Willy T. Ribbs announced Thursday that he had formed a team in partnership with Starting Grid, Inc. principal Chris Miles to campaign 21-year-old Chase Austin in this month's Firestone Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (click here for news story). The NASCAR racer explains how the program came about and where he hopes it will lead.
Q: Obvious question but how did it feel to be in a car that fast?
A: Right, I didn't get to race too much last year – just a couple races at Michigan, one in a NASCAR Truck and once in a Nationwide car. So to hop in this was kinda different. We were doing 185mph which is something I've done before so that wasn't a huge deal, but the handling characteristics of the car was a lot to get used to.
Q: How did this deal come about? It seems to have been a bolt from the blue for a lot of us.
A: Chris Miles (LEFT, with Chase at right) with the company Starting Grid, was working on stuff three or four years ago and slowly chipping away at it, and he kept in our ear, kept us up to date with what he was doing because he said if he got something together, he'd want me to be the driver. Sure enough, a couple years later, I got the phone call to say he'd got the financial side of it sewn up and he was ready to move forward. The Freedom 100 was the race he chose, and I moved to Indiana about a week after that and I'm still here!
Q: Does making your Firestone Indy Lights debut on a big stage intimidate you at all?
A: Well, media-wise, it's not that big a deal. I've been doing stuff like this since I was 15 so I've been trained for it, so that doesn't shock me. Working with Willy T. Ribbs Racing and Brooks Associates Racing is great. A lot of people are bringing up stuff about breaking the color barrier and so on, and that's not really what I concentrate on. It's the media that ask me about it, and I try and answer the questions professionally and quickly, so I can get back to talking about what I love doing. I just love racing.
Q: Are there any plans in place for what you'll do after the Freedom 100?
A: I think we'll do some more races after this. As of right now, we don't have anything signed up for more events, no contracts made or anything like that. But after we see how this race goes, we'll be able to sort things a little bit better. It's not necessarily based on performance, although obviously a good performance always helps everything. But we're trying to get exposure, trying to get ourselves noticed, and hopefully attract more sponsors so we can get more races locked down.
Q: How are your road racing skills at the moment?
A: Well, I've done a little road course racing, but not a whole lot. It's definitely not my expertise, but I've done a little bit. I went to the Bondurant Racing School in Phoenix to learn downshifting, and went on track at Virginia International Raceway with Boris Said and spent a day with him learning about what I need to do. And I've raced at Lime Rock. But that's all been in stock cars, so although I have a little bit of a background to work from, I'm no expert.
Q: If you wanted to make a career of open-wheel racing and do complete seasons, obviously road and street courses are something you'd have to get a handle on. Are you up for that?
A: Well, I actually did pretty well at Lime Rock, although I haven't done any street courses before. But I just love racing – and I only love oval racing because that's what I've always done so far. But doing rights as well as lefts is something new, and although I had never previously pictured myself doing that, I'd be more than open to have this as a career.
Q: So why the change from stock car to open-wheel? Is that a permanent thing or would you go back to Nationwide if you have the chance?
A: In all honesty, I'd race anything! I'm not really biased toward one car or another. I've just been doing the NASCAR circuit because that's where my career went to when those were the only opportunities. Open-wheel never seemed like an option until now. Now that it is, I'm glad that it came about. Like I say, if I could try every kind of racing, I would! NASCAR, IndyCar, Rallying – doesn't matter.
Q: At your Chicagoland test, was it just you out there or were you able to practice drafting in these cars?
A: Well, obviously I ran a lot of superspeedways in NASCAR, so I pretty much have the drafting deal down, and know the basics of it. Of course, in a Firestone Indy Lights car, obviously a lot changes with wings instead of fenders, but I still have a good basic grasp of the concept to apply. That was the least of my worries; at the test, it was more about the handling of the car.
Q: So Friday's test at Indy is more about piling on the laps and getting your bearings on a circuit that's totally different from Chicagoland Speedway.
A: Right. The team want me to do what I did in Chicago – just get out there and do laps. I think they're planning to make some adjustments depending on how quick I pick up the track. Hopefully I pick it up as quick as I picked up Chicago, but I'm very aware that Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a difficult track. I've talked to a couple of drivers who've run here, and I've gotten some notes and little bits of information and hopefully that helps me to put the pieces of this big puzzle together. Then I'll be able to make adjustments and get fast. I honestly have never sat and watched an Indianapolis 500 – that's how new this is to me.
Q: Are you expecting it to be more difficult without a teammate?
A: Well, most of the racing I've done, I haven't had a teammate, so going solo won't be a shock to me. I think the benefits of having a teammate would be more relevant if we were doing a whole season, so we were pooling data from two cars from track to track. Right now, this being a one-off deal, I think it's a big learning curve anyway and it's more down to me getting myself on the pace.
Q: Are you enjoying working with the Brooks Associates guys?
A: Oh, yeah, it's good fun, and they have a strong past. They won the 2008 Atlantic Championship with Markus Niemala, so they're good at their jobs, they all work together well and my engineer has worked with some good drivers at this level. He's never won the Freedom 100, though, so hopefully I can be the one who does the job for him! They're a good team, they know how to mesh together and they know how to win together.
Q: Willy T. Ribbs – is he still larger than life?
A: He's great. I hadn't spoken to him a whole lot although I met him a long time ago when I first started trying to make this a professional deal. So to have him with me on the 20th anniversary of him racing here and on the 100th anniversary of the Speedway – it's a big deal and I'm glad to be part of it.