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
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
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 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
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
Andersen continues to follow his drivers throughout their
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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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