Doing His Best On Any Given Sunday – Tonis Kasemets

Tonis Kasemets loves to race open wheel racecars. At the age of 33 he has the speed and strength of youth, but the understanding of the racing industry that only comes with experience. The Estonian has set his sights on an ultimate goal of getting back into a Champ Car and is continually working to find his way back into the series.

Mecca of Speed: Over the last two seasons you moved up from the old Atlantic chassis to Champ Car driving for Rocketsports. You are now in the Atlantics 016a chassis with the Mazda engine. How does this Atlantic car compare to the one you raced in 2005?

Tonis Kasemets: I really don’t have a straight answer because I have very few miles in the 016a chassis. I had a little seat time in Houston at the beginning of the season, but I don’t have enough time in the car yet to give you a fair assessment.

I think it’s fairly close to the old Atlantic car, compared to the Champ Car there is a huge difference in horsepower, but the driving characteristics are very similar.

Mecca of Speed: Going back to the Atlantic car, is there a big change in technique due to having less horsepower than the Champ car?

Tonis Kasemets: No, I don’t think there is a change, you still have to carry speed through the corner, either in an Atlantic or Champ Car, that is a key element to a fast lap time. It’s a fine balance approaching corners in both cars, so it’s really not that different.

You can see currently in Champ Car that the drivers who were Atlantic drivers last year like Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal, they are doing a brilliant job in the Champ Car. That tells you the technique between the two cars is quite similar.

Mecca of Speed: The Atlantic series has a full grid of 25 cars this weekend, which includes quite a few rookies. How do you handle racing against a field that includes so many drivers you have no experience going wheel to wheel with?

Tonis Kasemets: I think rookie is a fancy word used by the media; there are no rookies here. All these drivers have many, many miles, in different cars. They are just classified as rookies in the Atlantic car this season.  I feel comfortable driving with them in any place, at any racetrack. They are all good drivers; there is nothing to worry about.

Mecca of Speed: It looks like we are going to have a dry race this weekend. With ALMS and Champ Car also running this weekend, will the different rubber compounds on the track effect the handling off the Atlantic car?

Tonis Kasemets: It will be interesting to see how the American Le Mans Michelin, Champ Car Bridgestone, and our Cooper rubber affect each other. From what I have heard, there is no significant problem.

As the weekend goes on the track gets faster and faster, and the tire manufactures work well together so nobody screws each other up on any race track, so I don’t think there will be a problem.

Mecca of Speed: What are some of the characteristics you like or dislike about Road America?

Tonis Kasemets: I don’t dislike anything here. This is my favorite place. I’ve always had a good time here and I’m really looking forward to taking the Swift 016a on the track because it is a good car on a good race track.

Mecca of Speed: Being an international driver, what do you miss from your homeland?

Tonis Kasemets: I’m listed as international only because I was born in Estonia. I’ve been living in the States for 12 years. My racing career really took of here, in 1998, so I consider myself a local guy.

My flag is the Estonian flag, but I live in America, my children are American. I chose to live here because I love it here.

I have only traveled to Europe to help my brother in racing, not for my own racing. All my race related traveling is done in America.

Mecca of Speed: Do you bring your family with you to the track on a race weekend?

Tonis Kasemets: They come to Road America and Cleveland, races close to home. My wife comes to races that are farther away.

Mecca of Speed: How old are your children?

Tonis Kasemets: My son is 11 and my daughter is four.

Mecca of Speed: Has your son ever shown an interest in racing?

Tonis Kasemets: Luckily no. He is into swimming- he is a great swimmer.

My daughter has shown a little interest in doing what Daddy is doing, but there is no push. They choose to do what ever it is they love to do and that is fine with us.

Mecca of Speed: What are your prospects for the 2008 season?

Tonis Kasemets: I’m doing this race as a one off with Newman-Wachs Racing and they are evaluating many things in their internal structure. I feel very privileged they chose me to help in the evaluation.

If we do well, which I hope is the case they will see what I can bring to the team and hopefully something will come out of it.

Mecca of Speed: Does your interest in motorsports revolve around road racing, whether it’s in Champ Car, ALMS or Grand Am?

Tonis Kasemets: I have tried various sports cars this year. I have been fast and had competitive times, but I’m an open wheel racer at heart and I would like to get back into a Champ Car.

I had a taste of the Champ Car last year and I would like to get back there soon. If the Atlantic series is my way back into Champ Car, I will have to do great in the series and do my best to hopefully get back into Champ Car.

I like seeing my front wheels turning and hitting curbs. I love the overall feel of an open wheel car.

Obviously if there as a chance to drive for a good American Le Mans or Grand Am team and get paid then I would be happy to do it. That is for sure, but right now my heart is in open wheel.

Mecca of Speed: Who was the driver, or what was the defining moment when you knew you wanted to peruse a career in racing?

Tonis Kasemets: I grew up northern Europe which is Rally country, and there were many great rally driver when I was growing up. In road racing there was Ayron Senna and later on Michael Schumacher. It’s easy to pick winners, but the fact is they really look better then anyone else. It was not only their winning, but their driving talent, characteristics and rain races.

These two guys were phenomenal drivers in their day. Michael is still probably an unbelievable driver today.

A lot of people get very negative because they get bored watching superstars, even with people like Michael Jordan because he is the best and can probably still shoot the best ball in the world.

These were my mentors, and I tried to learn from them how they drive and how they would prepare for a race.

Mecca of Speed: Do you have a like or dislike for racing in the wet?

Tonis Kasemets: I love racing in the wet. I’ve always been lucky and fast racing in the wet. I have no problem driving in the rain.

Last year I had my best qualifying in the wet, that was here at Road America. I look forward to any time there is rain because I don’t have any problems in the wet.

Mecca of Speed: Do you get into the technical side of setting up the car, or do you tell the engineers what you are feeling and let them take care of making the adjustments?

Tonis Kasemets: We work hand in hand. I have been involved quite deeply, but I’m not stubborn. We bounce ideas back and forth and that usually brings about the best results.

If it becomes the engineers making all the decisions, making it a one-way street, then you will not have the best performance. You can’t rely on just the computers and numbers. The driver still has to do their job and drive the car. It’s the feedback from the drivers to the engineers, and the engineers trusting the driver to take what they tell them and using it to the fullest that is the key to success.

Mecca of Speed: For those new to racing, that would be considered part of the team sport aspect of racing.

Tonis Kasemets: All sports are team sports. I don’t think there is one sport that is not a team sport. If you look at golf, Tiger Woods would not be Tiger Woods if he didn’t have his caddy.

The people involved in racing put in all the effort to help the driver become a super star. A driver cannot do it alone.

Mecca of Speed: In closing, is there anything you would like to share with the fans of Champ Car on your future goals?

Tonis Kasemets: To my fan base, I want to be in open wheel racing. Obviously this world is dictated financially, so guys that don’t have money but do have talent will most likely be staying home.

A lot of racing depends on money. If you find money, if teams have money and want to run a particular driver they will. Some teams want to run 15 or 16 year old drivers, it’s very political.

Every team owner has his or her own view of things. It’s hard to say where I’m going to be because I don’t have money. I take what I can, and race what I can and do the best that I can on any given day.

Mecca of Speed: It sounds like the old school way, the driver brings the talent to the team and the team brings the car and sponsor, unlike today where many driver need to bring a major sponsor with them to gain the interest of the team.

Tonis Kasemets: Yes, unfortunately the sport has turned that way. I started here in America about 10 years later then the average racer because I immigrated here and that probably wasn’t beneficial to me.

I have had great support over the last 10 years from Flexovit who have tried to put me in the best positions and helped me get to where I am today. I’m 33 and still giving hell to the young kids and I don’t see that changing any in the next five years.

If someone wants a good red wine that gets better with age in their car, then I’m the guy for them. Hopefully the sport turns around, and the old American way of racing comes back.

Mecca of Speed: Thank you for your time.

Tonis Kasemets: Thank you.

I think it’s fairly close to the old Atlantic car, compared to the Champ Car there is a huge difference in horsepower, but the driving characteristics are very similar.

Mecca of Speed: Going back to the Atlantic car, is there a big change in technique due to having less horsepower than the Champ car?

Tonis Kasemets: No, I don’t think there is a change, you still have to carry speed through the corner, either in an Atlantic or Champ Car, that is a key element to a fast lap time. It’s a fine balance approaching corners in both cars, so it’s really not that different.

You can see currently in Champ Car that the drivers who were Atlantic drivers last year like Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal, they are doing a brilliant job in the Champ Car. That tells you the technique between the two cars is quite similar.

Mecca of Speed: The Atlantic series has a full grid of 25 cars this weekend, which includes quite a few rookies. How do you handle racing against a field that includes so many drivers you have no experience going wheel to wheel with?

Tonis Kasemets: I think rookie is a fancy word used by the media; there are no rookies here. All these drivers have many, many miles, in different cars. They are just classified as rookies in the Atlantic car this season.  I feel comfortable driving with them in any place, at any racetrack. They are all good drivers; there is nothing to worry about.

Mecca of Speed: It looks like we are going to have a dry race this weekend. With ALMS and Champ Car also running this weekend, will the different rubber compounds on the track effect the handling off the Atlantic car?

Tonis Kasemets: It will be interesting to see how the American Le Mans Michelin, Champ Car Bridgestone, and our Cooper rubber affect each other. From what I have heard, there is no significant problem.

As the weekend goes on the track gets faster and faster, and the tire manufactures work well together so nobody screws each other up on any race track, so I don’t think there will be a problem.

Mecca of Speed: What are some of the characteristics you like or dislike about Road America?

Tonis Kasemets: I don’t dislike anything here. This is my favorite place. I’ve always had a good time here and I’m really looking forward to taking the Swift 016a on the track because it is a good car on a good race track.

Mecca of Speed: Being an international driver, what do you miss from your homeland?

Tonis Kasemets: I’m listed as international only because I was born in Estonia. I’ve been living in the States for 12 years. My racing career really took of here, in 1998, so I consider myself a local guy.

My flag is the Estonian flag, but I live in America, my children are American. I chose to live here because I love it here.

I have only traveled to Europe to help my brother in racing, not for my own racing. All my race related traveling is done in America.

Mecca of Speed: Do you bring your family with you to the track on a race weekend?

Tonis Kasemets: They come to Road America and Cleveland, races close to home. My wife comes to races that are farther away.

Mecca of Speed: How old are your children?

Tonis Kasemets: My son is 11 and my daughter is four.

Mecca of Speed: Has your son ever shown an interest in racing?

Tonis Kasemets: Luckily no. He is into swimming- he is a great swimmer.

My daughter has shown a little interest in doing what Daddy is doing, but there is no push. They choose to do what ever it is they love to do and that is fine with us.

Mecca of Speed: What are your prospects for the 2008 season?

Tonis Kasemets: I’m doing this race as a one off with Newman-Wachs Racing and they are evaluating many things in their internal structure. I feel very privileged they chose me to help in the evaluation.

If we do well, which I hope is the case they will see what I can bring to the team and hopefully something will come out of it.

Mecca of Speed: Does your interest in motorsports revolve around road racing, whether it’s in Champ Car, ALMS or Grand Am?

Tonis Kasemets: I have tried various sports cars this year. I have been fast and had competitive times, but I’m an open wheel racer at heart and I would like to get back into a Champ Car.

I had a taste of the Champ Car last year and I would like to get back there soon. If the Atlantic series is my way back into Champ Car, I will have to do great in the series and do my best to hopefully get back into Champ Car.

I like seeing my front wheels turning and hitting curbs. I love the overall feel of an open wheel car.

Obviously if there as a chance to drive for a good American Le Mans or Grand Am team and get paid then I would be happy to do it. That is for sure, but right now my heart is in open wheel.

Mecca of Speed: Who was the driver, or what was the defining moment when you knew you wanted to peruse a career in racing?

Tonis Kasemets: I grew up northern Europe which is Rally country, and there were many great rally driver when I was growing up. In road racing there was Ayron Senna and later on Michael Schumacher. It’s easy to pick winners, but the fact is they really look better then anyone else. It was not only their winning, but their driving talent, characteristics and rain races.

These two guys were phenomenal drivers in their day. Michael is still probably an unbelievable driver today.

A lot of people get very negative because they get bored watching superstars, even with people like Michael Jordan because he is the best and can probably still shoot the best ball in the world.

These were my mentors, and I tried to learn from them how they drive and how they would prepare for a race.

Mecca of Speed: Do you have a like or dislike for racing in the wet?

Tonis Kasemets: I love racing in the wet. I’ve always been lucky and fast racing in the wet. I have no problem driving in the rain.

Last year I had my best qualifying in the wet, that was here at Road America. I look forward to any time there is rain because I don’t have any problems in the wet.

Mecca of Speed: Do you get into the technical side of setting up the car, or do you tell the engineers what you are feeling and let them take care of making the adjustments?

Tonis Kasemets: We work hand in hand. I have been involved quite deeply, but I’m not stubborn. We bounce ideas back and forth and that usually brings about the best results.

If it becomes the engineers making all the decisions, making it a one-way street, then you will not have the best performance. You can’t rely on just the computers and numbers. The driver still has to do their job and drive the car. It’s the feedback from the drivers to the engineers, and the engineers trusting the driver to take what they tell them and using it to the fullest that is the key to success.

Mecca of Speed: For those new to racing, that would be considered part of the team sport aspect of racing.

Tonis Kasemets: All sports are team sports. I don’t think there is one sport that is not a team sport. If you look at golf, Tiger Woods would not be Tiger Woods if he didn’t have his caddy.

The people involved in racing put in all the effort to help the driver become a super star. A driver cannot do it alone.

Mecca of Speed: In closing, is there anything you would like to share with the fans of Champ Car on your future goals?

Tonis Kasemets: To my fan base, I want to be in open wheel racing. Obviously this world is dictated financially, so guys that don’t have money but do have talent will most likely be staying home.

A lot of racing depends on money. If you find money, if teams have money and want to run a particular driver they will. Some teams want to run 15 or 16 year old drivers, it’s very political.

Every team owner has his or her own view of things. It’s hard to say where I’m going to be because I don’t have money. I take what I can, and race what I can and do the best that I can on any given day.

Mecca of Speed: It sounds like the old school way, the driver brings the talent to the team and the team brings the car and sponsor, unlike today where many driver need to bring a major sponsor with them to gain the interest of the team.

Tonis Kasemets: Yes, unfortunately the sport has turned that way. I started here in America about 10 years later then the average racer because I immigrated here and that probably wasn’t beneficial to me.

I have had great support over the last 10 years from Flexovit who have tried to put me in the best positions and helped me get to where I am today. I’m 33 and still giving hell to the young kids and I don’t see that changing any in the next five years.

If someone wants a good red wine that gets better with age in their car, then I’m the guy for them. Hopefully the sport turns around, and the old American way of racing comes back.

Mecca of Speed: Thank you for your time.

Tonis Kasemets: Thank you.

Content credit Tonis Kasemets and John Vatne. Photo credit Scott Rohloff and John Vatne.

2/24/2008