Personnel from the Sam Schmidt Motorsports IZOD IndyCar Series team will be blogging throughout the season for RACER.com. First up: Team manager Rob Edwards (LEFT), with driver Alex Tagliani).
Last year here on RACER.com, we invited you to “Ask FAZZT” a variety of questions. That was fun and really showed a deep level of interest and knowledge in our team and in open-wheel racing as a whole. This year, with so many changes including the arrival of Sam Schmidt as our new owner, we thought it would be great to let various team members have their say, so throughout the year, you'll have blogs from myself, or Allen McDonald, Alex Tagliani, Sam himself, and others to give you a perspective of life here at SSM now that the king of Indy Lights team owners has graduated to the big cars and become our team owner.
So, let's start with that huge moment that happened less than a month before our opening race at St. Petersburg. I can honestly say that it's only changed for the better. Sam's been great, and he was astute enough not to change a lot of things and instead let us continue with what we'd been doing over the winter. His arrival as team owner provides a lot of stability for us as well as leadership from someone who's been around racing for a long time, who understands how racing works and who understands how the series works. His enthusiasm for being involved in IndyCar again has, frankly, helped to energize all of us.
It was a fairly open secret that Sam, like quite a few potential IndyCar team owners, was looking at the rule changes for 2012 as the ideal time to join – or in some cases, rejoin – the IZOD IndyCar Series. However, Sam watches what goes on in the paddock and I think he'd seen what we built last year, so when the opportunity was there, he took it. As he said, if he's already in the series in 2011 it's a lot easier for him to sell sponsorship for 2012 than if he had just been going around this year telling people that he wants to be in IndyCar for 2012. He saw what was once FAZZT as a turn-key operation with a lot of the things already in place, and that was preferable to building from 2012.
Early on, Sam and I spent a few days together, and it's a good relationship. He is there if I need him but he doesn't interfere day to day. We talk a couple of times a day – we're in Indianapolis and he lives in Vegas – and he is involved in what I describe as a supportive nature. He's there when we need him, he's there to make it better, but if everything is working well he isn't into making change just for change's sake.
Now, Sam Schmidt Motorsports is a great team in Firestone Indy Lights already, and so you'll realize this is a properly run operation, with smart thinking and strategic planning for the future. That's really key for us in the medium term, with more facilities and technical resources to put a lot of attention on the 2012 season while simultaneously running hard in 2011. Before Sam came along, our plan was that up until May we were going to focus on the Indy 500. But, the new cars in 2012 are an opportunity and a lot of the people who are here now went through a similar reboot with the Panoz in Champ Car in 2007. We saw how the new car gave a team like Walker Racing the opportunity to make up ground on people who'd had the old Lola for a long time. So, starting after May, there is certainly a plan to commit a certain amount of resource to the 2012 program and Sam has endorsed that. I think Sam sees the same things that we see, and will give us more tools to be able to enact the plan.
That does not make the 2011 season a throwaway year at all. We are constantly monitoring our performances and trying to improve them. When we look back at last year, there were some road and street courses where we were very good and some ovals where we were very good, as well. The thing that let us down over the course of the whole year is there were also some road, street and oval tracks where we were pretty average. So, the focus has really been to improve to become podium finishers in our stronger events, and figure out why we were only average or bad at others. If we can improve our bad events to the level we were at in our better events last year, and take the good ones from last year and further improve on them, then that will give us a really good foundation moving forward. In short, the goal is really to be more consistent than we were last year.
The centennial Indy 500 will, of course, be a huge event anyway but also an exciting time for us. We'll be running two cars – Alex in No. 77, as usual, and we'll run Townsend Bell in the No. 99 Herbalife car. That's a deal Sam had in place before he acquired our team. Then Sam has also entered the No. 88 car with Jay Howard, which Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing is going to run for us. How that No. 88 deal works is that RLLR will be responsible for that car, but if they need something, hopefully they'll come to ask us before they ask someone else, and likewise, if there's something we need, they'd be our first port of call. So, those are Sam's programs, and there are a couple of other things related to Indy that Sam's involved in, too. They'll be revealed over the next couple of weeks.
In the meantime, we can look back on the first three rounds of this season and be reasonably happy. In St. Pete, we qualified eighth last year and 10th this year (though as competitive as the field is now, that's splitting hairs) and finished sixth. But Barber Motorsports Park I was really happy with, aside from the end result: we qualified 21st last year, we finished the test there in 14th, and we made it to the top 12 for qualifying. We're continuing to go forward. We actually got caught out a little bit in segment two in qualifying, and I think we had a little bit more. But, in a way, maybe that helped us because we made some more changes overnight and ended up with a very good racecar.
Alex, as at St. Pete, did a really good job on the restarts in Barber and we moved from 12th to 10th on the original start, then to eighth on the next restart. OK, so that might not be Tony Kanaan-style progress, but I think we were taking a few less risks with our Bowers & Wilkins No. 77 car than Kanaan! And I think we had the pace to finish top six. That's the sort of consistency we've worked over the winter to try and achieve, and a sign of genuine progress.
We're lucky even with all of the changes over the winter there's still a huge amount of continuity in the team. We've got the engineering group working together still. It's been a long time since Alex has had the same group of people around him for two years in a row. I think we tried to lay that same sort of foundation last year and it's paying off this year. Obviously, the goal is to continue to build that into the structure this year to be a competitive two-car program with the new chassis in 2012. Alex remains very focused. For sure, some of the changes in the off-season were unsettling, but fortunately, with the timing of events, by the time we got to St. Pete we were able to put all that behind us. He's been as calm and as focused as last year and so there's been a level of consistency with him, too, which is part of what we have been trying to achieve.
At Long Beach last year, we qualified seventh but certainly had a very up-and-down weekend, whereas this year we qualified ninth, stayed on it the whole time, and Alex was able to lead for a few laps and bring the car home fifth, which was satisfying. If we cure a couple of balance issues with the car, then I think we'll have a strong performance again in Sao Paulo this weekend.
One of the beauties about last year is that we had no expectations anywhere! We're very aware that for the next two events, Brazil and Indy, where we qualified second and fifth last year, expectations are high. Well, for me, it's more about showing that we can be consistent. The disappointing thing last year in Sao Paulo was not finishing the race, through no fault of our own. So, to be honest, the team's focus is more on getting the Bowers & Wilkins car finishing top five than qualifying on the front row again. Our aim is to leave Indy at the end of May still firmly in the top 10 in the points table. We currently lie sixth, so I think that's very feasible.
We're going to have an exciting, thrilling Month of May, between Brazil and Indianapolis! Be sure to watch us, support us and come meet us.