Interview with Klaus Graf

Driver, #59 SEM Dodge (fielded by BAM Racing)

 June 23, 2004

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Q. Can you just give us some background of your age, where you are from, and where you were raised?

GRAF – “I am 32 years-old and I am a German native. I live in the middle of the Black Forrest in a town called Dornhan-a really pretty area. My background is basically single-seaters. I was on the road to Formula One, but as we all know, it’s very difficult so I changed my path and went to sports car racing. I lived in America from 1999 to 2001 and raced in the American Le Mans Series. I did that very successfully and also raced in the Le Man 24-hour race and the 12 Hours of Sebring. Since 1999, and even before, I always kept an eye on NASCAR. We all know it is very hard to break into, especially Nextel Cup. We finally managed, with BAM Racing, make it work out and here we are.”

Q. Now that you are running you first Cup race, what are your thoughts?

GRAF – “I am very excited. This is a very, very big thing. Back in Germany this draws a lot of attention. Going against these guys this Sunday is something really big for me. Although, I have been in a lot of important, really big races, and have raced amongst a lot of elite drivers. I am just going to try to enjoy myself and have a lot of fun out there.
“I have a blast driving these cars. This is a lot of fun for me and that’s what I am trying to do. Obviously there is going to be a lot of attention and a lot of eyes watching me, but I am used to that. I think we should have a good weekend.”

Q. What are your expectations this weekend?

GRAF – “Well we tested at both Infineon and Virginia International Raceway and had competition at both tests with other teams there. We were very competitive. Obviously our first goal, at our first race, is to make the show and finish the race. We know that we can do very well and we’ll see how it goes. I don’t want to say any position, but I think we can be very competitive. The race is long and it depends on how these other guys treat me. We will give it our best. I think BAM Racing is best prepared as possible.”

Q. How much have you raced at Infineon and what tips have you passed on to Ken Schrader about the track?

GRAF – “I’ve raced sports cars there in 2000 and 2001 with the American Le Man Series and the configuration is a little bit different with the sports cars. We race the entire race track, with the carousel, but that is not a big change for us. It’s a really fun track with elevation change, up and down, and it’s a very unique track in terms of grip and setup compared to other road courses in America.
“Kenny is a good road racer. He has proved that in the past often. It’s just matter of bringing back the memory and the feeling for a road course and road race. These guys go 34 times a year on an oval, and on a road course, you need a different kind of approach and different kind of driving style- at least that’s what I found out driving on an oval. It’s hard, even if you have done some testing before this weekend, to adjust quickly to the different kind of driving style. I gave Kenny some help and I’ll try to give some help in setting up the car.

Q. What’s the difference between stock cars and sports cars, the challenge of racing Infineon, and also the challenge of you learning ovals?

GRAF – “The oval races are not 100 percent, but that’s what we are working towards. The first question, NASCAR Nextel Cup cars are very heavy compared to everything else that I’ve driven before. The sports cars I drove in America had very similar power, a little less, but similar. I also drove a ‘stock’ engine so I am used to the characteristics of that as well. Sports cars have a lot more downforce, but after say that, at the end of the day stock cars are still a race car. They still have four wheels, an engine, and a steering wheel. You just have to get used to it. We spent time testing and we’ve prepared well for this race. I enjoy driving the car. They have a lot of power and it should be a lot of fun.
“Going to an oval is a whole different story. Kenny (Schrader) said earlier that I did have some oval experience at both Kentucky and Nashville. I really enjoyed it. Going out on your own is maybe not as big as going out there and racing with 42 other drivers. It is going to be a quite a different experience for me- racing at Infineon Raceway this weekend is going to be different. It’s a big field and there is a lot of racing to be done. It’s a 300-mile race. The duration of the race and the amount of cars is going to be a big addition.

Q. Do you see yourself having a big learning curve coming into this weekend?

GRAF – “I’ve come from long-distance racing. The way our equipment is there, even though for 24-hour races we have two or more drivers, you are still in the car for maybe three hours at a time. I am used to being in the car for a long period of time and still keeping up a high concentration level. I don’t think that will be the problem.
“I think the key for the race is to take care of your equipment, and especially your tires. You have to be there at the end of the race, and be able to charge hard when it matters in the last 20 to 30 laps.

Q. How important are green-flag pit stops on a road course?

GRAF – “On a road course it’s very hard to overtake and take back track position. So therefore, even it a yellow comes out, you might want to stay out on the track just to keep track position. That might lead to the position where you have to put under green, but you try to stretch out the fuel to its maximum for you only have to pit on the least amount of stops.

Q. Do you think your pit team will be as competitive as the other top teams?

GRAF – “We have the BAM Racing team right now, and that’s a one car team with Ken Schrader. As far as I know I have been given a really good team, and one that can give me really good pit stops. It will be something that I’ll have to do very quickly. I haven’t me the guys yet, but I’ll meet the boys and get familiar with them. I will talk with them and make them feel apart of the team. We want to get a good chemistry going into the weekend so that they are all fired up and we can have good pit stops.

Q. How different and challenging is shifting from a sports car to a stock car?

GRAF – “I am used to heel-and-toe shifting. In my Porsche GT car in Germany we have to do the same thing, and it’s very similar to the Cup car. I have always been someone that is used to this procedure of shifting. I don’t think it will be a bog change for me. You have to treat these cars, with the amount of horsepower and torque they have, in a little special way to keep them smooth on the track. So far in testing I didn’t have any problems adjusting to it.

Q. When you first climbed into a stock car what was that like?

GRAF – “Suddenly you are looking again at normal gages. You see the RPM, fuel, and the temperature gages. I am used to digital stuff and high-tech cockpits almost like plane cockpits, but then again when I started racing it was the same way. It’s just a matter of adapting to it, and sometimes it’s good to bring back old memories. You switch your memory on to remember to look at the gages and you cope with it. At the end of the day you’re still getting the same information of it, it’s just a different way of getting it.

Q. Do you think the open wheel drivers will have their eyes on you this weekend?

GRAF – “I am sure. I met Boris (Said) at my test at Infineon and I know him from my days in sports car racing. He said that I was going to love this experience the racing is awesome. There will be a lot of attention and a lot of guys watching me. It’s been very good that things worked out and I am in this race. I hope that we do well. I think a lot of people expect me to be a good road racer, but my goal is to finally be a good oval racer too and maybe a full-time Cup driver as well. This will, hopefully, just be an introduction into NASCAR Nextel Cup, and hopefully this is a good starting point and we can move on from here.

Q. Do you see a difference in the aggressiveness of NASCAR drivers to where you have come from?

GRAF – “I don’t think you see very much difference. In the American Le Man Series races are like normal three-hour races, but they drive them like sprint races. The racing I do right now is very aggressive because the competition level is similar to Nextel Cup. There rubbing and banging and running into each other. I don’t think there will be a problem with that. I hope everyone treats me with respect. I don’t have a problem with anyone racing hard against somebody as long as it’s all clean and within a certain range of being fair. I can handle that, and as long as it’s not nasty or getting completely out of hand, I have no problem with that.

Q. Is there one thing that you like about motorsports in general?

GRAF – “For me, the main thing is during the race competing against all the other cars that are similar or equal equipment. That is to me the argument that I can be better than someone else. Also, the pure fascination of driving the cars and the performance of the car- moving the car around at the ultimate limit to get the best lap time possible.

Q. What attracted you to NASCAR and to BAM Racing?

GRAF – “I was attracted to NASCAR and when I lived in America I realized how bit it is. If we are honest, besides Formula One, NASCAR is the biggest form of racing in the world. Even though it has only raced in America. It’s a very high-profile sport. There a good drivers and good competition. It’s very popular and it’s just very successful. That is one of the main reasons for me to try to get in. I got in touch with BAM Racing last September at Homestead (Miami) and explained to them what we were trying to achieve. They are a young, upcoming team, and willing to take a risk and put a lot of effort into this. I really appreciate that and thank Beth Ann Morgenthau for giving me the opportunity to do this race.

Q. What is it going to take for you to become a full-time Nextel Cup driver?

GRAF – “We want to get the two road course, Infineon and Watkins Glen, under our belts and hopefully we can do some more oval stuff. We are working on that right now. We need the financial resources, and ability to put together a full second team at BAM Racing, so we can run a whole schedule next to the Schwan’s Home Service team.

Q. Why have you chosen this race to make your Nextel Cup debut?

GRAF – “Obviously because if my background, this will be the easiest to start with- if there is anything easy in Nextel Cup. This is some territory that I know. I have been to the track and some variables are out the picture right from the get go. That makes it easier.

Q. Can you explain the difference in driving a Cup car compared to a Formula car?

GRAF – “It’s completely different. A single-seat car has about the third of the weight of a NASCAR car. A single-seat car is very aggressive and very responsive in their reaction and handling. A stock car, you can’t be as aggressive. You have to be much smoother. The car is heavy and you have to give the car more time because it really rolls a lot. You have to slow down your motions a little bit. In a single-seater things happen a lot faster.

Q. Do you miss the aggressiveness of the single-seater?

GRAF – “Sometimes I do. On a road course you just have to slow down. You have to brake, turn into the turn, and you can feel the weight. On an oval it’s different. The average speed is very high all the time and it’s more comfortable to drive the car. The only difference is more of the pleasure you get driving a single-seater or sports car. It’s very high in a high-class sports car or single-seater. In a stock car, and on the high-speeds tracks I’ve been on like Nashville and Kentucky, it’s a pleasure driving ovals.

Q. What has been your effort to get to this point?

GRAF – “It has been a massive effort behind this whole thing with all the people involved. We didn’t start this by just getting one day and deciding to go Nextel Cup racing. We’ve been working on this for a long time. It has almost been four years now. We always tried to get information from people, and from a political situation in NASCAR, it’s a good time. You need to have all the right components arrive at the right time and join together to get something like this off the ground. Luckily we were able to find BAM Racing who wanted to do this. We also have the right ingredients from our end so we can go and make it work.

Q. What were some of the things that turned the corner in this process?

GRAF – “Until you go out on the track you don’t know what to expect. I have my background and BAM has theirs. Until we finally went testing we didn’t know what was going on. We tested well at Virginia International Raceway and suddenly this whole deal gained momentum. That was basically what we needed. At the end of the day you can prepare as best as you want, but if the performance is not there BAM would not have done this- as simple as that.

Q. What is your greatest achievement in racing?

GRAF – “I led the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. I didn’t win it because of technical problems, which you can easily get in a 24-hour race. I am one of the few who led the race. I would also say winning my first championship in 1993 in the German Formula Ford Series.

Q. What is your perception of NASCAR personalities and the atmosphere in general are?

GRAF – “I think a lot of it is just great. NASCAR is so extremely under the spotlight. I raced in Indianapolis last weekend in the support race for the Formula One race. We had dome arguments there and not everyone was happy. I had a problem and have to prove my point and so did the other person. This is nothing new to me. Sometimes in NASCAR things get out of hand, but it’s part of the deal. A lot of things happen out of emotion. The blood pressure is up, the adrenaline is pumping, and sometimes things happen. Some of the things that happen are a little rough, but I have seen similar things happen in Europe.

Q. How were your test times at in Infineon and do you know some spots better than some of the NASCAR drivers?

GRAF – “I think you have to go around the whole circuit very well to have a good lap time. I like the esses going down the back towards the hairpin. Those are really high speeds and I like fast corners. That is a lot of fun. It’s also one of the last points to possibly out brake and maybe overtake somebody.
“We had a good test. I don’t want to state any time, but there were several teams and we were very competitive. We were happy with our result. Sonoma is a difficult track to setup any car. We were very happy with what we achieved in the test.

Q. Do you see yourself breaking ground for European or other German drivers?

GRAF – “I think it might naturally be looked upon that way. I know a lot of drivers have already tried, but just never had the right opportunity. We know that Christian Fittipaldi drove a couple of races last year, so there is always interest from the European world to get into NASCAR. I don’t you will see some extreme movement of drivers from Europe come into this sport, but you’ll see more attention made to it by the drivers and European media. We have a lot of large companies over in Germany and I think that it’s good, not only for myself, but for NASCAR as well.

Q. Do you see, down the road, BMW or Mercedes getting into NASCAR?

GRAF – “That is a tough question. Dodge is owned by Daimler-Chrysler so they are already with a brand in NASCAR. Whether we one day see a European manufacturer go into NASCAR, I don’t know? This is something really big and difficult. Toyota, even with all their success in America, this is something really big time.

Q. How is NASCAR racing perceived by European drivers?

GRAF – “I think the way NASCAR is, and the level of competition we see here, everybody knows that this is a very high level. All the drivers in NASCAR could do very well in any other type of racing. I am very convinced about that. I’ve seen Jeff Gordon get into the Formula One car and he did an awesome job. He has never been in anything like that and he did very competitive lap times and was feeling very comfortable. The level of professionalism and education they have is very high. These guys are just as good as any other drivers in the world.

Q. Do you get the sense that NASCAR would like to see you establish yourself in this series?

GRAF – “I’ve talked to a few officials and I haven’t had any bad comments about it. I think they are open for new ways of promoting NASCAR, not only in America, but the whole world.

Q. What is your next race and what do you need to do to get there?

GRAF – “The next race is Watkins Glen. That is because of my commitments that I have in Europe right now. I still race for a Porsche team there. To make some oval races happen we have to find some financing, testing time, and time in my schedule. It’s a lot of logistic issues. BAM Racing also has its full-time deal with Kenny so we have to make sure it doesn’t take away from that. We also need to be prepared well. We don’t want to be in a position where we just show up and not look good. The competition is so close that we have to be prepared otherwise you can’t show what you are capable of.

Q. What was the level you got to in open wheel and who did you race for in the United States?

GRAF – “I went up to Formula 3 in single-seater. A lot of guys went straight from Formula 3 to Formula 1. It’s a very well regarded series in Europe. I raced for Panoz in America. I stayed there for three years from 1999 to 2001. I raced in the biggest sports car class. “

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