Work Hard and Race Harder – Scott Pruett

Scott Pruett has a reputation of being a tough driver to pass and tougher to keep behind you. His pedigree includes 2 IMSA GTO, 3 SCCA Trans Am, and 3 Grand-Am Championships in addition to four 24 Hours of Daytona overall victories. His success hasn’t come with out hard work and personal sacrifice. This work ethic has the Grand-Am veteran in contention for his fourth Grand-Am championship.

Mecca of Speed: Compared to the last time you raced at Road America, there have been changes to the curbing and runoff areas. How is going to affect the racing line for this multi-class series?

Scott Pruett: I think the racing line is going to be fine. The curbs are good height-wise. They put pavement on the backside of the curbs, so if something bad happens in a corner, you still have some room to work with. As we saw at Watkins Glen, when there is pavement on the backside there is a little room to go to if needed to keep you from going into the grass.

We got an extra practice day on Wednesday, which allowed us to get a lot of laps in. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much of a chance to practice on Thursday due to the weather, but things look good for the rest of the weekend, it’s going to be a great race.

I haven’t raced here since 1999, which was with the IndyCar series. I love being back at Elkhart Lake, it’s a great track.

Mecca of Speed: How do you approach Road America in the Daytona Prototype car, which is smaller and has less down force compared to when you raced in IndyCar?

Scott Pruett: Grand-Am has been my focus for the last eight years. We have a good understanding of the car and what to do to get the car to work in different conditions.

We are still trying to find the balance between how much aero to run on the car to reduce drag on the long straight aways while still having sufficient down force through the Carousel and places like Canada Corner. I don’t think we have found the exact set-up yet, but we’ll be working on it during the remaining practice sessions.

One of the biggest changes from the last time I raced here is about 80% of the turns have an asphalt patch in the apex. The patch has significantly more grip compared to the surface leading into and out of the turn, so you have to adjust for that.

Mecca of Speed: Grand-Am races most weekends with the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge, but this weekend you are also running with the Nationwide series. Do you think that mix of different rubber types is going to have an effect on the Grand-Am Daytona Prototypes?

Scott Pruett: We are going to find out. We’ll be talking about that up top today with the engineers. Nationwide is scheduled to have a two-hour practice session and we qualify right after that. We have been talking about what to expect from the surface after their practice and how to keep our team positioned for qualifying.

Mecca of Speed: For 2012, Grand-Am is working on chassis evolution for the Daytona Prototype. From your perspective as a driver with a lot of development experience, what direction do you see things moving in?

Scott Pruett: Virtually everything under the skin is going to stay the same.

In years gone by, I’ve driven some prototypes where the cockpit is very tight. For example, in the Jaguar XJR-12 and XJR-15, your head would touch the roof, which is a very dangerous position to be in.

When Grand-Am first came up with the rules for these cars, they wanted to make sure the cars were big enough in case there was an accident on track. There are big attenuators on the side of the car to handle a side impact and sufficient room on the inside car so the driver’s helmet is not touching on anything. With those requirements in mind, Grand-Am feels the cars have lost some of the sexiness that goes with a prototype.

They plan to make the car a little sleeker, reduce the size of the greenhouse, stretch out the front end and add stylistic cues for the manufactures.

All the Rileys have a similar look. All the Dallaras have a similar look even though they are powered by different manufactures. Riley is being commissioned by Chervolet to develop a Corvette body. It will be within the Daytona Prototype rules, but have styling cues from a Corvette.

There is talk of Ford and BMW also doing manufacturing of specific designs. These specific bodies are more then just the stickers across the car. I’ve seen some drawings and they bring forward a lot of very nice identifiable styling cues.

The series is trying to move forward and give manufactures the opportunity to have something more stylistically tied to what they build for street use.

Mecca of Speed: New fans of Grand-Am racing may be surprised to see the Daytona Prototype cars aren’t that big compared to the GT class cars.

Scott Pruett: Grand-Am has been very conscious of pricing to have full fields. They also don’t want 6 or 7 different classes in one race, which becomes confusing for the fans. We have 2 classes, Prototypes and GTs. Prototypes look like something you don’t see on the road, and GTs look like something you do see on the road.

Because of the differential in speed between the two, there is a lot a passing, creating lot of action and excitement for the fans. At the same time, they don’t want a situation like Le Mans where you have Audi and Peugeot spending 80-90 million dollars a year for one race and if you don’t have one of those cars you can’t race for a win.

I think Grand-Am is going in the right direction.

We have so much great racing in North America, particularly in the U.S., Americans want to see good, close hard racing. Under the umbrella of NASCAR, which owns Grand-Am, they are carrying that philosophy forward in this series.

Mecca of Speed: The Daytona Prototypes have the ability to get right up next to each other, unlike in open wheel where when the air washes out, the cars have to separate.

Scott Pruett: We’ll do so some scratching, leaning and banging on each other. Anything short of real dirty driving, like intentionally turning a guy, is pretty much allowed. When it goes beyond hard racing, the governing body steps forward and gives penalties. If it’s just a bit of leaning on each other, it’s free game.

Mecca of Speed: You did commentary for the 24 hours of Le Mans, do you feel there is a need for a more graduated system of evaluation for drivers in the lower classes, such as GTE AM to help prevent incidents like those that befell Audi this year?

Scott Pruett: That is a great question. You have governing bodies that want to take just about anyone who can get in a car and drive to fill the field. From a professional driver’s standpoint, you have got to be really careful because guys have the proper confidence to drive these types of cars.

There are a number of levels that have to be achieved. First you have to be able to do the speed. Just because a driver can put one lap together doesn’t mean they are aware of what is going on around them. I have seen a lot of guys who are choking the steering wheel and have blinders on, focused forward with no situational awareness.

It was apparent this year, especially after what happed to Audi. Not with what happed to Allan McNish, that was his fault. With Mike Rockenfeller’s accident, you can see where the Ferrari moved over on top of him when he should have stayed in his lane. Unfortunately, the driver in the Ferrari had very limited experience, he may have been focused on just going forward, not what was happening all around him.

All governing bodies should take note, we do want to fill the field but not at the expense of safety and drivers inability. Drivers should have a set number of achievements and a predetermined amount of racing experience before they can get a license to run major events like Le Mans.

We need to make sure the armature racers are competent because they can put professional racers lives in danger if they do something stupid like what we saw with the Rockenfeller accident. When we first saw that crash, it was so horrific. We thought he was dead, it made us sick. When we heard he was ok we were thankful he made it through, but that easily could have been a lot worse.

Mecca of Speed: If the right opportunity came along, do you have an interest to race again at Le Mans?

Scott Pruett: I do. I would love to go back to Le Mans and also do some NASCAR racing, but within my contract, if it’s not in a Ganassi car I won’t be doing it.

Mecca of Speed: For the Daytona 24, Ganassi Racing fields a third car, do they pull the IndyCar team to crew the car or? do  extra preparation or practice?

Scott Pruett: There is always a test in early January and we get all the drivers in the cars. Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Jamie McMurray are great drivers and have done the race before so they fit right in.

At Indianapolis, all the race teams are under one roof so the IndyCar program is next to the Grand-Am program, which creates a lot of carry over. If the Grand-Am team needs help leading up to Daytona, the IndyCar guys are there to help. It’s a great team atmosphere for all the operations.

Mecca of Speed: Early in your IndyCar career you had a bad accident while testing at Sebring. What was going through your mind after that accident to get you rehabilitated and back to racing?

Scott Pruett: I shattered my ankles, broke my heels, broke my knees and broke my back. My whole focus was getting back in the racecar. That is what kept me going six days a week to rehab. Not only did I have to take care of all the stuff I broke, I had to keep in shape everything that was ok.

For some guys it can go either way. It scares them, they get hurt bad and don’t want to get back in a car and never race again. For others, it’s the only thing they have to hold on to. It gets you through all the effort and pain you have to go through to get back in a car.

Mecca of Speed: How did you have to adjust your conditioning program after your accident?

Scott Pruett: I can’t run or do anything with quick action on my feet. It’s a lot of biking, elliptical, and rowing.

Mecca of Speed: There are a fair number of racers that have gotten into the wine industry. What motivated you to starting your own vineyard?

Scott Pruett: The first thing you have to remember is there is a big difference between the guy who does a deal to have his name on the bottle and what I do. From working at the vineyard, to making the wine, bottling, making the labels, I do it all. There are not many people who have their name on a bottle that do that. The big piece for me that makes it exciting is learning the whole process. I’ve got a mentor from Napa who has been giving me guidance for the last five years.

When you look at Pruett Vineyard wines, my heart and soul has gone into that bottle. I’ve learned about all the plants, the fermentation process, and what the wine tasted like all the way through the process of getting it to the bottle.

Mecca of Speed: Back in your IndyCar days, a piece was done on your interest in landscaping. Did that understanding of soil help feed your interest in the wine process?

Scott Pruett: I grew up on a farm. My grandfather was a farmer, my dad did a little farming before he went into aerospace, it’s those roots that are still in my body and soul. I love being outside and working with the land.

We have been doing the vineyard for a while. We spent some time writing children’s books, so that was for the kids and this is for the adults.

Mecca of Speed: Are the children’s books something you did for the your kids as a way to give back?

Scott Pruett: Absolutely, and for a lot of guys working on the team. We spend a lot of time on the road away from our families. It was a way for us to give back to our kids, and the crew to give back to their kids.

It’s something fun for the fans to buy, but also realistic. Every picture, story or line in those books is realistic even though it’s done in a cartoon format.

Mecca of Speed: You are a seasoned veteran. Chip Ganassi tells you he has a young prospect and would like you to give him some advice about a career in racing, what would you tell him? (See bottom photo on right.)

Scott Pruett: (Laughs) Wow, that was a couple of years ago. I absolutely believe, if you believe in your dreams and you work hard enough, your dreams will come true. One of our books Rookie Racer is that way. It’s a very inspirational story of believing in your dreams and believing in yourself. That is a big piece of everything that people don’t understand.

I shouldn’t be where I am at today. I come from a very middleclass background, my parents struggled to make ends meet. There was no financial backing when I started out in racing. It was all hard work and a never-give-up attitude. Racing is a lot of hard work and sacrifice, but if you believe in something, weather it’s driving a racecar, or being a football or baseball player, if you are willing to do all the work and make the sacrifice, you will get there.

Mecca of Speed: You have raced for a lot of team owners and had a number of teammates. Who has stood out, as someone you have raced with, that showed two people working together is stronger then one person alone?

Scott Pruett: Memo Rojas and Max Papis, when we first started this program in 2004. I’ve had fun working with a lot of guys over the years like Adrian Fernandez. Hanging around with Dixon and Franchitti, even though we aren’t racing against each other, we are still in the same house. They follow our racing, we follow their racing, which makes for great camaraderie all around.

Mecca of Speed: You have a reputation for always saying “hi” to your family at home when you are interviewed on TV. What got that started?

Scott Pruett: When I left home for my first Daytona 500, on that Tuesday my wife gave birth to our youngest, which was a little boy. When he was 2 or 3, I was talking on TV and he saw me and thought I was in the TV. He kept going up to the TV and my wife said you should say hi to him. That is how it all started.

Now if I don’t say “hi”, the kids are like, Dad what’s wrong, why didn’t you say hi? People love it. I did it specifically for just my kids without realizing the impact that it’s had on all the race fans. I cannot tell you how many people come up to me at every race and say what a great thing I’m doing by just saying hi to the family.

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

Scott Pruett: Thank you.

Content credit Scott Pruett and John Vatne. Photo credit John Vatne.