CART Media Conference
August 3, 1999
T.E. McHALE: Good afternoon, and welcome to the CART media teleconference. Thanks for taking the time to be with us this afternoon. Our guest today is driver Mark Blundell of the PacWest Racing Group, who returns to the cockpit following an eight-race absence at this weekend's Tenneco Automotive Grand Prix of Detroit. Good afternoon, Mark. Thanks for being here, and welcome back.
MARK BLUNDELL: Thank you very much.
T.E. McHALE: Mark, driver of the No. 18 Motorola PacWest Mercedes has been sidelined from the FedEx Championship Series competition since sustaining a small fracture of the seventh cervical vertebra in a May 4th testing accident at Gateway International Raceway. He has not made a series start since qualifying 5th and finishing 17th in round four of the championship at Nazareth in May. Mark is in his fourth year of the FedEx Championship Series, and owns three victories all in 1997. He brings a season best finish of 8th at Homestead into Sunday's 13th round of the championship, and stands 24th in the FedEx Championship Series with five points. The Tenneco Automotive Grand Prix of Detroit will be televised on a one-hour tape delay basis on ABC TV beginning at 4:00 PM Eastern time on Sunday afternoon. Before we get started with questions for Mark, here's a quick update on driver Christian Fittipaldi, who was rendered unconscious in a testing accident at Gateway International Raceway Monday afternoon. Christian is in stable condition at St. Louis University Hospital where he is undergoing continued testing. We are expecting to issue a press release updating his condition later this afternoon, once we have had the opportunity to speak with doctors. And the team may possibly have an announcement for Christian's replacement at the Tenneco Automotive Grand Prix of Detroit by the end of the day today. With that, we'll open it up to questions for Mark.
Q. Just a general question. Was it wise to wait like you did until now instead of coming back earlier? Do you feel more confident that you waited this long?
MARK BLUNDELL: I think it's not really a case of me waiting. It was a case of, you know, being told from the medical advisors that I wasn't in good enough shape, and the risk was too high for me to return. You know, you've got to take on board that this is my job; this is what I love. But I have another 50 or 60 years of life ahead of me, hopefully, after this. To go and do something crazy just for the sake of sitting in a race car for two or three races wasn't in my mind, and I don't think it would be responsible for me to do it. It was a case of me just taking medical advice and doing the best thing and getting back in the car when I'm a hundred percent, as opposed to not.
Q. Well, the last time we talked you were at Elkhart Lake, and found you were not going to be back in the car; so this has to be a totally different attitude that you have today.
MARK BLUNDELL: I know that I'm all set, I'm ready. I've already run a good, solid day of testing in Sebring last week. I've been back in the gym for the last seven or eight days, just trying to get back in shape as quickly as possible. I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be a tough one to get back into. Detroit is not the easiest place in the world to start back. But what I lack in a bit of physical fitness, and a little bit of rust maybe built up over eight races or so, I'll make up in determination.
Q. Do you feel healthier in having this time off. And hindsight being 20/20: Boy, I am coming back fitter?
MARK BLUNDELL: I don't really say I'm coming back fitter, because the issue with me has been, because of that injury, I actually haven't been able to do any physical exercise for a solid two and a half months, and that's been an issue for me. Although, I haven't been able to do much, I really haven't done much full stop. And it's going to be tough for me to get back into race fitness as quick as possible, but it's something I have to do, and I have to start doing it now. As I say I have been working out for seven or eight days, but it's not going to happen overnight, so to speak, to get me back to where I was. And it's probably a case of me being as fit as I was before the accident that it's not going to take me quite so long to get back. But two and a half months of no exercise is a long period of time.
Q. At least you're of the house and everybody's hair and back to work.
MARK BLUNDELL: I'm out from underneath my wife's feet; so she's glad about that.
Q. I just wanted to know with you having talked about there the amount of time where you were restricted in what you do, apart from going to the race weekends, how you spent that time.
MARK BLUNDELL: I'll be honest with you. The last five weeks, I've been on the road; living out of a suitcase for five weeks, because I've been at the races. And even though my duties as a race car driver on the track have been hampered because of the injuries, my duties as a race driver in terms of promotion and looking after sponsors has been as busy as ever. So that's been pretty much a full-time deal for me. I've been in several places: The Motorola after the last couple races. As the season has gone on, it has taken a lot of my time up. I've kept myself busy, and focus has always been to get back in the car as quickly as possible. In the meantime there's been plenty of other things for me to do. The team has kept me alert in terms of the brain side of things, I can assure you.
Q. Do you still feel a part from things?
MARK BLUNDELL: I have a good bunch of people around me. Listen, it wasn't my deal in putting myself into a concrete wall and saying operate. It was a problem that a mechanical issue struck me and I got the consequences of sitting out for eight races and everybody understands that. We have a good depth in our team, and everyone knew where we were before the accident. Our season was starting to come together. We had a little bit of bad luck in a few races and the results were not really reflective of what we should have had. But everyone back there knows, and what you may not see from the outside is very well known inside; so I've got no problems.
Q. Mark, unfortunately, I guess you've been down this road a couple times in your Indy car career. Mentally, is it any easier coming back from an injury now, or is it getting harder to come back?
MARK BLUNDELL: It's not easy. And for me, it's been a tough -- a tough baptism coming to the States and racing in the CART Series, because no sooner had I got in the car in '96 and I was stuck in a wall at Rio because of a brake failure. That kind of woke me up; what the heck am I doing. And then I had this deal this year with another mechanical failure where it stuck me in the wall, and end up with broken bones again. But that's part of racing. At the end of the day, whatever I do, I have a yes or a no over the top of it, and it's entirely up to me whether I want to say yes at the end of it and get back in the car again. When it comes to the day when I start to think no, and I think it more than once, that will be the day that I give up. But there's no sign of that whatsoever in me at the moment. I'm as fired up as ever, and I'm determined as ever and everybody who knows me knows that I'm not a guy who gives up very easily. I'm like a bulldog. I'll keep wrestling with it as long as it's there.
Q. An extension to the previous question: What, mentally, do you go through preparing for coming back after such a long hiatus? And talk about Detroit and how that's going to affect you.
MARK BLUNDELL: Well, I guess, you know a couple of issues are really while I've been out of the race car, the car gets developed, and I have some issues there that I have to keep myself addressed with. Although, I'm keeping on top of what's going on, it's kind of difficult to relate to that when you can't feel the car itself. So when I get back to Detroit, the car will be in a different configuration to when I last left it. Even though we've tested it, the Detroit racetrack that we tested it is quite different to what Detroit will be. That's kind of a little bit of an issue for me mentally to try to get myself adjusted to that. The fact, as well, that I have been out of the car for a few races is kind of a small glitch in the way things work for me as a race driver. This is the longest I've been out of a race car for seven years. It's a massive hole in my life and something which takes some adjusting to, but it's only being adjusted to with the knowledge that I'm coming back.
Q. I'm thinking that the best thing perhaps, and I'm sort of reading into this, is to basically get in the car and see how it feels and go for it.
MARK BLUNDELL: Exactly. I've got everything focused to get back in a race car and get back underway and carry on where I left off. From my point of view, where I left off is sitting in a race car at Nazareth and getting to a point where we're going to finish in the top four or five cars in terms of performance. And unfortunately that result didn't reflect because we had a little bit of bad luck in the way the things fell. But in terms of performance, that result was there, and I anticipate things to get back it to that very quickly. It may not happen the first weekend out, but it won't be for the want of trying from my point of view, I can assure you, and from the team.
Q. I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about the Detroit course and some of the challenges it will present to drivers this weekend.
MARK BLUNDELL: Well, Detroit is a challenge in itself because it's a street circuit. All street courses are pretty challenging the fact that you've got to make compromises with the balance of the car. You've got a bumpy road surface to contend with. You've got very tight corners with surface changes, which, you know can also be a major problem as well if you're trying to get the car set up. The issue that overtaking is particularly tight around there. Although, it is slightly improved upon over the last year or so with the improvements. You know, all this figures, and with that, street racing as well, kind of produces the fact that you need to be looking very critically at your fuel consumption and your tire wear, because it can have great reward if you play it right in the race itself. And we definitely tried to play that way in 1997, and it's nearly paid off. About 50 or 60 feet from the checkered flag. That's definitely a track that invites that sort of strategy, and something that I'm sure will go on again this weekend.
Q. I know Super Sub did a good job for you. Have you and he talked about what has been going on with the car to try to help you get up to speed with it?
MARK BLUNDELL: We had some conversations. And I pretty much have a tremendous rapport with my engineers and my assistant engineer. And of course, you know, those guys they know how I am in the race car. And what make Super Sub, as we term it, may not suit me, because, you know, we have a different style of driving, and no two guys are the same in the way that they do drive a race car. So what has worked in the past for Mauricio may not be the ideal situation for me. But it doesn't mean to say that we don't go and try something which has worked in terms of an end result. We are open-minded, and we are definitely going to do that.
Q. Can you just take us quickly around the circuit, what you think about each of the corners at Detroit?
MARK BLUNDELL: Well, the first big turn, turn one or turn two, right- and left-hander is quite a demanding corner. A little get of G involved in that, probably about two and a half, three G lateral load. Critical corner to get balanced. Accelerate down hard. And you've got the bumpy straight, which you go into the next right-hander. Of course, that's now somewhat the braking and overtaking area, if you get your car aligned nicely. And then continue around the next right and bare left. There's a lot of concrete and surface changes, causing some problems with the balance of the car and traction, as well, which is a major issue for a treat course. And very quickly, getting around on the back straight, which is kind of scenic in some respects because you've got water either side of you. And a lot of camber there. A lot of problems trying to align the car and keeping it in the straight ahead, and using the road to your best advantage to try and keep the car off the bumps as much as possible. Sometimes you run the car as low as you can on the street course, and that might determine -- you need to pick out the best line as well just to miss a few bumps. It may not be the ideal line getting from A to B, but it might better for the car itself. The next right-hander is a tough, demanding corner, and one you turn into very quickly and it quickly tightens up on you. And you see a few guys there who are actually overshooting end up in the tires quite often, more than not. You slow the pace down. Get back into second-gear, left-hander combination. You've got three left-handers in a row. Again, very slow and very low aerial grip, and difficult to get the car balanced out and then accelerate from the right-hander onwards. Then onto the short shoot on the back. And some people get very brave and try to overtake in that next right-hander before the faster one, which takes you onto the pitch straight. But it can catch you out, and there's been a number of guys been caught out of there just by trying to get in there just a bit too hot and taking somebody else with them and blocking the road. The next one is the fastest corner on the track onto the pitch straight, and the one I remember very well, because that was '97 where I hit the gas pedal and had no power from the engine because of the lack of fuel; so it sticks in my mind.
Q. How about the bumps on the corner like at 3?
MARK BLUNDELL: You know, it's just a consequence of the track. There are bumps; there's lumps, and that's street course racing. You've got to try to get the car compromised to be as efficient as possible and keep you in as good shape as possible and keep the tires nice. That's what it's all about. I've got no qualms with turning up the street tracks. Detroit is just another street course, and everyone has got the same problems, and we've got to address them the same way. Whoever turns it up and gets it done by Sunday afternoon is going to have the best result.
Q. It's great to see you back. I enjoy seeing you race, because you race with a lot of heart. But your butt's a little sore. I missed really what your injury was, because I know it's specific to race drivers, and it's kind of a rare one. Could you tell me a little bit about it and how it feels now?
MARK BLUNDELL: Well, firstly it feels fine. I've not no issues with it whatsoever. And basically what it was a teardrop fracture in the seventh vertebrae in my neck. Where mine was a little bit different was it that it was fractured at the front and not the back, which is normally what happens to drivers. Just underneath your Adam's apple there, and it's a very -- very, very similar injury to what happened to Emerson Fittipaldi in 1996 at Michigan. And probably at this point, the end result being that I have actually lost a little bit of height in my neck because the vertebrae is slightly collapsed. So you, you know, I'm going to be a little bit aerodynamic in the cockpit now. It was always intentional, as you can believe. But there's no problems there with pain or anything like that. It's just the fact you're trying to get the neck muscles up to speed as quickly as possible. As soon as I get that back, which the only way I can do that is to get back inside the race car. There's not really any physical exercise you can do to simulate what goes on in a car.
Q. You say you have this specialized kind of injury. Is there anything special you'll be doing to help or protect yourself this weekend?
MARK BLUNDELL: There's really not a lot we can do. Because the facts of having a fracture in your neck only really does one of two things: You either are going to have surgeries; you can have it fused, which luckily, I didn't have to go to that extent. Although, there are some thoughts that will be something I may need to do in the next 10 to 12 years, because as age creeps in it might be a factor. I might need to have some surgery done in my later life. But as I turn to the weekend, there is some situation where I might wear a brace around my neck, but I'll be very honest with you. I've tried those in the past, which many drivers do, with straps or braces. And I hate them. And I can probably tell you now that I won't be wearing one, because it hinders my driving when I'm in the cockpit of a race car. And you need a lot of balance in the car, and if there's any restrictions around my head in moving it, I'm kind of uncomfortable. So you won't be seeing one.
Q. Mark, I was just wondering when you approach a race weekend, for the challenge of setting up a car at a place like Detroit, it's different because you don't get to test there. When you go, do you look to setup the car mechanically like springs and dampers, etc., or do you start working on your wing setting first, and then move to the mechanical side?
MARK BLUNDELL: Pretty much on tracks these days, what kind of happens is mostly the aerodynamic package has been worked on in terms of data from the wind tunnel and simulation programs. So we go there with a pretty much ballpark aerodynamic package, which will be fine-tuned as the weekend goes on in terms of just trying to achieve a balance. The more critical area for a street course is ride height, springs and damping and tire pressures. That pretty much is the area where most of it will be looked at along, with roll bars, sway bars, because they have quite a big effect. The mechanical side of it is probably a much bigger influence in the street courses than anything else. And a lot of that is dictated by road surface and road speed on the trace rack itself, because the speeds are a lot lower; and the fact the mechanical group is a lot more influenced is kind of a big area to be looked at.
Q. So is it more the rebound and bump and just basic fine-tuning of how -- the dampering?
MARK BLUNDELL: Depends on what we do when we roll out the box, so to speak. If things come together nicely, then we might start to fine tune, and that would be mainly like damping work, tire pressures. If you're into springs and stuff like that early on, then you're pretty much in trouble in terms of looking for a fix which could be -- a fix which goes on for the whole weekend, so to speak. My whole thing -- and I'm touching wood -- is that when we roll out of the box, we are going to be in the ballpark and just fine-tuning the thing. But if we get into a situation where we're doing major changes, then the weekend kind of drags out and gets long.
T.E. McHALE: Thanks for being with us. Best of luck in the Tenneco Automotive Grand Prix of Detroit this weekend and through the rest of the FedEx Championship Series season. And once again, welcome back.
MARK BLUNDELL: Thank you very much.
T.E. McHALE: Thanks again to all of you who joined us this afternoon. Have a good week. And we'll talk to you next week.
|Connect with The Crittenden Automotive Library|