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Scott Sharp - Q&A

30 April 2009


Scott Sharp will return to the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500 for the first time since 2007, having encouraged ALMS sponsor Tequila Patron to return to the championship with Panther Racing.

It will be Sharp's 14th Indianapolis 500, a race in which he has five top ten finishes, including one in each of his last three, culminating in a career best sixth last time out in 2007. A former polewinner at the 500 - in 2001 - Sharp remains the man with the most career IndyCar leader, with 146 coming between 1996 through 2007.

Q:
Scott, welcome back to the IndyCar Series. Tell us about the decision to come back and compete in the Indy 500, joining a team like Panther Racing that's had success there as well.

Scott Sharp:
Yeah, obviously very excited to be able to get back for the race. Certainly to be having all the support of Tequila Patron, and Muscle Milk is another one of our sponsors, and to be able to come do it with Panther. We talked a few different times in the past. They had a great run last May obviously, had a really good Indy month. So I'm super excited. I think it's probably the best opportunity I've had coming to May. I can't wait to get on track next week.

Q:
Obviously you haven't been in the IndyCar Series for a little over a year, racing in the ALMS. Do you think there's going to be an adjustment to get back in the car or is it kind of like riding a bicycle, you just get back on and go?

SS:
I hope there's not much. I don't think so. You know, I've been around there a lot, fortunately. Had the opportunity to do the race as many times as I have. I simply love and cherish every lap around that track.

I've dreamt about it so much over the years, I think I could do it in my sleep. So I'm pretty hopeful once I get out there, it's all going to come back pretty quick. We're going to try to run a little bit of ROP as a refresher sort of as a casual way to get back up to speed. I'm expecting that to all come pretty quickly, so...

Q:
I'm sure you've been watching the series from afar. It's obviously very competitive, maybe more competitive than it was your last couple years. How tough do you think it's going to be to qualify in the top eleven on pole day?

SS:
I think it's going to be pretty tough, for sure. No doubt the series is really competitive. It looks like a lot of the teams have closed up on the top couple teams. Maybe some of the advantages they've had in the past are a little more widely available now. And I think certainly I imagine that five through 15 type spots are going to be really, really tough. It's going to be a tenth of a mile an hour over four laps that's going to be the difference. I'm expecting it to be competitive. There's nothing like qualifying at the Indy 500. Something I've always gotten really pumped up for. I think it's going to be great to be part of it.

Q:
You come as a one-off. You join a team in Panther Racing that has Dan Wheldon, the 2005 Indy 500 champion. In a situation like that, how closely do you work with Dan when it's a team-mate really for just one race like this? Have you talked already or what's the plan there?

SS:
Well, I think the way Panther plans to do it, certainly everything is open, everybody is working together, one big team. Dan and I have always gotten along really well, so no issues there. I have a lot of respect for him. He knows his way around that place really well. It's just a matter of I think, you know, adjusting our cars every little bit we can to get the most out of them. I imagine we're going to work pretty well together. With us both having a lot of experience, I'm pretty hopeful it's not going to take me long to get up to speed and I can be contributing pretty quickly. I think it's going to work really well.

Q:
I don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves down the road, but how much do you think about the future years? Do you see this as an opportunity to come back for several more starts in the 500 or have you given that any thought?

SS:
You know, racing's all about opportunity. I've always said that. We've had a good run with Tequila Patron in ALMS the last couple years. You never know. You never know what's going to come along. I'm excited to be back this year. If the right things can all come together and we can look at doing more races, certainly look at running another 500 or two, that would be fantastic.

Q:
Paul Tracy says he's not coming back here just to be in the Indianapolis 500, he's coming back with the idea of winning it. I assume that's your mindset as well, that there's no other reason to be doing this other than coming into it with the idea that you got a realistic chance to be a factor in the race.

SS:
Frankly, absolutely. All across the board I think for everyone involved. Panther doesn't need to run another car just to run one. Patron is probably only going to get a really great return on investment and solid exposure if we're running well and having a chance. For me, I feel so fortunate. When someone said this is going to be my 14th Indy 500, it's like there's no way. To think I've been able to do it so many times. With that being said, I've had enough going on, just had a baby last week, got an ALMS race in the middle of this month, there's enough happening, I don't need to come do the race just to run around twelfth. So certainly, like I said earlier, it's my favourite race, my favourite track. I think I've always felt like I've gotten where I wanted to be at some point in the month, whether that was in practice, whether that was in qualifying, certain stages of the race, but never was able to, for varieties of reasons, get it all together when I needed to for maybe the last couple stops and be able to really go challenge for the win. Certainly coming back to try to put that all together and do just that.

Q:
One-offs haven't had a great deal of success here. Do you think the IRL, as it's constituted now, a lot of turnover, do you think the environment is such now that somebody in your situation can come in and maybe have a better chance now than you might have been able to have in years past?

SS:
Certainly hopeful. I remember Michael [Andretti] did it a couple years ago I think and finished third. I certainly think it's very situational. Even then, it depends a lot on how the race goes. Certainly I'm excited to be at Panther and think that they want to see us equally do well. I think obviously when you're not running regularly, you really got to dot your Is, cross your Ts. There's less room for error from a competitive perspective. You can't be letting down in any area.

But I think they've assembled a really great group of guys for me. I think they're going to give me a really great car. Like I said, Dan and I are going to work well. Based on all the work they've done, how they ran there last year, I think we're going to be in pretty good shape. I've always felt the 500, it's a race from the moment you wake up it's got to be your day and things have just got to fall into place. There's enough elements going on during that race that things are out of your control, things have to flow your way. I think if we have a good month, qualify strongly, get a good racecar, we wake up, it's one of those days, no doubt we can go win the race.

Q:
How does all this racing fit in with your other commitments on your other racing? Do you have the time to do it?

SS:
You know, it's a little bit of a handful. But everyone's extremely supportive. Obviously Patron is over the top supportive in their backing of me, the fact that they're the sponsor of our Patron Highcroft racing entry in ALMS, certainly helps they're the sponsor at Indy. But Duncan Dayton, all the guys have been fantastic. Hopefully a couple of them are going to come help us out a little bit with the Panther team. They certainly have very capable people as it is, but just to keep some continuity there.

Overall, you know, the answer to that, straight up, everyone has been super supportive in recognising we're going to have to bend in certain spots if needed. But the only part that makes that at all difficult is we have a race in Utah during the second weekend of qualifying. We very much want to qualify the first couple days. There's some scenarios out there where if that didn't happen I could still probably get back to qualify on that third day on Saturday. You know, that throws a little bit of a wrench into things. Overall, I think we've known that from the beginning, we've been able to plan accordingly, and don't really expect that to be much of a problem.

Q:
What does it mean to you to win the 500?

SS:
Wow, you know, it's something I've dreamt about since I was a little kid watching it with my dad on the couch. I never even knew if I'd have the opportunity to run at Indy. To be able to have done it as many times as I have, felt like I've had some success there, but certainly not the win. You know, it's something I think about every day. It would be truly, truly incredible.

But, you know, I also look at it that there's going to be one winner and 32 guys that aren't so happy. It doesn't make or break your life, but it sure would be an incredible experience for all involved.

Q:
Paul Tracy mentioned that, while he didn't mind doing it, he wasn't thrilled about having to go out and pursue sponsorship. He's been fortunate enough to hook up with GEICO. You over the years have had really good sponsor relations. How important is it for drivers today to realise the responsibility they have with their sponsors going beyond the hospitality part of it at the track?

SS:
I think I just came from a different upbringing. My father had Paul Newman as a driver and part owner. When my dad came home from work at night, not only was I asking him tons of questions about driving, but learning a lot about the business on the sponsorship side of things. He had different sponsors, Pioneer Electronics, Diet Coke, all these different companies, finding ways to create value for them, finding ways to get exposure for them, value for them. I guess I always grew up with that mentality that he instilled in me that you have to overdeliver for a sponsor. It doesn't take anybody in this business very long, especially in this economic condition, to quickly realize that they are the key to driving the vehicle. If they're not happy and they're not getting the kind of rate of return that they expect, they're not going to want to keep doing it for very long. I grew up with a business background. I went to business school. Always very entrepreneurial. I feel that's an exciting challenge of it for me. I take pride I was with Delphi for eight years. I've been with Patron ever since. You know, I like the long-term relationships. I like feeling that companies are building on their investment, they're getting a value for their investments. That whole end of thing is a huge part of our business. I enjoy it and I think you have to be pretty cognisant of it.

Q:
Talk about the next driver in the Sharp stable, Jackson is eight or nine.

SS:
He's ten now. Yeah, you know, my dad, I go-karted, that's all I did when I was a kid. That's all I ate, dreamt, thought about. Did it for nine years before I got into cars. Jackson is mellow, likes karting. He has other interests, plays lacrosse, soccer, some other stuff. If it's something he really wants to pursue, I'll help him with everything I have to do it. I think he's got a pretty good lineage, bloodline, between myself, my father-in-law, my father. But that has to be something he really wants to tackle. It's a tough business. I've been extremely fortunate. Just the stuff we're talking about right now, being fortunate to hook up with companies like Delphi or like Patron Tequila, those have just been great relationships for me. I've been lucky to be with some great team owners. A lot of times things have worked for me. You see a lot of guys that are probably every bit as talented and it just hasn't worked. So it's a tough business. If he really wants to pursue it, I'll do everything I can to help him. If it's something he's lukewarm about, it's not something I'm going to shove him into. He's having fun doing go-karting at this stage, but it hasn't become a hundred per cent of his commitment time-wise.

Q:
If you could compare a little bit like what it's like to come from a sports car and jump back into an open-wheel car. I understand a great driver can adapt really quickly anyway to anything. I'm sure there's some changes that you have to go through for the transition.

SS:
Well, I probably could give you a lot better answer like next Wednesday. Haven't exactly made that part of the transition. But the transition went very well for me the opposite way, jumping into the sports car. The Acura is such a high-tech car, it's a dream to drive on the road courses. As I go into Indy, the way I'm looking at it, I think they're so different. If you said, Okay, let's go run the IndyCar at Long Beach and run the ALMS Acura at Long Beach, that you'd be really compensating, comparing the two, having to think differently, brake at different points. A lot goes into that.

The fact that Indy is so different and it's an oval, a high-speed oval, when the car is working well, you're turning the car very minimally. Obviously not much braking is associated at all around the track. You're getting in a whole different mindset, a whole different groove, obviously way different speeds. I think you go there with such a different expectation and perception of what you need to do that it's going to be so different that I don't think there will be any confusion or any overlap.

Q:
You were in the first IRL race as it was known back then in 1996. You've seen the evolution of the league to where it is today. Talk about the hard times, the good times, and how the league has progressed.

SS:
That could be a long answer. I guess I'd say obviously creating a brand-new league out of nowhere would be like starting a brand-new NFL football league. It was a lot of doubters early on. It gave a lot of - whether it was drivers or owners or certainly crew members - a lot of opportunities that otherwise wouldn't have been there. You think of a lot of guys that qualified the first year at the 500 or the second year at the 500 that ended up really being their only chance probably as the league accelerated along. They got a chance to come run at Indy that otherwise they wouldn't have had.

But certainly I think, as you saw, the big teams start to come into the IRL from Champ Car. You saw the manufacturers come. You just saw the whole level of the game and the intensity continue to rise. So I think it's been fantastic in a lot of ways. Obviously it's an incredible championship right now. It's super intense competitively. But you also are seeing a big change from the drivers that just sort of came along and were thrown into a car and given a chance. I think you've seen a little less of that now because it is just so intense and owners aren't willing to take those chances on some of the younger guys unless they really have awesome credentials and probably have a little bit of sponsorship that comes with them.

Q:
Also in that '97 Indy 500, you didn't get to participate because of two crashes you had had. Going out there with the new engine formula at that time, a lot of oil leaks, did you almost kind of feel like you were a test pilot in the early part of the '97 season?

SS:
Yeah, think we all did. That's when they had to institute the diapers and everything so the oil wasn't all over your rear tyres. That was developed after a lot of guys hit the wall. I think for a while there certainly you were running around, [thinking] please don't blow up on me. I think a lot of drivers got really sensitive to the vibrations that would sort of occur right before the engines blew up so they could maybe catch it. Certainly changed much from there. Honda has done an incredible job. Look at the reliability and performance record they have. There's just a natural escalation in team preparation, in car builds, and in the engines and components.

Q:
I know how much you love the Indy 500. You were always a great ambassador for the series when you were full-time. The fact you went sportscar racing, was that something at that point in your career was almost a good thing to try something different and maybe build up your confidence if that was on the ebb at that time?

SS:
Yeah. Like I said a few minutes ago, racing is all about opportunity. I guess I felt my confidence has always been there on the IndyCar, especially on the ovals. I think it's gotten back to where it needs to be on the road courses. Really I guess I figured at some point I would go to sportscars. I didn't think it was going to be that early. But the right opportunity came along to be with a factory-backed team. It was something Patron really wanted to go do, feeling like the demographics of the ALMS would work well for them. And the whole opportunity just seemed like one of those you couldn't say no to. I think at the time we did it, we hoped to come back and run the 500 last year, and for a variety of reasons that just didn't pan out. I'm glad to be able to come do that now. We'll take it from there and see where it leads to.

Q:
All right, Scott, thanks for joining us. Appreciate it. Best of luck this month.

SS:
Thanks, guys. Look forward to being there next week.


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