This weekend, America's Charlie Kimball makes his sports car debut in one of the endurance classics – the Rolex 24 at Daytona – driving a Riley BMW for the TELMEX Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates team. Sharing his car are perennial Grand-Am Rolex Series champions Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas, and one of Ganassi's NASCAR stars, Juan Montoya whose accomplishments hardly need listing here. The Ganassi sister car will be driven by Kimball's IndyCar teammates Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, along with Ganassi's other NASCAR star, Jamie McMurray, and BMW's American DTM driver Joey Hand.
Kimball, then, is the baby of the Rolex 24 family but he won't be cut any slack: Chip and team manager Mike Hull are expecting both of the Ganassi cars to contend for victory, and it says much for their increasing regard for Kimball that he was deemed ready to be part of the team's attempt to earn a fifth win in eight years at the Rolex 24. But before getting his thoughts on his first enduro endeavor, we asked CK about his day job, behind the wheel of the Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing IndyCar.
Q: Congratulations on winning the 2012 Tony Renna Rising Star award. How much did that mean to you?
CK: It's huge. It's really neat to be part of Tony Renna's legacy and be able to remember him as a driver, an athlete and an innovator. Plus James Hinchcliffe is a close friend of mine, so for him to have won it in 2011 and me to have won it last year means a lot because we both train with Jim Leo of PitFit. Jim was a close friend of Tony's, so to honor his friend's legacy with his help gives you a good feeling. On my shelf, it's right there ahead of my second-place trophy from the Toronto race (LEFT). That's how much it means.
Q: The “Rising Star” in the title says a lot for you, too – that you're getting noticed by and respect from the IndyCar community.
CK: I hope so, yeah. The idea is that as the team and myself continue to develop and earn results together on the racetrack, that recognition will happen organically.
Q: Do you think the downsizing of Ganassi's G2 team – so that the Novo Nordisk part of the team is operating out of the Target team's shop – will have a positive effect, or any effect at all?
CK: I don't think it will change a lot from when there was a fourth car with Graham [Rahal] for the past couple years. The dynamic did feel slightly different when the three of us tested at Sebring, but talking to Chip [Ganassi] and Mike [Hull], they're clear that they're not going to have a fourth car unless it absolutely makes sense. For them, that means someone who would contribute to the success of the three other cars as well as be successful in its own right. So if that fourth car arrives, it will be a program that elevates everybody. If it doesn't, then no problem: I think the personalities currently involved on the driving, engineering and management sides work really well together as it stands. We all have similar mindsets.
Q: So you're teamed with Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon who so far have six IndyCar championships and four Indy 500 wins between them…. Is that reassuring to know that there's probably no situation you're going to encounter that hasn't been encountered by your teammates at some point in their open-wheel history?
CK: Absolutely, it's massive, and the nice thing is that with three of us, the communication isn't overwhelming. With four, maybe there was almost too much going on, especially as both Graham [Rahal] and I were learning and developing. He was a couple of years ahead of me in terms of IndyCar racing, but still I'd say we were both learning “the Ganassi way,” at the same rate and so there was a lot going on. With it being just me on the learning curve, I can do a lot more listening and not have to filter out some of the noise that's there. I can ask one tipping-point question, and then just let it roll downhill and soak up the information that comes back to me and that Dario and Scott are telling each other.
Q: And do you feel you contribute as well as receive feedback?
CK: Yes, and I've actually felt like that from Day 1. And that's exactly what Chip felt should and would happen – that we'd give back to the red and white cars, and if that's just the ability to try three different setup changes instead of one or two, then that is a time-saving benefit to all. We all have really good feedback and we can sit down and talk about what we're feeling in the car and what we think the cars need. And if we occasionally want to reassure ourselves about each others' feedback, then in testing we can all go the same route, and though we use different words, the message of the responses is identical: we're looking for the same things. That's great, because then we can go in three different directions and if one of us finds something that works, the other two can then faithfully apply it to their programs and know it will benefit them, too.
For example, if Dario found something in a Sunday morning warm-up, Scott and myself would have no qualms about adding it to our cars, untried, for the race: that's how much faith we have in each other. And our race engineers are the same – Chris Simmons [Franchitti], Eric Bretzman [Dixon] and Brad Goldberg [Kimball] have worked at Ganassi for years. Brad rose from building wiring harnesses to being part of the Grand-Am championship-winning team to being chief engineer on an IndyCar. As the newest member, I came in realizing that I have to respect the engineering staff's methodology, how Chip wants it to work, how Mike wants it to work and the fact that it's been so successful. So I've found my space and fitted into that scheme.
Q: Knowing how well Dixie and Dario have gone at Daytona in the past [each have won here], that must be reassuring as you approach your first sports car race. Because of them as your regular barometer, you know you too can do a good job in a Daytona Prototype.
CK: Yeah, it's great to know the team believes in me. Plus, I'm in a great position to learn so much. I spent the whole three-day test and every day since then, picking Scott Pruett's brain, asking Dario a question or texting Memo [Rojas] with a question or three. I have never been in this race before, they have done a lot of endurance racing, and the more they can pass on to me, the better the whole team is. If they've told me of a certain situation that arises, then when it does happen to me, I can get over the surprise of it that much quicker.
That three-day test was one of the coolest experiences. The eight Ganassi drivers get along really well, none of our personalities clash, we're all there for the same reason, we all have similar mindsets, we know our cars are at least as competitive as – if not more competitive than – any other car on the grid, so we head into the race with confidence and strong team spirit.
Afterwards, we were in the truck changed and Jamie [McMurray] asked me, “So what do you think of the Grand-Am car?” I said, “Well, it's big and heavy, it rolls around a lot, and you've got to get used to that sensation.” He busted out laughing and said: “And that is the toughest, lightest, stiffest car I will race all year!” It's those various perspectives that are fascinating to me, especially when IndyCar drivers, DTM drivers, NASCAR drivers and the regular Grand-Am drivers get in and produce the same lap times.
Q: And that is the great thing about the Rolex 24 – that pooling of talent. Drivers come from so many categories, to not only try and win the famous Daytona 24 Hours, but also because it's the first international race of the year and they want to blow off the rust after a long off-season.
CK: That's right. The off-season for any racing driver is too long ; I think two weeks would be long enough for any of us.
Q: Does driving a potentially race-winning car increase the pressure for you in your first attempt at Daytona, or does it give you confidence knowing that Ganassi, more than any other team, are likely to provide everything a driver could ask for?
CK: I've said it before, and I'll probably say it for the rest of my life, because it's true – the pressure I put on myself to perform at the level I know I'm capable of is greater than any pressure the team could put on me. Having said that, seeing the care and the effort that the Ganassi crew – the mechanics, the tire guys, the gearbox guys, the team managers, the truck drivers, everybody – puts into preparing for this race, you do automatically gain confidence. I knew that this car wasn't going to surprise me, it wasn't going to do anything unexpected that could throw a rookie off the road. And I knew what to expect because I'd listened to the other drivers and knew what it was trying to tell me when it started telling me that. So I could just focus on learning the track, learning the rhythm of the car, learning the rhythm of passing much slower traffic from the other classes.
I know that I'll be able to be a little conservative at times in the race and balance the risk/reward equation, so that I don't have to desperately lunge past a GT car, for example. That's because I know that at the end of my stint, I will be handing over to a guy with the pace to compensate for any time losses made in traffic. It's far more important to not hand over a car with a broken fender, than it is to gain one second by pulling a risky lapping maneuver at one corner rather than wait two more corners to make a less-risky pass. We all know that if we can avoid having to go to the garage for repairs then, depending on the yellows or weather, we're going to be in the picture in those final two or three hours.
Q: One new experience for you, I assume, is having traffic that is 10 seconds per lap slower than you. The closing speeds aren't something you're used to…
CK: Right, and I was talking with Scott Dixon about this. I said to him, “I'm starting to be able to tell who's confident out there and who's not. Watching how the GT cars are being driven, you can see who are the professionals and who are the amateurs, just from those couple of seconds as you close on them to get ready to pass.” But then Scott said, “Yeah, but you've got to be really careful about making any assumptions. Early in a stint you'll catch a GT car and it will be the professional in the car and he'll do what you expect – he'll move low on the banking and let you pass on the high side. But then later in the stint, maybe you'll catch that same car again, but by then there's been a driver change and it's now the amateur driving, or someone with a completely different experience level. So every time you approach a backmarker, you have to think about what they could possibly do and leave yourself enough room to get out of the pass if the guy does the unexpected.”
Interesting huh? Like Scott says, “If you're in a prototype and you hit a GT car, it's your fault, no matter what, because your job is to avoid contact and just run laps to keep yourself in contention.”
Q: What did you think of the track itself?
CK: It's Daytona, so…it's huge, it's over the top, it's awesome. I remember back when I was still racing karts, I visited the the museum here, and then I went out and looked at the banking and the enormity of the track, and I remember thinking, “That's absurd!” But then getting out on it with the DP car, it just hit me again, that yeah, it's really big! But coming down from the banking and into the infield part of the course, it's fun. The bus stop chicane's a blast, because you can just fling the car through.
The thing is, though, there are no real straights. It's not like in an IndyCar or on an oval where you hit a main straight and can relax your hands, relax your eyes, tighten your belts, whatever. The Daytona 24-hour course doesn't give you that chance because you're physically holding the car around the oval part of the course.
Q: Yeah, that's the weird thing about using part of the oval course. Unlike IndyCar's oval races, or NASCAR's oval races, a DP car can't be set up to be driven on an oval because it's got to handle the road course part of the lap…
CK: Exactly! It's weird having to actively turn the steering wheel to go around the banking, unlike an IndyCar where it's already trying to turn itself into the banked turns so down the straight, your job is to hold it in line and prevent it from turning. They're completely opposite characteristics.
Q: How hard will it be to adapt to driving in the wet or driving at night…or both?
CK: Well, I haven't driven the car in the wet, but in the test we did drive at night. When Daytona turns on its floodlights, it doesn't feel like you're running at night, to be honest – it's not properly dark like you'd find at Sebring or Le Mans, and there were times when you honestly wouldn't know if your headlights were on or off, and Ganassi has its headlight program down pretty well. So it's just a question of certain shadows that you have to worry about, in case there's debris that you can't quite see; just like racing an IndyCar in one of our evening oval races.
As for the rain, it doesn't look like we're going to get rain, although the overnight dew or mist, being January, could make the track pretty slick. Who knows? It's something I'm looking forward to, and I'll be in the car for as long as they'll let me!
Q: And you've never had to share a car before, correct?
CK: Yeah, it will be my first time having to do a driver change and that sort of thing. I mean, before a season starts, I'm used to us spending two days getting my IndyCar's seat fitting just right. Yet here we are, sharing with three other drivers, all slightly compromised, not quite ideal but not uncomfortable, either. Thankfully, the DP cars are conducive to lots of different body sizes, and the four of us on our car are all similar heights, no belt changes necessary either – we just drop in, drive, climb out.
Q: But you've only driven the car in relatively pristine condition. It's going to be interesting for an open-wheel driver who's usual car is tailored specifically for him and who has a fresh set of everything pre-race. Now you're suddenly being dropped into a car that's already got nine or 19 hours of hard driving under its wheels, it's now maybe got a long brake pedal, perhaps a bit of a handling imbalance, maybe some steering vibration, too much toe out, etc etc. – and you're expected to just go out and gas it!
CK: Ha! Yeah, I know: there'll be a lot of adjustment and that includes acknowledging and compensating for the fact that the car hasn't come straight off the shop floor. It's about taking what you've got, putting it on your back and go and do the best you can. That's what I'll do. It will be a good challenge, let's put it that way….
The Rolex 24 At Daytona opens with practice and qualifying on Thursday. Friday features a one-hour final practice session ahead of Saturday's green flag which is set to drop on the 51st Rolex 24 at Daytona at 3:30 p.m. SPEED will carry live coverage of the race beginning at 3:00 p.m. ET.
For tickets to the Rolex 24, CLICK HERE.