Q&A with New Jersey Grand-Am winners
An interview with:
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to this week's NASCAR Grand-Am teleconference in advance of the May 17th, Verizon Festival of Speed at Mazda Raceway, Laguna Seca in Monterey, California. Joining us today from Krohn Racing are Nic Jonsson and Ricardo Zonta, drivers of the No. 76 Krohn Racing Ford-Lola in the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series presented by Crown Royal.
Nic and Ricardo braced a relentless rain to win Sunday's Verizon wireless 250, giving the Proto Auto Lola chassis, its first Daytona Prototype victory. It was the third victory for Jonsson in Rolex Series competition. He won an SRP2 race in a Lola at Phoenix in 2002 and won the Savings Six Hours of Watkins Glen in 2005 with car owner Tracy Krohn, giving Krohn Racing its first victory.
Zonta has won three major championships, including the 1998 FIA GT. He also tested and competed in Formula One from 1999 through 2006 and moved to the Rolex Series full-time in 2008 for Krohn Racing.
Nic, how satisfying was seeing the Proto Auto Lola in Victory Lane for the first time after spending the 2008 season both developing and racing the new car?
NIC JONSSON: It was very satisfying for the whole team, of course. As you said, we got the car delivered in December '07. Pretty much all last year, me and Ricardo were developing the car together with of course Tracy, owner and driver, and Eric. We didn't do a whole lot of test days because there's a test ban in the series. We also had to do a lot of development work during the race weekends.
We've actually been able to get the car pretty developed. Now we still have a few bits and pieces we need to try and test out. But the car has started to come along pretty well and it feels nice to be a part of it, being able to get the first victory in our bag.
THE MODERATOR: Ricardo, last year was a learning year, racing a brand-new car on mostly unfamiliar circuits. After two false starts at Daytona and VIR in 2009, how did it feel to dominate the closing portions of the Sunday's race, competing in very challenging conditions?
RICARDO ZONTA: Of course, it was difficult to race, especially under very heavy rain, running behind the GT cars. Trying to overtake in the traffic, everything was making more difficult for the conditions also. Also I had some problems in the car because my radio communication was not working and I didn't have any information during the race about the gaps, pit stops, things like this, how many laps to go for the end of the race. Was quite difficult race for me.
But in the end I think everything worked so well and now I'm really happy. I was really happy to finish first in my second season in Grand-Am.
THE MODERATOR: We'll go to media questions for Nic Jonsson and Ricardo Zonta.
Q. I'd like to know your past experience at Laguna Seca and your prospects for going out there, what is the key to winning that race out there?
NIC JONSSON: I think it's gonna be very important with the starting position down there because, as we know, it's a very narrow track, pretty low grip as soon as you get offline. Our focus will be in practice to try to get as good of a setup on the car as possible. It is a high downforce track. The car was quite competitive last year and hopefully this year it will be even better since we have been able to do some more development and also have the Ford power in the car now, which is a little bit stronger as well.
I think the car should be able to perform pretty good down there and hopefully we can have another good race.
RICARDO ZONTA: For me I think the car makes a big difference around there, especially is a track you go up and down a lot. Last year we had quite a good race. We were running on the first three positions, and then in the last yellow flag we lost a little bit because small mistake, my mistake in the race, where we lost some positions.
But I think we have a quite good balance for the car there, you know, and I hope we can repeat a good results. I think we can try to keep the same and working even harder on the strategy and things like this to finish here in a good position.
Q. Ricardo, with your background in European formulas, Formula One, talk to me about what Grand-Am means to you at this stage in your career. Do the younger drivers in the paddock come up to you and kind of try to pick your brain about your Formula One experience and how to get there as they try to advance their careers.
RICARDO ZONTA: Good question. Of course, Grand-Am for me is very nice championship. Is a race where I can fight a lot. You have so many overtakes in the race. It's so long race, you know, the period you drive the car is very long, and the strategy is very important.
But one thing I look in my stage of my career now is having fun. In Grand-Am you can have a lot of fun because you can overtake, you can have fun doing that.
Comparing to Formula One, where it was different years for me, where I was trying to build up my name in the motorsport, but it's completely different than now. But at the same time I take the two as a professional all the time and trying to be the best as possible I can.
Of course, the younger drivers, especially here in Brazil, they come to me and try to get some information how to be professional or racing to be race driver. They thinks they can try to get there, you know. Of course, I try to help as much I can.
Q. Looking back on the race Sunday, what were your impressions of the track and all the improvements that they've made of the track in New Jersey?
NIC JONSSON: I think they made a great deal of improvements, especially on the curbing side, the length in the curbs, especially in the exit of the corners because that was a big issue last year, that the curb was too short and we dropped wheels. Of course, there was no grass left, so there was a lot of dust coming up on the track. So I think the track owners and the Grand-Am officials have done a great job of doing track inspection and improving the track. It was a great place to come back and run at the New Jersey Motorsports Park again.
RICARDO ZONTA: About me, I think the track improved a lot. Last year we had some problems with the safety. But from one day to the other last year, they improved already the problem they had. This year was already a lot better than last year. So this was very nice circuit to drive, fast corners, medium, slow. So I had a lot of fun driving on the dry conditions or in the wet. You can have a lot of fun driving there.
Q. Ricardo, prior to New Jersey, how much experience did you have racing in rainy conditions?
RICARDO ZONTA: Oh, I'm Brazilian, so here we have a lot raining also. I raced in beginnings of my career a lot here in Brazil and I had a lot wet conditions. And in Formula One also I had to do a lot wet testing for tires. So I was really confident in the wet also, to be driving in the New Jersey circuit with the wet conditions, helping me a lot with the experience I had in the past.
Q. What made your car so good in such terrible conditions on Sunday?
NIC JONSSON: I mean, as Ricardo said, I think both me and Ricardo have a lot of rain experience. Also, of course, the engineers we have on the team that come from Europe so they've grown up basically in rainy race conditions.
But I think our car obviously has a lot of downforce, and that's very important in rainy conditions. Our car's also very good on the braking. I think that made a big difference.
Of course, the strategy, as Ricardo mentioned earlier, was a very important thing to try to be up front as much as possible, even though we had a pit stop and we kind of fell back a little bit behind some GT cars. But the spray played a big part of it this weekend. The more you could stay up front, the better off you were. The team did a great job on the strategy for us, as well.
Q. How did this race on Sunday compare to other rain races you've raced in?
RICARDO ZONTA: I think this one was the heaviest one, the wet conditions. We had last year one race in the wet. But this one in New Jersey was a lot worse. And I think we prepare ourselves for the wet conditions because, like, to clean the windscreen, you know, things like this, is very important to keep it cleaner and no foggy, things like this. And the car worked very well in the very bad conditions.
So I think we prepare ourselves already for New Jersey. In New Jersey, we learned a lot for the next wet conditions, if it comes in the future again.
Q. Ricardo, when you took the lead, between when you took the lead and the end of the race, you had increased your lead to 40 seconds in time, which is about a quarter of a lap to a third of a lap. If you couldn't hear what your pit was saying to you, you did not know what your fuel situation was, why did you continue to pull away from your competition?
RICARDO ZONTA: I had just one choice: to push as hard I could, you know. If it was somebody in front of me, I would catch if I was quick enough. So as I didn't have any communication, I had to push all the time. I didn't know if was somebody getting close to me or not. I didn't know how long would take the end of the race, to the end of the race.
But I push as much I could and the gap just opened because of that. I think was the only way to save my first position.
Q. Ricardo, you live in Brazil. I believe you're there now.
RICARDO ZONTA: Yes.
Q. What is it like to live and race in the shadow of Senna?
RICARDO ZONTA: Senna was a big idol for most of the Brazilian drivers here. But I think who was more compared to Senna, like in the period, was missing Senna, was Rubens Barrichello. I think he was suffering a little bit about this in the beginning, in the first year after his die.
But for me I did not have much problems. I think much of the drivers, Brazilian drivers, doesn't have this comparison any more. It's just trying to get the best things as possible for their own selves, not for the comparison to Senna.
Q. Do you in Brazil enjoy speaking in the native tongue?
RICARDO ZONTA: Sorry?
Q. Do you enjoy speaking Portuguese?
RICARDO ZONTA: Yes. When we can speak Portuguese, the drivers or the people we know here, we try to speak in our language.
Q. Now that the Grand-Am is part of the NASCAR family, can you explain to some of the NASCAR fans that may not be too familiar with Grand-Am racing what you believe is the biggest difference they should look for, and what kind of excitement should they expect from a Grand-Am race?
NIC JONSSON: I think the excitement is we turn both right and left and have to accelerate and brake several times every lap. I think we have seen the last few years that a lot of the NASCAR stars, if you want, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, these guys, they've been competing in the 24 Hours of Daytona and done a fantastic job. I do believe quite a few of the NASCAR fans is start following the Grand-Am Rolex Series, especially now NASCAR have taken over the Grand-Am Series. I understand that they do a lot of things with marketing and stuff now as well to kind of try to push the series even further forward. That's obviously fantastic for us to have these guys that are national heroes almost competing with us, because they are fantastic racecar drivers and we really enjoy having them around.
Q. Ricardo, do you have an opinion on that?
RICARDO ZONTA: Yeah, I think the NASCAR series is very big all around the world, especially in America. Here in Brazil we always watch the races from the SPEED Channel. It's been very knowing, everybody know very well the NASCAR now. The Grand-Am to be part with the NASCAR is very good, no, because the name is very strong and helps a lot for the championship. To have the drivers on the 24 Hours of Daytona, things like this, it's always helping for all the other drivers like me or Nic, people like this, to be know better on our championship.
Q. Nic, talk a little bit about the development of the new Lola chassis, what the win means for you in light of the fact that you haven't been in the car very long.
NIC JONSSON: Yes, I mentioned earlier Tracy decided to build his own car together with Lola. We got delivery of it in '07, December I think. Then last year we start running quite a bit in the beginning of the year before the season started. Was going to take the car to the 24 Hours last year already. We came there, the car was not competitive enough, so we decided to start testing and developing the car. We done a lot of work on the car, mostly aerodynamically, because the car was good downforce-wise, but downforce comes with drag, a lot of D, as we call it. It's been a big struggle for us all last year. So the team has been really, really focusing on that, doing wind tunnel testing and so forth.
I think we have such a experience, both the driver lineup, but also a very experienced crew and engineering staff, being in Formula One for many years and so forth, we've kind of been chipping away at it. I think we saw some really good potential in the car like mid-season and on last year already, but we had some bad luck while we were running up front. We actually qualified on pole in Miller, where Ricardo qualified on pole. The car has showed some speed at some particular racetracks last year, but we haven't been able to put the whole package together.
I think now things start to gel a little bit better, come together a little bit better. Now we need to show this win in New Jersey and try to legitimize and win one in dry conditions as well. I think that will pretty much prove that the car is a very good contender to the Riley and other chassis out there.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Our next event will be the May 17th Verizon Festival of Speed at Mazda Raceway, Laguna Seca, in Monterey, California. I'd like to thank you very much for joining us on this teleconference and we appreciate any coverage of Grand-Am and NASCAR racing.