Grand Am Road Racing Media Conference
Topics: Grand Am Road Racing
May 13, 2009
THE MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining us today. Welcome to this week's NASCAR Grand-Am Teleconference in advance of Sunday's Verizon Festival of Speed at Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca in Monterey, California.
It's a pleasure to have with us today, car owner, Kevin Buckler, and driver, Justin Marks. Justin will be driving the Rolex 24 winning No. 67 Construct Corp Porsche GT3. That is one of seven Porsches that TRG will be fielding this weekend, in addition to a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chevrolet, and a truck for David Gilliland at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
Kevin had a sensational year in 2002 when he won his class at the both the Rolex 24 and the 24 hours of Le Mans, and that got him the 2002 Porsche Cup as the top independent driver worldwide for Porsche. How could he top that? By winning the Rolex 24 overall in 2003.
Justin is a former sports car racer who made his debut at TRG in 2001, and after a couple years in ARCA and in the NASCAR Camping World Truck series, it's a pleasure to have him back in the Rolex series.
Kevin, it's kind of business as usual for you. You're running seven cars at Laguna Seca plus Sprint Cup series at Lowe's. How do you keep track of everything?
KEVIN BUCKLER: Thank you, J.J., I'm glad to be here. Thanks, everybody. Using the words running business as usual, and running seven cars doesn't sound like it goes together, but it does, and it was an exciting week here at TRG.
I really enjoy coming here to the shop and seeing the work that our guys have been doing. Every day was full. All the guys were here. Parking lots were full, the cars were full. Wheels were outside being stripped, tires were being sorted and cars were being painted. It was really a cool last week getting everything prepped.
I was driving in this morning, and one of my trailers was heading south for Laguna. So it is pretty awesome.
The bottom line is we've got a great group of people. It's taken years to assemble. It's sort of our secret sauce. Everyone's been getting along well. We've been horsing around and kidding and having barbecue lunches and stuff out here while we're working. The guys are coming in around 7, staying till 8:00 or 9:00 at night.
We've got a great group here. Everyone likes what they. I try to lead by example as much as I can. I'm just really proud of my team, all the way from the drivers down to the guys sweeping the floor.
Q. Justin, competition has been very intense this year in GT. What are your thoughts as you head back to tackle the famous corkscrew at Laguna Seca?
JUSTIN MARKS: It's been a couple of years since I've been there of the it's a place that's special to me because I went to racing school there when I was in high school. Had my first professional racing start there. My first professional racing podium there. And it's neat because friends and family get to come to the event and everything.
So I think the last year that I raced at Laguna was the ALMS season finale in 2006. So it's been a couple of years since I've been there, but I'm really looking forward to going to the home track. Just kind of excited to keep the season going.
We started with a bang winning the 24. We've got a solid points position, and really digging deep and trying hard. We've got some tough competition here with some of these other teams. And, you know, we're just fighting really hard. But it's a closely contested championship, and I feel like coming to the home race is an opportunity to dig down a little deeper to see if we can't make something special happen.
Q. Kevin, the Cup season, the season's often do, has been a little up, a little down. I hate to see that your sponsor had to pull back the reins on that a little bit. But what is the latest plan with the Cup program? Have you had to set anymore "deadlines" as far as running ahead into the future?
KEVIN BUCKLER: Yeah, good question. A lot happened this morning. We had a big partner conference call yesterday. We had all of our partners on the phone. Sort of laid out the progress of the program. It was a pretty neat day. We have four or five points throughout the year where you can see sort of milestones are set and things are happening. Yesterday and today was one of them.
When we had this thing start with the truck program last year, you know, my partners, myself, my wife, all of our resources and TRG, we threw in and started the business. Bought a building, went to Mooresville. Started to figure we'd get our black eyes and bloody nose in the truck series first. Just kind of figure out the way to do this.
We did a pretty good job. I was proud of the guys. Had a win, a bunch of Top 10s. The economy was strong and I figured we'd be going into this season with three full-time trucks because that's who was courting us last year as well as some ARCA cars.
The sponsorship, when it dries up, dries up first in the lower series. So ARCA and truck are slowing up, great racing and great stuff. But just hard to find the money and it's expensive.
We took a stab and swing at the Cup program a year early. We were planning to go in 2010. Things came together this year, and we did it. We got a little money together. Ran the first few races and surprised ourselves. Missed Daytona, started qualifying our way in with David Gilliland, and it's just been Bam, Bam, Bam.
The last couple of races in the last month has been tough. We courted a sponsor for a couple of months. Found out at the end of the day it was sort of almost a sham. It was a shame because apparently this has happened with the same group once before in another series.
We had to pull back. We've been doing a few, you know, start and parks here in the last couple of races. But as of this morning we've committed fully to Charlotte. And we'll be doing a triple play for the Charlotte weekend.
We're going to be running David in the 7 in the truck series. We're putting him in the truck this weekend for the first time. That will be great. We'll be running the All-Star Race qualifier as well, hopefully making it in. And then we're going to run the 600.
We're going to try to continue to work really, really hard on doing as many races as we can this year. We will probably make every race in some fashion this year in the Cup series, and start properly looking towards 2010.
We've been chasing dollars week by week. And there are very few people out there that have discretionary budgets for next month. They're looking for next year.
So we took a deep breath. Got a few bucks in the bank ready to go after a few races and we'll go after properly looking for a budget for 2010.
Q. Since the entry lists are just coming together, can you tell me what will be on David's truck this weekend? And then the car for the showdown, and then the car for the 600? Is that in place yet?
KEVIN BUCKLER: It's not in place yet. We don't want to run it blank. We have a couple of people that are looking to be with us. They haven't committed yet. I'm absolutely adamant about finding a partner sponsor for a few of these races.
I'm trying to find one person that would be involved in all three events just because it would be so nice to have that so we can immerse them in our program for an entire week. But I don't have it figured out yet. But if anybody has any clues or suggestions, fire them at me.
Q. I know you've answered this before, but I have to ask, you've come from sports cars and the ARCA and trucks and then Camping World stock cars and go back to sports cars. Can you walk me through the transition in your head and your mind and what goes through all of that when you're going from such different vehicles?
JUSTIN MARKS: I think a big part of it is what I had to tell myself when I left sports car racing to go to the oval tracks is that I don't know anything. Just start all over again. It's like I'm racing for the very first time. Doing the oval track stuff was a lot of fun, and I'm still planning on doing it a little bit this year and a little bit next year and on down the future.
But the truck series experience was a great one. It didn't end the way we wanted it to end. Ultimately, I've got a special place in my heart for road racing just because it's the way I came up. I love the race cars, the venues we go to. The tracks we go to. Especially places like Laguna Seca. They're so diverse and challenging.
And the pure enjoyment of driving a sports car on a road course to me is not really tops anything I've done.
But the competition in stock car racing at any level that I've done it sort of fascinates me. And it's just amazing racing, and the quality of racing. I'm one of these guys that I just love to race. I'll kind of get in anything.
There's a lot of things that we're looking at in the future heading from doing Tulsa for the midget race next year or doing Baja whatever it is. Just being able to experience everything that the sport has to offer is something that I want to do in my career.
So I wouldn't say that I've sort of left sports car racing to go stock car racing or left stock car racing to go back to sports car racing. I had a really neat opportunity with Kevin to drive the Porsche this year, with Andy, the guy that I've raced against for many years and had a lot of respect for. And it was an awesome opportunity to be able to take up, and an opportunity to put my sponsors in Victory Lane at Daytona I knew going into that race we had a strong shot at winning it.
So I think it comes down to the fact that I love this sport more than anything in the world, and I want to experience everything that it has to offer.
Q. You mentioned that about Laguna Seca, and the driving school there. That is such a gorgeous racetrack, and I imagine a very tricky racetrack to get around. Can you walk me through some of the keys of doing well at Laguna Seca?
JUSTIN MARKS: Absolutely. Laguna Seca is a neat track because it offers everything. It's a smooth track. It's a wonderfully maintained facility. We always struggle with grip there. It's in a pretty unique spot being right next to the ocean, and the way the topography and the landscape is around.
But what I like about Laguna, it has unique challenges from the elevation. There are a lot of blind corners where you're undulating and going downhill and uphill, it has the corkscrew turn which is one of the most unique parts of any racetrack in the world.
What I love about Laguna, too, is it is a great racetrack and there are tons of passing opportunities. You can set guys up and make a pass anywhere on that racetrack. You can't say that about a lot of the racetracks we go to.
In the 20 or 30 some-odd races that I've had at that track, I've passed people into and out of every corner on that track. So in that respect, it's a really fun place to race.
Also in a series like the GT Series where you have different makes that have distinct characteristics that differentiate themselves from the other makes. They show up incrementally on that racetrack. So there are corners where certain cars are better than others, and your car is better than your competition. So it makes the racing strategy and your race craft really important. So in that respect, it's challenging and rewarding to any driver that goes there.
Q. Justin, you've raced with a lot of different teammates in sports car racing, if you had your druthers, what are the ideal characteristics or qualifications you'd be looking for in a teammate? And the second part is just to compare the competition level today or in 2009 versus the last time you ran in this series?
JUSTIN MARKS: Well, I think as far as teammates go, you're right. I've had a lot of different teammates at opposite ends of the spectrum from like Joey Hand or Brian Sellers or Andy, and Hans Stuck, and Boris Said. I think ultimately the most important thing as far as what I look for is the goals have to be the same. I think I look for someone that is as driven to win as much as I am and is, you know, basically won't settle for anything else.
I think other than that, you know, you can overcome differences in how people like race cars. When I drove with Joey Hand at PTG for the factory BMW team, I always wanted to drive a loose car, he always wanted to drive a tight car. But we were both motivated by the same things and wanted to win the race. And we were good friends, so we were always able to come together on a compromise.
I think that's important. I think you need to have a mutual respect for each other, and you need to have a good working relationship and be able to compromise with each other is the most important thing.
As far as the competition goes, I mean, you see in a lot of these series that some car counts are down. From the outside looking in, sometimes, it looks like the series is struggling. But the competition I think in any of these series is as good as it's ever been. The product is as good as it's ever been.
You have three or four really good makes in the Rolex GT Series, and a bunch of really good teams and just a ton of driving talent. So in that respect, I think that it's every bit asp much as it was before, if not more. I think these guys have had time to mature in the series and really find their place and learn their race cars and bring products to the racetrack that are very competitive.
I know aside from me relearning all these tracks and learning how to drive this Porsche, which is a very different animal than what I've raced in the past and I'm working as hard as I ever have to keep up with the pace.
Q. You were just kind of talking about this. You've driven a BMW for a while during your sports car career. How has the switch to Porsche been? What have you had to deal with with the switch?
JUSTIN MARKS: The car is very different. It takes a pretty unique driving style. I think for me it's sort of I almost can't sit down and go through exactly all the intricacies of the Porsche versus the BMW, because I've been out of sports car racing for a long time. I'm kind of just trying to get back in the road racing groove, period.
But with the Porsche, with the weight distribution and just the handling characteristics, you work really hard to get the time out of the car. It's very difficult and it's hard work to get the speed out of the car. So it takes a very precise technicality I guess to drive that car that is different from the BMW.
I think that there has to be a lot of precision, and you have to always be thinking about where the weight is, and where you are in the corner with that car. Whereas the BMW, I felt like we could just throw the thing off in the corner and stand on the gas and get up on the wheel on that thing and get aggressive with it. And the Porsche is more of a technical style of driving. I'm still kind of getting my hands around it.
But like every driver, I'm a huge fan of forward bite. And that's what I love about having the motor over the rear wheels so you can really just stand on the gas. That's a lot of fun.
Q. How do you think it will go with Laguna Seca and the Porsche? I know there have been things going back and forth about the Porsche loosening up and things like that?
JUSTIN MARKS: Yeah, I don't have a good answer to that question. Like I said, it's been a long time since I've been to the racetrack, and I've been there with Porsche for a long time. That's probably a question that Kevin might be able to answer better than me. But I do know that we did get a little help from Grand-Am. But we definitely need more.
When we go to the tracks, the rain is sort of the great equalizer. And the Porsche for TRG have had flawless days at New Jersey. But we are struggling at these tracks against the Pontiacs. So I don't really know how it's going to go at Laguna Seca. I know we'll continue to have to work really, really hard. But I think we'll need a little bit of help down the line as well.
KEVIN BUCKLER: I can chime in on that. I guess it gets to the point where we've been trying to be careful. It's a political tight rope, too. You don't want to be too aggressive on your pursuits of those things. But there is a point where it is about our brand and our cause. It's gone way too far.
The Mazda and Pontiacs are literally out of control. They're getting to a point where they're penalizing the team for its performance, not the actual performance of the car.
I'm proud of the fact that our team makes very few mistakes. We have things like last week where we won a race in the rain, but we have our competitors parked on pit road changing windshields and making blower motors fix and windshield wipers are falling off. You can't come after us and penalize us for winning a fair race like that.
But when we're being beaten by 20 or 30 car lengths, it just kills a driver to know that he gets driven away from. The cars need to be brought back and more equal. Right now they're not doing a very good job of balancing it.
Q. You've got seven cars racing this weekend. With the down economy, how is that possible? These guys have done a great job with that?
KEVIN BUCKLER: You know, we saw this coming. There's a variety of reasons and it's a good question. Last year when things started to tighten up, you could almost feel it week by week. This is before things all went to heck with the market. But we've spent years building up a great little brand, a great relationship with our clients, vendors, sponsors, drivers, it was really time for us to get out there late in the season and make some deals.
We put deals together that we probably wouldn't have done the year before. Deals that were tight, deals that were skinny. But we felt that one of the things that was going to happen if things went to heck in a hand basket, we want to be standing here racing. So we did. And it was a good call.
We have everything set this week. And we have a new team coming on board with the 63 car and the Team Polizei guys. It was tough. But the people wanted to go racing with the best brands out there, and it was with us.
It doesn't make it easy though. The biggest struggle isn't fighting the economy, it's fighting the rules imbalance. Because I have sponsors that want to defect and go somewhere else because I can't keep them happy.
And that is the biggest problem I try to get through to the sanctioning body and let them know. That is our biggest challenge. Just putting us on an equal footing as a team, so we have the ability to win, not go there and know there is no chance of winning if it's a dry race.
Q. In 2005 you went from 50th starting position to first in class at Daytona with Joey. And I just wanted to make note of that considerable accomplishment. 53-car field, that's an awful lot of cars to go through in a two and a half hour race to end up first. Nonetheless, I'm curious to know having driven for PTG, what's it like racing for an Milner versus Buckler.
JUSTIN MARKS: Well, there are very considerable differences there. Of the biggest difference, and I have a lot of respect for Tom Milner, and he did a lot for me in my racing career, I developed a lot as a race car driver. But the difference lies in the fact that we were driving for the BMW factory. There's a lot of pressure that comes with that.
Tom Milner himself is under a lot of pressure from BMW to perform. BMW of North America, which is, again, under pressure from corporate in Germany to perform. So there's a lot of bosses that need to be pleased in that deal. It kind of flows downhill. So it's just basically a much higher pressure environment.
We had fantastic race cars, fantastic preparation as sort of an extension of that. But it was sort of a pressure-filled atmosphere. I think that the difference between a situation like that and a situation like Kevin is that TRG brings race cars to the track that are prepared as well as any other team can, and has, you know, has had considerable accomplishments.
But it's a lot of fun to be a part of that organization, too. Because the element of pressure of having a huge car manufacturer behind you, essentially it is a results driven marketing arm of that company.
TRG is really good for sponsors to come to the racetrack and have a lot of fun and have everybody involved in the organization to develop and win races. And get along and be there and enjoy the experience. That's the difference.
Both are fun, both are successful, but very different types of environments. I just know that driving for Kevin right now I'm racing with my friends and we're doing well on the racetrack, and bringing home the hardware. And just having a good time along the way. The sponsors are happy, and I'm happy, and everybody on the team is happy. So it's just kind of a fun and enjoying atmosphere.
Q. With all your experience, can you describe for fans, maybe put them in the car with you there or two cars, basically. The biggest differences between racing sports cars and racing stock cars?
JUSTIN MARKS: Everything is different. I mean, the biggest difference really is that in sports car racing you spend a lot of time and a lot of effort on your driving. You have to have, you know, you obviously spend time getting the car right and developing and engineering the race car.
But there are a lot of things that you can do as a driver to manipulate outcomes of races. I think in the stock car, in the stock car race, a much bigger emphasis is put on the equipment. Making sure that the car has got the best body on it. You're running the right springs and your coil binding the right way and everything dynamically is working the right way. There is a lot of testing, a lot of emphasis and preparation at the shop.
I think in sports car racing for me it's more enjoyable because it's the pure essence of driving. You're doing everything. You're steering left, and right, and you're braking and shifting and using all the systems in the car on a hot lap.
But in the stock car racing it's just all about doing one thing really, really well, and that is turning left and getting out of the corners as well as you can. There's a lot of the racing the wheel to wheel, and you're racing with the people you're racing against comes into effect because the handling of the car changes so much when roads change and tire degradation happens and you're racing the air and all that kind of stuff.
So I would say that basically in sports car racing you're doing a lot as a driver to make something happen on the racetrack and the technique that you drive the car with throughout the race.
In stock car racing you're spending the entire race trying to fix the car on the pit stop to make it better so you can race at the end the last 15 or 20 laps.
Q. As far as the 17, and keeping the thing inflated out there, what people skills work best for you?
KEVIN BUCKLER: Well, I try to stay involved with the guys. I think one of the things and they might answer if they were on the phone they might answer it if are me better or differently.
But I think the guys I try to get it to the point where the guys respect the fact that I'm doing -- they respect me, and they respect their boss a little bit. I'm not rolling in at 10:00 or rolling out at 3:00. I did all that. I drove those cars. A lot of those guys that are working on Justin's car now were working on my car when I was driving. So they're proud to be part of the deal.
The people skills for me is a lot of it is we're getting bigger. You know. I take time with each of the crew chiefs and go over, look at the cars, and see what their issues are.
As usual in an operation like this, there are personnels and quibbling. And a lot of times you don't want to be drawn into that. But I do. I get into it. Take the time to go one-on-one with the guys.
So from that side of it, it works pretty well. So everyone likes what they do. That's one of the keys here at TRG. We're passionate about the mark, Porsche, and we're passionate about racing in general. And we've got a great group of drivers and sponsors this year. So it makes it a lot easier on me when everyone's happy. It could be harder.
Q. If VIL wasn't so pretty, the last time you were there you took a green flag in a sports car race and woke up in a stock car nightmare. That accident looked that way to me. But seriously in terms of your race craft, how do you adjust your mental approach to being in a sports car and having a driver change and having a limited time in the vehicle versus being in stock cars? You've been in a lot of different length of races, but from the mental side, what is the adjustment like, please?
JUSTIN MARKS: I think the biggest thing is when you're in stock car racing you have the responsibility of planning out the entire race.
In sports car racing, your responsibility lies just in your extent of putting the car in the best possible position for the next driver to take over.
So when I'm in a sports car and the way the rules are and the strategies are, it's usually going to be anywhere from 35 or 40 minutes to an hour, hour 10 probably at the most. It's in that short amount of time, put the car in the best possible position for my co-driver to get in and give him all the tools, the best tool that he needs to go out there and win the race. That strategy is a lot different.
I have to go really, really hard because basically what I have is a sprint race. I have a limited amount of time to get to the front. And I probably will do it without making a pit stop. I might make one that might be fuel only or something. But I've got to go as hard as I can to get that thing up in the field as far as possible, so my co-driver has the least amount of work or least amount of cars to pass when he gets in the car.
Versus a stock car, you're basically counting down backwards from the end of the race. You're thinking how the pit stops, when you're going to make your last pit stop, what changes you need to make, because the whole race is planned on the last 15 or 20 laps, being able to dig down deep and go hard and win the race at the end.
So it's different strategies. There's not one that's easier than the other. It's just different, that's basically what the biggest adjustment has been.
Q. You've been involved on the business side of racing for quite some time. How are the lessons learned on that end helped you to make your transition to NASCAR? And since NASCAR is a new field for you, did you have guidance or go to people that you could use so you don't go down some dark alley?
KEVIN BUCKLER: Yeah, that's one I had to have a long think about. The bottom line is running a small business and running it in the racing industry was great training for us in so many ways to segue into NASCAR.
I mean, we still today I'm very proud of the fact that TRG is one of the only sort of business driven teams in sports car racing. Though I'm really pleased to see the way it's been changing lately. It used to be the playground of the wealthy enthusiasts or a factory. Now you have a lot of young professional drivers like Justin bringing sponsors to the table, and teams that are out there like us trying to make a business out of it.
But it's been tough. We've been in this this is our 16th season. And I've got a picture on my wall, I'm looking at a race in 1995 that I started and it was all my heros on the track. It was my first ever race.
And there were 26 people on on that picture, and we're the only team still alive to this day. Everybody faded. So my wife does a great job as our CFO. We've got a tight group here in the office. So we're really watching our P's and Q's. Watching our dollars, working with our people, working with our staff. Getting absolutely the most out of our program.
Then taking that to the NASCAR world and applying a lot of those skills. If anything, I got a lot of push back from the guys down there. A lot of times they were interested and used to working on a fairly unlimited budget with either a boss that didn't see that much of the details or somebody that didn't care.
In the truck series you have a lot of absentee own he ores. We went through that with a couple of the people when we started. We had to weed out those guys.
Now we have a group of tough guys that work hard and understand. They're going to get every one of those invoices inspected and if the box isn't checked correctly on the rental car for the insurance, Debra's going to be on them like you know what. So it did carry over big time.
Without those small business skills, I can pretty much guarantee you, we would not be here today.
Q. That kind of relates to what I was going to ask you. And that is how much of a challenge it is to keep the respective programs fiscally independent? Is that maybe the biggest challenge in a multi-facetted program? You've got seven teams at Laguna this weekend, and a truck program, a Cup program. Is that the biggest challenge you've got, and what is the biggest challenge of it?
KEVIN BUCKLER: The way we have it separated from ate corporate perspective is the NASCAR stock car operation is separate from the sports car operation. Each of them is under their own independent roof in terms of books and budgets and things like that.
In terms of teams and drawing marketing people, creative people, we do draw off each other quite a bit. I have a lot of guys based in Northern California that help with the stock car operation in terms of graphics, creative marketing, PR, things like that.
Keeping it separate on the sports car teams, it actually kind of blends over. Like all five of the GT cars, though each of the sponsors, drivers, partners, people are paying for each of those individual programs and I do make them stand on on it. We don't charge more for one and less for the other and the money gets blended. It does stay fairly independent.
But the benefit of having a five-car operation is we're very efficient. We cross-utilize a lot of our people. To tell you the truth, we only have one engineer on all of those five Rolex cars. He's a really good engineer, and we have five really good crew chiefs and a bunch of really good drivers.
It all starts with one guy being the concert pianist. He's the conductor that sees everything. It's the way we've done it a long time. And the curtains stay open. There's no in-fighting between the crew chiefs. I don't allow it. We share data, we share everything.
On the stock car side, the trucks stay separate from the stock car. The books are kind of separate like that. But it is hard. It is under one roof, it is a bit of a challenge. But it has to. One of the programs can't take down the other or vice versa.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Kevin and Justin, thanks for joining us today we look forward to seeing you continue the passion this weekend at Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca.
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