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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/ The rise of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports

by Gordon Kirby
The arrival of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports not only as a race winner but a championship contender may be the most notable achievement in IndyCar over the past few years. With six rounds to go Simon Pagenaud and Schmidt Peterson are one of very few combinations capable of beating Team Penske to this year's IndyCar title, a great compliment to the team's steady rise with Pagenaud over the past three years.

Last week I discussed Pagenaud's remarkable arrival and this week I take a look with Schmidt Peterson's general manager Rob Edwards at how the team has come together so well in only a few short years. Edwards helped bring Pagenaud to Schmidt Peterson in 2012 but his relationship with Simon began back in 2006.

"I met Simon when he first came to the States," Edwards recalls. "Sebastien Bourdais had pointed him in the direction of Derrick Walker and I was working for Derrick at the time. I remember Simon turning up at Derrick's shop in 2006 to talk about running the Atlantic series."

Pagenaud beat Graham Rahal to the '06 Atlantic championship and with his million dollar champion's prize Simon moved up to Champ Car the following year with Walker's Team Australia paired with Will Power.

"We had a great year in 2006," Edwards says. "We won the Atlantic championship and that was really the start of Simon's route in America. I managed the Atlantic team and when Simon moved up to Champ Car in 2007 Derrick ran Will Power's car in the races and I ran Simon's races. So our friendship and relationship continued to grow.

"But when reunification happened in 2008 Simon got left out of the mix. He didn't have any oval experience and he went off to do sports cars with Gil de Ferran's Acura P1 team and that was very good for him. It helped his development as a driver."

Reunification of IRL and Champ Car also resulted in the end of the road for Walker's Indy car team after almost twenty years. Walker ran a Lights team in 2009, then formed an ALMS Porsche GT team with Falken Tires before running Ed Carpenter's new IndyCar team in 2011 and '12. Last year, of course, Walker joined IndyCar as president of competition and operations.

Meanwhile, Edwards struck out on his own, forming Team FAZZT with Andre Azzi and Jim Fruedenberg. Canadian CART/Champ Car veteran Alex Tagliani was the driver.

"I left Derrick in 2009 and we started as Team FAZZT with 'Tag' driving," Edwards relates. "That partnership sort of fell apart during the course of 2010 and was rescued by Joe Atkins who's the owner of Bowers & Wilkins.

"Joe didn't really want to own a race team because he's got a business to run. But he liked us and kind of adopted us and looked for someone he could off-load us to. We looked at about three options over the winter of 2010 into 2011 and in the end he decided that Sam was the right fit. Joe was very important for us in bridging the gap between FAZZT and Sam and we're forever grateful to him for that."

Schmidt is a former driver who became a quadriplegic as a result of an accident in 2000. Schmidt formed his own IRL team in 2001 and also started an Indy Lights operation which went on to win no fewer than seven championships.

"In 2011 it became Sam Schmidt Motorsports with Bowers & Wilkins sponsoring the car and 'Tag' driving," Edwards says. "We won the pole at Indy that year and when it became Sam Schmidt Motorsports I managed the Indy car team and Chris Giffiths managed the Indy Lights team. Chris passed away at the end of 2011 and at that point I took on the responsibility for both the IndyCar and Indy Lights teams."

Edwards couldn't be more pleased to work for Schmidt.

"Sam is an inspiration to us all every day," he remarks. "His drive to succeed since his accident sets the bar for all of us. I think the success he had with his Indy Lights team, winning seven championships over the last ten or eleven years, sets the tone for the whole organization.

"I think what Sam is very good at it is getting the right people in place and then leaving them to get on with their jobs. Sam lives in Las Vegas so most of the contact we have with him is at the race track. He and I talk on the phone every day and he is remarkable in his ability to try and make sure we've got the tools we need to get on with the job.

"He expects success," Edwards adds. "He always says he doesn't spend two and a half hours every morning just to turn up. He puts in that effort because he wants to win, and like I say, that mentality goes through the whole company. He very much sets the tone."

After expanding from Lights into Indy cars Schmidt decided to look for the right partner to help strengthen his operation.

"Sam's Indy Lights team was a nice little $2 million-$3 million company, but you add a couple of Indy cars and suddenly you're a $15 million company," Edwards notes. "That means a lot more risk and lot more balls to juggle. It's a much different business proposition than a Lights team and I think Sam was astute enough to realize that. So he saw the benefits of partnering with someone."

At the end of 2012 Ric Peterson became a fifty-fifty partner with Schmidt and the team was renamed Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2013. Peterson is a Canadian energy industry trucking magnate and former racer in both formula cars and stock cars.

"Ric Peterson has a passion for the sport that he was looking to indulge and he spent 2012 talking to a number of teams," Edwards says. "He and Sam found a lot of common ground and Ric definitely brings some very important business sense to the team. They're very different personalities but I think it works because they respect each other and compliment each other very well.

"Sam and I take care of the racing side of the business and Ric provides a businessman's perspective. It's a very strong combination. Like I say, they compliment each other really well. They're both very good owners to work with because they want to succeed and they want to make sure the team's got the required tools. They give me the opportunity to put the right people in place and let us get on with it."

Schmidt Peterson employs around fifty people to run two Indy cars and four Lights cars out of its shop in northwestern Indianapolis. Don Oldenburg is chief mechanic on Pagenaud's car and Ryan Negron runs Aleshin's car. The Lights team is run by veteran Dave Higuera.

© Dan R Boyd
"They are three key guys that make my life easy," Edwards grins. "Originally, when we were FAZZT, we were based up in Fishers. In 2010, after Tony (George) closed Vision Racing, Sam bought the Vision shop on Coffman Road and in 2011 we operated out of two facilities. The IndyCar team was still on the north side of Indy and the Indy Lights team was on Coffman Road, but in 2011 we brought them all under one roof in our Coffman Road shop."

Before Peterson came onboard as co-team owner, Schmidt signed a three-year contract with Pagenaud in the spring of 2011 for 2012-'14.

"In 2011 when Sam and I were looking at where we saw the team going, no disrespect to Alex, but we thought we needed someone who had more growth potential," Edwards comments. "Simon was the name that immediately came up and I presented to Sam reasons why I thought he was a good fit. Sam met Simon at Long Beach in 2011 and we signed a contract with him in May of 2011 to drive for us for three years in 2012-14."

Pagenaud finished fifth in IndyCar points in 2012 with four podiums, including second place at Long Beach. He was also IndyCar's rookie of the year and led three races for a total of 63 laps.

"I think in 2012 there were some races that we could've won that we didn't," Edwards says. "We had a solid year, plenty of podiums, and it gave us a really good foundation to build on."

The team added a second car in 2013 for Indy Lights champion Tristan Vautier. Pagenaud came through in style, winning races at Belle Isle and Baltimore and finishing a strong third in points. Vautier was quick in some races and took rookie of the year accolades but scored only one top ten finish.

"In 2013 we didn't get off to a good start, certainly not as good as we promised ourselves coming out of 2012," Edwards remarked. "We expanded to two cars and that probably caused some growing pains, not necessarily in how we went about working but in the chemistry of the team.

"In 2012 with just one car for Simon it was definitely Simon's team, but in 2013 with two cars there were some new engineers and new guys running the second car. It took us the first half of the year to fight our way through bringing all that together and getting the chemistry right.

"In the second half of the year we won in Detroit. We went to Toronto expecting to win and had a miserable weekend but that really served as a catalyst for the rest of the year. After Toronto through the last races of the year I think Simon scored more points than anyone else and that was a launching pad into 2014."

Russian rookie Mikhail Aleshin replaced Vautier in Schmidt Peterson's second car this year. Aleshin has shown plenty of speed and chased Pagenaud home for a Schmidt Peterson one-two in the second race at Houston a few weeks ago.

"We changed the driver of the second car and if anything that made us stronger," Edwards observes. "The deal with Mikhail was done way back in October of 2013 so we had plenty of testing in November and December for everyone to find their way round each other and for the chemistry to build. I think we had overcome some of the mistakes that happened in 2013 in terms of making a two-car team work and we built on the wins from last year and built more consistency to have the opportunity to win every weekend.

"In 2012 Simon had driven a lot of different cars. He had driven Champ Cars. He had driven P1 and P2 sports cars and won the ALMS championship but he had never driven on an oval. So part of the learning curve in 2012 was very definitely learning about ovals.

"This year Mikhail is on the same learning curve on ovals. But the chemistry between Simon and him is really strong and Simon has helped him with that as someone who's been through it recently. Also, I think we understand how to bring someone through that in an Indy car on an oval having gone through that learning curve recently with Simon. Mikhail has showed he's a fast driver. His goal this year is to show consistency and to learn ovals."

Edwards is delighted with Pagenaud's progress over the last three years.

"I think Simon came to us at a time when we were still growing and developing as a team," Edwards says. "I think the thing that he does very well is he doesn't make a lot of mistakes. If he's got a car that can win the race, he will win the race. If he's got a fourth-placed car, he'll bring it home fourth. He won't wreck it trying to get third.

"I think Simon's biggest strength is that he realizes that part of his role as a driver is not just to perform on the race track. Any successful team keys off the driver. Look at any driver who's been successful in Formula One, Indy car or any form of racing and they are the catalyst. The driver is the guy the team and the guys identify with.

"Simon does a very good job of getting the team around him. When we do well, we do well together, and when we struggle, we struggle together. He's in the middle of it, working to figure out how to sort it out. He's very meticulous, very detail-oriented.

"His approach is very logical so we don't get lost too often. He's very good technically. The amount of detail he can draw out about the tires or the chassis or the engine is impressive. Honda use him a lot for testing for the same reason. He has the ability to drive consistently and be atuned to whatever nuances occur so he can extract the best out of the car.

"I think everyone has weaknesses but I think you play to your strengths. I think over time we've figured out what to do to get the best out of him."

Edwards believes Pagenaud has a genuine shot at winning the championship.

"Yes, it's a realistic goal," he declares. "We need to not have weekends like we did in Detroit where we crashed out on the first lap because we were impatient. I think you have to be in the top five every week and you have to win as many races as you can.

"If there's one thing we haven't done that we need to do to win the championship is to win on an oval. I think if he can win on one of the ovals going down to the end of the year that will really establish Simon's credentials as a championship contender. I think the double points races at Indy, Pocono and Fontana certainly don't help us, but if we're going to win it we need to deal with that."

Edwards is well aware that some of the top teams are interested in Pagenaud but he has faith in his team's ability to convince Simon to stay with Schmidt Peterson next year.

"Certainly, from a personal point of view there are things we can control and things that we can't control," Edwards observes. "The driver market is not about only one thing. It's a function of a variety of factors of where other drivers are in their contracts. I think every driver looks at what he's got and what's available out there.

"From the off-season last year there have been discussions. There were discussions before the season but I think there's a tendency to not discuss it because it's a distraction. I think they've reached a point where there's a way forward but to deal with it now with six weeks left in the season is a distraction for everyone.

"I think the best thing we can do is keep winning, keep being successful," Edwards adds. "I think if we do that there's not a reason to look elsewhere. If we don't finish third or higher in the championship and don't continue to win races, then I think any driver is going to say maybe he needs to go somewhere else to win the championship. So we've got to keep doing what we're doing and it will work out."

It probably would be a wise move for Pagenaud to take the next step in his career with the likes of Penske, Ganassi or Andretti. Yet it would be both a ballsy decision and a very healthy thing for IndyCar if Pagenaud decided to stay with Schmidt Peterson and help establish the team for the longterm as one of the best in the business.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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