Kevin Buckler – On The Past, Present & Future

dailysportscar.comKevin Buckler and his Racers Group had a fairy tale season in 2002, with milestone class victories at Daytona and Le Mans (right). Coupled with consistent success in both North American series, Kevin earned the coveted Porsche Cup title. The California-based team started 2003 with equal success as Kevin teamed with Michael Schrom and Porsche factory drivers Jorg Bergmeister and Timo Bernhard for a remarkable overall victory at Daytona’s Rolex 24. The team then signed veteran Cort Wagner to drive with Kevin in the lead #66 car for the ALMS season. It would be a three-car effort for the entire season, plus a trip to France to defend their title. The expectations for this independent team ran high, maybe too high.

Kevin took some time (with Russell Wittenberg) to review the ups and downs of this past season, and look forward to 2004.

You started out the year with the huge overall victory at the Rolex 24. Looking back at that victory what stands out in your mind?

How hard we worked. We put together a plan at the end of 2002 that was executed flawlessly. We looked at how to take advantage of the rule package for the race and we had one hell of a car. The Porsche was perfect. We turned laps at qualifying speed for twenty-four hours. I am just proud to be one of the guys to have pulled that off. Winning that race was one of the things on life’s checklist that I was able to check off. That feels good.

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What advantage did the dailysportscar.com sticker on the rear window give you during the race?

It gave us an aero advantage that was worth at least a couple miles per hour at speed. The other teams really missed the boat on that one, but let’s just keep it quiet!

After the unbelievable year you had in 2002, are you satisfied with your performance this past year?

In 2002, our cars and our team were very close to the Job guys. In many races, we were able to match their lap times and really push them. I was a little disappointed when I saw how far ahead they were this year. Because of Porsche’s need to stay ahead of the Ferrari, they have put extra effort into their development team, Alex Job Racing. I also believe that the ‘development effort and the development curve’ was much higher in ‘03 than ’02. In all fairness, Job did their homework and really got their program dialed in for this season. But the delta between the factory-supported team and us had grown substantially this past year. That being said, I am not satisfied with our absolute lap times, but I am quite satisfied with the performance of our team, crew and drivers. I feel blessed with all our drivers we had this year. They are all good guys and I really cherished and enjoyed my time with them. They have all improved as drivers this year. I think those guys had surprised some people with their pace the last half of the season.

dailysportscar.comI feel that in 2003 we very successful when it comes to the whole program - the big picture. We were the biggest team and, as far as I know, this was the first time someone has run a three-car team for the entire season in the ALMS. We had between six and nine drivers, their friends and family at all the events, two transporters, a motorhome, and 25-30 crewmembers. Our sponsor / corporate hospitality program really evolved this last year. At many races we had over 30 guests.

And we have gone almost two full seasons without a mechanical DNF. That is quite a testament to the quality of our team. Nowadays, to be successful in a professional sport, you need the whole package and that is what we have tried to achieve.

You and Cort Wagner did have some podiums and strong runs this year even though your car was not as quick as you would like.

Cort has been awesome, a real professional. He is a great driver, a thinking driver. He is very good at setting the car up, communicating with the crew and making adjustments. It’s funny how things can fall your way, or not. We used some good strategy to get our first podium at Road Atlanta and again at Road America. At Infineon we finished fourth, 25 feet behind Risi in third. We were faster at the end and gaining on them. But we got held up in traffic and even held up by one of our team cars. We were running in second place at Trois Rivieres when I tapped the wall. We had an accident at Mosport, a strong run at Laguna, a suspension part got rattled loose at Miami and we got hit on the start at Petit. So we missed a couple of good chances at podiums from just little things going wrong. That’s the way it goes. I have no problems with getting by the competition in a straight fight. I get frustrated when I get beat by things I can’t control.

At Petit Le Mans, you had a serious coming together with the PK Porsche on one of the very first laps. With that, you obviously had to throw any race strategy out the window and just go flat out. How did the new kid, Patrick Long, respond to the extra pressure laid on the team after that early setback?

That was a real bummer. We had prepped, and planned to the “nth” degree. I was hit from behind by a gentleman driver making a dive-bomb pass on the opening lap - not so smart. After repairs, we rejoined the race in last place. We just went flat out from there and were able to climb up to finish fourth.

We were really fortunate to have Patrick on board and had Porsche to thank for that one. Patrick and Cort were flawless in the race, including a double stint from Patrick at the end of the race in the dark. He really listened to us and studied the track and the conditions. He understood that his debut race was a big one. I was impressed and again, there is a reason the young kids get a factory Porsche contract. They are really, really good.

I felt that this race was a bit of a transition race for me - from full time professional driver to full time team manager, coach and mentor. I felt really responsible for Patrick, almost like a big brother. I wanted to help him shine and to avoid any of the pitfalls of running in this new arena. His raw talent is there and he doesn’t need any help from me on that, but it is so easy to get sucked into all the other traps and pitfalls of being a rising young star, coming from a total “balls out” sprint race mentality. This is a very large team effort in a very large race in a very public arena. Even the smallest mistake can have really long term effect on a young driver’s career. Porsche entrusted him to us and I wasn’t about to let him or them down. I don’t mean to sound negative - just preparedly cautious. This is a very tough and unforgiving business. Brutal is a better word. Sometimes things can really work for or really work against a new arrival to the series - especially one with talent. You need to be prepared to “deal” with all those elements (media, fellow competitors, other teams, etc), be one step ahead and be ready to deliver when the time is right.

Do you think fielding three cars hurt you this year? Is three too many in a series as competitive as the ALMS?

Yes, it has affected me as a driver. I am juggling too many balls now. I sleep, eat and live this racing team and something has to give if we want to stay on top and keep my sanity.

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Three cars is an incredible amount of work, but we have three solid crew chiefs and a hell of a group of guys. Staying in good physical shape for the season is a big time commitment, and that takes away the time required to plan and manage a team of this size. Working with the sponsors, their guest and making sure that all their requirements are being met is important and takes time, as well as all the general marketing of the team. We have some really good people that facilitate all of this but I still sort of micro manage all of it a bit. (A bit too much I am sure they would say) I am still very actively involved in TRG back home, which manufactures and distributes all sorts of racing related parts, and is now a serious player in the club racing / arrive and drive scene. We own the winery, Adobe Road and it is growing rapidly.

Your ALMS plans are set for next season and you’re not going to be driving. Are you sure you’re ready to watch someone else pilot that #66 car?

I think one of the biggest reasons to step down from the driving duties is because of my family. My wife Debra does so much to help and we have three little daughters. I can pretty clearly see that the ability to provide a future for my family will not come through piloting a racecar but through piloting a race team.

After the success the team has had in the past three years, and the success I’ve had as a driver, I felt that this year it was time to take the next step and focus my energies on taking our team to the next level. It’s been a dream come true to win races at Daytona and at Le Mans. I can't say enough about the opportunity that has been given to us by New Century Mortgage and the Porsche factory. I am looking forward to showing what a properly funded, professionally organized effort can do for its sponsor, to meet their business objectives through racing. I hope our efforts this year will strengthen all of ALMS and especially GT as a platform from which to help other team’s partners meet their goals. We will definitely be turning it up a notch. We respect our role and realize we have a big job ahead of us. But don’t count me totally out just yet! We will have an announcement regarding the Rolex in the next few days.

We understand that another manufacturer had approached you about a possible ALMS entry. Can you comment on that?

Yes, there was a period of time at the end of the season when I was fairly sure I wouldn’t be with Porsche next year. The offers were tempting in many ways, but after weighing all the options, we decided to remain here. I have been very loyal to, and happy with, Porsche. But I am in the business of running a professional race team and have an obligation to our sponsors, our crew and their families, as well as my own. If the right opportunity presented itself to run something else, I would be crazy not to look at it. Let me add that this is my ninth year racing with Porsche professionally, and the team and our cars just keep getting better. No other manufacturer has ever supported the privateer teams like Porsche. The truck is at every race with spare parts and staffed with engineers. Their engine program is nearly perfect, you can’t beat the reliability. As an independent team, they really are the best choice. I know we couldn’t pick a better marque to partner with for the upcoming season than Porsche. The new RSR will be unbelievable. We have a big responsibility here with the young factory driver. After many years of our friend Alwin Springer successfully guiding the racing program here in North America, he has turned over the reigns to his very capable and experienced replacement, Uwe Brettel. We have no plans to disappoint either of these guys in our performance next year.

What do you think of Porsche’s competition for next year? Any concerns?

The Ferrari has us concerned. They have really stepped up their program. They have good teams and drivers in place for next year. There are also a couple of other manufacturers set to join the GT class. They are going to come in planning to win: they aren’t coming to “wank” around for long.

The GT class has always been the backbone of the series. With the LMP classes in somewhat of a transitional year, do you expect the GTs to come to the forefront even more?

I have said for a really long time that GT racing is what sportscar racing should be all about, at least in North America. Several years ago it was an unpopular position to take, but one that I was 100% sure would prove itself out, possibly sooner that later.

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Here is my view on the situation. IMSA / PSCR / ALMS etc. have all been trying to re-badge, re-skin, re-create and re-sell our concept of sportscar racing - particularly LMP - to the public for years. It obviously hasn't worked very well. I bet all of us will take our hats off to Don Panoz, and all of the current group for their efforts in what I am sure is THE most brutally competitive sports-television market of all times, especially in motorsports. We want more coverage, the network / TV execs. and sponsors want more eyeballs glued to the screen, and the promoters want more butts in the stands. We are pushing a snowball up hill here, trying to peddle a marginally popular concept against such a wildly popular concept, such as Nascar. Selling the LMP concept to the public is simply a really tough sell for a variety of reasons. But I think selling the GT / GTS concept is not. So let’s quit beating a dead horse and go where the only true exponential growth potential exists and "court" the sportscar / GT viewers.

dailysportscar.comUsing our existing LMP-centric formula, there isn't a chance in hell of really big, upside growth. The mechanic, the doctors, the lawyers, the business guys, whoever is actually driving a Porsche or a Ferrari or a Corvette or a BMW to work on Monday (and also whoever would like to be driving one, which is a lot of people) would really enjoy seeing "his" car racing on Sunday. This is where I see the future is and we just have to sell it to the decision makers at the highest levels. If our voice had been unified on this front for the last five years I think you would see a totally different situation right now. In today’s day and age, of super competitive and fragmented “niche” markets, we need to find what we are good at - our Niche!! I believe there is a really solid “fan” base of people out there who are not that involved currently with racing because they haven’t found a formula that they relate too. Also there is a ton of people on the “fringe” of several other successful and not so successful series that would gladly come over here if the racing was good, close and interesting. That is the key!!!!

In closing, I have to say a few things about the wonderful people & sponsors that have made it possible.

My friend Noel Lee and all the guys at Monster Cable are car nuts and have supported us now for several seasons. They are terrific! Mail2web.com has also been with us now for a few seasons and their president, Tony Yustein, really stepped up for us when we needed it most. If it wasn’t for them I am sure that we wouldn’t have made it to Le Mans in 2002. It was that win that really legitimatised us as a world-class endurance race team.

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Our newest partner, New Century Financial Corporation, are terrific and very marketing savvy. We are looking forward to a kick-ass 2004 with New Century as our partner. They are providing us with a platform to run a total, first class operation from front to back for this upcoming season.

Specifically I want to once again take a moment to thank my friend Michael Schrom for helping to make everything start to really take off for me. It was a handshake, between him and I back in late 2001 that started us off to our first of many smiles, victories and memories that we have shared together. Also, I want to thank Cort Wagner for partnering with us for the future. Cort is smart and experienced and has worked very hard over the years to be able to help put a deal like this together. We are looking forward to working side by side with him to carry us all well into a successful future together. He will be a terrific partner. Finally, my wife Debra - no way, no how - couldn’t do it without her. This will be quite a team for 2004.

 

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