SRT Motorsports drivers Tommy Kendall and Kuno Wittmer meet the media during the American Le Mans Series' Winter Test at Sebring International Raceway.
Q: Have the track characteristics changed much for you at all or is it the same ol' beast?
Tom Kendall: “Well, back in 1985 when you went way the heck out there and two runways met, it was quite a bit different. The track is still rough, but it's smoother than it was. In addition to the cardiovascular, spending some time on one of those mechanical bulls and if you can find one of those paint shaker machines would help!
This one is a tough one and it's on my list. There's sort of a family score I need to settle. I never bring it up but when the family gets together, my brothers and my dad, they always throw out the trivia question, ‘Who's the only Kendall that's raced at Sebring that's never won at Sebring (laughs)?' My dad won here in '81 in the GTO class and my brother Bart won here I think in '88 or '89. I would like to right that.
“We've come a long way in the year but you need to kind of check your expectations based on what Corvette did when they came in, you watch what BMW did when they came in, you watch what everybody did. We knew we were getting better. The car is only one piece of that. It's all experienced people but it wasn't a unit until less than a year ago. The processes, the way the information flows, the debriefs and all that stuff, it's like putting a whole new company together.
“The car and the lap times are what you see but there's a lot of stuff going on. We're working just as hard on all that stuff. We had a meeting this morning and they said we're asking more of everyone. We're asking more of the team, we're asking more of the car, we're asking more of the drivers and that's how you get better.”
You mentioned about how the track has changed since you were first here. When you came back a couple of weeks ago, how much of a learning curve was it?
TK: “You know, it comes back pretty quickly. You know, I haven't raced here since '99 but it's amazing how quickly the stuff comes back to you.
“You've heard the stories about the infield here. I was 18 years old. I was racing my dad's RX-7 in '85 and we had an idler arm break in the first hour. I jumped out of the car and this guy said, ‘You want a beer'? I was 18 and I said nobody offered me beer! But we came back, got the car fixed, ran until the end and finished second. But the infield here is a good time.
“The track, I like it. It's hard on everyone and everything. There's a cool rhythm here and a good assortment of corners. The thing that frustrates you the most about trying to get the car to work over the bumps is that's also where the gains are. A lot of these tracks are beautiful, the new ones, and they're so smooth but some of the character and individual challenges are the same. So, I both don't like it and like it at the same time.”
From the first race last year, even the end of last year, where have the biggest gains been made in the program?
Kuno Wittmer: “It's like Tommy just said, a lot of the gains are what we see on track when it comes to lap times but some of the major gains were behind the scenes as far as team personnel, who is keyed up with who and the pit stop changes, how many times we practiced and all that. That's where the major gains have been made. As far as development goes, it's an ongoing process. Lap times can only tell so much. Definitely, the biggest stuff is getting closer with your teammates, getting to know each other and keep building that chemistry along with your guys, your crew. That was definitely the biggest development.”
TK: “All last year, pretty much, it's like we were house shopping. We were shopping for neighborhoods. All the changes we made were broad brush, whether it was diff or traction controls, springs, shocks, bars whereas now, we're kind of getting directions that the car likes. We're still relatively early. This is my first time working with traction control and I think you could probably spend three or four days doing nothing but that as a tuning tool. You just never have enough time. We've got our heads down.
“It reminds me of when I was recovering from my accident – if you looked at how far you'd have to go, you'd never start. You just kind of put your head down and you go for a while. You look up 30 days later and you're like ‘Wow, I covered some distance.' So we're kind of in that mode.
“One of the nice things is having as few variables. Michelin is the benchmark for us. If we were on some other kind of tire, you'd blame stuff on the tires and say that's probably what's going on here whereas we know they're sort of the benchmark. We don't get to share information with the other teams but we know that we have consistency on the tires. It really keeps us pointed back to the car and different parts of it which is a God send. You can talk yourself into going completely the wrong direction, and we still do that for sure, but it's kind of nice having that North Star with the tires.”
How much testing have you guys done since Petit last year and how much do you have scheduled between now and the 12 Hours?
KW: “Since Petit last year, on-track testing, we did a two-day test here in January. This is our second test since Petit and that'll be all for testing before the 12 Hours.”
TK: “There are some major refinements on the car. They want to get 'em apart. When I saw the car for the first time, every single part of it was so beautiful. With Riley's experience, their first stab at it was pretty good but after those first four races, they had some areas they wanted to work on where you could maybe get some weight out or do this, that and the other. So, the time spent from Petit to that test was doing some of that stuff that takes time. When I showed up at Daytona at the Daytona test, the Roar, we've been on kind of an information block. We showed up here and kind of got the download on a lot of different stuff. They've had their heads down there in Mooresville. It wasn't like a huge leap forward but a little bit better in three or four areas, for sure.”
Kuno has been talking about his conditioning program. What have you been doing over the last few months and particularly the last few weeks to prepare for this?
TK: “Well, for me, in addition to overall conditioning, I'm still trying to lose weight. It's mostly cycling, swimming and a little bit of yoga but mostly cycling and swimming; just reps, sometimes twice a day, morning and night just trying to get as many reps in as I can is the main thing.”
You have had quite a bit of experience with the Riley guys. How has working with them helped you transition back into this?
TK: “Bill (Riley) is a kind of calm influence, no matter what's going on. One example, we were having an issue with alternators and he was like a 24-hour kind of field general. He didn't want to cut into our time and have the car go down to address the issues. He immediately came up with a plan. He sent people back to the shop, got as many batteries as they could and we were just changing out batteries every half hour, 40 minutes or so to keep us going.
“And then another thing will crop up and there's just calmness about him. There's very little that he hasn't seen. If the head (of the organization) gets excited, everybody gets excited, everybody kind of gets excited and agitated. If he's calm, that tends to permeate the organization. So, that's been nice.
“And then, the other thing, it's because everyone on the team is pretty experienced. In my mind, it's not if we are going to be fighting for race wins but when. The bar here is so high. The Corvette guys, I know a lot of those guys very well and I know how hard they work, how talented they are, I know what kind of resources they have – but I feel like we have every bit as much of that. So, that is kind of the nice thing. You just got to grind it out. I didn't necessarily like that part of the sport before. I just wanted to get to the end of the race and say, ‘Did we win?' And now, I'm actually enjoying that part of it, working together as a team.
“One thing different for me is it's been a long time, all the Trans-Am stuff was single driver, single car. Every time the car ran a lap, you were behind the wheel. Every change you made, you could personalize it to a greater degree. You also got more time in the car. That's been one thing that's taking some getting used to but they do a good job of cycling everybody through. That's been a big adjustment for me in terms of what's happened since you got out of the car last and what kind of compromises you have to make so that everybody is comfortable.”
How is the Viper compared to other racecars you've been in – easier, more difficult to drive, more taxing physically?
KW: “The biggest change with the Viper is definitely the big motor up front which generates a lot of heat inside the car. You know, fortunately, in this championship we get to run AC (air conditioning) systems but in other championships, you don't. That's probably the biggest thing, because of all the heat. You definitely overheat quicker than any other car which has the motor in the middle or the back.
“Definitely, compared to other GT cars that I've driven, the car is in my opinion less physically taxing and it's more comfortable to drive. I'm not going to say easier to drive because that's not a proper word in this type of sport, but it's definitely driver-friendly as far as how many downshifts you do, how many upshifts you do compared to other cars, where you wind the motor up a lot more. So using up a lot of that bottom-end torque is very nice, actually.”
SRT Motorsports drivers Tommy Kendall and Kuno Wittmer meet the media media during the American Le Mans Series' Winter Test at Sebring International Raceway to talk about the prospects for the year ahead with the SRT Motorsports team's SRT Viper GTS-R.