Long Beach GP Interview by Trackbytes

Long Beach 06_0217_11x17When the gang at Easy Street Motorsports decided it was time to go professional road racing, they chose the SPEED World Challenge series. They also decided to take on the big boys of the GT class with their “giant killer” machine, the Subaru Impreza WRX STI. The car and team made their debut on the streets of Long Beach. The entry into World Challenge signified the first ever foray into road racing for the WRX STI.

Trackbytes caught up with Team Manager Marshall Pruett and driver Gary Sheehan right after the Long Beach race. Both guys were wildly enthusiastic about their experience. And with that charge of energy was the business side of things that showed they have their feet firmly planted on the ground and sights set on building a respectable effort.

Todd:

Guys, first off thanks for taking the time to speak with us here at Trackbytes. I know you must be busy digesting the experience at Long Beach.

Explain to everyone what it means to ESX to enter the first Subaru Impreza WRX STI in professional North American road racing.

Marshall Pruett:

The Impreza WRX STI is by far the best choice to take on the ‘name’ sportscars competing in SPEED GT—with the cult status of the car, and ‘giant killer’ reputation, preparing our #99 STI was the next logical step to prove our beliefs that a small displacement turbocharged car can take on cars that cost three or four times as much, and beat them.

Todd:

Marshall, what were the team’s expectations going into the weekend?

Marshall Pruett:

We’d set a realistic goal in our approach–qualify between 18th and 25th, and finish somewhere in the same range. Despite our enthusiasm and belief in the STI, we also know that for this chassis and platform, we’re at the very beginning of the growth and development of the car. Beyond a few STI’s that road race in the Super Taikyu road racing series in Japan, there’s no other STI road racing development to fall back on. Unlike some of the other teams that can order competition parts for their GT cars from a catalog, we have to fabricate and test all our own pieces. Knowing this, I’ve made great efforts to keep our minds set on 2006 being strictly a year of learning and discovery.

Todd:

Gary, as the driver chosen for this project, what mindset did you head to Long Beach with?

Gary Sheehan:

We went into this event knowing that it would take several races to get both myself and the race car up to speed in World Challenge GT. For myself, I knew it would take some time to adjust to the new characteristics of the STI as well as fit in with the other drivers that have been in the series for awhile. My personal goals were to make it through the concrete canyons of the Long Beach Grand Prix with the car in one piece, finish the entire race distance, show the other drivers in the series that I belong on the track with them and come away with an understanding of what changes I need to make the car more competitive. All of these goals were met and I had an absolute blast while accomplishing them.

Todd:

Guys, what did you take away from Long Beach relating to the successes and hardships of the car’s and team’s first weekend.

Marshall Pruett:

I’m beyond pleased with how our first SPEED GT event went. Ali Afshar, owner of Easy Street Motorsports, has really pushed hard to find funding and partners to make this ESX road race program become a reality. While Ali’s NHRA drag team is sponsored by Subaru, Ali and ESX have built and entered our STI with the support of individual Subaru dealers and other companies. While we aren’t a factory backed team, everything we do is to positively represent the brand. I’ve spent a lot of time making sure our graphics, uniforms, presentation, and overall professional approach is one that new sponsors and support would fit into seamlessly and with immediate return.

I was happiest to see the crowd’s reaction to the car–of the thousands of fans that swarmed our SPEED GT paddock area, it seemed that most of them made a beeline for our car, taking pictures of it from every angle, and asking a million questions. I’d have to say our suspicion that fans want to see their favorite ‘import and tuner’ cars taking on V8’s and such in GT was confirmed.

We had a number of ‘new car blues’ throughout the weekend–mostly coming to grips with running without ABS for the first time. The STI has phenomenal ABS braking, so adjusting and modifying the car to be just as impressive without ABS is an ongoing process. We’re so thankful to have Stoptech joining our program as partners to develop the best braking package possible.

Gary and the team fought through a number of braking issues–they were traced to a deteriorating brake master cylinder; Gary had it almost completely stop functioning on the 3rd lap of the race, and was brave enough to press on for the other 24 laps having to pump the brakes like he was stomping out a fire in order to get the car slowed down enough to make each turn.

Despite all of this drama inside the car, he managed, with the brakes almost gone, to match his qualifying times on half of those brakeless race laps. THAT was incredible.

We learned an incredible amount, have generated a ‘to do’ list a mile long, and can’t wait to get back out and push harder in our next showing.

Gary Sheehan:

I think the entire weekend was a success, despite the hardships we suffered. ESX showed the SCCA officials, the racing teams and the fans that we are a class act, very professional and dead serious about our efforts in World Challenge GT. Much of the success was not so much on the track, but in the paddock. Our team performed as a cohesive unit and attacked every issue with single minded purpose. I am extremely impressed and proud of the team that worked so hard to give their best effort up to and during the event.

Todd:

Marshall, as Team Manager it was your responsibility to find a pilot for your effort. You chose Gary. What was the deciding factor in bringing Gary on board?

Marshall Pruett:

The guy is the best choice I can think of–a really good, light-hearted guy outside the car, and bloody determined and masterful inside the car. He still needs to get more SPEED GT races under his belt, but he has the basic skill and smarts to be primed for success once we have the STI developed to a point where he can earn the accolades he deserves. He’s completely hands-on with the car and team, and little touches like that make all the difference to a team–when you know your driver will be right besides you, no matter how late it might be at night, it’s hard not to give your all and work to find every ounce of speed for him.

Working to find and cure a number of those new car blues, we were at the track until 4:30AM Saturday morning, got to the hotel by 5AM, and were back down in the lobby by 6AM to be ready for the 8:30AM practice session. For a regular driver, or one that didn’t go to such great pains to show his dedication and appreciation to his crew, most teams would have been in bed by 10PM…

Todd:

Gary, not only were your appointed with the duties of helping to bring this project along as the team driver, but your first race ever was at the daunting street venue that is Long Beach. All of this must be quite the thrill ride for you.

Gary Sheehan:

I felt charged with electricity the entire event! I’ve thought about participating in the Speed World Challenge GT series for many years and this truly was a dream come true for me. The SCCA and other teams gave us such a warm welcome that I immediately felt that I belonged. Andy Pilgrim was gracious enough to share his experience with me on the first day of the event and gave me some great tips that would have taken me several events to learn on my own. Tomy Drissi kept pumping me up and encouraging me all weekend. Several other drivers took the time out to give positive feedback. I can’t express how easy the drivers and teams made it for me to fit in! What a cool bunch of competitors!

Being in front of that many racing fans was also a new experience for me. Sitting on the starting grid and seeing the grandstands full of spectators that stayed late on Sunday afternoon to watch our race was such a great moment. The biggest surprise I had was hearing one of the spectators out in the stands yell out “Go get ’em, Gary!” just prior to the start. When the red lights went out and I dumped the clutch at the start, I still had the smile plastered on my face.

Todd:

So now you have the car built, you have experienced your first event, what does the future hold?

Marshall Pruett:

Our goal is to do the other two West Coast races–we’re based in Southern California, and spend time developing the car in between those races. Ali Afshar was born and raised in Petaluma, right next to Sears Point, so for him, this will be a homecoming of sorts. I’m from the Bay Area, and literally grew up at Sears–some of my earliest memories are of being 3 year sold in ’73, and helping my dad to pick big rocks off the tires of his SCCA Ford Cortina club race car. I worked at shops at Sears forever, so for me, it will be even more special.

The main goal will to be to attract sponsorship to continue the development of the car, do Sears and Laguna, and prepare for a full-season assault on SPEED GT in 2007. Looking at the media interest, fan support, and huge potential of the car, I’d hope we can attract the support and resources needed to make the Subaru into a winner among the world’s best and most expensive GT cars.

Gary Sheehan:

We already have our sights set on Infineon Raceway in late June and are putting the pieces in place to further develop the car and get more testing days under our belts. Infineon is my home track and one of my favorites. I’m very excited to be headed there next because I’ve driven a lot of miles there and can focus on the car’s performance without spending a whole lot of effort learning a new track like I did at Long Beach. This is going to be another huge weekend for us, bringing the Subaru STI out in front of the NASCAR fans. I think we’ll make just as huge an impact at Infineon as we did at Long Beach.

Todd:

Gentlemen it has been an extreme pleasure chatting with both of you. We wish you continued success. Trackbytes and the fans will be following your trek to the top.

To follow Gary Sheehan, go see him at garysheehan.com. To learn more about Marshall Pruett, visit marshallpruett.com. To keep up on all of the latest Easy Street Motorsports (ESX) news, they can be found at esxmotorsports.com. And when you find yourself at a World Challenge event, stop by the ESX paddock area. The team has an open door policy and everyone is invited to stop by and visit.