AMERICA'S QUINTESSENTIAL SPORTS CAR RACER
The Way It Is/ America's quintessential sports car racer
by Gordon Kirby
Scott Pruett stands today in a class of his own as America's quintessential sports car racer. Pruett, 52, has raced everything from Indy cars to NASCAR stock cars, IMSA GTP, GTO and GTU cars, Trans-Am cars and Aussie V-8s and of course most recently Daytona prototypes. This year Pruett and Memo Rojas combined to win the sixth Grand-Am championship for Chip Ganassi's team. It's Pruett's fifth Grand-Am title and Rojas's fourth.
Pruett started his career in karts and established himself as one of America's best karters before graduating to cars. Scott went on to win two IMSA GTO and three Trans-Am championships during his early years before moving on to race IMSA GTP cars, Indy cars, NASCAR Sprint Cup and then Daytona prototypes. His career record includes 38 Daytona prototype wins, four outright Daytona 24 hour victories and five more Daytona class wins plus two Indy car wins--the Michigan 500 in 1995 and Surfer's Paradise in '97--during CART's heydays.
"I just finished my 45th year of driving and it's shocking to think that I've done it for that long and still at this level," Pruett remarked. "I don't mean to toot my own horn, but there are not many guys who can beat me week in and week out, and I'm proud of that."
Pruett is also proud of beating the more powerful Ford and Chevrolet-engined prototypes to win this year's Grand-Am championship with Ganassi's Riley-BMW. The new Corvette Daytona prototype in particular also made more downforce than the Riley chassis and Chevrolet was able to win the manufacturer's championship.
"Everything was against us and we overcame a lot of it," Pruett said. "I really felt we were able to tap into a lot of experience from myself, from Tim Keene and the Ganassi organization. Our group has been together a long time and we were closer than ever this year. Not that we were never not close but this year there was no disconnect within the team at any time. Everybody had that singular focus of doing their job to the absolute best they could.
"We knew nine times out of ten that we did not have the best car but nobody lost their enthusiasm and their determination. Nobody cared what was thrown at us. We were all determined that we were going to overcome it. Everybody pulled in the same direction and used their experience and know-how to take a sixth-place car and get it on the podium or take a fourth-place car and get it up to second. We were getting better results than we probably should have."
Pruett believes the Grand-Am rules allowed the Ford and Chevrolet prototypes to outpower Ganassi's BMW-powered car this year.
"I think everybody in the paddock agreed that Ford had the best powerplant without a doubt," Pruett observed. "The Chevy was probably the most efficient and made the highest amount of downforce and it showed. Look at the number of wins the Corvettes had.
"We got crushed at Detroit which was the highest downforce track. We weren't within a second of the Corvettes. We were lacking in downforce and we were lacking in power, without a doubt."
Pruett says the key race to winning this year's championship came at le Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in August.
"What was interesting this year was our best track was one where we didn't expect to do well which was Montreal," Scott commented. "That place is always a struggle for us. The majority of the time we get it wrong instead of right. We were most concerned with that race going into it and we dominated the race. That was the biggest turning point for us because our competition had a bad race and we had a phenomenal race. That really turned the season for us."
Pruett explained how Ganassi's team found a small advantage in Montreal.
"We got the shocks and the mechanical setup working well enough where we could run less aero," he said. "We got the car good enough mechanically to get it to work over the curbs. As you know, you've got to jump the curbs in Montreal and that put us in a position to be able to trim the car out which gave us good straightaway speed. So even though we were ultimately not the absolute fastest through the turns I think we were the fastest down the backstraight."
© LAT USA The team's lead engineer John Hennek worked for Patrick Racing back in Pruett's IndyCar days. Subsequently Hennek worked for Honda and was a junior engineer with Ganassi's IndyCar team before moving to the Grand-Am team. He's assisted by Ken Brooks.
"One of the things we're able to do is really tap into our IndyCar guys in particular, but also our NASCAR guys, and really soak up their information and technology," Pruett said. "In Montreal, we used their information on the shock side to get the car to work better and more efficiently."
Pruett couldn't be happier with teammate Rojas's performances in recent years. He's also delighted with Telmex's vigorous promotion of Rojas and its Grand-Am sponsorship program in Mexico.
"Memo has done a great job," Scott said. "He's really come along well and he's a rock star in Mexico. Telmex activate their sponsorship program very aggressively in Mexico. When you buy a new cellphone it comes in a box that's painted like the #01 Telmex race car and the service trucks running around town are painted like the #01 Telmex car. So there's huge visibility for the program which has helped make Memo a big star in Mexico.
"It's been really exciting to be part of and then to watch Sergio Perez do a phenomenal job this year and be headed to McLaren for next year. Racing has always been strong in Mexico but now it's headed to a new level. Racing and soccer are the big sports. Carlos Slim and Telmex have done an incredible job in Mexico."
Twenty years ago Pruett suffered serious leg and back injuries when he crashed an Indy car during winter testing.
"My injuries included shattered ankles, broken knees, a broken back, torn up shoulders and elbows and broken ribs. There was a lot of stuff."
He was out of action for the best part of a year but came back to take his career to even greater heights. The residue of the accident remains with him however, although a rigorous physical fitness program and close attention to improving nutrition through healthy food helps cope with his aches and pains.
© LAT USA "Over the last few years I have changed significantly the way I do things," Scott says. "I work out every day, doing cardio and lifting work. It's just daily maintenance. At this time of year I may do it every other day rather than every day, but it's just a lifestyle. I don't look at it as training to go racing. I look at it as training for my life and my lifestyle. It's 24/7, 365 days a year. That's the way I look at it.
"Maybe four or five years ago I got off eating most all sugar. I'm very conscious of sugar intake and turning carbs into sugar. I'm very concerned with that. I also consume very little dairy products--no milk and only a little bit of cheese. Wine and cheese go together so it wouldn't be right owning a winery and not having some bread and cheese to go with it. So I'm not anal about it but I am very concerned.
"With all that, I've noticed that the way I feel is significantly better than I used to feel. I used to have to manage a lot of my pain with Celebrex or Aleve or an Advil. Now, I don't take anything.
"Don't get me wrong. I still hurt. But I don't hurt as bad as when I was taking some of those things over the years. I've been in a really good place with a real good balance over the past few years."
Pruett met his wife Judy when he drove for the TWR Jaguar IMSA GTP team. She worked for the team as a physical therapist and nutritionist and Scott credits her with his healthy approach to life.
"She's an occupational therapist and has been a trainer for a number of factory motorcycle teams, including guys like Eddie Lawson, and the Jaguar IMSA team of course. She's continually reading and paying attention to things with fitness and nutrition and she always wanted me to try something different. Over the years since we've been married we've tried different things and being really careful with sugar and dairy has been one of those. And eating good, wholesome food.
"I have a number of apple, pear and peach trees and I'll eat them right off the tree. I always will choose the healthiest organic or the most pure food. I really enjoy going to restaurants that provide farm fresh, locally grown food instead of the easy, convenient mainstream, mass market foods. We don't eat hardly any of that at all anymore and it seems to be working."
Looking ahead to next year Pruett hopes the Grand-Am officials will create a more level playing field.
"We were told, and the engine and car manufacturers were told, that Grand-Am was going to take a very close look at engine and car packages," he commented. "They told us they know things are askew and they're going to come up with an equalizing formula for next year, which they need to. Quite frankly, BMW is frustrated and why wouldn't they be? So it will be interesting to see what happens.
© LAT USA "Car-wise, we'll just have to wait and see. The Riley cars need help on short, high-downforce circuits, no question. So we'll see what the governing body comes up with and how they can equalize things.
"In the meantime (engine builder) Steve Dinan has been working on an M3 derivative which you'll probably see us running next year. We've been running an older M5 derivative engine and BMW would much rather see us racing the newer M3 derivative."
Looking further down the road to 2014 Pruett is bullish about the Grand-Am's merger with the American Le Mans Series.
"It's going to be huge for the sport," he declared. "I think it's absolutely a great thing. I love road racing. My career has been built around road racing and sports car racing. The only challenge for me has been that road racing and sports car racing has been up and down and up and down."
Indeed, Pruett has witnessed the rise and decline of both American sports car and Indy car racing.
"IMSA was hot and then it was down," he observes. "Trans-Am was hot and then it was down. There have been a number of different series that have come along and had their ups and downs. Now we have the ALMS and the Grand-Am. For me, I'd like to see nothing more than a very stable, long term road racing series and I believe NASCAR can do that."
Like many of us, Scott worries about American road racing joining Indy car racing as a mere backwater of international motor sport. But he believes the only way forward for the new combined series will be to apply NASCAR's formula for manufacturing a level playing field rather than trying to encourage factory teams and high-tech machinery.
"Will there be some heartburn in 2014?" he asked. "Without a doubt there will be. As we all know, everybody is not going to be happy. But I am very optimistic that Grand-Am will do the right thing and stay with the mantra or mission statement of NASCAR--hard, close competitive racing at a reasonably affordable price. That's what they need to do.
"You can't have factory teams locking out the rest of the field with their own cars that nobody else can buy and big budgets for testing and development. That frustrates a lot of wealthy individuals who want to go racing. I'm confident they'll get it right and they need to get it right. The sport needs it."
Pruett will not be in action at next weekend's Petit Le Mans, nor is he likely to race at Sebring or Road Atlanta next year. But in 2014 he should be fighting to win these classic American sports car races in addition to the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. For all of us, Pruett included, it will be intriguing to see the result of the combined formula for 2014 and beyond.