Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Interview and Season Preview With Charlie Kimball

(Welcome to IndyCar Advocate's week-long INDYCAR Kickoff! Each day, we'll be featuring a different big article in anticipation of this weekend's big IZOD IndyCar Series opener at St. Pete).

We wanted to start the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series off right, and what better way than to get one of IndyCar’s drivers to give us a season preview? We’ve chatted briefly with Novo Nordisk Ganassi Racing’s Charlie Kimball before, but this time he’s here to discuss at length the upcoming season, the new car, challenges the drivers will face, and a sneak preview of what lies ahead at St. Pete.

Charlie, I really appreciate you coming on here to talk INDYCAR. Now that you’ve had some more seat time, as a racer, what are you feelings on the DW12?

CK: I’m really excited about it. It’s always neat to have a new car to develop, figure out, and explore. You know, the DW12 has really good brakes, I love the turbos—I think the they are going to be one of the highlights of competition this year, and of course, it’s been really impressive on the road and street circuits. I think you’ll see a lot of quick times throughout the year. Firestone’s done a great job developing the Firehawks, and I think when it comes to race time, 26 DW12s out there should be some great racing, and should be fun to watch.

Do you think the carbon brakes are going to play a big factor this year?

CK: The carbon brakes are new, and anything that’s new or takes time to figure out are going to be a factor. I think engine reliability, car reliability, figuring out temperature of the brakes, longevity of the brakes, how and when to use them, it’s all going to make a difference for sure. The Novo Nordisk Ganassi Racing crew spent most of the testing exploring the brakes and trying different things, as well as talking to people who have experience with carbon brakes, whether it’s sports cars or other open wheel racing, to get that knowledge and apply it on track.

Looking at yourself at the start of last season versus the start of this one, so you feel you’ve grown in any sense as a driver?

CK: I’ve definitely moved forward, for sure. Last year, I knew a lot about the racing, and I knew a lot of the tracks, but I didn’t understand how much time as an IndyCar driver would be committed away from the track, away from the race car—interviews, media commitments, autograph sessions, race strategy meetings, and briefings. There’s a lot more than goes on than just driving the car, and I wasn’t prepared for that last year. I feel like I’m going in with more open eyes this year.

As far as being behind the wheel, I think we did somewhere around 400 miles of test time last year; we’ve done double that or more this year. So I think I’ve grown, gained a lot more experience, and gained a better understanding of what’s going to happen this season. And who knows? I was talking J.R. Hildebrand and James Hinchcliffe, and we were saying we don’t have to unlearn 8 years’ habit from the old car, but just settle into the new car. After climbing the ladder, we’re used to changing cars each year, so we’re used to adapting; that’s normal.

Going back to some of those off-track responsibilities and obligations you mentioned, what’s it like seeing your Novo Nordisk commercial on national TV? Have you been sitting down watching TV, and all of the sudden there it is?

CK: It still throws me for a loop when I’m watching TV, and during commercials, I won’t be paying attention, I’ll hear myself, and sort of have to do a double-take.

It’s great to have a partner that’s activating, and doing things like national TV, and for me, it’s important to get the message about diabetes out there, but also about IndyCar. Those two things together are both very close to my heart, and my partner in Novo Nordisk produced such a quality commercial, it’s fantastic to see.

(Credit: LAT Photography USA. Used with permission).
Speaking of Novo Nordisk, are you digging the livery on your car? That blue-and-orange look really stands out!

CK: Yeah, the paint scheme this year, with the NovoLog Orange and the Novo Nordisk Blue on there, is very striking. It’s a good use of the property of the car, and the lines of the car really accent it well. Even my pit crew, in the crew shirts, and my race suit, I think everything ties together well. I hope people across the country get to see the transporter driving to and from race tracks this year, because it’s striking as well. It’s unconventional for a race truck, and I really like that.

Performance-wise, what are the goals this year? Is that something you’ve actually sat down with the team and discussed, or do you have personal goals?

CK: Well, we haven’t sat down yet; we’ve been way too busy going to race tracks and testing to really sit down and develop goals. I think Chip [Ganassi] has an understanding of the direction we’re taking, and Director of Race Operations Mike Hull has an understanding and expectation as well. Our team will all sit down before we get to St. Pete, and set some goals that we have an eye on for where we’re headed.

Ideally, we’ll start the season, and we’ll be qualifying within the top 15, racing in the top 10 consistently. By the middle of the year, I’d like to be in the top 10 consistently, looking for the top 8, and hopefully there’s a top 5 or two. And once you make that step, it isn’t a long reach to get to the podium.

With that said, are there any races you have circled in red on the calendar this year? Any races you’re really looking forward to in particular?

CK: The flip answer would be “all of them”, but in particular, St. Pete, because that’s the first one. Also, Barber, where we scored a Top 10 last year, so it’s a great place to be going back to with a bit of confidence with the results from last season to lean on. There’s Long Beach, which is special, because it’s home. Indianapolis is amazing. I’m also looking forward to Mid-Ohio, Toronto, Sonoma, and racing at Fontana to close out the season back in southern California, back within striking distance of home for family and friends.

(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
Looking at that schedule, the Series is looking at trying standing starts at some point later on in the season. Is that something you’re looking forward to?

CK: I like standing starts; I did them for years racing in Europe. I enjoy what it does to the start of the race; it means qualifying is still important, but you’re starting to make up 3-4 spots with a good start and a couple other issues. I think it still means a bit of development for the anti-stall system and clutch feel before we’re there, but I know the INDYCAR technical crew will do that before we get started trying that on a race weekend. Hopefully, we’ll have a test day or two somewhere in the world to try it out when they’re all ready to go.

I did my first standing start in a Formula 3 car, which is fairly difficult to do, we spent the whole day at an airport, practicing standing starts. It probably wasn’t until late in the afternoon until I felt like I got it. With a hand clutch, it’s even more difficult.

Is this the deepest field you've ever been a part of?

CK: It’s definitely most talented field. You look at the caliber of driver from the front through to almost all the way back, and it really is a world-class Series with a world-class field. When you do well, you feel like you’ve really earned it. It’s pretty impressive when you’re on track and you find yourself comparing time to some like Dario Franchitti, Rubens Barrichello, or Scott Dixon. Those guys are household names in racing around the world, and to be out there wheel-to-wheel, and competing with them in qualifying, it’s extra-special.

So, for a preview, since we’re coming up on the season opener, what do you as the keys at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to net a good finish there? What are some of the challenges from a driver’s side point of view that the circuit offers?

CK: One of the biggest keys is going to be the braking. I don’t know that anybody completely has their arms around the carbon braking system, and St. Pete, with four heavy key braking zones, especially over the runway or down the streets where it’s reasonably rough, you’re locking up brakes and squaring off tires, by the time you get halfway through a fuel stint, your eyes are going to be rattling out of your head. So if you can get a good brake feel, and keep the tires round, then you’ll have not only good lap times, but also the ability to save fuel and work through to the end of the stint pushing really hard. We focused all winter on getting ultimate lap times out of the car, and making sure it will stay throughout the run. It’s great if you can be quick for a lap; it’s better if you can be quick through a full fuel stint.

Just to wrap up, any message for the INDYCAR fans out there as the season gets underway?

CK: Being a fan myself of INDYCAR racing, it’s going to be a heck of a good year. It’s going to be some incredibly close racing at some great racetracks, with the country and the world all seeing that….if I wasn’t in the car, I wouldn’t be missing a lap of it. It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch, and hopefully the fans come out and see it live, or if they can’t get there, tune in on ABC and NBC Sports. Keep supporting INDYCAR, because it really is incredibly cool.

We agree wholeheartedly! Thanks again to Charlie for taking the time to talk with us and preview the season and St. Pete. Tomorrow, our big week continues with "Dark Horses: 6 Drivers Who Can Win In 2012".

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