Driver Profile: Dion von Moltke

What Happens When Youth and Maturity Collide

12:02am EST — Dion von Moltke has experienced multiple types of racing, from karting to sportscars and even has some open-wheel experience.  Here, he chats about being bribed into karting as a way to get his grades up, driving for Max Papis and Emerson Fittipaldi in karts, the pressures of becoming a racing family, and being a South African where there are few.

You qualified 11th for the Grand-Am GP of Miami [the interview took place Friday afternoon, after qualifying but before the race on Saturday], how was qualifying and how to things feel for tomorrow?
You know, it was a bit of a weird thing.  We were pretty optimistic going into qualifying because the last session we ended up P1 and the session before we were probably four or five, overall, so we were really hoping, but for some odd reason, I’m not actually sure what happened, but a lot of cars got a lot quicker for qualifying.  We don’t have that ultimate one lap speed.  But I think for a race pace, we’re looking pretty good.  The tires are falling off extremely fast here, so it’s kind of hard to get the proper race pace in the car.  I think for racing, we’ll be fine, but that was not the qualifying we were looking for.
[von Motlke and fellow #77 Doran Racing driver Memo Gidley finished the race in ninth, see here for the On Any Sunday, These Days race report]

You’re driving for a different team, Doran Racing, for this race than you were for the Rolex, Starworks Motorsport, though you have tested for Doran before.  How does switching teams change how you prepare for the race?
It’s more difficult.  It definitely puts extra stress on it, because, yeah, I’ve worked with them before, I’ve worked with them briefly, but I’ve never raced with Memo [Gidley].  So, you don’t know your teammate as well, you don’t know what he likes in the car, he doesn’t know what you like in the car, you’re learning each other.  The engineers also have to learn how I feel driving and what I like in the car, and I have to learn what the engineers like to hear from me and how they like to go about things.  So, it’s a big, steep learning curve, and the chemistry between your teammate and you engineers is the most important thing in the team and starting from scratch makes it extremely hard.  The nice thing at Doran is that I get along with everyone really well, and I get along with Memo really well, so the fact is that it is a lot easier [than it could be], even though it’s not an easy step at all. Continue reading

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Driver Profile: Matt Bell

What Happens When It Must Be Spring (Racing Has Truly Returned)

2:56pm EST — This weekend, Grand-Am returns to the track at Homestead-Miami.  Racing for the Continental Tire Challenge, in the Stevenson Motorsports Sunoco Camaro with last week’s driver profile Jeff Blackmun, will be Matt Bell.  Bell and Bucknum finished fifth in the Continental Tire race at Daytona and the end of January, while Bell also raced in the GT class at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, finishing 10th in class and 17th overall.  The 24-year-old won twice in the GS class in the Continental Challenge in 2009, his first season in the series and had five pole positions.  He also raced in the 2009 American Le Mans Series Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.  I spoke to Bell about his racing interests, his future plans, and how he hopes to extend his career beyond racing.

How did you get into racing?
I was always a motorhead, interested in everything fast, planes, cars, everything.  What fascinated me was the excitement, not just going fast, but how quickly they could turn and the reading of the gauges.  When it came to cars, I was intrigued by how cars drive sideways and having that kind of control over mechanical objects.  Playing with toy cars as a kid, I would think about drifting them.  My family has always had a strong interest in racing.  In preschool, in the oval area where parents came to pick up the kids, they would give us little pedal carts to race when the weather was nice, and I was the kid always going sideways.
I loved watching racing on TV in the heyday of IndyCar, and the sound of the Audi five cylinder.  In eighth grade [about 13 years old for the non-American readers], I went to my first track day, and went form seeing things on TV to being in the car with my dad.  From then, it was official, cars were my life.  It was cars, racing, BMW.  I began racing about 2 years ago.  I did a lot of track days, focusing on strange things: I’d imagine what it would feel like to drift, to downshift.  It wouldn’t take me so long to get things right because I had already imagined it.  I didn’t have to go through the standardized paths of learning.
I got into BMW club racing through VJ Mirvayan and had a lucky break with family friend Will Turner, who brought me into the Grand-Am stuff.  Right now, I’m trying not to get stuck in class.  I have too many friends that get overlooked.  If you’re winning, finishing well, you have to look up.  Like, I have the Stevenson ride in the Continental Challenge for the season, but I had a clause in my contract that I would race in the 24 and other races in the team’s Rolex GT car.  Like, I raced in the GT2 class in the Petit Le Mans last year, you should always be trying new things.  We’re still working out which races I’ll be in the Rolex series, but I am the back-up driver for the season.  [Bell is not listed on the entry list for the Rolex race at Homestead-Miami] Continue reading

Driver Profile: Jeff Bucknum

What Happens When History Repeats in New and Exciting Ways

1:02am EST — In the continuing On Any Sunday, These Days Driver Profile series (previous profiles include Ian James and Jeff Westphal), this week’s driver is Jeff Bucknum.  In a bit of a change in layout, this week’s profile will not continue in the previous question-and-answer format, but a more free-flowing format, if only because it wasn’t recorded.

The name Bucknum may ring a bell for those who followed Formula1, IndyCar, and sportscar racing in the 1960’s, when Jeff’s father Ronnie raced for Honda in their F1 debut, started the Indy 500 multiple times, and stood on the podium at Le Mans when Ford swept the top three in 1966.  Jeff has had a similar career, competing in both open-wheel and sportscar racing, though, as he points out, he was “too young to remember” his dad racing or was not yet born, as was the case with most of Ronnie’s 11 F1 starts.

Jeff’s career began in high school, when he raced go-karts and then progressed through the ranks at the Skip Barber Racing School.  He then moved on to Formula Mazda and “settled into the American Le Mans Series for five to seven years.”  He raced in the IndyCar series in 2005 and 2006 before “taking a year off, that turned into a bit longer time off than expected” with contract and sponsorship issues (as has become all too normal), before returning to sportscars and the Grand-Am series.  What he did not mention in our discussion was his two Indianapolis 500 starts, Le Mans 24 Hour start, and second place finish in the ALMS LMP2 championship in 2005 (a year in which he also had four IRL IndyCar starts, one of which was the Indy 500).

According to Jeff, his dad’s racing history in a Sunoco Camaro with Mark Donohue for Roger Penske inspired him to join with Stevenson Motorsports and bring back the history in the Continental Tire Challenge (formerly the Koni Challenge), particularly with Mark’s son David as his teammate, as they ran at the team’s debut, the 2009 season finale.

To get the sponsorship together for the team in this tough economy was, as many recent Formula1 withdrawals and failures suggest, difficult.  Bucknum noted, “you would make a contact with someone at a company, and then they would be downsized.  It wasn’t a lack of desire to sponsor, just everyone trying to stay afloat.”  He suggested that time played a big factor in the team’s delay, with all new contacts having to be made after that previous person was let go.  It was also difficult, since Chevrolet put production of the Camaro on hold after the auto bailouts here in the States in 2008.  So, the team itself was forced to wait for the 2010 production car before racing at Virginia International Raceway at the end of last season.  This, the 2010 season, is the first full season for Stevenson Motorsports.  His teammate for this season is next week’s driver profile, Matt Bell.  Together, they finished fifth overall during the Rolex 24 support race.

For both the 2009 and 2008 Rolex 24, Bucknum raced in the GT class.  He plans to finish his career (born in 1966, Bucknum is currently 43) in sportscars, and likely with Stevenson Motorsports, and then, possibly, move on to team management.

An avid Formula1 fan, Bucknum has an interesting take (both from a driver and manager’s position) on Michael Schumacher and his return, suggesting that, while he is a highly talented and motivated driver, “Schumacher brings the best out of the crew members…his presence and dedication inspires the rest of the team and has that energy that pulls together the team,” and that is what defines his championships.  With experience in notable open-wheel series and the pinnacle of sportscar racing, Bucknum has an interesting knowledge of and historical take on racing and competition.

Driver Profile: Jeff Westphal

What Happens When It’s Wednesday

7:28pm EST — In a continuation of the new Driver Profile series here at On Any Sunday, These Days (see the first profile, of Ian James, here at OASTD), this week’s driver is Jeff Westphal.  Westphal is another crossover racer, having competed in both open-wheel and sportscar racing after getting his start in karting at the (for the sport) elderly age of 18.  He won the Pacific F2000 championship in 2008, at age 22, for PR1 Motorsports.  He and teammates Max Hyatt, Thomas Merrill, and Rob Finlay drove for Corsa Team PR1 in the GT class of the 2010 Rolex 24 at Daytona, where the team finished 17th overall and 11th in class.  He is also an instructor at the Jim Russell Racing School at Infineon Raceway.  I spoke with him at the Rolex, where we discussed working hard for sponsors, the difference between open-wheel and sportscar racing, being a Fernando Alonso fan, and having a documentary being filmed about you.

I saw the team qualified 8th for the Rolex, who drove for qualifying and how was he chosen?
Max Hyatt got the ok to do qualifying.  Originally, qualifying was based on being, ultimately, the quickest, and in this case it wasn’t.  He had quite a few laps in the car, I had turned up and did four.  It was a last-minute deal that came together for me to be in this program, and I actually went very quick, but based on not being in the car as frequently, they gave that chore to Max.  That’s fine, because in the end we are a team here, a 24 hour race can’t be won by one driver, it’s got to be won by the collective, and I’m pretty confident that we have a really good shot about it.  Starting in eighth, you’re in the top ten; it’s not pole, but to be quite honest, in a race this long, pole doesn’t  really mean much.  Maybe you’re free and clear for the first couple laps, but after that and when it spreads out and starts cycling through pit stops, then you’re back in the mix.

You said this was a last-minute ride for the Rolex, will it be for the entire season?
At this point, no it’s not a ride for the whole season.  That was kind of the nature of how this came about, a short, last-minute type of deal.  It’s not the longevity there to do the whole season, it’s definitely going to take some more stimulus from businesses and whatnot.

What are your plans for racing this year? Just working on sponsorship?
I would love to continue, this season, I think it would be great, but realistically, I have to look at it as a business.  If it’s not in the cards, it’s not in the cards.  If that doesn’t come through, then it would be more of a working towards 2011, I guess.

Speaking of sponsorship and contracts, how did you get started in the Red Bull Driver Search Runoffs?
That was actually my first introduction to racing, to be honest.  I had never raced anything.  I worked at an indoor go-kart track as a summertime job between graduation high school and going to college, and my boss that worked there was like “what have you raced before?”  Because in two months, I had broken the track record, and I was like “I haven’t raced anything, I just like to drive,”  and at that point, it was like lightbulb!  He sent me that way, got me kind of prepared, gave me the, I guess you could call it, the crash course in racing.  It’s even still a crash course.  You know, 2004 was that run-off [where he finished 26 out of 125], but the first car race I ever did was 2006, so I’ve only been doing this for about four years.

You were the Pacific F2000 champion in 2008, which is an open-wheel series. Are you more focused on sportscar or open-wheel racing as your future?
It’s really wherever I can race.  That was a decision made by myself a year ago, based on the way the economy was going and the opportunities available in the given scenarios.  Open-wheel, I think, is great, to be honest, I love the cars; I started in 2006 in an open-wheel car and I stayed there until 2008.  But, for my career and where it was going, sportscar was, I feel, the right move to make.

Easier to find sponsorships in sportscars…
The package that comes with the sportscar, as far as marketing value, for what I can say to a sponsor “this is what I”m going to do, and this is what we have available to us, and we can create things around that” is a bit more beneficial for the sponsors here, than, per se, an open-wheel series, that costs just as much [to the sponsor] and you’re, even then, not in IndyCar yet.  So, it’s kind of, you need to have a solid foundation to even make it to IndyCar, because it’s going to cost more along the way.  It’s a tough world for everybody right now, the economy is down, it’s not any one particular genre of job or style of work, it’s kind of hit everybody, it’s hit home.

It sounds as though, if you were to do open-wheel, you’d want to work toward staying in the States. Are you interested in a more Euro-centric series, say GP2 or any of the other junior F1 formula?
To be honest, I’m open to anything.  I guess, as any driver’s dream, Formula1 would be the pinnacle of motosports, because that’s why it’s called Formula1, and I would thoroughly enjoy doing something like that, but it really comes down to the business side of things.  Is that possible?  Can we make something like that happen?  and, with the right people in place, absolutely, we can make that happen.  Based on my career so far, I am obviously confident in my own abilities, though there’s always more to learn.  It’s not that I feel I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread, ’cause I know I’m not.  Having said that, I would love to be given the chance to get out and experience more, grow more, show what I can do at the higher levels.

Speaking of growing, you have a documentary in the works about the life of a driver…
I have a friend that, actually, I met in the motorsports industry, who’s really a by chance deal, and he just came out of his tuning career, he used to tune, and went to film school.  He had originally got a degree in film, but he went to a more focused program, and that’s a shift in his career path.  So, it was kind of the perfect storm, if you will, because he was able to get some work, and at that stage in his career, you just need to be able to produce something.  He wants to be a producer, he needs to get some projects.  Talking to him, it’s a bit like the motorsports industry, with the economy, it’s hard enough because there are people with 20-30 years of experience who have been laid off.  So, as a new person breaking into that arena, how do you compete against someone with that much experience for the same job?  So, he’s able to get something under his belt, I’m able to use it as promotional work for myself, it’s kind of a he wins, I win type deal, and that’s how we were able to put it together.

Any news on a release date?
To be honest, we haven’t even really talked about that.  We’re just getting all the footage we need, like, we got fifteen hours of footage yesterday between three cameras, so, a good amount, we’ve done some stuff prior to the race, probably need to do a bit of stuff after the race.  It’s more encapsulating the entire lifestyle from a driver’s perspective, similar to “Truth in 24,” but that was focused more around the Audi team.  This is going to be what it takes for a driver to get there.  The training involved, the business involved, marketing, networking, still working to support yourself while you’re doing it.  It will be pretty cool, more of a no-holds-barred, no BS, this is what it’s really like.  I mean, you watch it on TV, and you see the cars going around and the drivers, and it looks pretty glamorous, but this is absolutely not that way.
As of right now, the documentary is in project stage.  It’s been very sensitive about licensing, so  our plan is to talk to Grand-Am, and see what we can do, and if they don’t, they don’t.  At this point, it’s produced for our own viewing, but [we’d very much like to make it a Grand-Am licensed production].

You were speaking of F1, and there has been a recent trend in drivers starting in open-wheel, moving to sportscars, then returning to open wheel. What’s your take on that?
If you’re good enough, yes, you can go back and forth, it’s no problem.  Definitely, the style of driving a sportscar does not suit driving a Formula car.  Those are more like fighter jets on the ground, if you will, and you need to be on the minute, ragged edge.  I mean, that last millimeter of the edge, all the time.  Whereas, in a sportscar, absolutely, you need to be pushing hard, but in a race like this, for example, the 24 Hour, it’s not necessarily best for risk management, to be doing that.  I mean, you start driving hard and you get the team owner on the radio, and he starts barking at you, “what are you doing?!  We only need you to do this lap time, slow down,” so, it’s kind of a figure out where you can get away with driving that pace, and not putting any extra associated risks on the car, your position.  Basically, that machine needs to last for twenty-four hours.  So, if we can minimize stress on it, we want to.

Finally, you are a F1 fan, who is your favorite driver or team?
It’s one of my types of racing to watch.  To be honest, a favorite driver of mine is Fernando Alonso, and it’s a very controversial pick of mine, because a lot of people that I speak to about him, they say “oh, he’s a baby and he complains.”  You know, every driver is couched the way the media wants them to be looked at, and in that example, I respect him for his development abilities, how he’s able to take the car, and not necessarily the most competitive car, and create it into something that is extremely competitive.

To learn more about the Rolex and the coverage offered both here and at Formula1Blog, check out “Finally Available: Interviews and More from the Rolex 24 at Daytona” here at On Any Sunday, These Days.  Expect another driver profile on Wednesday!

(A New Series) Driver Profile: Ian James

What Happens When It’s Time to Add Some Original Content

2:03pm EST — While attending the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, I was struck by the massive amount of racing talent wandering through the garages and putting the cars on the track.  There were the big names who have won multiple championships in big series, the guys who win often but may not be followed with great devotion by huge numbers of fans, and the guys who have had lots of experience (winning and not) in multiple racing series but are only known within the racing community, and who generate a bit of a blank stare when mentioned to fans at home.

I feel that these men and women with racing talent ought to be broadcast to a wider range of fans and racing enthusiasts.  It is part of my mission here at On Any Sunday, These Days to “be a bridge between fans and those actually participating in the sports, not a person on the racing side of the great divide between fan and racer.”  In that capacity, I am beginning a new series of driver profiles each Wednesday for the foreseeable future of drivers who fans should know more about.  The first four will be about the drivers I was able to sit down with at the Rolex, men both starting out in racing and men who have been around longer than, say, Jaime Alguersuari.  I will always attempt to make these profiles of drivers I have actually interviewed, not just compiled biographies from Wikipedia.  I hope you enjoy.

Ian James

I begin this new series with a driver who has raced in both open-wheel and sportscar championships, under Le Mans series rules and the Grand-Am umbrella.  As a brief overview of his career, Ian James has been racing in the Rolex 24 at Daytona since 2000, and was the ALMS LMP2 champion in 2004, finished 3rd at Le Mans in LMP2 in 2006, and 3rd in British F3 championship in 1997, ahead of Justin Wilson and Mark Webber.  Originally from England, James now lives in Arizona, having moved to the States in about 1994 to work at the Skip Barber racing School.  I spoke with him just before he began some night practice in the #7 Starworks Motorsport Daytona Prototype, which he raced (with Bill Lester, Mike Forest, and Dion von Moltke) in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.  While the team did not finish the full 24 hours after an incident wrecked the car beyond repair with just a few hours to go, Starworks will run two DP cars for the rest of the Grand-Am season.

What sort of changes have occurred since your first Rolex 10 years ago to this one in 2010?
Obviously, back in the year 2000, I raced a GT1 car and the series had four classes in the race, now there’s just two and it’s definitely become more professional.  You know, this race, even back ten years ago, it was a test of endurance, would you last? and all that.  Now it’s just an outright sprint race, for the whole twenty-four hours, and that’s just the biggest way it’s changed.

This was a last-minute ride for you, correct, that you were only racing in the Continental Tire Challenge [a Rolex class support race] and now you’ve also got a 24 ride as well?
Yeah, absolutely.  I was meant to drive for a different team and they actually pulled out, and that was just before Christmas, and then I was working with Peter Baron [team principal] at Starworks, and he asked if I wanted to drive for him at Daytona.  But, this really only happened five days ago.  So, very last minute, but very happy.

[James will be racing for the full season in the Continential Tire Challenge, and while he told me then that it looked as though he would be racing in one of the two Starworks cars for the rest of the season, nothing is official and negotiations between the team and multiple drivers are, apparently, still ongoing]

Going back to the early days in your racing career, you finished 3rd in the British Formula3 championship, and so many of the fans want to believe that finishing well in the lower formula guarantee a move up to F1.  What actually happens, and why did you switch to sportscars?
Most sport is still about sponsorship dollars or having wealthy parents, and unfortunately, I didn’t have either of those, and I knew that if I wanted to keep racing, I had to change directions.  While I was reasonably successful, I couldn’t continue to race [in the open-wheel series] and go to Formula2 and potentially Formula1.  But, I knew this is what I wanted to do for a career for the rest of my life.  So, that’s really when I came to America and try to find something I could do, a niche I could fill to give me some longevity.  Even racing back then, obviously there were good guys like Justin [Wilson] and [Mark] Webber, who ended up racing at a higher level, but there were a lot of great guys who aren’t even racing anymore, so, you know, I decided to take that path and I’m happy I did, really.  I can’t complain.  I’ve had a really good run of it.

You were ALMS champion a couple of years ago…
yeah, I’ve raced at Le Mans, I’ve raced at Nurburgring, I’ve raced Daytona every year, won Sebring twice, I mean, when I was starting racing in Formula Ford and all that, if you’d just told me I could do a tenth of that, I’d be a happy person, so I’m living the dream and want to keep it going as long as possible.

Speaking of racing at Le Mans and the Nurburgring, the Rolex is a very historic 24 hour race, Le Mans is a very historic 24 hour race, what are the different challenges between racing at the different venues?
Without a doubt, Le Mans is still the pinnacle of endurance sportscar racing.  At Le Mans and the Nurburgring, I think the track is a bit more of a challenge.  Whereas this, really, I mean, Daytona’s a pretty easy track to drive around, but because of that, because it’s a shorter lap, it’s more about nothing going wrong.  Le Mans, you have to be in the right car, there’s lots of different types of car.  Here, everybody’s virtually go the same car in the top class [DP], so you’ve really got to be on your game, and they you’ve got the IndyCar teams like Ganassi [Chip Ganassi Racing who fields teams in a multitude of series and fills out the 24 hour roster with stars from his NASCAR and IndyCar teams while still entering a full-season car in the Grand-Am series] here, and you know they run at 110% the whole time.  So, as a spectacle, it’s getting bigger, the Rolex, and there’s probably more top drivers here than any other race in the world.  But there’s something special about Le Mans, that is going to be hard to emulate.

Some explanation about the race preparations…
I didn’t drive the car for the test day, so we’ve been catching up a little bit, and during qualifying we had a wheel bearing go, which hurt the performance of the car, and we’ve got a bad handling problem, and we can’t really get to the bottom of it.  They can see on the computer, they can see what’s going wrong, but they just don’t know why, so we’ve kind of changed everything for this session [he was about to head out for the night practice Thursday] to see if we can fix it.  It will be a long 24 hours if we don’t fix it, because the car is really hard to drive right now, but it’s a 24 hour race; I don’t really care how we qualify, it’s unfortunate we had a wheel bearing, but we’ll get there.

the car was smoking a lot in the infield…
yeah, that was the wheel bearing, and we had a rear axle going at the same time, so there was grease going onto the brakes, so, we’ll see.

To learn more about the Rolex (and what happened for James and the rest of the Starworks team) and the coverage offered both here and at Formula1Blog, check out “Finally Available: Interviews and More from the Rolex 24 at Daytona” here at On Any Sunday, These Days.  Expect another driver profile on Wednesday!