.' And that's because the cars are too easy to drive on those tracks and you don't have to work on the set-up. You just bolt the guy in the car and it's easy flat, without lifting.

"What happened to Dan (Wheldon) was tragic and needless, especially because all the people in the industry knew that was going to happen. I'm not trying to bash anybody. I'm just stating the facts. They were lucky that more people weren't seriously hurt."

Pruett says it's essential to leave plenty of room in the rules for the drivers and engineers to find their own solutions to going fast rather than being dictated to by the rulebook.

"The more you take it out of the drivers and engineers hands where you could almost bolt anybody into that car and go fast, the more dangerous you make it. I don't care what form if racing it is, whether it's Formula One or NASCAR or Indy cars, you need to put it back to where the engineer and the driver have to be creative and come up with ways to get the most out of the cars.

"Look at the guys who succeed in NASCAR on the one-mile or half-mile ovals where you've got to get the car to work over a full stint. They work on shocks and on and toes and cambers and aero and set the car up so it's not going to be great to start the stint but about midway through the car is going to come to them and they're going to start marching forward. That's the way you have to think and set your car up. It takes a lot of creativeness and it's very rewarding because you deserved to win the race."

A few months ago Chip Ganassi asked Pruett if he was interested in talking to Randy Bernard about becoming IndyCar's new chief steward. Pruett talked to Bernard but decided he's not ready to retire from driving.

"It came through Chip and I was incredibly flattered by the thought," Pruett remarked. "Chip said he was coming to me with this idea and he was really torn about it. He said, 'You're my guy. You're my driver and we're going racing in the Grand-Am. But I want you to take a look at this because I think you would be the perfect guy for the job.' He said, 'Keep an open mind and take a look at it.'

"So I had a conversation with Randy Bernard and he basicaly told me it would be my deal to set up the rules for racing and be director of competition. I was flattered to be offered the opportunity to do that but it meant I would have to stop driving and that's just not where I'm at right now. I know at some point down the road there will be a time when I'll know in my heart it's time to do something different. But we're coming off another championship and we've been winning races every year and I'm still having fun."

Pruett reflected on the realities of working as the chief steward of any racing series.

"Just inherently in that job some people are going to like you and some are absolutely going to hate you, and it's going to change week after week and race after race. So you would have to deal with that and you would have to focus on doing the right thing and become hardened and say, 'This is it. I don't give a damn if you like me or don't like me. This is what the rules are going to be.' A guy in that position has absolutely got to have that personality.

"It's a pretty tough environment to work in. But fortunately for me I didn't have to think that far down the road. I didn't have to ask, 'Is that really me?' It was easier to say, 'I'm not going to stop driving race cars. I still love it and I'm still winning races and championships.' I wasn't ready to give that up to go do something else."

Pruett is a fan of the Grand-Am's rules that encourage the kind of close racing seen at Daytona but leave room for the drivers and engineers to do their jobs.

"In the Grand-Am the tires aren't that great by design," he commented. "So the driver has got to drive the car. You're always chasing the car. You're a little sideways and then you're straightened out and you have to be careful to manage the tires. We are continually having to manage the car.

"There's not a huge amount of downforce and we don't have carbon fiber brakes where you can go so far into the turn that nobody can outbrake you. With steel brakes you still have that element of being able to outbrake the other guy.

"We're continually tweaking the setup and strategy, trying to get it right, and I love that part because it puts it back into my hands and the cooperative effort between the driver and the engineer. You can be creative and come up with something different.

"Sometimes we just take a swing at it. We did that at Mid-Ohio last year. We didn't have the speed and made a wholesale change going into the race and it paid off. We finished second and won the manufacturers and drivers championship. But I can't tell you how rewarding that was because it wasn't just getting in the car and driving. It was about being part of the solution."

Pruett and his teammates were out of luck at Daytona this year despite being in the hunt most of the way. Denied his tenth win and Ganassi's fifth in the Rolex 24 Scott and Chip's Grand-Am team now turn their attention to going for their fifth championship.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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