Back To His Roots – Scott Sharp

What follows is the second of four interviews we did during the Generac 500 at Road America. Throughout the four interviews you will find some common and some unique questions allowing you to compare and contrast the drivers in the ALMS LMP1 and LMP2 classes.  

Mecca of Speed: For the last several years you have been running in the IndyCar series, primarily on ovals. How has the transition gone to the LMP2 Acura in the ALMS?

Scott Sharp: I think the whole transition has been fantastic. Everything has come together at the right time for Patron and me to join the series. We hit the ALMS at the right time; there is a lot of momentum as it’s a fast growing series.

The top guys in the series are very hungry to help companies like Patron maximize their involvement, which is nice. I think we also hit a good stride with Highcroft and Acura with their continual development. Their first year was last year and they have worked extremely hard to catch up with the Porsche teams.

It’s also great for me. I came from road racing tracks, many of which I haven’t seen for 14 or 15 years. There is a great atmosphere in the paddock, very friendly and open. It’s a lot of fun, a little fresh from where I came from in the IRL.

Mecca of Speed: Highcroft is a relatively young single car team in the ALMS. What were the qualities that attracted you to the team?

Scott Sharp: I heard from a number of people about Duncan Dayton and his commitment and passion for the sport.  This was evident the first time I sat down with him. He is a man who has huge goals and is very open about them. His passion started as a driver and grew from there, building a team. Highcroft built a state-of-the-art shop, which he personally designed.

Highcroft’s plans includes getting involved with a manufacturer to become a factory team, signing a major sponsor, winning in LMP2, then moving up to LMP1, going to Le Mans and winning Le Mans.

Anyone can say those are their plans, but Duncan works 24/7 and the team has the wherewithal to make it happen. That really impressed me. It was much more then just words as he has accomplished what he had laid out to a certain level. Having Patron come on board took things to another level; winning races took things to the next level.

It was evident that to be successful you need to be with a factory backed program. From when I first started talking with Duncan it seemed the team would be a really good fit for Patron and me.

Mecca of Speed: This team has given Acura its first class win and overall win of 2008.  What is the teams overall goals for what you would consider a successful season?

Scott Sharp: I think we already feel we have had a tremendously successful season. We don’t want to fall on our face now and finish the season on a down note. We are in a championship battle with a gap to close to the number seven car, which is going to take a very strong consistent performance out of us and a less consistent performance from them.

What I didn’t have in the IRL is what I have here, a technically strong team. We have huge development; it’s a drivers dream. From race to race there are four or five facets of the car that have been developed and improved. That is what you have to do to keep pace.

It’s really exciting for me; you know what is coming with development and that it is not going to stop. Expectations rise with that. We have proven we have closed the gap with the Penske cars. We have beat Team Penske and now we have to be able to not only beat them on a certain track, but any track. We go into every weekend thinking either win, or maximize points and have things work in our favor to win the championship.

Mecca of Speed: Stefan Johansson is the third driver for this team on the longer endurance races. With the amount of development that this car has undergone from race to race, is there any extra briefing he will receive before racing at Pitite Le Mans?

Scott Sharp: We do have a test before the Petite Le Mans, so that will bring him up to speed with the car. Stefan has so much experience and is versatile and active driving a variety of cars including this car in particular last year. It’s just a matter of him getting reacclimatized with this car and what has changed.

Mecca of Speed: Besides Road America, what are some of the circuits that you have been looking forward to racing at this year?

Scott Sharp: This car impressed me from the first lap; there are not a lot of tracks you are going to go to and not look forward to racing at.

Elkhart Lake is my favorite track, it always has been. I love the flow of it and what it takes to go fast here. I’ve really been looking to coming back here.

That being said, I had a great run of races at Mosport; I won three in a row in Trans Am there. This car, with the level of down force it has should be tremendous and I can’t wait to race there.

Road Atlanta was always a great circuit for me in the past; I won my first national championship in SCCA there. It should be a little different running the ten-hour race this year.

Going into this season I was very excited for myself and Patron to get back to Long Beach. I love street circuits and in my mind that is the granddaddy of street circuits in this country. As a market place, Long Beach is tremendous. It’s the biggest tequila market in this country and probably the world. For us to go there with Patron sponsoring the race and our team winning the race, it was a golden weekend.

Mecca of Speed: During an ALMS weekend there are multiple support series with multiple tire compounds being put down on the track. Do the multiple tire compounds have much effect on the Acura?

Scott Sharp: We have got a lot of down force generating some pretty high G forces and scrub. These Michelin tires are probably some of the best tires I’ve ever raced with. With that combination, as long as you have plenty of early green flag racing the other rubber doesn’t seem to bother us.

General pickup is more of what bothers us. If we are under a long yellow and have a lot of cool down time we can pick up a lot of debris so we have to do all we can to keep the tires clean.

It doesn’t seem the other rubbers affect us. Series to series we have bigger tires and more cars so we generate the most marbles. Other series probably have more issues with our marbles then we have with theirs.

Mecca of Speed: The LMP2 cars have an advantage over the LMP1 cars on the tighter circuits. Would you credit that to the handling and how the engines are set up compared to some of the restrictions for the LMP1 class?

Scott Sharp: No, I would probably look at that as a tremendous attribute to out car, forgetting about the other LMP2 cars for a minuet. The only reason we are not stronger, and we are not far off from the Audi is due to the different restrictor sizes.

We don’t have the same horsepower but what really impressed me was our race at Mid-Ohio. Our car is 200 more pounds then an IndyCar with about 200 less horsepower and we are turning the same lap times. That says a lot and shows what this car can do. Obviously, there are not a lot a spots you can look at on gaining time back except in corning and braking. We are a little deeper under braking and are predominantly making it up in cornering speed.

Mecca of Speed: What advice would you give to a driver running at the club level with aspirations of becoming a professional driver?

Scott Sharp: I think from an experience level you just have to get out and drive.

Unfortunately there are not enough breaks in racing. There are too many great drivers that never get a break. I’ve seen it my whole career and feel heart broken for a lot of people. You have to drive anything and everything you get the opportunity to drive. Through that you are going to expose yourself to each next step up the ladder to new opportunities.

From there you see the guys that understand the marketing side of sponsorship; the reason people are paying for the expenses to put you out there. The people that are tuned into the fact that there is more to racing then going in circles are the guys that typically go farther.

I encourage people to look at what benefits others are getting by being involved in motorsports and the people behind their programs. You need to be enthusiastic and looking towards people like team owners and what they are trying to achieve. To climb to the professional level you need to realize there is a lot more to being successful in racing then just the racing part.

Mecca of Speed: You had a long tenure at Kelley Racing in the IndyCar series followed by time at Fernandez, Rahal and now a move to the ALMS with Highcroft Racing. What qualities have you found to be universal in successful team and how they work their staff?

Scott Sharp: It’s a people business. No matter how much money you have there are only so many highly talented people for any position, and chemistry is very important in an organization. I think we have seen so many teams, be it in NASCAR or IndyCar, where they are swapping crew chiefs and engineers left and right and it’s very disruptive to the teams. Seldom have I seen flip-flopping drivers or crew chiefs be the magic bullet to take a team from under performing to over performing.

You start thinking about teams that are consistently at the front of our type of racing, be it Penske, Ganassi or Andretti-Green, or in the future I think it’s going to be Highcroft. These four teams have not only had people who have been with the team for a long time but also show a great attention to detail. A lot of what they take for granted like car preparation is going the extra mile to a lot of other teams.

The top teams don’t leave any rock unturned, whether it’s in reliability or performance. Consequently they always end up towards the top of the grid.

Mecca of Speed: Excluding your father (who was a very successful driver in the SCCA), growing up who was the driver you looked up to for their determination or approach to racing?

Scott Sharp: Besides my father there were two guys I really looked up to; Rick Mears and Ayrton Senna, and for completely different reasons.

Rick Mears always impressed me, especially at the Indy 500. He seemed like one of the smartest guys out there. He was able to control his emotions and didn’t panic if he wasn’t the fastest guy at the beginning of a race. He would use the race, the cautions, and the pit stops to his advantage. By the end of the race he was flying and would go on to win.

Ayrton Senna was a driver that had incredible focus. He was able to block everything out and all that mattered was the results.

Mecca of Speed: You family is at the track this weekend, do they travel with you to most of the events?

Scott Sharp: My wife makes it to almost all the races and my kids make it to most of the races during the summer. They don’t miss school to come to the races so they are not at the spring or fall events.

It’s good to have them here, especially for my son. He is nine and really starting to enjoy the races and understand it more.

Mecca of Speed: What do you do outside of the world of racing to relax?

Scott Sharp: I live on the water in Florida and for me that’s what relaxing is all about. Water has an immense calming effect on me. Either high or low from a race, whether I get out on the beach, in a boat or go swimming, it’s an immediate shift and everything mellows out in my life.

We are fortunate where we live. We can use the ocean most months out of the year. Water is the one thing I can always turn to when I need to chill out.

Mecca of Speed: You have a long driving career ahead of you still, but when you decide to step out from behind the wheel do you have a desire to move into an ownership or coaching role?

Scott Sharp: I’m not really sure. I’m going to take it a step at a time. I went to business school and have an interest in business and grew up in a real entrepreneurial family. After college I went into racing, but I’ve invested in some different businesses and have some great friends in the mergers and acquisition world. I follow that and at times get a little involved. I have a huge interest there.

I’m doing a bit of mentoring right now with a great friend of mine and also the president of Patron. The two of them started racing last year. I’ve helped them a long and managed their program a little bit.

They are Ed Brown and Bill Sweedler. I have gone to most of their tests, ride with them and work to help them improve their race craft. It’s the first time I’ve done anything like that and I’m enjoying it.

Racing is all about opportunity and this was a no-brainer when we had a chance to join Highcroft. I think the same thing will hold true, if and when I look at ownership. If there is an opportunity to align with a manufacture or a long term deal with a sponsor I will make a decision at that time.

At this stage I’m staying focused on driving.

Mecca of Speed: At this level of endurance racing a strong fitness program is mandatory. What type of conditioning program are you currently on?

Scott Sharp: I’m big in to fitness and love it. I’ve been working out and lifting weights since I was 20 years old. It’s a natural part of what I do every day and would do it even if I weren’t driving.

I tailor what I do towards racing and mix things up. I find lifting weights it a great stress relief, as it is very aggressive. That being said this is predomitaly a cardiovascular sport.

Doing an IndyCar road race I would loose 6-7 pounds. You can sustain a heart rate of 160 bpm for 2-3 hours so you need good conditioning

Mecca of Speed: Have your kids shown any interest in motorsports?

Scott Sharp: I got a go-kart for my son Jackson about a year and a half ago and he likes it a lot. With my schedule I’m very busy, but we need to get him out more often. Getting him out once every couple of months doesn’t cut the mustard.

We are going to get a little more aggressive this fall when the ALMS season ends. Giving him a chance to do some races should be fun.

They love the sport and grew up around it. I have pictures of me holding my daughter at six months old in victory circle. They grew up around it like I grew up around it.

How far they take it is hard to say, it’s a tough business. I’ve been extremely blessed and so fortunate with the rides I’ve had, breaks and sponsors. Like I said before, I’ve seen a lot of guys who have not had their break in this sport.

If racing is something my kids really want to pursue I will definably help them. But if it is just a hobby for fun I am fine with that.

My wife really doesn’t want my daughter to race and would rather have her do other things. If there is one that is going to race it will probably be Jackson.

Mecca of Speed: Hypothetically, 10 years from now I’m in a bookstore looking at the biographies, what would be the title of your biography?

Scott Sharp: Hmm, I don’t know what the title would be, but I think it would be about something much more then just driving. It wouldn’t be a 101 on how to get through a corner but more on life lessons.

I’ve been so lucky, I went to business school and graduated with an undergrad in finance and investments and while my buddies were going to places like Wall Street or insurance I was out getting the best Masters degree you can get through experience. Racing is so full of marketing, finance, communications and sales, it’s real world experience.

This is a people business and you have to be able to communicate. I’ve learned and matured through this business and think it has a lot of life lesions that you can apply elsewhere.

Mecca of Speed: When you have a tough race, what gets you motivated the next day?

Scott Sharp: A few things. One is I’m a very faith based person. I believe if something is going to happen to you, it’s going to happen to you no matter what you are doing. At this point in my life I’m doing exactly what I was meant to be doing.

If you are doing anything competitive, you learn that there are going to be highs and lows. There are setbacks and obstacles you have to overcome. It’s foolish to think you are going to race cars over 200 mph week in and week out and not have some tough times.

You grow up around racing and you see it first hand. The first time I hit the track I didn’t go 200 mph, it’s something you work up to. In an IndyCar doing 240 mph was no big deal to me with experience. I found myself looking in the stands when I was driving at Indy because I felt that comfortable.

The first time at Indy you are freaked out doing 180 mph, but you learn to get comfortable. You learn to take the highs and lows. There are some days you would like to hit rewind on but you can’t. You have to bounce back.

The day you wake up without the fire to come back is the day you are close to not coming back.

Mecca of Speed: If you could give the average street driver an area to work on to improve their street driving what would it be.

Scott Sharp: That is hard, there are so many. One would be looking ahead.

You see so many people looking at the bumper of the car in front of them. When that car hits the brakes you see the guy behind plowing into the bumper of the car in front of them.

As a racing driver we learn to look far ahead. At Indy when you are moving at football field a second you are looking 200 yards down the track to give you reaction time.

That becomes instinctive when you go on the street. I’m never looking at the car in front of me; I’m looking several hundred feet down the road at traffic and figuring out how I am going to get through it.

That is something I’ll teach my kids. You get a great warning of what is ahead and take action for it before it becomes an emergency.

Mecca of Speed: Music is an interesting insight into an individual. If we looked on your iPod, what would be on the top ten lists?

Scott Sharp: You would find a lot of diverse music. Thunderstruck by AC-DC is probably my number one song. I’ve got wave type ocean music when I want to chill out, Jack Johnson and people like that. The only think I don’t listen to is much rap. Nothing too heavy, AC-DC and Guns n Roses is about as heave as I get.

Mecca of Speed: What is one of your personal qualities that people would be surprised to learn about you?

Scott Sharp: My outside persona probably doesn’t show it, as I’m appreciative of the fans coming out to the races and I’m pretty relaxed around them. I know this time in racing is limited and would say people would be surprised to find out about my intense competitiveness.

It kills me in a practice session not be at the top of the charts. That is what drives me to always be better. What do I have in my control to make things better?

In racing, drivers really don’t have that much control. People always think you are the guy driving the car and it’s all in your hands, but it’s not. The set-up of the car, the way the race goes, team strategies- all of these are out of the drivers control yet play a huge outcome in the result of a race.

The things I can control, such as keeping myself in the best shape possible, being totally focused and ready to go at the start of a session, spending a lot of time with the engineers poring through graphs and data looking at how I can improve- these things I spend time on to give the team even the slightest advantage.

Mecca of Speed: Would you consider your self to have a strong technical understanding of racing?

Scott Sharp: I think you will find most engineers will tell you I have strength and give good feedback. I am not going to tell them how to do their job or pull the car apart. A hammer is my best tool.

When it gets down to picking the geometry to run, that’s not me. I’m not looking to pick up points on that kind of stuff with the engineers.

I think driving as much as I have, I’ve got a good feel for what works and what doesn’t work. If it feels like it needs a spring adjustment I’ll give that kind of direction. I strive to give as detailed feedback as possible.

Some of that is seat of the pants on how the car feels, some is more technical such as the tire is scrubbing, and I think we need to do this.

Mecca of Speed: With the variation in tracks from tight street circuits to long flowing road courses, can you make big adjustments on the Acura where it almost feels like two different cars?

Scott Sharp: There are subtle differences. We have made changes this weekend from when we showed up to where we are now, and the overall feel of the car is much better. The balance is much more comfortable and consistent.

It’s all in a feel that is in a range. If I told you everything we changed you would think it’s the difference between a truck and a car, but in the actuality the feeling doesn’t change that much, it’s the little things that make the difference.

Mecca of Speed: Thank you for your time and good luck.

Scott Sharp: Thank you.

Content credit Scott Sharp and John Vatne. Photo credit Scott Rohloff and John Vatne.

9/22/2008