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Fairfield, N.J. Contractor Helps Build Indy Car Drivers

May 25,  2005

INDIANAPOLIS - All professional athletes, including Indy 500 race car drivers, owe their success in part to the people who groomed them in the minor leagues.

That's not surprising.

What is surprising is that several of today's IndyCar stars are grateful for the help they received years ago from the owner of a construction company based in Fairfield, N.J.

Whether working as the administrator of a formula-car support series similar to baseball's AAA leagues or guiding his own formula-car racing team, Dan Andersen has helped hone the skills of many drivers now competing in Indy cars and endurance sports cars. He has worked with four drivers entered in Sunday's Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and at least 13 additional drivers who have also reached the IndyCar ranks in recent years.

It isn't every day that a minor-league baseball coach's protégés make it to the World Series. It's just as rare when a young driver makes it to the Brickyard for the Memorial Day classic. Becoming one of the select 33 to compete in "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" cements a driver's arrival in the major leagues, and will be a bright spot on his bio for the rest of his life.

When Andersen watches ABC's live Indy 500 broadcast starting at noon EDT Sunday, he'll root for some special "students." Drivers entered in the race who have been through Andersen's unofficial "finishing school" include the current Indy Racing League (IRL) IndyCar series point leader, Dan Wheldon; two-time IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr.; Alex Barron and Larry Foyt.

Three other drivers Andersen has worked with in the past were also entered in Sunday's "500" but now won't be able to start this year's race. Paul Dana and last year's Indy 500 winner, Buddy Rice, were sidelined by accidents during practice at the Brickyard earlier this month. Another driver, Arie Luyendyk Jr., was in the field for awhile last Sunday before being bumped by Felipe Giaffone.

Other drivers who participated in the U.S. Formula 2000 series, the support series that Andersen used to administer, and then went on to compete in Indy cars include Robby McGehee, Jeret Schroeder, Greg Ray, Jim Guthrie, Sam Schmidt, Steve Knapp, Jon Herb, Memo Gidley, Jeff Simmons and Cory Witherill. The late Greg Moore could be counted too, although he competed in CART champ car events and never participated in the Indy 500.

"In addition to Arie Luyendyk Jr., we've had some other famous drivers' sons race in our series, like John Rutherford IV and Mark Dismore," Andersen noted.

Together with a partner, car repair center owner Mike Foschi of Sayville, Long Island, Andersen formed the U.S. Formula 2000 series in 1991 and ran it out of his Fairfield, N.J. construction company office for 10 years. In that time span the series earned a reputation as one of the top open-wheel development formulas in the world.

"We had nearly 700 different drivers in that 10-year period," Andersen noted.

Andersen enjoys juggling budgets, equipment, schedules and personalities as much as other businessmen enjoy playing golf in their spare time. While he originally got involved in the sport through his son, three-time Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) Formula Continental national champion Mike Andersen, Dan Andersen discovered he likes applying his business skills to motorsports.

His racing work has always been done while holding down a "real job" too. Andersen Interior Contracting generated $27 million in business last year.

So while his charges count their successes with trophies, point standings and landing rides at the next level, Andersen counts his by balance sheets that break even or make a profit. Along the way he's been involved with young drivers every step of the way, dealing with everything from rules changes, scheduling of events, procuring sponsorships and equipment, penalties, TV and helping young drivers learn how to deal with both disappointment and success.

Andersen continues to follow his drivers throughout their careers.

"I still check for Formula 2000 alumni whenever I watch a race or read the results from a race," he said. "Although all we did was provide the venue for their learning, we still feel a lot of pride for these guys who have made it. The credit for what they've done is all theirs and they emerged from hundreds of drivers to get where they are, but I'm glad to have played a small part in their careers.

"In addition to drivers, many engineers and mechanics have also made the grade in Indy cars after learning their craft in Formula 2000," Andersen added. "Chris Simmons won our 1992 and 1993 championships. He then drove in Indy Lights and is now the assistant engineer on Scott Dixon's Target Chip Ganassi Racing Indy car."

Andersen and Foschi sold the series in 2001, and its name has since changed to the Formula Ford Zetec series.

At that point Andersen revamped the racing team that he and his son had campaigned under while Mike Andersen was winning his titles. Together with a different partner, race car engineer John Walko, the two Andersens formed Andersen Walko Racing (AWR) in 2003 to field other up-and-coming formula car drivers in various series.

Today Dan Andersen still does the team's administrative work out of his construction company's offices in New Jersey. Walko oversees the engineers and mechanics that work on the cars at the team's 5,000-square-foot shop in North Versailles, Pa., near Pittsburgh. Mike Andersen is the team's driver coach.

The same attention to detail and sense of fair play that Dan Andersen used when running the Formula 2000 series were applied to the racing team, and the rewards were immediately apparent.

Last year with drivers Andrew Prendeville and Adam Pecorari, Andersen Walko Racing won the team championship of the very series that Andersen used to own.

AWR also campaigned Jonathan Klein in another series, Star Mazda, last year. In 2005 it is fielding four Star Mazda cars for Klein; Bobby Rahal's 16-year-old son, Graham Rahal; Pecorari's younger brother, Robbie; and Eliseo Salazar's protégé, Pablo Donoso. Donoso and Pecorari finished on the podium in AWR entries in the Star Mazda race last Saturday at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, while Rahal and Klein also had impressive top-10 finishes in a strong field of 45.

Andersen has high hopes for all the drivers in his stable, and he's very grateful that all these drivers' parents have entrusted him with their sons. Those parents know what they're looking for in a team. Bobby Rahal is of course the 1986 Indy 500 winner, as well as a three-time CART champion and ex-Formula 1 driver. The Indy car team he owns with comedian David Letterman, Rahal Letterman Racing, will field cars for 1999 Indy 500 winner Kenny Brack, rookie sensation Danica Patrick and Vitor Meira in the Indy 500 on Sunday.

Klein's parents' company, Klein Tools, is the primary sponsor of Dan Wheldon's Andretti Green Racing Dallara Honda. Donoso's mentor, Salazar, is the most famous Indy car driver ever to come out of Chile, with 53 IRL starts and a best finish at Indy of third in 2000.

Many young race car drivers are convinced that they're the best person who ever donned a helmet, but what qualities does Andersen value most?

"Talent, of course, is very important, but commitment to being excellent is just as important," he said. "They have to want it bad.

"The best drivers are focused on their careers and never stop learning and perfecting their skills," he added. "Contrary to popular opinion, fast drivers aren't the bravest. They're intelligent and relatively calm under pressure. It seems like the action around them is slowed down so they can absorb what's going on and make split-second decisions easier than the average driver. Great drivers have a package of talent, temperament, commitment and a positive attitude."

All of the IndyCar drivers Andersen has worked with in the past say they learned a lot in the time they spent with him.

"As a European driver coming over here, Formula Ford 2000 gave me my first introduction to oval racing," said Wheldon, a native of Emberton, England who drives for Andretti Green Racing. "The time I spent with the series was very important. It was a very competitive series when I did it, and it helped me learn as much as possible about oval racing in a very limited time.

"Formula Ford 2000 cars are no different than Indy cars; they're just slower," Wheldon continued. "They still understeer and they still get loose. Learning how to set up and drive a two-liter car was very good groundwork for what I'm doing now.

"I think the biggest thing I learned in the series is that you can't carry a loose car on an oval for very long," Wheldon added. "You can drive it like that for awhile, but you need to work on the set-up so you have a car that is comfortable to drive for the duration of a race, no matter how long it is. Two-liters taught me that.

"Dan himself was always very tough, but I respect him enormously," Wheldon concluded. "He was a great ambassador of the series. The time I spent running two-liter cars was very good for my career. It was a huge help in getting where I am today."

"Dan is a great guy," agreed Larry Foyt, driver of the A.J. Foyt Racing Panoz Toyota in Sunday's "500." "The Formula 2000 series was a great series and a great learning place. I only spent a couple of years there before going over to race stock cars, but I wish I could have spent more time there. He is a great director.

"He was always great to me," Foyt continued. "He just loves open-wheel racing and auto racing in general. Even though we were part-time, he would do whatever he could to help us."

Paul Dana, who was injured in practice for the Indianapolis 500 on May 13 in the Ethanol Hemelgarn Racing Dallara Toyota, said that running formula cars was a very important step in his career too.

"It was important on a couple of different levels," he said. "It's a very technical series, even though it's a tube-frame car. The shocks are open; they were open the year I ran it; the aerodynamics are very open; and so you get to learn a lot about setting a race car up and working with a team and with an engineer to get a race car set up to your particular style. Also, coming out of Skip Barber and the school environment, it was the first time working with a teammate, and the whole dynamic of a race team.

"Dan Andersen and I are actually very close," Dana continued. "He's partners in Andersen Walko Racing, and John Walko was my engineer in '01 when I ran the two-liter series. And I was actually a mechanic in Walko's shop for Mike Andersen, Dan's son, for the third of his Runoffs championships.

"I've crewed on that race team for so many race weekends, there are countless stories," Dana continued. "We ended up running four cars once at Watkins Glen, and had this incredible double all-nighter. That was the most bizarre weekend. There are hundreds and hundreds of stories. Dan Andersen and John Walko are near and dear to my heart." (Walko was scheduled to be Dana's spotter in Sunday's "500," but now that will have to wait until next year due to Dana's injuries.)

What were some of today's stars like in the minor leagues?

"Sam Hornish Jr. was very quiet, almost shy, but on the track he was not in the least bit timid," Andersen recalled. "His first Formula 2000 car was the car my son drove in 1995 for a couple of races. Sam showed speed immediately on the ovals and didn't seem to have much fear. Sometimes that got him into trouble. I always enjoyed Sam and his dad, who is without a doubt one of the best racing dads I ever met.

"Buddy Rice nearly won our 1997 championship, and in my opinion he would have were it not for car issues in the second half of the season," Andersen continued. "My first remembrance of him was when I met Buddy and his dad, who were both wearing 'Bud Racing Team' hats for Big Bud and Little Bud [Buddy]. They had a great time wherever we went and were a lot of fun to be around.

"Alex Barron came to our series in 1996 straight out of a spectacular karting background, and although he didn't win any races and only finished eighth in the points, he perfected his driving skills and moved to Atlantics the following year, where he won that championship," Andersen noted. "We were very proud of that, as he clearly learned things in our series that benefited him greatly.

"Paul Dana and Memo Gidley were, in my opinion, the best at pursuing and obtaining sponsorships for their rides throughout their careers," Andersen noted, adding with a smile, "They had to, as they were both pretty much broke when they ran with us.

"Paul, especially, is unique in that he really 'gets it' when it comes to recognizing what a potential sponsor might need from a race involvement, and he knows how to deliver," he said.

"Memo beat my son in what was our biggest field ever, 60 cars at Mid-Ohio in 1995. I still think he was blocking Mike, but I don't hold it against him. They finished first and second in that race, although Memo finished the season second behind Jeret Schroeder, another Formula 2000 alumni who has made it to the big show three times.

"Steve Knapp, our 1996 champion, went on to become the 1998 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, finishing third," Andersen continued. "He builds race car engines for a living, and he built the engines for my son's Formula 2000 SCCA race car from 1998 to 2003. They're great engines, as we won the Runoffs three times in that period with his stuff.

"Steve told me that when he first drove at Indy, he was moving his hand outside the cockpit to remove some tape or something that was on the cowl above the steering wheel, and the wind pressure from the speed caused his hand to smack him in the face. That's when he realized how fast he was going!

"Sam Schmidt was a great race car driver, and in the early nineties he won two F2000 races," Andersen said of the current team owner who was paralyzed in an Indy car accident during practice in Florida on Jan. 6, 2000. "He was one of the more professional drivers in his approach to his craft, a class act all the way, and it was very sad when he had his accident in Indy cars."

Schmidt's team, which carries his name, won the Menards Infiniti Pro Series championship last year and is also leading that series' current point standings. Sam Schmidt Motorsports will field four cars for Jaime Camara, Travis Gregg, Tom Wood and Chris Festa in the 40-lap Infiniti Pro Series race at Indianapolis on Friday afternoon, as well as Richie Hearn's Indy car in the "500" on Sunday.

(Jeff Simmons, Chris's brother and another ex-Formula 2000 driver, is also entered in Friday's Infiniti Pro Series race through Kenn Hardley Racing. He made the "500" field last year, and was the second-highest-finishing rookie.)

Since some Foyts were involved, there have to be some stories about them.

"My partner, Mike Foschi, used to tease A.J. Foyt when Foyt's boys, Larry and Jerry, were both in our series in 1997," Andersen recalled. "Foschi would go to Lucy [A.J.'s wife] and tell her that, in his opinion, A.J. wasn't giving the boys the best equipment.

"That really wasn't true, but we'd watch Lucy go over to A.J. and start in on him about her boys and their cars.

"I'll also never forget seeing A.J. sprinting across from pit lane to the frontstraight after Larry flipped his car in a spectacular, multi-car wreck at Atlanta Motor Speedway," Andersen added. " Fortunately everyone was OK, but that image will always stick with me."

Although he doesn't have a ride for this year's Indy 500, Robby McGehee, the 1999 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year and a five-time "500" starter, said that the Formula 2000 series and Dan Andersen were helpful to his career.

"I learned everything important in the Formula 2000 series," McGehee said matter-of-factly.

"Dan was always friendly and willing to be helpful at all times," McGehee added, but then he paused and brought up the topic of a controversial call at one race.

"At the time, they levied the biggest penalty ever against me," McGehee said. "I still think it was BS, and they owe me $2,500!"

Andersen doesn't remember the situation.

"Robby McGehee competed for several seasons with us and won a couple of races, had nine podium finishes and did a great job," Andersen said. "I don't remember the penalty he's talking about, but he probably deserved it!" he added with a smile. "Actually Robby was a very clean driver and the penalties came from the chief steward, not me, and the next time I see him I'll apologize!"

Apparently penalties can remain a sticking point with some drivers for years.

"I was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway one day when Jim Guthrie was running in the "500", and I ran into him in one of the men's rooms in the garage area," Andersen recalled. "We had penalized him at a Formula 2000 race a few years earlier, and when he saw me in the men's room all he could say was 'Oh no! You're not coming after me for another penalty here, are you?'"

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