The last particularly busy weekend of the year for The Racer's Group and team principal Kevin Buckler takes place in three locations from Thursday through Sunday. Although for TRG, practically every weekend could be considered “particularly busy.”
TRG – a typical entrant in the American Le Mans Series, IMSA GT3 Challenge, Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series and NASCAR Sprint Cup – has several points of interest this weekend. ALMS races for six hours in Monterey with Buckler behind the wheel for the first time in six years, the supporting GT3 Challenge has two TRG entrants, and NASCAR enters the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the last 10 races for rookie Andy Lally to prove himself in his first full year.
We spoke with Buckler about the season across the various disciplines to this point and what's in store the rest of 2011.
RACER: So, you're back driving this weekend in ALMS for the first time since 2005. What gave you the idea, what's your outlook and where can you help your co-drivers?
Buckler: It's gonna be pretty cool. We've had Dion (von Moltke) driving for the full season and Emilio di Guida new, and we're working with him for a development program for the future. Laguna's my home track, and I haven't driven in a while. With it being a six-hour race, I'm just there for the team – it could be hot early – and I just come in as a relief pitcher. Emilio was out there training last weekend with a Porsche in a club event. It's gonna be fun.
Road America was Emilio's first GT race. He didn't hit anything, but he got stuck in the gravel trap. After all the weekend's practice and qualifying, his fastest time was the second lap in the race. He has a great attitude and wants to be with us.
Describe a lap at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
I'm an active snow skier, and I used to compete in the freestyle circuit. When we go to Sears Point in anger, it's like skiing for miles. It's grueling, you're turning, braking and just on fire.
At Laguna Seca, by comparison, it's aggressive powder skiing. It's about how you carry speed all the way through to the braking zones. It's all about winding it up with rhythm, and keeping the minimum speeds higher in some of these corners like Turns 4, 5, 6, 9, and 10. Those are five big corners that require a whole lot from you in getting the speeds up. It's an epic track, and I love the natural terrain. It provides a feel for what road racing is meant to be.
How does the team prepare cars across the different series, sometimes all simultaneously over a weekend?
It's a challenge, for sure. One of the main things for sure is seeing how it's structured. It's not easy to pull off. The analogy I would make is, how do you view someone who is an athlete specializing in multi-marathons? That's how we set it up particularly for events like Daytona, Sebring or other things of that sort.
We have four cars in Monterey, and we're in the running for a championship with our program at Mazda Raceway, and that's where we have to get everything together. The staff is strong and the guys are really good at juggling. For us, the more complicated the better.
Switching to the Cup side, and the decision to have Andy Lally on board for a full year certainly raised some eyebrows. What went into that and how would you evaluate the year?
Taking my star driver over there against all odds was certainly an interesting move! And we had to think going on, we're not always sure this is the right decision. But Andy replaced me when I quit driving in '04-'05, and he just stepped into that lead role in the 66 car.
The challenge has not just been putting him into Cup, but getting everyone else to buy off on it. The question I'm often asked is, “Why go with Andy when there are others available?” I do it for exactly that reason – I tried other guys out and we didn't work as well together. I've been with Andy for years, and he did a masterful job for TRG in sports car racing. He always pulled it off in more places than you'd think.
We get better every week. I believe in him. He's never been to these tracks before, and for him to out-qualify 7-10 drivers in fairly similar equipment is pretty impressive.
For him to apply himself here requires a lot of the same as in sports car racing. I think we'll make it with Andy.
Which have been the easiest and toughest tracks for him to adjust to?
Restrictor plate tracks are the easiest to learn. Short ovals play more to his skill set from sports car racing; there's a lot of sliding around out there. One-and-a-half milers, actually, would be the most challenging.
Teams there have developed the car much longer. We don't have quite the same stuff but we're close. Equipment comes into play a lot, and we have a good aero program.
At Talladega and Daytona, we hooked up with Terry Labonte and were fast. The two-car choo-choo took us to the top 10 at points. (Lally's best finish this season was 19th at Talladega in April).