Just over a week ago, British single-seater ace Darren Manning created something of a shock in US racing circles by inking a deal to join Chip Ganassi's Indy Racing League team in place of the late Tony Renna.

Prior to his switch to the oval-only series, Manning - a double British GP F3 support race winner and Japanese and Macau F3 champion - had been making waves with Derrick Walker's Reynard in Champ Cars and appeared poised for a tilt at the 2004 title.

Here he talks about the British invasion in the IRL, the thrill of Indianapolis and how his F1 background will help him make the most of his Indycar chance...

Q:
Maybe you can clarify something for me. Where did you start in your racing career?

Darren Manning:
Well, way back when I was ten years old, I started in go-karts over in England, moved my way up through the different ranks in karting, mainly British Championships, but I raced for the last few years in European and World Championship level karting. Then, when I was 17, I moved up to single-seaters through Vauxhall Junior, Vauxhall Lotus Senior, Formula Three and F3000 and the BAR testing which we talked about earlier. So yeah, a long, long route to the top, should I say.

Q:
Talk about three English drivers competing in the IndyCar Series next year - with yourself, Danny Wheldon, and Mark Taylor....

DM:
We're taking over America, aren't we? I have raced a little bit with Danny. He is a bit younger than me, so I remember him from karting. He has had a similar kind of rise to the IRL as I have - maybe a bit of a similar kind of long route as me. I don't really know Mark very well. He's one of the guys that's risen up pretty recently and obviously put himself over here in the Infiniti Pro Series. No, there will be plenty of bacon patties and cups of tea, I am sure.

Q:
Do you sense back home that there's a lot more growing interest in oval racing generally? Especially with three natives out there....

DM:
Definitely, as well with Dario starting the season off this year - and hopefully we'll have him back as well next year and make four Brits out there. But, yeah, definitely, I mean, with the start of Rockingham, the first oval track over in the UK, it's definitely getting a lot more popular. The ASCAR Series that I ran in last year, this year has been fantastically popular and getting nearly capacity crowds there. I think the excitement and the close racing that people get when they go to the ovals is something new and like it is for drivers and for drivers like myself, so tasting it a little bit more and more.

Q:
You have lived in Indianapolis this year and have that big track there but, of course, you went to every other track around North America. What is it going to be like to stay at home the month of May and race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

DM:
It really has been a dream. I am sure many drivers' dream is to race there. I actually went this year, and I was up there in the grandstands with a load of my mechanics from Walker's this year. Just to be on that side of the fence was something else. But no, it's definitely been a dream to be racing there. For me, it is a dream come true to be on a team and in a car that's going to give me a very strong, fighting chance of winning it, as well. It's going to be the highlight of my career so far, definitely.
Q:
Let me ask you about Derrick [Walker]. They don't even have the deal set in place. Did you sense a lot of uncertainty, fellow employees, what they might be going through right now because the buyout hasn't been done yet?

DM:
I don't think there's so much uncertainty about that. This sport is very, you know, money-oriented with regards to the drives and the teams keeping running and keeping mechanics on, so, you know, unfortunately for Derrick, he doesn't have a big team sponsor. That was funded primarily by CART and a few sponsors that Derrick picked up along the way. So that was the biggest uncertainty for those guys. It's a shame. I had a fantastic year with them. They are great bunch of guys I had working on my car. Even though it was a small, skeleton crew, they worked twice as hard to make up for that. It showed. We were fastest practically every time out in pit-stops, and they'd walk on fire for me and likewise me for them. It's a shame that they are probably a bit uncertain. I go over there still a little bit at the moment with only being around the corner from them, and they haven't got anybody signed up yet for next year and are not really sure what their future is. But like you say, with the CART thing being slightly uncertain, it's got to be difficult.

Q:
I remember I told you that the guys from Edwards Air Force Base had some things for you. They really appreciate you flying the colours at Long Beach. They have some things they want to present you with.

DM:
Fantastic. It was a pleasure and honour as well. It was good.

MC:
Going back two and three years, when you were a test driver for the BAR F1 venture, tell us a little bit about what goes into that? I mean, from the outside, we see and we hear a driver was a test driver, but there has to be a different mindset going in knowing that you are setting something up for somebody else, the end result will not be yours; it's just got to be a different emotional time...

DM:
Very much so. You hit the nail on the head there, really. Obviously, the first few times you are jumping in the car, you do anything to just drive the car. I jumped straight after F3 and, with limited funds and things, it was my first big chance really to drive like that. But, yeah, once you got over that initial novelty factor, it got frustrating at times. You were never given the chance to do the qualifying runs that they made, you know. The fast runs you were always on full tanks and race simulations and things like that because, obviously, Honda were new when I first came in, and all the runs that I had to do were race simulations. So, coming straight out of a dinky little F3 car, thrown straight into racing simulation, it was basically just off you go and do a race. It was tough and, you know, no matter how much begging you did, they always got the preferential treatment. But it taught me a lot. The cars are so fast in high-speed corners, got so much downforce and grip, and it pretty much makes everything look slow, which was great for me because the race I did last year at Rockingham in the Champ Car, even that was - well, it was well within my limits. Over 200 mph has not been a struggle, so that's been good.

Q:
There's been a lot of talk since Kenny Brack's wreck at the end of the year and Tony's tragedy about maybe the cars are going too fast and the risk/reward of oval track racing in IndyCars. Have you come to grips with that, the fact that you are going to be doing just oval racing at 200mph?

DM:
Very much so. I mean, you never want to be flippant about it, but motor sport is dangerous and driving an F1 car or a Champ Car around street circuits, you are up against walls and bouncing around over, you know, over manhole covers and things. Motor sport is dangerous. I am totally confident in the car's safety. Obviously, Tony's accident was mightily unfortunate, and hopefully very rare, but the safety of the cars from my point of view is without question, and I am happy to be jumping in the cars, really.

Q:
Have you spent much time with Scott [Dixon] since you signed on?

DM:
No, not at all. Like I say, he just had a fleeting visit this morning while I was just finishing off my seat fitting, but there will be plenty of chance for us to be working together, so I'm looking forward to that.

Q:
The first few days and the few days that you have been in the Chip Ganassi shop, what was the one thing that stood out immediately to you that said 'wow, this is different'?

DM:
Well, I think the amount of highly qualified personnel they have got on board was pretty amazing and, you know, just the quality and quantity of resources they have got, just the professionalism. I have obviously worked with BAR, which is not the best team [in F1], but the highest-level team I have worked with and, trust me, this organisation is well up there with those guys. So I mean, there was a big smile that came across my face as soon as I walked through the door, put it that way.

Q:
Knowing all of that, is there pressure on Darren Manning now to say 'you know what, this is it, this is my shot, I've got to make it work'?

DM:
Well, there is, but, you know, pressure is what you put on yourself, and you know, I am confident. Hopefully, you will find that out during the season, and I know what I can do, like I say, with a lot less than what I have got here at my disposal, so I am looking forward to getting out there and causing a few upsets. Maybe they are not upsets, I don't know. I don't know what you guys are thinking you are going to get from me, but I am confident and just looking forward to winning races.

Q:
What are we going to get?

DM:
Hopefully a lot of race wins and maybe even the championship. Definitely the Indianapolis 500 anyway, I have got that one pencilled in already....

Q:
Most of your racing has been, I guess I want to call it in-line racing, where you kind of follow together...

DM:
Racing line, yeah.

Q:
In the ovals, is it kind of hard for you to follow everything and everybody, to know where you are - you don't see a whole lot out of your cockpit there, do you?

DM:
Well, to be honest, I think you do. Obviously, I haven't got any experience with the IRL cars, but my oval experience, you know, it's been pretty good. The race that we did in Germany was very similar to an IRL race. It was very, very close. The circuit there enabled us to do, you know, two lines around the track, we can go side-by-side consecutive laps without losing any speed. Obviously, you have got your spotters which are helping you out, with the kind of peripheral view that you normally have on an open track, so no, I mean, it's pretty good, actually.

Q:
It just seemed like it's kind of tough to follow everything....

DM:
Well, at 200mph, everything gets a bit blurry! I mean, 200mph seems probably like, to the average race driver anyway, about 50mph, so it's all relative, you know. The better drivers slow that speed down a lot more and have a lot more time to react and see a lot more. They are not as focused just on one spot. Even though we are probably interlocking wheels at 200mph, we're probably looking out of the side of our eye, but looking at something else or two or three other different points around the track, so it's part of the job.

Q:
When you watched IRL racing, you saw some of these finishes where it seemed like you needed a microscope to figure out who won. What was your reaction?

DM:
Exciting, isn't it? And I was hoping I was never going to be in that position, really [laughs]. You are in a bit of the luck of the gods but, now that I know that I am going to be in that position, I am looking forward to it because, obviously, I've been looking at the past tapes and rehashing a lot of these races that have been so close with mad dashes to the finish line. I just want to get in there and get in the mix now. And you know, all those years of experience are going to help me out. I made the right decision and the right move at the right time to get that microscopic win.

Q:
I am just wondering, we have talked about the sad things that have happened - obviously, what happened to Kenny and, rest his soul, Tony. So much of the year these guys are going wheel-to-wheel at 200mph, so I am just wondering, as a driver, you know what that's like. Watching something like that, what do you think?

DM:
To be honest, it's pretty cool. As a driver you want to be in that position, especially if it's for the lead or something. It's exciting and, you know, when you are in there, trust me, it is a lot different to when you are watching it outside of the car. Whenever I go and watch on a corner or whatever, watching it on TV, I am saying 'do I actually do that'? and they are saying 'well, you are actually faster than those guys', or 'you are getting closer to those guys'. I am then saying 'well, it doesn't seem like that when I am in the car'. I think it's just a whole thing of slowing things down and being confident in your own ability and being in control. So it's a lot different when you are inside the car.

MC:
There don't appear to be any more questions for you this morning. With that, we appreciate you taking time to join us. We wish you the best of luck in the 2004 season and most of all, we look forward to meeting you at the track.

DM:
Thank you very much, guys.

 

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