Approaching Nelson Philippe in the Road America paddock, I introduced myself: “Nelson Philippe, John Vatne from Mecca of Speed. Do you have time for an interview?”
Nelson’s response: “Ah Mecca of Speed, I can’t believe it’s not Fabio.”
Nelson’s reference was to a Paddock Pass I did before the start of his rookie season. A straight forward piece referencing how Nelson came into the series as a paying driver and that for him to be taken seriously he would need to start posting top tens by mid-season. Not a flattering piece, but honest from my point of view three seasons ago.
Without hesitation or an ounce of ill will, Nelson shook my hand and welcomed the interview. The basic courtesy of offering me a seat started what I consider to be a good look into not only Nelson Philippe the driver, but the young man who is far more mature then many 20 year olds while still retaining the basic joy of life we all have as a child (but which regrettably some have lost).
Mecca of Speed: Following your second season in Champ Car, you were voted most improved driver, and rightfully so. This year you have already been on the podium once in Milwaukee.
Nelson Philippe: I missed out in San Jose because of Katherine Legge. After that I had a word with her.
Mecca of Speed: For 2006 you moved to CTE-HVM. What has changed from last year that has moved you up to the podium level?
Nelson Philippe: Definitely, it’s a bit of everything. Lets start at the beginning, which was at the end of last year. I felt I had a lot of potential to be very good and a lot of people saw that. I went into the off season and I really trained my ass off. I’m in real race shape and that’s been a definite help this year.
I took a long time in signing to find a good team, which I found in CTE-HVM. In 04 they were really competitive. The series was a bit less competitive than it is now, but I knew they had potential. The way I see it, I came here with my personal manager to be the little engine that could. I think the team has taken me to another level and I’ve taken the team to another level. Together we have bonded.
I think the team enjoys my presence. I’m very outgoing and youthful, I bring new energy in a new way and I think it’s good for them.
I’ve got the most technical engineers. I told them I have enjoyed this season and look forward to moving forward. They have given me a lot of tips. I thank them because I’m so much better for it and I think it shows in the way I drive at the end of the day. I have to also give it up for my race engineer, he is a great man. I enjoy him very well and love him very much as a person and as an engineer. It’s the relationship we have; it’s what has taken me this far.
Mecca of Speed: Watching you the last two days, you have a rapport with the team. You are not the type of driver that just shows up and drives the car. I don’t know if brotherhood would be the proper word, but it’s that type of relationship I see.
Nelson Philippe: Exactly, It gives me chills that you say that because that’s what I was thinking of this morning. I was looking at these guys and thinking about Cristiano and everyone here, it’s a brotherhood, especially inside the team.
We just want to win. You can win by finishing first, or win by giving it all you got. Of course everyone want to finish first, but sometimes you have weekends where you finish fourth or fifth and it’s a great accomplishment. It’s definitely my personality coming out, because I’m very outgoing and I don’t like people that are too close-minded. I think everybody that is in this team is open-minded and I think that is why we have such a good relationship.
Mecca of Speed: Do you think that this open-minded outlook comes from your background? You have done extensive traveling and seen other cultures, so the world is not just this one small spot.
Nelson Philippe: Exactly, I’ve been very fortunate and I thank my parents very much for taking me so many places. Without them, I wouldn’t be who I am today. Traveling has opened me up to so many different things. From different people to different cultures, different ways of being.
The one country that has affected me the most is Argentina. People there are just joyful. They are the people that are close to my heart and I think it shows today, because I just choose to enjoy my life. You know, to smile and have some fun, that’s what it’s all about anyway.
Mecca of Speed: Coming into Milwaukee you had a Cheese Head on during the pre-race introductions and in Toronto you had a Maple Leafs jersey. Do you look into where you are going and what is unique to the area for each event?
Nelson Philippe: Yah, a little bit. I’m trying to be a fan friendly driver. You know we got the bad ass; we got the geek in Sebastian and the funny guy with A.J.. I can be funny but I need my props. I want to relate to the fans. I want them to have an enjoyable time. If my things make them come back next year, if I can make a new fan of Champ Car by doing that it’s all for the better. I just enjoy doing it. Sometimes I feel really goofy and other drivers look at me like “what the fuck is this moron doing?” But at the end of the day it’s fun and makes people laugh and laughter is the best medicine. Sorry for my language, I prefer to be real instead of using some fancy words.
Mecca of Speed: There are a lot of little kids running around during this fan appreciation day (Road America August 4, 2006). I’ve watched you with kids and you seem to appreciate them. In your full driving uniform you can look a little intimidating, even though you are not. What would you advise new fans on how to approach you during an event?
Nelson Philippe: Just come up and say hello. I would also like to say, I like that you notice I’m good with kids. I have two little brothers and I do a lot with them. I absolutely love kids. Even if they cry, I know what to say to them to make them feel comfortable. Basically, come up and say hello. I may look rough and tough and intimidating when I’m in my suit, but I’m the nicest guy. I have soft voice and it basically calms kids down.
Mecca of Speed: Is there a meaning behind your helmet design?
Nelson Philippe: Not specifically. The stripe is something my Mother designed and it’s been on everything since my first helmet. I’ve always wanted to keep that, I think it’s very original. I didn’t see anyone with it when I started in Champ Car. Now people are trying to copy, but you know they say to imitation is the best form of flattery.
Mecca of Speed: You are a trendsetter.
Nelson Philippe: Exactly, you know people may make fun of the way I dress or that I have my hair long, but all those things are coming back now. The helmet design is something that I wanted to be part of me, something that was original. The fact that I have got a bright pink helmet says something. Not everyone is going to be able to wear a helmet like that, and I have the balls to wear it.
Mecca of Speed: In karts you won King of the Streets (Rock Island GP Pro Shifter ‘King of the Streets’ title in 2002), then you went to Barber Dodge, followed by the big jump up to Champ Cars. Do you still get that joyful feeling like the first time you drove a go kart, did that electricity follow into Champ Cars?
Nelson Philippe: Definitely, but there is something about racing at a high level that puts the thrill at a deeper level then a goose bump rush. You are so concentrated and so into what you are doing, that sometimes you don’t get to realize what you are doing. I was watching the Edmonton race before I came here and I realized “holy shit” because I had the inboard (camera) “holy shit that’s me!” To me the car is still a big go kart. When I take things on a deeper scale and then take a step back, I realize we are rock stars, you know. So that’s a nice feeling, but definitely when you nail that lap it’s amazing. Weather it’s in a go kart or here in Champ Car, it’s the same.
Mecca of Speed: You talked about increasing your fitness level; do you do heavy cardio activity, or weights?
Nelson Philippe: I do a lot of cardio, which is necessary, but I also wanted to build up some muscle. Because the cars are very physically demanding, I needed to build myself up. I feel pretty good about myself and a bunch of different things made a huge difference.
Now I can go in the car and do testing, however many laps you want and I don’t get tired, where in the past that was a problem.
Mecca of Speed: Are you on a strict diet?
Nelson Philippe: A strict diet is a strong word, I like to enjoy food, I’m from France. You know French food is very good. On my tenth birthday I told my Mom “I don’t want anything for my birthday, all I want is for you to take me to a nice restaurant.” So, I do enjoy good food and I don’t deprive my self of anything. I just enjoy life. You just have to moderate how much you eat and be careful. If you eat a cookie once and awhile it’s not going to kill you.
Mecca of Speed: According to you Bio, you are a Macintosh enthusiast, what is your current machine?
Nelson Philippe: I’ve got three (laugh) I have a PowerBook, a 17-inch PowerBook and a G4 at home. They are the best. They are so easy to use, they look cool.
Mecca of Speed: I come from a graphic design background. What do you like about design? Your Bio states you have an interest in graphic design.
Nelson Philippe: I love pretty things. When I say design, it doesn’t necessarily mean graphic design, but most of it comes from there. I like smooth lines. It can be interior design or architecture. I’m someone who is very modern in my head. I like things that are very simple and enjoy looking at beautiful architecture or beautiful cloths. Whether it’s design or pristine, I like things that are very clean.
Why this is, I don’t know. I guess it is I’m artistic, my whole family is. My mom is a great artist and my little brother Wilson is getting into art big time. Drawing, and he is great on the computer. Maybe it runs in the genes. Life is art right?
Mecca of Speed: Right
Nelson Philippe: Everything you look at can be a beautiful piece of art. It’s how you look at it for what it is.
Mecca of Speed: Champ Cars have flowing lines, what is your impression artistically of the new Panoz?
Nelson Philippe: Personally, I think it looks too much like an F1 car and not enough like a Champ Car. That is my honest opinion. I’m really bias because I really like this car (current Lola Champ Car). I think it looks badass. It’s fat and hungry. It’s mean, it’s a Champ Car!
I know the new one will be faster, and it should provide better racing, but I think they took a little to much “Champ Car” out of the car.
It’s (Panoz DP01) still a very beautiful car. It’s lines are very flowing, but it’s not a manly man car. But whatever, I race Champ Car and next year if I race Champ Car I’ll race that car, we will see.
Mecca of Speed: So you are on a one-year contract with CTE-HVM?
Nelson Philippe: There is nothing I can discuss, but there is something there for next year. There is interest, great interest from other teams and we will see what happens. It’s good for me because I’ve gone from that pay driver to a driver respected for my abilities. Unfortunately, lately in Champ Car that is how you have to get in. Now I’m a driver who is being respected.
Mecca of Speed: You have proven yourself with out a doubt.
Nelson Philippe: Definitely, people always say that action speaks louder then words. When I got bad-mouthed by Robin Miller and Gordon Kirby, and you, and all the fans it was tough, but I’m a better person for it. I kept working at it and I’ve proven everyone wrong.
I was bullied in school. I wasn’t the bully, I was bullied. That has taught me a lot about life. I’m glad you guys made my life really difficult because today I emerged from it a much better person. I don’t want to talk too much about myself, but I think I’m pretty good now.
Mecca of Speed: You are very personalable and I think you have grown as a driver in the last few years. If anybody can’t see that, then they don’t know what they are watching.
There was a piece during the San Jose broadcast about how you are working with a driver coach. Listening to inspirational music before you go out. Is that a mind set type approach to driving?
Nelson Philippe: A little bit. I do a little bit of everything. I’ve got what you call a mind performance coach. I’m making changes every year; I want to be a very good driver. I’m never going to be perfect. I keep working at it bit by bit to try and improve.
I may like to do things different, and I think talking with me you may realize that. I’m pretty wise, but I wanted to try it. I found somebody who I can work with and I think it has worked out. It does depend on what I listen to in the car. I can listen to some very different music.
Mecca of Speed: If someone picked up your iPod and pulled up Nelson’s Top Ten list, what would they find?
Nelson Philippe: Favorite artist or band, The Doors hands down. I would probably say Led Zeppelin after that. Next band would be U2. Who doesn’t like U2 anyway, they have great meaning in their songs, that’s why I like them. Someone who is not really known here but known in Europe is Jamiroquai. I listen to a lot of underground music, up and coming artist. I believe their music is non-biased. Very natural and still virgin because it hasn’t touched the media yet, it’s just music. Next would be Nirvana. Oh Frank Sinatra, my favorite.
Mecca of Speed: You can’t go wrong there.
Nelson Philippe: Cool lines. Bobby Daren all those guys. Bob Marley, Bob Marley is my hero. Different music, but I like music that comes from the heart. I like Frank Sinatra music because it’s joyful. There is not one song of his that is a downer, that’s what I like about it.
Anything that comes from the heart weathers its music or art. I find it’s worth living, that’s what life is about.
Mecca of Speed: That’s the attitude to have. In closing is there something you would like to say to the Champ Car fans, or something about yourself outside of racing that people would find surprising?
Nelson Philippe: I believe that I’m already a pretty public person and I’m very open with how I am, so I don’t want to divulge to much information about myself. All I can say is that I’ll be a big kid forever.
I love kids and I love their innocence. I just wish I could have grown up somewhere where there was no judgment.
I’m like a modern day hippie.
Mecca of Speed: But you wear shoes in the car.
Nelson Philippe: Yes I wear shoes in the car, but when I’m at home I don’t wear shoes. I don’t wear shoes, I wear my bandana, put some patchouli on.
No but seriously I’m a big kid at heart.
Content credit Nelson Philippe and John Vatne. Photo credit Scott Rohloff.