Thursday, 2 July 2015

EXCLUSIVE: Motorsport Hall of Famer Jeff Ward talks about his Red Bull GRC debut

After winning every single AMA national motorcross championship and experiencing success in the IndyCar series too, Glasgow-born Jeff Ward recently made his rallycross debut for the Ganassi team, subbing for Brian Deegan in one of the team's M-Sport built Ford Fiesta.

After a successful weekend which saw Ward take a pole position, a heat win, and a highest finish of fourth in the finals, the IndyCar race winner caught up with us to talk about his first outings in Red Bull Global Rallycross.

Jeff Ward Interview

Dominik Wilde: How did the chance to drive for Ganassi in Red Bull Global Rallycross come about?

Jeff Ward: I've been looking at the series; I tried to do the X Games a couple of years ago and talked to Ken Block, other people, (Travis) Pastrana, and just never got the opportunity. It was just kinda new and to get in with a team you had to do one of the races or something to get invited even though I raced supermoto there and won gold medals, I still had to go through a process so I just didn't do it. I was always intrigued by it and I saw one day on the internet that Chip (Ganassi) was running a team and I know Brian Deegan so I knew Deegan was having Chip do a car for him so I gave Chip a call to see what was going on and see what was there and Deegan had three or four races that he's not doing.

So I had a sponsor at 360Fly, a new camera that's coming out that wanted to get involved and we put a deal together to run the three races right now, maybe four with LA. I raced for Chip in IndyCar so he was pretty pumped that I wanted to do something again with him.

Dominik Wilde: You've done the IndyCar, you've done the bike racing as well and you've always been very successful in everything you've done and it looks much the same with rallycross too, did you expect to be fighting at the front and claiming pole positions this early on?

Jeff Ward: Well I knew they had good cars. Those cars seem to be really competitive and it's all about having good equipment. I've driven a lot of stuff with off-road trucks in Pro-2 in the Lucas series and was competitive right away with the dirt, I lost the championship by one point but I know how to read dirt. I've raced pavement too with road courses and street courses in all types of cars so it kind of fits both my worlds with the dirt and the pavement and I don't know if I expected to get pole or be one of the quickest guys but I just felt comfortable right away in the car. I've never driven a four wheel drive car before in the dirt or on pavement so it took a little bit of re-thinking things sometimes but I adapted to it well so I'm kinda looking forward to getting more time in the car and actually test to see what I can actually do to make it work better for me and try different things.

But yeah, I wouldn't say I was surprised, I wanted to be competitive, but I think everybody else was surprised that I was that quick. But when you're with a good team and a good car and things go your way, I didn't have any mechanical problems, everything went well, it usually turns out to be a pretty good weekend.

Dominik Wilde: You mentioned about wanting to go testing. Is it true that before the event you only had ten minutes in the parking lot? How do you go into an event with such little preparation, how does it affect you?

Jeff Ward: We did it over at zMAX drgstrip, we did it at the parking lot there it wasn't at the race shop they don't have a big enough parking lot but it was just a parking lot with trash cans and I went out, it was super slick and dirty and kind of dusty and I did probably 40 laps on a 20 second lap time or something. The biggest thing I had to learn was the starts because the procedure with the car, with the turbo, with the launch control, there's a launch thing where you've got to push a button, put it in gear, pull the brake, push a button, hold the launch button so thins comes on and you've got to have at least five seconds to spool up the turbo and, y'know (sic), there's like ten different things that go on to get that thing to start so that was the biggest thing I did most of the day there was to get that where I could get comfortable. It was pretty good because there was no grip at all so the car felt really hard to drive (laughs), with the push and the slide, I'm used to getting a bit more grip and the track that we went to at Daytona had a lot more grip because that's what it's made for and it was really easy to drive then.

Dominik Wilde: So it set you up well then?

Jeff Ward: Yeah, it just got me comfortable in the car a little bit, there was nothing more I could bring over to the race except what the power was and all the shifting and braking; it was basically just a shakedown to get me where I didn't get there on Friday and get in the car and go 'ah, seat's to close, pedals are too far' and waste a whole session or two just getting comfortable so I got to where I was comfortable and then I just had to drive the car. But that first practice session I was second so it started off well and just did some stuff and it kept going well. The racing was a different thing because you get hit and pushed around and you can be the fastest car all weekend and still not win the race so it's a lot of banging and I was on the short end of the stick a few times.

Dominik Wilde: Before the weekend did you get a chance to speak to any of the other guys in the series like Steve (Arpin, team mate) or anyone else to get some advice? What did they have to say to you beforehand?

Jeff Ward: Well Steve was great. He came out for the little practice thing on the Wednesday before we went to Daytona. He helped me with the launch, things like if you spin you have to push this button so it doesn't overheat and this gave me all the little ins and outs of what to do when you're out there. There wasn't much he could do to help me drive, I had to learn and there's so many different things with the way the clutch works, the way everything disengages from the front to rear through the centre of the corner, different stuff you can do and I had no clue. I just worked out what worked best and I never changed the car and it worked pretty good.

But the other guys, I know Ken Block and Tanner Foust a little bit, I've met him. I know some of the guys who were racing but never really raced against any of them so I had Steve tell me 'hey watch for this guy because he'll do this', he gave me a couple of heads up on the aggressive guys who are gonna (sic) stick it in there and get your door and do some stuff but I'm used to that in the Pro-2, it's the same thing. A lot of that stuff isn't intentional, you just see an opening and you fire it in there and you're on dirt, you can't stop. It's just that kind of racing so I was expecting to get hit and banged around as well so it was nothing new for me but kind of knowing drivers after a while it definitely helps when you're racing how you want to race them and when you know who it is and I had no clue so it left me feeling vulnerable a little bit.

Dominik Wilde: Now speaking of the racing, you had two fantastic results - a sixth and a fourth - how would you describe the races in your own words?

Jeff Ward: They're fun for sure, the starts are intense, it's hard to pass so everybody on the start wants to get a position or two or three before it thins out because once it thins out it's hard to pass, it's like any form of racing and it's only eight to ten laps, it's not a 20 or 25 lap race where you can settle in and save tyres or do something to make up time, if you get banged around and drop back from second to fifth you're almost done, to win the race. If you're going for the championship for the whole season you want the try and get as many points as you can so it's different when you're in my position coming in for three races. I have nothing to lose but I'm not going to go out there and take somebody out that's in a championship I'm not running for so I kind of have to tippy toe a little bit when I'm out there, I don't want to be the guy that ruins somebody's year because I did something stupid but I don't race that way anyway even if I was going for the championship, I I'm not that type of racer so it wasn't going to happen but they don't know that, I could make a stupid mistake and take them out and they could look at it as that's the way I drive so I just tried to stay clean and learn and I think I had an opportunity both days to win. On the start (of the first day final) when the two guys (Patrik Sandell and Block) took themselves out I got the lead but I was in the wrong gear then I got hit hard and stalled my car so I dropped almost to dead last besides Block and the next day I just got a bad jump on the start and then Scott Speed's car went sideways and quit and I T-boned him and I kind of pushed him out of the way but we got hooked and I dropped back to sixth or something but I did pass my team mate on the last corner for third on the outside and then I got docked rough driving so I don't know how that happened.

Dominik Wilde: Yeah, they didn't explain too well in the broadcast. One minute you were third, the next minute you weren't and there was a bit of confusion. Did you find out straight away over the radio?

Jeff Ward: No, at the chequered flag I came across and did my lap to cool down, did the TV things, parked the car and did the interview, it was on TV and then as I was going back to y car to go to the podium the guy called me over and said you've been docked a position and I thought it was because I hit Scott Speed because he went sideways in the corner. I wasn't even next to him then he went sideways and I was already sliding, he came to a stop and had to hit my brakes and I hit him. He wasn't moving so I accelerated to push through and I hooked his read bumper and I went sideways and had to put it in reverse and his car was broke because he pulled off right at that same time, so I thought maybe that was because they thought I did it on purpose or they just didn't catch it right and they were like 'nah it's for your last pass on the last corner around Steve' and I said 'how can that be?' and they were like 'well you pushed him, you gave him no room and put him in the grass'. He blocked the inside, I had a run round the outside, a whole car past him and I'm turning into the apex and he hit me in the left rear and spun me sideways then he kept flooring it, I kept flooring it and I was on the pavement so I got the better end of the deal. So I asked how can that be when I'm on the outside and they said you gave him no room. 

I didn't understand, I watched it on video, like, 20 times and there's pictures, he's never in the grass, he blocked the inside, I was on the outside coming in and he hit me so, I don't know what the political reason is (laughs).

Dominik Wilde: It doesn't really add up, does it? Did you and Steve speak about it afterwards, how was the situation with the pair of you after the incident?

Jeff Ward: Well I was fine. He came up to me because they called him up to the podium and he came up to me with his arms in the air and I'm like 'what happened?' and he said 'I don't know'. He didn't say anything like 'you nailed me' or 'you T-boned me', I said it's fine with me I'm not in the series and I told him when the stewards came after, I'm not going to complain about it because it gives my team mate more points and he's running the whole series so basically you helped up out, thanks.

Everybody, even the commentators said I don't understand that pass because if that's a docking position then there should have been 10 other ones during the race. There was far worse. I was behind Ken Block when he came into the dirt section when he got pushed wide and was full throttle, never shut off and just hit hand brake and went from fifth to second. And even on the first day when that crash with Ken Block and the number 18 car (Sandell), when he pushed him into the grass, they called that a racing incident. And I'm thinking if that's a racing incident when they took each other out, and almost hit me because I T-Boned him, but passing on the outside with no contact, and then getting hit by the car that you passed on the left rear panel is rough driving, I wanted them to explain it, they didn't explain it.

Dominik Wilde: Even so, it was still a successful weekend. Has it left you wanting to perhaps do a season next year or sometime in the future?

Jeff Ward: Yeah, I get to do another race in DC and then I might be doing one here in LA this year as well in September, we're working on that and yeah, that was my goal to do a full season. I've been doing some stuff in motorcross, training with the riders with factory Honda but it wont conflict with any of that supercross stuff so it works out perfect for my schedule, it's a fun series and I still enjoy racing and I know I'm 54 but I still mountain bike every day, I'm in great shape and the heat down there (at Daytona) didn't bother me so it's not like I'm falling out of the saddle or I'm not competitive but I'm still competitive in everything I do. I think it's a great series and I'd love to put a whole series together and see what I could do.

Dominik Wilde: Have you discussed that with Chip at all?

Jeff Ward: No I haven't. We got this deal done and I didn't know how I was going to do but I talked to him afterwards and he was super excited that I did as well as I did and I represented the Ganassi brand and the team and basically said I could drive for him any time I want. So we just have to sit down and see what's going on next year with Ford, if it's a factory effort, if the money's involved or what it's going to take to put it together with funding and all that so it definitely helped me get something going for the following year and I'm sure the next races I'll do well as well so it's not like I'm going to get slower.

Dominik Wilde: So DC is your next round, we don't know what the track is but it's probably going to be very different to Daytona as it was last year. With effectively two race weekends under your belt now, do you have any expectations going towards DC or are you just going to keep doing what you're doing?

Jeff Ward: I think I'll have more confidence now. I think I'll be a little quicker and the track I'm sure will be different, I'm not sure if it's down on the streets somewhere or a parking lot I have no idea where they put it at but whatever it is it's the same for everybody. I think the cars that we're running, the Fords, are good cars so I think anywhere that the track is made it will be good. I saw that race in St. Pete and that looked really tight. They got a start and the then the race pretty much was over where Daytona had some really nice flowing fast stuff where you could really nail a corner and make some time up and out brake somebody and it was pretty fast. I'm sure there are some slower tracks which makes it more difficult and getting lucky with the start and not getting hit or your car breaking but qualifying you still get to go out on your own and I still think we'll be pretty strong there no matter what.

It's always good to get out in any type of car for a race weekend and then get away and get back in something, you always go up another level because you kind of start where you left off and progress more. When I first got there, my second day I got pole. It kept getting better and better so it's just going to get more and more comfortable and now I'll be able to change the car a little bit and try some stuff with suspension and try and get some grip and do a couple of things now I at least know where the baseline is. 

Images:  Chip Ganassi Racing, Larry Chen, Red Bull Global Rallycross

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