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Whenever there’s on track action or big news taking place, the public only learns part of the story. There are always some key things happening behind the scenes that are kept from the public. How do you control the message in order to still tell the story but not release all of the information?
Alex: It’s extremely unattractive to constantly be deflecting blame. That’s a horrible quality. That’s really what that looks like. That’s a running joke between Robert and I went someone asks us what we think. “Well, I’m the best there is,” said in a voice dripping with ego. Yeah, maybe you are having struggles. One weekend, for example, I think anyone that followed racing would see that I was struggling. I normally wouldn’t line up 15th on the grid. I don’t feel the need to shove it down everyone’s throats that I’m better than that. People are smart enough to know. In an interview, I’d just confirm that we’re having a tough weekend, we’re trying some things. It’s not like my engineers aren’t trying, or that the manufacturer isn’t trying, and it’s not like I’m not trying my best. In our situation in particular, when we have a new car that we’re working out, some things just don’t line up. To sit there and belabor is very ignorant and insecure about what other people think of you. Insecurity is also a hugely unattractive trait, and people see that. Sometimes it’s you, the car, the team, the manufacturer. Everybody has days where you’re not hitting on all cylinders. If you compare it to a stick and ball sport, you don’t hear leaders or icons saying stuff like, “Well thank God I was there!” There’s a lot that goes into it.
Dion: In racing there’s always going to be some level of censorship, there’s no way around it. Whether it comes from us actually talking about our cars. I was talking about the performance of our cars, or our own performance as a team. There’s always going to be some type of censorship involved. When I was 18, my idea over how much had to be censored was very different than what it has grown into now. I’ve realized that you can find ways to put across your point without censoring; it’s all about wording and wording it correctly.
Jan: That’s something that you learn growing up in general, but even more so in racing. A lot of what we do within the team is confidential. There are a lot of people working really hard to do what we do, to give us the car we have. A lot of the technical performance side of things, as well as strategy, by nature of the sport, that kind of information stays within the team. That’s always to be respected. There’s people that talk about anything and everything, but it’s such a small world and people pick up on that real quick.
John: We’re always going to be a little more protective of our set up, what we have in hand, and about our race strategy. We’re probably too protective of it because usually everyone is already committed to one strategy or the other mid-race, so it’s not a big secret. It may be a big secret in our minds, but it’s not going to change what anyone else does on track. We’re still going to hold it close to our chest and not admit it. I think one of the funny things that people don’t realize with the TV coverage is the pit lane reporters aren’t just doing the interviews in pit lane. When the camera goes off, they’re talking to the teams, figuring out what’s happening with the strategy and whether they come on and explain that on the broadcast or not, they’re still doing a lot of the research. For example, Chris Neville will come and ask me what’s going on based on a part of a radio transmission he overheard. If I can’t say anything, I’ll just say I’m not sure, and he’ll go to the team manager and ask the same question and is told that everything is fine. Chris kind of stares at him for a second, and is then told “Well, we might have a little issue, but we should be okay.” Even though it won’t change anything, we never want to let everyone know too soon, so it’s kind of interesting when those things unfold in pit lane.
There are definitely times I’m in the car and I don’t know what’s fully going on. There are also times where there are things that I’ll figure out later when I’m outside the car. The team and engineers are on a separate intercom, and I’m not always plugged into that. There are a lot more conversations taking place on the intercom than there are on the radio. Sometimes I want to know everything that’s going on when I don’t really need to, so a lot of times I have to stop myself from tapping my engineer on the shoulder to find out.
Matt: I think about that a lot. It’s hard to play that game a little bit. You have to always think. It’s two different things. One, you don’t want to give away anything that the team is doing. No one is going to sit there and say “Oh, we went this much up in spring, and did this damping, this bar setting.” Do you really want to tell people what direction you’re going? It obviously makes for a better interview when you’re saying “Oh, the car went a little loose, here and I think we figured it out,” but at the same time it can be harmful if you say, “The car was loose and we got it to move in another direction, and we still have somewhere to go.” Anyone listening to the interview would then be able to know that the car has issues with over steer.
I think everyone has a different opinion on that. There are some people that give boring interviews because of the risk of teams that may be out there listening in on interviews for information and there are guys like me, where I do it so people don’t realize my interviews have information. I give them hints on what the car’s doing and where it’s going, but I’m not going to habitually tell you where the car is and what it’s doing. You have to find the middle ground. It depends on where you are, as well. If we’re talking about Continental Tire, there are very few teams that would care and few fans who would comment on the interviews. Whereas TUDOR and NASCAR, they’re not going to tell you anything. There’s tight competition and big budgets, and people on the other teams would look at other interviews for information. In F1, they’ve even gotten caught taking that information from others. That being said, even at the Continental Tire level, if you’re serious about winning, you don’t want to give anything away. At the same time, you want to be a public figure and give good interviews so that teams and people notice you. It’s a balancing act.
Robert: You always have to be respectful to your team, and your manufacturer and the companies that you’re involved with. When you speak negatively about them, it’d just be unacceptable. It’s okay to say you’re having struggles and you have stuff to work on. That brings it back to the fact that everyone is a part of it and you can’t blame it on just one person, the car or the track.
Does it boil down to censorship or common sense?
Alex: People want to hear what we think. If you don’t grasp what people are talking about, you’re a spoiled brat and need to rethink. Because this is common sense stuff that you’re going to face in every job market in every area of your life. It’s not a matter of being a robot, it’s being respectful to people you have given you tremendous opportunity without looking like a complete douchebag. I wouldn’t think of it as censorship, but acting like a mature, grown up adult. You’ll blend in, in a way. That’s life. When you’re not winning, people get sick of the attitude quick. When you want to discern yourself and stand out from the pack, try to make it positive.
It’s not so much censoring, but being respectful to the people who are giving you a tremendous opportunity. This glorification of “I say what the fuck I want.” In what industry on earth are you just allowed to be a disrespectful, sniveling brat? You treat people with respect. That includes the team owner, the manufacturer, and the people who are busting their ass so that you can get in a car and drive around. On any given day, there will be people who are quicker than you and who can step into your seat. It’s best to try and have fun and be an engaging person but in a positive way.
Matt: There’s a line to cross with personality. You can get on Sports Center if you’re clever enough with stunts you can pull. But obviously, you have a lot to lose, if you’re a young kid starting off, you’re better off not doing that stuff. We’ve always joked with the interviewers about maybe doing the Talladega Nights stunt where Ricky Bobby holds his hands up, on screen saying, “I don’t know what to do with my hands,” but you can’t start off your career like that because you’re typecasting yourself and no one will want to do an interview with you like that when they need serious information.
Same can be said for the habitual goofball and the people who are overly political. It comes down to common sense. Who are you talking to and about and where are you in your career? The more knowledgeable you are about yourself and your demographic, the better you’ll be about finding that balance.
Dion: Censorship is a difficult topic to talk about because you never know where that line is, it’s a grey area. So it takes some experience and it takes a little bit of looking other drivers messing it up to see where that line is. You have to see the mistakes of other athletes from other sports, as well as motor sports, and you see where that line kind of is and where it can be applied towards motor sports. I would say the line for censorship and being what we call “politically correct” is a little bit stricter in motorsports. You have more sponsorships and you have less opportunities and you seem to have people who care a little bit more and hold drivers to a higher standard of presenting themselves and speaking to the public as to what they present themselves as in other sports. That’s just a function of society and the culture within it. You can definitely get in trouble if you look at what your favorite player is doing in other sports and copy that and bring it over because it doesn’t necessarily apply. But you don’t want to be a drone, boring robot because no one likes them either. So you can feel free to talk about performance and personally what you feel like. You just don’t want to turn into a person who is A) complaining B) that’s always saying the same thing, C) that’s attacking other people or D) saying something that may be a question to a moral or a law or anything like that. So it really depends on how you look at it, there’s a lot of factors that can get pretty complicated, but you cannot let it scare you into saying anything controversial because it’s alright to be a little controversial every once in a while.
In racing you what you can say and what you can’t say will be driven by your need for millions in sponsorship dollars. Some brands may want the driver to say a little more and be a little more progressive. Some brands will want you to have a little more of a corporate image. So it really depends on what company you are representing and how they want you to be.
Jan: you have to be realistic. There’s not a lot of communication. The time you do spend with the fans, you try to spend it the best you can. Personally, I’m very private. It’s not about right or wrong, it’s just who I am. Whether I’m racing, or doing a bike race, I come here to do my job, and do what I need to do. I love what I do, but I don’t have the need to share my whole life with a stranger. It’s not who I am. That has nothing to do with the sport, that’s just my personality. It’s still part of my job to put some of myself out there. It’s nothing compared to what it was in Champ Car. In Champ Car, your whole day revolved around those kinds of appearances. For me, the way the sport is now, it doesn’t take up a whole lot of time. In Champ Car the schedule was all about how much time you could devote to the media and fans. There were only so many hours in the day. Here, in this paddock, it’s a lot more relaxed. From what I’ve known to what it is now, it takes far less time in the day. As the series grows and gets bigger, that will increase. There are some drivers, teams, sponsors who are a better match for certain events or media than other places. It’s all a function of that.
John: It’s not like I have people at BMW telling me what I need to post. I think as you move up, you get more interaction from fans. It makes me want to give them something, some sort of lens into the background of what’s happening in a race weekend. As a fan, you may get to watch the TV coverage, and that’s all you get from the weekend. I do think it’s important, and the more I see fans interacting with me or other drivers, it makes me feel better about putting stuff out there.
Robert: Especially when we’re given such a big opportunity. Half of our fans are drivers themselves and people that watch and follow, and they’re into racing. They would kill for the opportunity that we’ve been given. There’s a certain about of being happy regardless of the situation because of the place we’re in. Of course, we’re still human and still emotionally invested in the situations.