Racing at the International Level – Memo Rojas

If you play it by the numbers, Memo Rojas has been a professional racing driver for 9 years, is competing in his 6th season in Grand-Am and has 3 Daytona Prototype championships. Not too bad for a man who as a boy wanted to race professionally and represent his home country of Mexico.

Mecca of Speed: For this round of the Grand-Am series at Road America the forecast is for high 70 to low 80s, does ambient temperature play a roll in your set-up?

Memo Rojas: We don’t have a set-up based on the weather. We adjust the set-up based on how the car is behaving. The temperature changes the track conditions year to year so we don’t have a specific set-up based on temperature.

This is an average temperature for us at this time of the year. We have both cooler and hotter races so everything should be fine this weekend.

Mecca of Speed: So you start with a standard baseline set-up and adjust accordingly throughout the weekend?

Memo Rojas: Exactly.

Mecca of Speed: 2013 will be your tenth year as a professional driver. Looking back on your career thus far, what did this sport bring to you that you didn’t anticipate?

Memo Rojas: First of all, this is a sport of never ending learning experience. Even Scott (Pruett) who has been racing so many years can tell you, every race you learn something new. In general, as you mature and gain more experience it’s not the driving which you learn more about. Driving you learn about at a very early stage, you can be a very quick driver, even as a teenager, but as you gain experience you learn how to deal with other situations, specifically how to deal with pressure.

For example, as a driver you have to learn how to deal with the pressure of working with a successful team and backing of a big sponsor while contending for and winning a championship.

Mecca of Speed: The early part of your career was spent in various open wheel series in the U.S. and Mexico, what attracted you to sports cars and more specifically the Grand Am series?

Memo Rojas: Since I was little my dream was to make it into professional racing at an international level. In Mexico we are very lucking to have a strong local racing community and championship system.

International motor racing is either in Europe or the United States. It’s where the best of the best are. I wanted to race with the best and my first opportunity was to race in America.

Later I had an opportunity to race in Europe as well, but my career path lead me back to the United States and with success in sports cars.

Mecca of Speed: How was the transition to sports cars and dealing with the multi class system, which has expanded this year with the addition Audi and Ferrari this season?

Memo Rojas: To be honest, I hated it my first year in 2007. I was use to running in open wheel with all the cars in the same class where you had to beat every car out there.

Here you have to deal with multiple classes. During my first year it would drive me crazy when a car would screw up my lap during practice or a race. Then I learned how to make it part of the race. I like to say it’s like playing Mario Kart. You are dodging obstacles, they are not turtles, but you have to give them all respect regardless even if they are in a slower class.

When you accept it and make it part of the game you start to think, how can I make this work to my advantage. You learn how to time traffic and gain an advantage over other cars or make up positions. That is when it became a fun part of the sport.

Mecca of Speed: Nobody really knows where their full career will take them, but do you see yourself as continuing in sports cars?

Memo Rojas: I will always have the desire to go back to open wheel racing, particularly IndyCar. Obviously it would have to be a really great opportunity to let go what I have here in sports. I am really happy where I am now, with one of the best teams in the United States.

Mecca of Speed: Is there any chance of some crossover as the Chip Ganassi Grand-Am and IndyCar operations are under the same roof? Maybe a third Target IndyCar for select events.

Memo Rojas: We have talked about that casually with Chip, but nothing serious.

Mecca of Speed: How often do you get back to Mexico?

Memo Rojas: Once the season really gets going, which is right now, I stay in Indianapolis where our team is based. In the off-season or when we have big gaps in the schedule I go back home.

Mecca of Speed: Do you bring any bit of home with you from Mexico when you are racing?

Memo Rojas: Just my luggage. I’m not married so I don’t have any responsibilities holding me back so that helps keep things light.

Mecca of Speed: When you joined this team, between years 1-3 you made great advances in your race craft, was this from working with Scott Pruett or the team?

Memo Rojas: Scott is one of the most accomplished drivers in the United States. Part of dealing with the pressure I previously mentioned is coming to grips with a good team and a really good teammate. You have to meet expectations.

The first year was a learning year so you do the best you can without making mistakes. As you learn from experience you naturally become a better driver. I learned a lot from sports car racing and how to adapt to this kind of car. Working with this high level team just makes me better.

The team is comfortable with Scott or me in the car and I’m grateful for their confidence.

Mecca of Speed: Do you and Scott have a similar driving style that determines car set-up or is it a bit of a compromise?

Memo Rojas: Most of the time we are looking for the same things out of the car. But there are a few tracks where we are doing something different and this creates a conflict with what we want out of the car. Scott and I then look at what works best overall and find a compromise.

Mecca of Speed: As a driver who has raced here multiple years, what do you find are the keys to a quick lap at Road America?

Memo Rojas: Road America is a very technical track. You need to have a good set-up and the driver needs to be very technical with their lines. It’s what you would consider a very textbook track; the race line is where you would expect it to be.

By comparison, at Mid-Ohio you can adjust to different lines. Here you need to be consistent, but have to push really hard. It’s a long lap, so to put a good lap together you need to have 100% focus for a long period of time, which can be challenging for some drivers.

Mecca of Speed: Do the surface changes here between the asphalt and concrete, and the differences in curbing have a big effect on how the car performs?

Memo Rojas: It does and you have to set-up your car around those changes.

Mecca of Speed: Moving out of your normal career you had the opportunity to work with Pixar as voice talent in Cars 2. How was the experience working at the Pixar studio?

Memo Rojas: It was great. They brought in a voice over coach, as this was something I had never done before. I never thought my motorsport career would take me to a Hollywood movie doing voice over. It was really exciting.

The whole process was really quick. I thought it would take at least a whole day but it only took a couple of hours. They gave me some coaching and then I did the lines.

I guess with technology now they can adapt the voice rather quickly and adjust it as needed.

The best thing was after doing it I was given the opportunity to attend the premiers. Seeing the movie in the theater was great. In my country it was a real opportunity that as they used a real racecar driver to do the voice. It was a lot of fun.

Mecca of Speed: Being a professional driver, what other opportunities have opened up that you would not have if you choose another career?

Memo Rojas: I have been involved in a show for ESPN in Latin America called Auto Explorer, which is similar to Top Gear where I got to analyze cars. There have also been a few other opportunities with sponsors due to my career choice.

Mecca of Speed: Looking back on your career to this point, what race stands out as a personally satisfying experience?

Memo Rojas: When I raced in Monaco in 2004, it’s such a unique place. I ended up crashing while fighting for a podium finish. It’s one of those events that stick with you because it’s so special.

Mecca of Speed: How would you describe your European experience in 2004?

Memo Rojas: It’s very different compared to racing in the U.S. It’s much more intense. You could almost say it’s more hostile in Europe compared to the U.S. What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. That level of competition is why there are really good drivers coming out of Europe.

It was good for me personally as it made me a much better driver that helped me down the road.

Mecca of Speed: How did you choose your helmet design?

Memo Rojas: I worked the colors of the Mexican flag in to my design because I always wanted to race for my country.

Mecca of Speed: Thank you for your time, we appreciate it. Good luck this weekend.

Memo Rojas: Thank you.

Content credit Memo Rojas and John Vatne. Photo credit John Vatne. 

7/15/2012