Grand Am Road Racing Media Conference
Topics: Grand Am Road Racing
September 8, 2010
J.J. O'MALLEY: Welcome to this week's edition of the NASCAR Grand-Am teleconference with the preview of the Rolex Series GT championship which will be decided Saturday in the season-ending Utah 250 at Salt Lake City.
We're pleased to be joined by the participants in the battle the for championship, Emil Assentato and Jeff Segal, drivers of the No. 69 FXDD Mazda RX-8, who enter the season finale eight points ahead of teammate and SpeedSource owner Sylvain Tremblay, driver of the No. 70 Castrol Syntec Mazda RX-8.
Emil, you ended the 2009 season on a high note by winning the Utah 250 and brought that momentum that's carried through 2010. How big was last year's victory and what role did it take in your team stepping up as a championship contender this season?
EMIL ASSENTATO: Last year's victory at Utah was quite exciting. I'm sure you recall we were in the hunt for the lead. Jeff was in the seat. We were third. First two guys had a big fight, ended up knocking each other out, we came in first.
That was a great impetus for our team. On those luck situations, we always felt were always n the recipient of bad luck. It turned good that day. If you remember, two of the last four races last year we won. The team really walked away from the end of '09 looking at 2010 as a chance to finish in the top three in points. It has been really exciting. The team got enthused by the possibility we could actually be a competitor for the win this year.
J.J. O'MALLEY: Emil, you're leading the points for the ProAm driver award, the Bob Akin Award. How big is that and how big would winning the championship be to you in your career?
EMIL ASSENTATO: The championship of course is bigger than the Aiken award, but the Aiken award is really exciting. To be among this group of drivers, amateur and pro, to be able to compete at this level and still find it exciting after all these years of racing, it's something that's hard to believe that's happening to me. I'm so excited about it.
The championship, that's beyond any of our expectations. Of course, we haven't won it yet and we may not win it. But SpeedSource will win it, that's for sure. That's really an exciting part of this. The team has just excelled and performed and had everything work in its direction. Good luck and even the bad luck hasn't worked so bad this year. We're thrilled. I'm really thrilled. It's just a dream season.
J.J. O'MALLEY: Thank you very much.
Jeff, you can ramp up the championship by finishing fourth. That seems to be your number this year. The 69 car has finished fourth or better since placing 16th in the Rolex 24. You've been fourth in five of the last six races. What are your thoughts entering the season finale?
JEFF SEGAL: I think obviously that bodes well for us because fourth place has been a position that we've been able to achieve even when we haven't had the greatest of races. That had been frustrating earlier in the year that we seemed sort of trapped there, couldn't break back onto the podium.
It's reassuring that fourth place would seal the deal for us. At the same time we can't change much of our operations here because we can't afford to take any risk and come in fifth or sixth or seventh and watch the 70 have a really big race.
Really we need to go for the win. If it means we end up second, third, fourth, what have you, that's that. I'm confident. I think our car is really good. Our team is doing well. All the cars have been great all season. Reliability has been great. Utah is a strong track for us. Emil and I are ready. Our whole crew is ready. It should be a great race.
J.J. O'MALLEY: Sylvain Tremblay, congratulations on accomplishing goal number one for 2010, that has been winning the GT manufacturers championship. You have three Mazdas under your SpeedSource canopy in the paddock. On pit road your three team appear to be operating independently. How tough is it to be able to step back from your ownership role to concentrate on the 70 car and the battle for the championship?
SYLVAIN TREMBLAY: Obviously, I've done it for multiple years. I'm used to wearing different hats. The team owner in me is extremely proud. Like Emil and Jeff have said, no matter what happens, SpeedSource wins the championship. The way the cars are prepared in the shop, everybody works on all the cars. When we get to the racetrack, we all race for our particular numbers. The guys that are working on the 68 have something to do with the 69. No matter what, we've had one car that does extremely well at just about every event. I'm proud of the group. We have beared down and are in a position to win a championship.
Emil and Jeff have done the work. Emil ended having some good luck. They made their luck. Jeff is driving extremely well. They've been a formidable competitor. Their worst race was Daytona. From then on they've been on a tear. We've had more of an up-and-down season. That is fine. We've been lucky at some, unlucky at others. That's part of it as Emil hinted to. For us, having the depth of the team so each team can do its own pit calls, its own equipment. They're not relying upon having one guy out of the way. That's what's given us results consistently among all three cars.
We built four brand-new cars. All four of those including the one from Dempsey Racing ended up winning a race this year. All three of our cars have won under our awning. It speaks volumes about the depth and dedication of all the employees here at SpeedSource, the support we get from Mazda to put a competitive effort that is equal and that's fair.
The way it is going to end up at the race, Jeff is going for the win. We're going for the win. I kind of chuckled when he said that because I knew that's what he was going to say. He's not going to just lay back and collect the championship, he's going to run as hard if not harder because he's trying to win it and so are we.
It's a good position to be in. It's going to be a fun weekend. We're looking forward to it. Because no matter what happens, the team owner in me wins, the driver would love to win. You know what, if my good friends Jeff and Emil end up winning it, so be it. I'm proud for the efforts and especially proud for Emil that this many years in his career, which is three or four now, he's still right up front and would be a well-deserving champion if he does win.
J.J. O'MALLEY: A word about your codriver. Jonathan Bomarito took ill at Montréal. We're wondering how he's doing and will he be back for Miller.
SYLVAIN TREMBLAY: He will be back for Miller. He is back training. He came down with pneumonia during the race. Really started out the day before. Saturday, weren't sure how he was going to do. He ended up taking a helicopter ride off the island and back on the island. A heck of a way to see the beautiful City of Montréal. He is doing fine. He's a hundred percent for Miller, and we're going to go for the win in our Castrol Syntec Mazda.
J.J. O'MALLEY: We'll open it up for questions.
Q. As we've gone through the 2010 season, we've seen all the people on this call. It looks like you guys are very relaxed both going into the car and coming out of the car. Can you talk just a little bit about your level of confidence, certainly on the manufacturer's side is well-founded, but your level of confidence in the team and what gives you that confidence all year long leading up to this, our last race of 2010.
EMIL ASSENTATO: It's very clear to me that the cars are prepared well and we're going into these races with well-prepared equipment. I have a lot of confidence in the team's ability to perform under pressure. They've proven it over the years. They've been together for three years now, so we have a very well-oiled team. Jeff has done a spectacular job at the end of the race, charging when he has needed, to not put the car in any more risk than he has to in any given situation. From my perspective, it makes my job easy. I just need to get the car into Jeff's hands.
I feel the car is capable of winning any race. Sometimes we miss the setup. I think we have a well-oiled team that understands what it takes to get the car in and out of the pits, to make sure it runs the entire race, to be properly set up. We make sure the car is set up at the edge in terms of performance. I feel confident when I get in the car that this car is going to be there at the end and is going to give us the finish that we really need.
Maybe that's why we seem kind of relaxed. Jeff is relaxed. I'm relaxed. The whole team seems kind of relaxed. Maybe it's because we didn't expect to be leading the championship also. I'm not sure.
Q. Sylvain, these are done in the SpeedSource shops. Last year you made the trip to Japan. I know how much pride there is at Mazda with what you do with them. How much support, direct or otherwise, comes from overseas when you guys work your way through a year racing?
SYLVAIN TREMBLAY: Quite a bit. It's surprising. I'll tell you a story. When they redesigned the RX-8 for 2009, the head designer, his nickname is Speedy, actually asked us what would make a better racecar for the Grand-Am rule book. So some of the stying cues as the car got redesigned for 2009/2010 came directly that would benefit for the racecar. So Mazda gets it. Mazda is a sports car company. They do a fabulous job. It's not only pride, they want the products to do well.
The rotary engine is unique. It is what drives our program. That is what sets Mazda apart from other manufacturers. They take huge pride. When we toured the rotary factory where they build all these engines, you could see the pride in all the technicians that hand build all these engines.
They're involved from a technical standpoint, design standpoint and also from a support and emotional support standpoint. To bring this championship to that group of people, the group of Mazda North America in Irvine, California, is a huge accomplishment for the team, for everybody involved, with SpeedSource, our vendors and sponsors. It's a great achievement for us.
Q. Jeff and Emil, since about early to mid last year, it seem it is like the 69 car especially has made a pretty nice jump forward. What is that attributed to?
JEFF SEGAL: I think the biggest change is just in sort of the gelling of the team. We've always had the equipment. Two years ago when we won at the Six Hours at the Glen, we won in pretty convincing fashion. That kind of convinced everybody, including us, we could contend for those race wins.
It was over a year before we got back to Victory Lane from there. We had some growing pains there. We always had the car. We always had the team. Emil and I as drivers have always been capable. Not like anything changed there. I think it's everybody getting more comfortable, everybody getting polished in their role, in terms of the setups, really having a good procedure for how we approach the weekend, what we're trying to get out of the car in the races to have a faster racecar.
In terms of driving, for me, there was a big learning curve in the Rolex Series where I kind of had to take a couple steps back and stop trying so hard, stop trying to be the fastest guy on the racetrack all the time, not taking those unnecessary risks, try to play it a little smarter.
I think Emil and I have gotten more comfortable in the car, faster. Our pit strategy has gotten better as we gain experience. The crew has gotten better as they learn the car, what needs to be changed on the car to make sure we have a reliable package.
I think it's that time together. We needed that time to grow and gel together. Now we're a really strong team. The organization runs well. Everybody knows their job. Everyone knows what they should and shouldn't do.
In the race, the biggest thing has been executing, pulling that off. They've done a really good job, everybody, this year.
Q. Sylvain, two weeks ago Conor Daly won the Star Mazda title. One of the prizes is a GT ride in a Mazda car. Is it safe to assume he's probably going to be in a SpeedSource product? What is your experience this year concerning open-wheel guys?
SYLVAIN TREMBLAY: It's been interesting. Mazda does a great job supporting the ladder, which is their system, where somebody can go from karting into Skip Barber, out of Skip Barber into Star Mazda, out of Star Mazda into the Rolex Series.
It's to give drivers with more talent than budget some forward momentum. If you win a championship, you get a leg up to move to the next thing. We were very fortunate this year through a set of circumstances that the Star Mazda champion, which was Adam Christodoulou, from last year, then the Atlantic Championship, which is John Edwards, had really nowhere to go. Mazda came up with the idea of basically putting up a second factory car for them and have them run under our wing.
Those guys, extremely talented, didn't understand or know everything about endurance racing. That's where we came in. We have good people, good group. Even the 69 team was involved in helping those guys come along, Jeff in his experience, and Emil, really teach them how to do Rolex racing.
Those guys have excelled. Extremely talented. Won Lime Rock, on podium a couple times. Now they're really a threat and have furthered their career because of the exposure they had with Mazda in the Rolex Series.
The same thing is available to Conor for winning the championship, whether or not what his codriver is and exact package is yet to be determined. Mazda commits to providing a place for the champion from the Star Mazda series in the factory car for next year.
Those guys are extremely quick, hugely talented. We have to hone and teach them how to do endurance racing. Both of the current champions have easily shown they can do it and we're proud to be part of the process and be supportive of the ladder and all the investment that Mazda has made in these young drivers' careers. Fantastic for road racing. One of the few companies that puts their money where their mouth is with supporting drivers with hard cash and real prizes.
J.J. O'MALLEY: I have a follow-up for Sylvain. You talk about the young drivers coming in. Your crew chief, Marcus Shen, is a young guy. Seems to be doing quite a job as crew chief. Is he part of the development program?
SYLVAIN TREMBLAY: In a way you could say he is. Talent is hard to come by. I always say the most qualified person for any job is the one with the biggest desire. That's how it works in motorsports. You can have a pretty big résumé and not have the drive or desire.
This business is about passion, emotion, about desire. Marcus has shown that. We had an opportunity to have him basically step off the box from 70 under David and run his own car. He really took to that challenge and has shown to the entire pit lane he is as good as any of them. We're lucky to have that type of talent here.
It's been fun watching him blossom, per se. I feel like a proud papa sometimes when these guys do well. It is neat to see young crew members and drivers come up through the program and find success.
Q. I'm somewhat reluctant to ask this of Sylvain but I have to because the people that listen to MRN radio, we like to preview. Can you give us kind of a statement about 2011, starting off with Rolex tests at Daytona on the new pavement, where you are now for 2011. During our broadcasts, we definitely want to talk a little bit about next year for you guys to get people excited about that.
SYLVAIN TREMBLAY: Obviously '11 is around the corner. I tell all the guys after the Rolex, we have a Monday meeting after the 24, how are we going to win this race again. We had that meeting the day after we won it this year. Always been on our radar, what we're focused on.
We've been involved with Continental, our new tire partner, with testing. We have another test coming up at VIR. We plan on hitting the new pavement at Daytona in January running hard with at least two cars, maybe more. That is the plan. We'll be back as far as colors and sponsors and the rest of that stuff, yet to be determined. There will be a pretty significant SpeedSource presence in the 2011 Rolex championship in GT.
Q. Sylvain, you've been involved in the series for a while. We've seen a lot of well-known manufacturers come into GT with a one- or two-car factory effort, spend a lot of money, win championships. There seems to be a bit of a raider mentality. Basically a small effort, not too many cars, go after the title then leave after winning a couple of them. Mazda is going about things a little bit differently as a factory presence, a lot of support for customer teams, has built a huge base. Are you seeing the way they're going about their participation in the series over so many years a bit of a unique thing through your eyes and perspective?
SYLVAIN TREMBLAY: Oh, definitely unique. If you look at Mazda, Mazda supports grass-roots motorsports. The way to do it is not to give a large amount of money to a single or two-car team and lock out. They really want to be an alternative to German car in the series. They've proven they are.
The product is reliable. It has one of the lowest cost per lap in GT. Very reliable, easy to set up. It's a very user-friendly car. The fact that the base RX-8 has all of the similar qualities, well-balanced, lightweight, nimble, all of those things translate to the GT car. I think that's why customers have responded to it. That's why it's the dominant currently car in the Rolex Series because it makes the most sense financially, it's a fast car, it's a championship-winning car, a manufacturer that wins championships. They support it with great contingency. All the Mazda teams share information.
It is a total package for somebody coming into GT or somebody that is in GT. That's why some teams have converted from other brands to this particular brand. That's why Mazda is going to stick around. For the same reason you can go to a club race and see a 1979 RX-7 still running around or even some RX-2's and RX-3's. Not that you'll see these cars on track 30 years from now, but as long as customers want to race them, Mazda will support them. They support them with parts programs.
Also it makes sense. For the same reason that some of the higher, more expensive cars are harder to maintain or there's overlap after one season, throw that car away, get a new car. These cars were designed to be robust from the beginning where customers could maintain them and you don't need to start with a clean sheet of paper.
The cars we built in 2006 are running in 2010 and are competitive for next year in 2011 with some minor updates. That was the philosophy of the program. I think Mazda has done a good job of supporting the program and the customer team that makes it a good alternative to other brands to run competitive in Rolex GT.
Q. Jeff and Emil, looking in the GT competition this year, it's been a bit of a runaway train. Anything but that in GT where I guess we've been able to crown champions early in Daytona Prototype. They've walked to that title by comparison. Have you enjoyed the fact this year has been anything but easy and has been a week-in, week-out fight? Would you rather things be easy and walk home with titles well before the season is done?
EMIL ASSENTATO: It's a difficult question. I would have liked to have won the championship at Daytona actually (laughter).
Well, you know, it's more exciting this way. For a fan base, I think it's much better for them to see everybody competing. A lot of the competition is Mazda. So it's really good for Mazda. From that perspective, this is a good season.
Hopefully we can bring it home this coming weekend. But one way or the other, Mazda wins, the fans win, and that's what we need to happen. We're pretty happy with how things are going.
Sure, we'd love to finish it early and not have to worry about one more race and stuff. Racing is racing and this is going to be fun.
Q. Sylvain, recently we've heard a lot about Grand-Am going to GT-3 spec for the GT class. How will that help or hurt not only Mazda but your team in general if we to go to that spec for the GT-3 class?
SYLVAIN TREMBLAY: I've had numerous discussions with Grand-Am and their vision. One of the things we rest assured on, they understand where their customers are. We'd love to get other brands involved from a Mazda perspective. They don't want to diminish the investment made by the current cars. So if Grand-Am spec cars would come, they would have to run at our specifications, so it would not be a direct transfer from one to the other.
There's been talk of compromises. I have a lot of faith in Grand-Am to equal the cars, that it would benefit the series and not hurt the current cars. When you have a strong customer base, 15, 16 cars, you don't want to obsolete those cars overnight by allowing the newest whizz bang thing from across the lake. They want to allow those cars to come over and be competitive with what we're doing but not really obsolete all the current equipment.
With everything that I've seen, everything I've heard, I have a lot of faith what they're doing in Daytona Beach on allowing that particular process. I'm excited having some new brands, some new teams, maybe more exposure to the series. As far as am I worried it's going to obsolete our current cars, I am not.
Q. Emil and Jeff, I heard from Sylvain about previewing the race at Utah on the new course. What do you think about running the shorter course?
JEFF SEGAL: I think that course is going to be a lot of fun. The track at Miller is something special. The first time we came here, a little overwhelming, a lot of corners, not a lot of reference points because of its location. You don't have a lot of trees or visual cues. This track has less corners. A little bit simpler in that regard. Really it retains all of the really fast, really tough corners on the track. So it's going to be higher speed. I think consequences of making a mistake are a little bit higher.
But I think generally when we have tracks like that, the races tend to be pretty exciting. You look at the Watkins Glen short course, it's a track with a lot of high-speed corners, a lot of momentum. You look at Lime Rock, same thing, great race. Changes they made to the track, I'm not sure if it's going to help or hurt the car, but I think it's going to make the race better.
J.J. O'MALLEY: Thank you, Sylvain, Emil and Jeff for joining us today in sharing this exciting news. Best of luck in your battle for the GT championship in Saturday's Rolex Series finale at Salt Lake City.
I'd like to thank the members of the media for taking the time to join us. We appreciate your coverage.
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