Gil de Ferran went out on top in '03; now he's back for more

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Those who are talented and masochistic enough to make motorsports a career begrudgingly accept the vagaries of the profession. It provides the highest highs. But they don't last long. The lowest lows can seem particularly cruel when so much involved with success and failure is beyond the control of the driver at the wheel. And racing doesn't often indulge sentimentality. Few get that ticker tape farewell.

But Gil de Ferran beat the system. He retired from the Indy Racing League in 2003 after winning his last career open-wheel race (from the pole, even) and leading a race-high 68 laps at Texas. He finished second by 18 points to season champion Tony Kanaan, but left as the Indianapolis 500 champion. Take that and run.

De Ferran returned to top-level competition midway through last season as driver/owner of an American Le Mans Series team, and in a week he will begin his first full campaign with an Acura factory team at the 12 Hours of Sebring. We sat down with the two-time CART champion for a chat about a return to the cockpit, a highly unlikely return to the regimen that made the Brazilian an international star, and records that may never be broken.

Q: How much enjoyment is there in being a driver/owner?

A: I have to see this phase in my life in a very different light. This is really not about me reliving the dream as a racing driver. I did it for many years and enjoyed some success, and when I retired, I retired because I wanted to do different things; I wanted to pursue different things. That was the key reason I stepped out of the car at the end of '03.

Yes, I am enjoying driving the car tremendously. I find it a big challenge, especially after being five years out of the cockpit. To climb all the way back up the ladder and do yourself justice is not easy, not only from a fitness standpoint, but from a practice standpoint. Back when I was doing it day in and day out was one thing. Five years later, trying to regain that same form that I had, is not an easy task, and in terms of performance, this latest Acura sports car is very fast. It's not like you can do it for fun. You've really got to be all the way up to speed on it. It's been a big challenge.

I put on a lot of weight when I stopped driving. When you're 40, to lose that amount, is not as easy as when you were 30. Everything is a little bit more difficult. Certainly balancing my duties as a driver and as an owner is very challenging, because driving requires you to have a clear mind, a very single focus. Business, generally speaking, requires exactly the opposite.

You've got a million balls in the air and you're doing all sort of different things and so on and so forth. Driving, the best thing you should do is be fit and it should be routine. Eat similar things, sleep well, train. By now I am doing exactly the opposite. I am here, there and everywhere. So balancing everything is difficult. I tried to structure the team in a way that I could do both, and hopefully it goes well.

Q: Does the owner side of the brain have to switch to hibernate when the helmet goes on?

A: I actually pretend I don't own the team when it comes to a race weekend or whenever I have to perform any driving duties. I pretend I am just driving for somebody else's team because you can get completely distracted with everything. You have to be comfortable in turning over the responsibility to the people that are working with you. I think we have been able to assemble a really experienced and competent group. You couldn't do it any other way.

Q: Does it amaze you the style with which you went out in 2003?

A: I have to say that one of the things I didn't want to live through was a drop in performance. It's a well-known in sports -- I'm going to call it a mistake -- the guy who is humongously talented, extremely successful, really you passed the peak and drop off and say, 'That's it. I'm done.' I had this thing in my mind that I didn't want to see the other side of the hill. And I felt at the time that certainly, my last year of driving, I was as good as I ever was before. And I was happy with that. I didn't want to look back and think, 'Last year I would have done a much better job.' That wouldn't sit very well with me.

I made that decision based on the fact I wanted to do different things. I could see my focus was shifting. I was getting more and more into things other than driving. I thought that before I lost my edge, I had to step out of the cockpit. It's the standard I had set for myself. I was afraid I was probably not going to be able to meet them if I kept going the way I was going.

Q: Does it bother you that you never had a chance to win a third straight CART title when Team Penske switched to the IRL in 2002?

A: The way I looked at it, I drove for four years for Roger and I nearly won four championships in a row. Until recently the sport was in turmoil -- two series and so on and so forth -- and frankly, at the time, I felt my most important association was with Roger and Team Penske and I felt he was best positioned to make the best decision. And I said, 'OK, my loyalties lie with Team Penske. I trust Roger. If he decided this is the right thing to do, then this must be the right thing to do,' and that's how I looked at it.

The first year in the IRL for us was very difficult. There was a lot we didn't know, and we came very close to winning that championship. I had an accident at the end of the year when I was leading the championship, so I lost not only that race but the last race, and '03 was the same thing. We finished second in the championship and I had to lose a race because of injury. But I can't complain too much. It was a very good time in my life, both from a personal and a professional standpoint. I really enjoyed driving for Roger and being part of his organization.

Q: Most everyone that has driven for Penske says the same thing. What is this Cult of Roger thing?

A: Roger is a special person. I have a great deal of respect for him. He's highly energetic. Highly intelligent. And he's highly experienced. And he was very loyal to me and displays a lot of loyalty to the team, so, as they say, the inverse is also true. I just felt that we had a very good working and personal relationship, and to this day, him and his family, I see a lot of people on the team as my friend.

Q: Do you incorporate part of his leadership style into what you do?

A: It would be difficult not to. I've been fortunate in my career to have worked with some very clever people in the sport: Jackie Stewart, Jim Hall, Roger, just to drop a few names here. And you can't really unlearn what you have learned. Am I Roger Penske? Definitely not. Am I Jackie Stewart? Definitely not. Am I Jim Hall? No, but I am sure in my style on how I go about my day-to-day I must have incorporated a few traits along the way.

Q: Where do you plan to take your team?

A: I will be honest with you: I want to make the team successful in the American Le Mans Series. I want to help Acura have success in sports car racing. But I would like for the team to grow. Right now we run a one-car, factory-supported Acura ALMS program. Also you have some emotional ties with Indy car racing, for obvious reasons. And I make no secret I would like to expand my operation not only within the American Le Mans Series, also outside.

Q: Will we see you in an IndyCar again, maybe an Indy 500 one-off one day in your own car?

A: In the cockpit? I don't think so. I guess you never say never, but I think it's unlikely you'll see me behind the wheel of an Indy car again.

I can tell you, it's already difficult doing what I am doing, and I take my responsibilities as an owner very seriously, and whichever way you look at it, driving is a short-term proposition for me. I'm not going to be driving into my 50s or 60s, or at least I don't think so at this juncture. So the main focus is the team. I want the team to grow and prosper and succeed.

Q: How tough has it been to start a team in this economic climate?

A: I think it's very hard for anyone who has any connection to the automotive industry. It is no secret that sector of the economy is suffering a tremendous amount and most organizations that are involved in motorsports are, by consequence, also suffering. And we are no exception. Our budget is tight. We have to watch our pennies. And its very hard to raise money. These are difficult times and hopefully if we can survive this period, we can get through on the other side with a solid operation.

Thankfully, we haven't had to cut back any personnel and we're full-steam ahead in competing the whole season. We are involved in what I believe to be one of the most interesting motorsports projects around, developing the new Acura. It's what I like. It's been a lot of fun. The car is super-sophisticated, very interesting and we're very focused on that despite the times we live in.

Q: Can smart people innovate their way to success in ALMS?

A; Very much so. And that's part of what I really like about the American Le Mans Series, exactly that. It does reward ingenuity in terms of rules freedom. You have a lot of freedom to do whatever the hell you like, within certain parameters, of course. But by comparison, you have a huge amount of freedom. I am a bit of a foreigner, you know. Yes, it's expensive, but it should be interesting. And if you look at the car, it's very cool. This new Acura, they held nothing back. It's just beautiful.

Q: How did your tenure as sporting director with the BAR Honda Formula One program from 2005-07 affect your management experience now?

A: I would say my time over there served me, made me more prepared to deal with the challenges in personnel than otherwise. So on a whole, it was a very positive experience. Formula One attracts a lot of clever people, not only engineers, but in every sector of the team and dealing with clever people is interesting. It's challenging, but its interesting because you're always involved in exciting discussions. You're always learning something, and frankly, to me, that's what life's all about. Throw yourself in the deep end there, and if you come out on the other side, you'll always come out a little bit smarter than when you went in.

Q: You have a record that may never, ever be broken. Chisel it in granite: fastest official closed-course qualifying lap in U.S. history (241.428 mph) in 2000 at California Speedway. Dare I ask, cool, huh?

A: I think people have gotten a bit smarter since (chuckling). That was qualifying for the last race of the (CART season) at Fontana, Calif. We were fighting for the championship and Honda showed up with this engine which was over 1,000 horsepower. The thing was unbelievable. It was the coolest thing I ever drove. The wheels were spinning in fourth gear in the middle of the straight at 150 miles an hour (laughing). The qualifying average was 241.4. I was on pole, and two days later I won my first championship.

We did a lot of work to make the car good. It was one of those days where everything is right. At the time, my major focus was to try to be on pole to try to win the championship. World record, whatever, I wasn't thinking about that. I was thinking I wanted to win that championship, and goal number one was to be on the pole. As the years have gone by, that has become an accomplishment I am prouder and prouder of. Not quite an Indy 500 accomplishment, but I was proud of it.

Take that and run.