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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/ Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty have emerged this year as American sports car maestros

by Gordon Kirby
While Penske's ALMS Porsche Spyders are going for their seventh win of the year at Mosport on Sunday, so too are Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty looking to score their seventh win in the Grand-Am race on Saturday at Infineon Raceway. Gurney and Fogarty have scorched the Rolex Grand American sports car series this summer aboard Bob Stallings' Gainsco Riley-Pontiac. The pair of Californians have won six of twelve races run to date, taken nine poles and led all but one race. They have been the combination to beat most of the season.

Gurney, 31, and Fogarty, 32, were open-wheel hopefuls who showed their ability in Formula Atlantic with Fogarty winning the Atlantic championship twice in 2002 and again '04, and Gurney taking third in the '02 Atlantic series. But Alex and Jon happened to arrive at critical stages of their careers as CART was diving into bankruptcy and the accompanying commercial failure of American open-wheel racing meant that neither Gurney nor Fogarty were able to find a ride in Champ Car, which was not only their goal but also where their hearts lay.

Fogarty also raced successfully in Indy Lights and served briefly as a tutor and mentor to Danica Patrick at Team Rahal during her first year in Atlantic. Rahal offered him an IRL ride but Fogarty is a road racer who doesn't like the concept of the IRL formula on ovals and he turned down Rahal's offer, as did Jimmy Vasser. The ride eventually went to Buddy Rice who won the '04 Indy 500 while Fogarty wound up racing Porsche GT cars.

Gurney came up through the Skip Barber system and raced in Atlantic for three years as well as spending a year racing Formula 3 in the UK. But after finishing third in the '02 Atlantic series Alex found himself on the sidelines. I have to say I implored Kevin Kalkhoven and Jerry Forsythe to find him a ride in Champ Car. Here's a very good, front-running driver with an amiable, outgoing personality, good looks and a famous racing name, I argued. And of course, he's an American, too.

He may not be Ayrton Senna, I argued, but he's an excellent driver. I also argued that we really didn't know how good young Gurney was and that a little seasoning over a few years in a healthy, stable team could reveal an even better driver than his results suggested. He was and remains an intelligent, thinking driver and his racing genes are strong and irrefutable.

To have a talented, promotable young man with a tremendous American family racing heritage in the field would be a great thing for Champ car racing. It seemed to be a no-brainer that CART/Champ Car would put together a deal for Alex because, in many ways, they needed him even more than he needed them. But, of course, nothing happened.

"It was definitely disappointing," Gurney admitted. "I finished third in the championship which is okay, but not over the top. I did run up front quite a bit and I qualified quite well, but I didn't win a race and there just weren't any opportunities. The writing was definitely on the wall. 2003 was the year I would have had the chance to move up and that was a very difficult year for Champ Car.

"When you look back to the mid-nineties at how big and successful CART was," Alex adds, "it would have been great to have been part of that. It was very sad to see the mistakes made by the powers-that-be, and to watch it go down."

Both Fogarty and Gurney were able to run test sessions in one of Dale Coyne's Champ cars to do some reliability running for Cosworth's XFE spec engine, but that remains the sum total of their Champ car experience.

Meanwhile, Gurney met Bob Stallings, a successful businessman and budding amateur racer. Stallings bought a Toyota/Atlantic car from Bill Fickling whose P1 team Alex had driven for in Atlantic in 1999 and Fickling asked Gurney to give the car a shakedown run at Buttonwillow Raceway to make sure the car was ready to go.

"I ran the car just to see that it ran okay and that's where I met Bob," Gurney related. "We kind of hit it off, just talking about racing in general. Bob is a super-passionate guy and was trying to learn as much as he could about everything and he asked me to be his driver coach."

Under Gurney's tutelage Stallings improved and in 2004 he won the Atlantic race at the SCCA's Run-offs, earning the national SCCA Atlantic title. "At that point we had formed a real friendship and Bob was looking around at what was possible to move up," Gurney said. "He felt like he had accomplished something big by winning the Run-offs, which he had. So he wanted to take the next step and Grand-Am seemed like a perfect fit for both of us. He could drive and I could drive with him, and it just kind of sprang up that way."

Thus was born Stallings' Gainsco Grand-Am team. "Bob did all the right things from the beginning," Gurney said. "He got the right car and engine combination and hired some key people, and I had a hand in that, too. Basically we were quick out of the box and we've just been building the team and getting more depth in personnel and learning all the way."

Of course, Gurney grew up in and around All American Racers and ran his own Atlantic program out of AAR with brother Justin in 2000. Alex understands racing people and what it takes to put a winning team together and he's thankful to Stallings for allowing him to exercise his knowledge and influence.

"It really has been a lot of fun and Bob has gone out of his way to include me," Gurney commented. "We talk several times a day and have from the beginning. So it's been fun. I've learned a lot from Bob and I've been able to put in my two cents worth also."

Gurney convinced Stallings to hire experienced Atlantic engineer Kyle Brannan to take charge of the new team's engineering program and a decision was then made to race a Pontiac-powered Riley.

"I knew that with Kyle Brannan as our engineer we were going to have a car that was competitive," Gurney said. "He had always had competitive cars in Atlantic and was a key hire from the beginning."

Fogarty agrees: "Kyle has done a good job of tuning the car and it wasn't about reinventing the wheel which is good for the driver because we always know what we've got. Kyle is on the ball, for sure, and like I say he's not reinventing the wheel. I think a lot of other teams think we are, but we're not. Kyle is certainly clever and there are little things we do, but it's paying attention to all the details that makes the difference."

Early last year Stallings realized that if he stepped out of the cockpit he had a race-winning and potential championship-challenging team on his hands. "The time came where Bob really just wanted to win, one way or the other," Gurney remarked. "He felt he was holding the team back by driving and that's when the chance came to bring Jon in. I wanted to get an American into the team and Bob was very supportive of that idea. I knew Jon from Atlantic. We were buddies and obviously, it's worked out really well. We've learned a lot from each other and kept on developing the whole way."

Fogarty and Gurney were teammates in Atlantic at Dorricott Racing when Fogarty won the Atlantic championship in 2002. "We always got along," Fogarty said. "And then there's the fact that I'm an American and when it came time to find another driver for the #99 car I know Alex was pretty insistent on getting an American. For once in my life in the racing world, it was good to be an American!"

Both Gurney and Fogarty are college graduates--Alex's mother Evi insisted he complete his education before attempting to make a career in racing--and they share a wide range of interests. "Alex and I have a lot of things to talk about other than racing," Fogarty remarked. "Although most of our time is spent digging through the data and talking about the car, we have a lot of common interests.There are some esoteric things we talk about, which is a lot of fun. We both have a lot of interest in theoretical physics and it's cool to talk about it with someone who's equally enthusiastic."

Gurney says the Grand-Am Riley doesn't feel a lot different than an Atlantic car. "Even 'though the car moves around a lot more than an open-wheel car and feels a lot heavier, it's really not that dissimilar from an Atlantic car," he observed. "The same principles apply. I love it. I'm having a great time."

Alex says he's benefitted by making a move to left-foot braking since going racing in the Grand-Am series. "I switched to left-foot braking the first time I ever got in this car," Gurney related. "That was a pretty big deal for me. I had never done it before. I always told myself that I saw the reasons why it would be better, but I just never did it. But I tried it the first day I ever got in the car and I regret not having done it earlier because it made a big improvement. By the end of the first day I felt really good about it and was just enlightened. Now, it's totally second nature."

The biggest problem is coping with the heat inside the cockpit. "As far as adapting to this car, the heat in these cars is a big deal and I think the Riley in particular doesn't get good air circulation through the car," Alex commented. "Everybody struggles with cooling-down the driver. Figuring out how to constantly deal with the heat is the biggest part as far as training and preparation."

By its nature, Grand-Am provides close, competitive racing among many cars and it appears that you have to drive very hard to get to the front and stay in front. "Obviously, it helps to have a really competitive car, but I think the racing is really intense," Gurney said. "It's just fun that you can go at it with so many cars out there and race and be able to pass."

Fogarty is equally enthusiastic. "You've got to drive the crap out of these things, which is awesome. Occasionally, we deal with fuel strategy but the difference between lean and full-rich is nothing. We deal with that but when we're out there you've got to drive hard and not really worry about anything else. All we're concerned with is getting the maximum laptime out of the car. We don't mess around with the theory that it's not fast in qualifying but it'll be a good race car. We believe if the car is fast, it's fast. That's what we work towards."

The pair also share similar driving styles. "Fortunately, Alex and my data traces are for the most part complete replicas, so our styles are very similar," Fogarty related. "We're on the same page there. At the Glen a few weeks ago I was quicker in the last corner and he was quicker through the carousel. Come race time I said, 'Alright, I'm going to do what Alex does.' At that moment you're really happy to have a teammate who is as good, or better, than you are. Being able to work together like that just brings up the whole program."

Gurney says speed was never a problem. The Gainsco team quickly discovered that considerable attention to detail was required to beat the likes of Wayne Taylor's very experienced SunTrust team and Chip Ganassi's well-oiled Grand-Am operation.

"We were quick out of the box," Gurney said. "I had pole in my first attempt. We had the speed from the beginning but we took a beating from Ganassi's team and the SunTrust guys. We were fast but we needed everything else. We had to practice pitstops endlessly and driver changes were a big deal. They took a while to master. There are a lot of steps in the driver change process to make it fast and consistent and not make any mistakes.

"We probably practiced those things too much," Alex added. "But you also learn other things about the strategy of sports car racing--fuel mileage and when to pit, all the things that are important to be there at the end. We were close a lot of times in '05 and '06, but it's taken until this year for everything to come together, and it's great to see that everyone in the team are all reaching our best point together."

Fogarty says it's impressive to see the team develop so quickly into a championship-contending operation. "The final thing that you can't manufacture is experience and we are getting that now," Fogarty observed. "The team has been in place for three years, which is relatively fresh, I would say. But we're fortunate. Bob's commitment to the program has given us the opportunity to come together and be powerful. It's taken two and a half years but I guess in the scheme of building a team that's not a very long time. You look at how long Roger and Chip have been doing it and we feel pretty good about how quickly things have come together."

Gurney says he enjoyed himself most this year when he had to come back through the field in the Watkins Glen six hours in June. "We were very strong at Mid-Ohio and at both races at Watkins Glen. I would guess that the six-hour race at the Glen was probably our best race, speed-wise. We came back from a problem early in the race. I led for an hour or so, but got caught up with a GT car going into the chicane and went off the track and through the grass to avoid him. I didn't do any damage but got some grass in the radiator and had to pit. That put us back and we were able to climb back through the field. That was a lot of fun."

With two races remaining in the Rolex series at Infineon Raceway this weekend and Miller Motorsports Park in Utah on September 15, Gurney and Fogarty trail Max Angelelli and Scott Pruett by four points. Angelelli and Pruett have 354 points to Gurney and Fogarty's 350. The Grand-Am points system is NASCAR-like, of course, and is designed to reward consistency rather than winning. It's a fact that Gurney and Fogarty have taken on board over the course of the season.

"The point system is really messed up," Gurney grinned. "We've won half the races so far, but we're only a long shot for the championship. Isn't that silly? I'm encouraging them to keep the same point system but have one throwaway race. I think that would be much more fair than the current system which rewards just finishing much more than winning."

Fogarty says they have learned some lessons with the benefit of hindsight. "We were pretty focused--too focused, in fact--on finishing first, or finishing third or fourth instead of fifth," Jon remarked. "So there might have been things we did out on the track that were not conducive to a championship run. There were a couple of other races where we could have finished higher had we just chilled-out. We've realized that unfortunately the Grand-Am points structure rewards not having a DNF the most. And when you're out to win, that doesn't do much for you."

Still, Fogarty is delighted to have a seat in a race-winning and championship-contending team. "My wife and I were having a conversation a few nights ago about opportunities for next year and she asked me what team would I rather driver for," Fogarty related. "I told her I would be pretty hard-pressed to think of a situation that would be better than where I'm at right now because it's a great organization.

"You can always find things to nit-pick about the series, but that's pretty much the only place I can find things to nit-pick. As far as the team goes, I couldn't ask for a better group of guys. It's fantastic. I couldn't be happier."

Although he's very happy where he is Gurney still would like to take a serious shot at winning Champ Car races and is also interested in the ALMS if the right team and opportunity came knocking. "We have had such a good season that there's been a lot of interest for '08," Alex commented. "There are a lot of things out there but I would say there's a very good chance of doing the same thing. I'm a road racer at heart and nothing is going to change that, so there are only a couple of places to go. Grand-Am, ALMS and Champ Car are the only places for me, and I've had some interest from all three."

Of course, if we lived in a logical world, the ALMS and Grand-Am would be a single, unified series and we would see the likes of Champion/Audi, the Penske and Dyson Porsches, Acura's trio of AXR-01as and the Mazda LMP2 car racing against the fleets of privateers from the Grand-Am. On a magically level playing field we would see epic battles between big teams like Penske and privateers like Stallings' Gainsco operation so that guys like Gurney and Fogarty could really show their stuff to the world and get the proper recognition they deserve.

Meantime, we'll have to settle for enjoying the Grand-Am for what it is and watching to see if Gurney, Fogarty and the Gainsco team can beat the top-ranked Wayne Taylor and Chip Ganassi teams to this year's Rolex sports car title. You can be sure they'll be going for it with every ounce of their fiber.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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