Former IndyCar and Champ Car driver Jimmy Vasser is a co-owner of the KV Technology team. Vasser's record of 211 straight starts was tied last week by KV Technology's top driver, Indianapolis 500 champion Tony Kanaan, who is expected to break the mark at this week's Grand Prix of Baltimore. The Baltimore Sun recently sat down with the 47-year-old Vasser to talk about his career and going from driving cars to owning a team.
Is it a natural progression for guys who are racecar drivers, if they have some sort of business sense and want to stay in the sport, to figure it out and own their own team?
I think it is natural, it's something we've done all our lives. If you've had a successful career and been in it a long time, then you know a lot about the business. It's like ballplayers becoming managers or coaches on a football team. The level of respect that comes from the drivers ... you can understand their plight, their situation. But it does take a business sense, and it takes the opportunities to put the finances together. That's the hard part. Drivers do well financially, but they're usually not wealthy enough to bankroll a team right out of the box.
Was putting the team together harder to do than racing itself?
For me it has been. When all you have to worry about is doing your job behind the wheel and doing your job outside the car with your sponsors, that would seem to come easier. You've had that job, you've earned it. I'm still struggling to really understand from an ownership standpoint what it takes to get to Roger Penske's level or Chip Ganassi's level or the great job Michael Andretti has done the past few years with his team. It's not easy these days to raise the money to do the job that way.
Does Tony Kanaan winning Indy get you there, or does it get you closer?
It certainly helps. We're in the process right now of trying to retain Tony. His contract's up, and as we speak, we're flat-out with our sponsors to get commitments for the next season and beyond. We're having conversations with Tony about putting a package in front of him to extend him and keep him here at KV and keep the key players underneath him here as well.
When race day comes, do the old emotions come out and is it hard for you to take the role of owner?
It's not as hard as it used to be. The firstcouple of years were tough. The first race I was out of the car, I was standing on the grid at Houston. I started welling up and tears were coming because it was the first time I was out of the car in 15 years knowing that I'm not the guy anymore and I'm tossing the keys to somebody else. Time has healed that, and I don't get that feeling wishing that anymore. I know my time has gone and it's there for the younger drivers.
During your career, you were in that group where there was that big split between IndyCar and Champ Car. You got to race at Indy, but not in your prime. Do you feel you missed out?
I had a couple of shots with Ganassi because we were the first to go back and my teammate won it, Juan Pablo Montoya. I had my opportunities — I finished fourth a couple of times — but it wasn't meant to be. I won three 500-milers during the split when they put up the big money and Champ Car had their big races. I would like to think that I would have come up with one of the Indy 500s. We had the U.S. 500 the same day in 1996 that had all the main players, and I won that from pole. That was at Michigan, the same day, same time. I can't have any regrets or animosity toward anybody. That is the way it was. It was unfortunate for a lot for people, not just me. Michael [Andretti] never won Indy, and he led more laps than anybody. He missed out on those eight years just like I did.
Looking at it from an ownership viewpoint, do you think that the changes IndyCar has made at the top will help it build back to where it was, or do you think the sports culture in this country has changed?
Certainly there's work that needs to be done. It remains to be seen whether it will ever get back to where it was. I would have to say that while times have changed — it will never be exactly the same. Back then, there were only three TV channels. It certainly has the potential to become a stronger series, a little bit more well known again and on a stronger financial footing. I think the changes that have been made, we'll see how positive they are, but they needed to be made.
What are your feelings about the street-car races, such as the one in Baltimore?
I think they are some of the best races we have. Taking it to the cities, it's a great atmosphere. I guess the only downside is that it's expensive to build the track for the race weekend, and the most successful ones are the ones that have local and municipal support. Having to pay for everything, it's really hard to make it successful. Unless the municipalities or the states get behind it and realize what they're getting back in tax revenue and local business getting a bump, a private promoter going in, I think it's a tough job.