3-time Grand-Am Champion
Andy Lally has become one of the most versatile, successful and popular racers of his generation. He is already the most successful driver in Grand-Am history, winning races in nine consecutive seasons, including three GT championships and four victories in the prestigious Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He won Rookie of the Year honors in the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season. He has won championships also in the American Le Mans Series, karting, and was the 1997 USF2000 Rookie of the Year. He won a Team USA Scholarship in 1999 and a Streetluge World Championship in 2009.
Andy Lally answers your questions!
What do you think is the most important trait of a racing driver and is it something natural or can it be developed?
There are so many important aspects to being a successful race car driver. Other than just having raw speed, situational awareness, adaptability and being able to stay calm in battle are all great traits that can be learned. One of the most important things a young driver needs to do though is give proper and detailed feedback. The ability to pay attention to what the car is doing while very close to the edge — while at the same time being able to remember those feelings and relay them to the crew once the laps are complete — is incredibly important. All the raw speed in the world will eventually fall to the guy who pays attention to his set up and evolves it all the way up until the green flag. If you can make your car work better than everyone else, you have the best chance to win. Additionally, being able to understand the basic engineering of a race car is also important so that you can communicate with your crew chief or engineer. It will help you evolve as a driver in ways you might not understand now, but in the future you will wonder how the heck you ever got through a weekend. If you are fortunate enough to get paired with a patient crew chief or engineer and he is willing to mentor you, then you must take advantage of it. Ask question after question until you have it down. I have worked with some great engineers in the past, and the ones who like to help me understand what we are doing and why have become my favorites. I’ve been racing for over 20 years and I still find myself asking questions to try and better understand a specific situation.
Do you drive the car to its limits and then worry about the lines, or vice versa? How hard do you push when you’re not in a race situation?
I always drive at least 99 percent. If I am in the process of setting up a car during a race weekend I will usually drive at 99 percent at first to get an idea of how close we are to what we need and then, as I get comfortable, I will intentionally over-drive it to see where the car’s real weakness is. The main difference between how I will drive in practice and the race is my consideration of others on the out-lap and in-lap as well as not taking silly chances to make a pass in practice that I might otherwise take late in a race. Don’t be that idiot who comes flying out of pit lane and holds up a faster car that is up to speed and looking for a clear lap. If you are not on the clock for a lap time, give way. The same goes for your in-lap; if you are coming into the pits, keep your speed and do not get in anyone’s way behind you. Another courtesy is if you are faster than someone and coming up on them during a lap when you’re planning to come into the pits, there is no need to pass them unless there a big speed difference. Even then, make it a clean pass and pull away. Don’t mess up their lap and then pit. You will be remembered for this and people will go out of their way to pay you back. Your tires are not going to drop ten degrees in temperature and your engineer, no matter how whiney he is, is not going to fire you for a slow in-lap.
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As a female in racing, everyone thinks my favorite driver is Danica Patrick. A lot of people don’t seem to take me seriously. How do I show them that I am not just in this for fun and that I want to make it a career?
I’ve seen this before, not with just women but with anyone that is outside of what any specific region’s idea is of what a race car driver should be and/or look like. The simple answer is the same that I would give to anyone trying to stand out and make a career out of this: work your butt off, live and breathe racing, and learn everything you can about your kart or race car — how to fix it, how to engineer it and how to market both it and yourself. Focus on your driving, on the big picture and how you will develop yourself into a champion. I don’t care if you are 5 years old or 50; act like a professional from day one both on and off the track. Take notes, ask questions, get to know the important people in your series and NEVER overlook the people that are helping you race. Be competitive but polite. Making friends and screwing around once work is over is fine. You want to enjoy the journey and the friendships you will make along the way too; just don’t let it interfere with the big picture. There will be plenty of options that will come up both in racing and real life that may be tempting, but also may be extremely detrimental to your career. Take a step back when those moments show themselves and try to figure out those tough choices. As a young driver, those things sometimes are hard to decipher. Asking for advice is never a bad thing.
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What advice would you give to grassroots competitors about acquiring sponsorship from both local and, potentially, national/global companies?
I’m certainly not an expert in this area but in my opinion you need to start with and then build on three things. For a legitimate sponsor to get behind you or your team for business reasons, you need to be able to show an obvious return on investment (ROI). If you can establish that, the second thing you may need to show them is that you are the right image for them and someone that they will be proud to have as an ambassador for their product in whatever media you will be part of. The third thing will come as you interact with people within their organization. Your goal is to try and grow roots and become an integral part of their organization. You will need to build personal relations in a business atmosphere and get to know the guys at the head office — the president, the head of marketing and anyone that will not only be a part of the decision-making process but anyone who may even KNOW these people. These decision-makers are human, they have friends, and they are influenced. When the entire office or department is talking about what a good guy you are and how personable you are, it is a lot easier to keep your deal going year after year.
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f you are part of a two-driver team and your co-driver hands you the car toward the back of the field, how can you get back into contention for the win?
I’ve been fortunate to have success with many different driver combinations, and that success is always due to the fact that the entire team is working well together. With the right strategy, a good pit crew and an engineer or crew chief that you work well with, it is certainly possible to win when you are not at the very front after the first pit stop.
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The Rolex race at Homestead was incredible. How did you manage to keep your car going forward in the monsoon/Atlantic Ocean? I like being on a wet track but those conditions were beyond anything I have ever seen.
I actually did not manage to keep it straight! Maybe straighter than some others but I had a spin in the race coming out of Turn One. I could make a few excuses as to what I think happened but when you have that much water puddling up and you are pushing so hard to get to the lead, mistakes are bound to happen. We came away from an awkwardly rain-shortened race only three points out of the points lead in the Rolex Series so it wasn’t too bad.
What would be your approach to a corner that might be a bit too fast for third gear or not quite fast enough for fourth?
There are quite a few tracks that we visit where there are so many different types of corner that you just can’t have the perfect gear everywhere. For the most part I choose to go up a gear when I run across this problem. If you use a shorter gear, you will usually tend to over-slow the car on the entry to the corner, and you will also potentially have difficulty in getting the power down, too. If you are running a low-horsepower car and you can make a fast up-shift before track-out without losing much forward momentum and/or spinning the tires, that might be worth trying because it will possibly help you carry more speed out of the corner. Sometimes, though, it can be deceptive, and even though you might think you have a better shot out of the corner, it only feels like that because you are starting out a few mph less than what you could have carried if you had rolled the taller gear through the middle of the turn. How much torque you have and what kind of tire you have will also need to play a part in your decision-making process. A high-torque engine might be fine with the taller gear while at the same time not hurting your entry speed or your minimum speed in the middle of the corner. A lower-torque car is likely to be a lot more sensitive. You need to pay attention to your sector times, and if you have data available, try both and make sure you lay one option over the other and compare them. Also, in the race, be prepared to run that lower gear in traffic because while the taller gear might be the best option when you’re on fresh tires and no one else around you, that could certainly change as the race goes on and the tires start to go off. When that happens, you won’t be able to carry the same momentum through the middle of the corner and the RPMs might drop off even more.
I love spending time doing driving simulation but do you think that without the actual seat-of-the-pants feel and the fact that you are relying on your eyes looking at a 2-D monitor, bad habits might be formed? I believe it was Ross Bentley who said, “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”
Like I’ve said in response to some other questions, I do not rely on these myself but if I was in a situation where I had the choice of doing that or nothing, I would certainly choose the sim. For me, personally, seat of the pants is very important, but many others are able to learn without that feel and do it purely on visualization.
What advice would you give a 17 year old that wants to race but hasn’t really had the opportunity?
Karting would be a great start as well as the most affordable. If you are able to put money together but don’t have a huge budget make sure you enter a class that is not too expensive to run. Don’t worry about what the biggest most competitive class is out there, find something you can afford and see how you like the sport before selling everything you own and possibly finding out that the sport is not something you want to pursue. If you have a local race track, go check it out, see if you can find a job working for a team and if nobody is hiring but you have the time, volunteer. Learn everything you can, doesn’t matter if it is a local short track oval or a road course. Find the area that you think you will most enjoy and immerse yourself in it.
How do you get into sponsorships?
Finding a big sponsor is such a difficult thing on a local level, but finding a handful of smaller ones may be the better way to go. Like I said in a previous answer here, you need to show a sponsor return on investment. Try to figure out what businesses in your area would like to advertise to the people in the stands. Local car dealers and repair shops are obvious choices, local restaurants, towing services, anything that might want to sell to the people watching you. You can also try to barter your sponsorship. It may be easier to find someone that will give you product in exchange for sponsorship. Who knows, maybe even finding a local restaurant that you like that will give you a certain amount of money toward meals each week in exchange for their name on your car and your promotion of their place at the race track. A different approach is to find a business owner that is simply a racing enthusiast but does not have any real connection to a team and/or may not know how to get involved. This is sometimes even harder to find but in most cases, the team owners at every race that you go to are owner/drivers or people that are doing it for the love of the sport and just want to be involved.
It seems like there are a lot of clearly illustrated paths to getting into professional series like NASCAR, IndyCar, etc, but I find sports car racing more to my liking. What should I do to try to get into the ALMS or Grand-Am type of racing?
There are many different series that Grand-Am and ALMS teams can draw from. You get drivers transitioning from open-wheel to sports cars all the time as well as drivers coming up the ladder from some of the different feeder series like the Continental Tire Series and MX-5 Cup. I think the Continental Series is a great place to make a name for yourself in sports cars. It’s also one of the best places to look for opportunities for track time. It is one of the healthiest series in the world right now with entries routinely in the 60s, 70s and even 80s. It gains credibility from having many drivers from the Rolex Grand-Am Series looking for seats there as well as manufacturers that want to promote the street-stock concept.
I see many pros really working the steering wheel quickly back and forth during cornering and weight-transfer. Is that to help the car rotate and be ready for a quick correction?
I tell most people the same thing: In like a ballerina and out like a cowboy. The point being, you need to be able to be smooth and on your toes to have the “platform” – the car – as stable as possible on your way to the apex of the corner. Then, once you get your foot to the floor under full acceleration, you do whatever you need to do in order to get to the exit curbing without lifting. If it is a corner where you have to brake – and especially if your tires are showing signs of stress, or wear – you will find yourself in this position more frequently, especially as the horsepower increases. I am not intentionally erratic at corner-exit but I am fine having my elbow out the window, so to speak, if it means I don’t have to lift off the gas. Uninterrupted acceleration is key, and balancing corner-entry speed with corner-exit speed is mega important – not only to your lap time but your race pace and ability to makes passes. There are obviously extremes and you don’t want to be spinning the tires or be drifting the car in a huge slide at exit, but having a bunch of corrections from the middle of the corner to the exit is fine as long as you are faster than the guy you are chasing!
What is the hardest part of getting out of one type of car and into another one?
This depends on how different the cars are. I face this almost every weekend. The Porsche that I drive for Magnus Racing in the Rolex Grand-Am Series is a rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive car with sequential shifting while the Kia that I race in the Continental Tire Series is a front-engine, front-wheel-drive car with ABS and an H-pattern shifter. They couldn’t be much more different! It all comes down to familiarity – and experience. The first few times you do this, I think it’s a good idea to do a little visualization in the time between climbing out of one car and into the next. You just need to reset your brain to whatever differences there are from car to car. It’s not very easy at first but it’s not really a huge deal if you focus. The most important aspect of this is in the braking zones, where you really need to pay attention. The lines, for me, in different cars tend to be similar but obviously there can be big differences in their braking capabilities, and you need to have those straight in your head before you inadvertently get yourself in waaaay too deep into a corner!
Is it ever too late to begin pursuing a career in motor racing? At 28, the local indoor kart track has become quite the addiction. But is it too late to take my passion any further?
I don’t think it’s ever too late, but it certainly won’t be easy. It’s difficult to make the transition from a hobby to a career, and it takes time, too. If you do not have a family depending on you for income and you have the financial means to support yourself during the years of training that it will take to find out if you are capable of landing a job in the sport, then I would certainly say to go for it. There are many top sports car drivers that have carried their careers well into their 50s and still have great speed and expertise. Mark Martin, Scott Pruett, Randy Pobst, Craig Stanton, James Weaver, Andy Wallace and Spencer Pumpelly are all guys in their 50s that can still get it done on the race track. [Editor note: Inside joke on Spencer Pumpelly!]
What do you think is the best thing a driver can do to improve his or her driving other than seat time?
If you can’t get on a real race track, I would certainly try to spend time on a simulator of some sort. Sim training is by far the cheapest form of “track time” that you can get and it can be great fun, too! In addition to that I would work on my cardio and overall conditioning. Being calm behind the wheel and able to endure high heat and high heart rate for a long time will keep you from making mistakes and losing focus. This will obviously help you retain more of what you are trying to learn. I love doing long-distance mountain bike rides as opposed to other forms of running or riding. You need to stay focused on the mountain bike ride, keep your eyes up and even choose the right line. I wear a full-face helmet when I do this not only for protection but for a little bit of an additional neck work out. Find a good downhill helmet or get one of IMPACT Racing’s pit crew helmets which is what I use.
What’s your favorite strategy for passing other cars on a road course?
Well, it depends on the track and the car. Your goal, obviously, is always to find your way by as quickly, safely and efficiently as possible. It can be almost anywhere – for example, under braking or setting up to get a better exit from a corner or drafting down a long straight. When it comes down to it, the amount of time remaining in the race, the durability of your car, plus urgency (or lack there of) to advance your position depending on a possible championship points situation can help sway your decision-making progress. If we are strictly talking about getting by the next car in front of you without regard to anything else, I simply put myself where he isn’t. If I’m coming through a field, I can usually tell where I have an advantage over my competition, and if it’s a pretty heads-up fight I will try to take advantage of the other car where I am the strongest.
I have driven on the track for a couple of years in a Spec Miata, a Porsche 993 and now a Lotus Cup Car. I got my NASA racing license through MMC but have not officially done a race yet. How do you prepare for your first race and how do you know when you are ready?
If you’ve done the schools and you have earned your license, the next step is all in your head. You just need to get to the point where you want to step into the ring and see how you measure up. The build-up is actually much more intimidating than when you actually take the green. Like any other epic challenge in life, where your life itself is not on the line you need to simply look at it as an awesome experience and a chance to do something that billions of people that have walked on this planet would love to be able to do. If it doesn’t go as well as you wanted, don’t worry about it; just be happy you gave it a shot. Trust me, if you’ve come this far, I think you will really enjoy the experience.
Can you make a brief comparison between driving karts and cars? Do you drive them similarly or do they require different styles?
For road racing especially, karting is the best first step you can take. The transition to lightweight formula cars from karts is not very tricky but there will certainly be some subtle differences in feel and feedback. The biggest thing you need to get a feel for is the additional weight in a car. Next would be the slower reaction to steering input because of the differences in suspension – there isn’t any in a kart, of course – and the tires. This also means slightly slower reaction to recovering when you get behind. Pay attention very closely to that last sentence. As the cars you drive move up in weight – and especially if you move to sports cars which, in general, have a higher center of gravity – these traits will be even more exaggerated. You will need to adapt your braking technique a bit and probably need to use a greater percentage of focus on braking then you had in karts.
How has what you learned in your Mixed Martial Arts training helped you in your racing career, and vice versa?
I primarily train in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu but I do train in MMA every once in a while. I use this as a good portion of my cardio training, although my mountain biking is probably a little better tool for this. Fortunately, the Jiu Jitsu and MMA have yet to be tested at the race track 🙂 but for sure my ability to stay calm under pressure has helped me in my training and in my tournaments.
What is one racing series, past or present, that you would most like to drive in and why? And what has been your favorite vehicle to drive and why?
I love driving in the Sprint Cup Series. The races are so intense and it is a very fulfilling feeling when you know you have put forth your best effort throughout a 500-mile race. It is the biggest challenge I have ever faced, on the biggest stage, and it is a blast. The cars handle and brake like dump trucks and accelerate like rocket ships. As far as what series I would like to run? I would have loved a shot at the Trans-Am back in the day. If someone was able to bring that back and we were able to get really big fields, I would jump at a chance to race there. You are essentially taking a Sprint Cup car and relieving it of 1000 pounds but keeping the horsepower. You can beat and bang on each other and have a blast. I love that!
I want to get into racing engineering. Where should I start? Would it be better to go to school and try to enter at a professional level or start by working full time with local, small racing teams?
Doing both is VERY important. The engineers that I have worked with that are fresh out of school but very new to a race track usually take a while to adapt to the many different aspects of race strategy. Conversely, while some of the guys that have started in race shops and learned by looking over the shoulder of a mentor may be limited in terms of their theoretical knowledge, they have an abundance of real-world experience. You will learn things at the track that you won’t in school and vice versa…. It’s just like in real life; you have book smarts and street smarts. If I was to really set a game plan, I would probably start out by spending at least one “semester” working with a race team. If you do this it will help you 1) see how much you need to learn, while at the same time helping you focus and connect the dots when in school, and 2) you will see if you really want to do this in the first place before getting a degree in a field you may find you don’t want to work in. Crew members and engineers don’t keep banker’s hours. Most of these guys and girls pull early mornings and late nights on a regular basis. It’s tough work!
Is there anything that you can learn on a simulation or game that applies into real-world racing? Are there things that simulators can’t carry over to the real world?
Simulators are different for each person. Personally, I don’t find them particularly useful, other than helping me to learn a track layout, but to be honest I think I am more the exception than the norm. I must admit, I used a simulator to get ready for my first visit to Le Mans and it was incredibly helpful to just remember all the turns around an eight-mile track. I used Gran Turismo – not even anything special – but it was a great learning tool. Other than that one track, I haven’t found simulators to be especially useful. Like I said though, I am probably in the minority. My friends Spencer Pumpelly, Ryan Eversley and Eric Foss use a sim very effectively and can get used to not feeling G-force and driving more with their eyes. Eric has even done private coaching via sim and had very good results with his students. On the oval side of things, Josh Wise and Landon Cassill both told me they would practice on a simulator before Sprint Cup events last year and would even make setup changes based on notes that they got from their crew chiefs for the real cars.
There are a few like me who just don’t see much benefit, but there are many more out there that would say they are a big plus. The sims are getting better and the physics models are getting more accurate. I’m sure as they progress it will get more and more realistic.
How can you tell the difference between whether your driving technique is off or the car setup is off?
Sometimes this can be very tricky. If I ever have any doubt in my mind, I usually try to make a change to what I am doing and see if there is a reaction in the way the car feels. I may go through this process a few times before I concentrate on trying to fix the car. Sometimes it is obvious when something is wrong, but I learned a lot about this last year when I went to many new tracks on the Cup circuit and each one of them had some quirky line or style that I needed to learn to go fast. For the most part, the more time you spend in a car, the quicker you can identify what the problem is. There’s no doubt that communication with your crew is key. I recommend making a lot of notes every time you go out in a car, and making sure you verbally pass on ALL of your feelings about the car – the good, bad and indifferent. If you have a good, analytical crew chief/engineer that is paying attention, he or she should be able to spot a trend and work with you to figure out whether you need to change your driving style or make a change to the car.
What’s your dream job, Andy, driving or otherwise?
I’m living my dream job. I consider myself to be one of the most fortunate people on this planet to get to do what I do every week. Not just because it is exciting but because I love what I do. I’m not saying it is as pure is it was when I was younger – and it certainly gets even tougher as people expect more from you, especially when you expect more from yourself – but I constantly think about how fortunate I am to have been given the opportunities that I have been given, and I’m very thankful to those who have given them to me. NEVER get bitter in this business. I’ve seen so many good drivers develop bad attitudes because one guy got a ride they felt like they deserved, but I’ve learned that is a disease that will spread through you like a plague. You should be thankful for every chance you get, don’t burn bridges and no matter how small the job that someone is doing for you, a simple and genuine “thank you” goes a long way. I remind myself often that times may be tough at a particular point but that there are 1000 kids waiting in line to take my job – and if I’m going to get a bad attitude about things, there’s a good chance one of those kids is going to get his shot at my expense.
What is the best way to promote yourself on a low budget?
This is such a tough question even though that’s exactly what I had to do myself. It really depends on how much experience you have and what you really mean by low budget. When I was starting out I had one simple goal: Get noticed in a positive light.
If by low budget you mean you can find enough to race occasionally or in an entry level feeder series, I would go with as close to a spec series as you can find that has decent rules in place so there seems to be a level playing field. You should make it coincide with the direction you want to go in your career, too. Or, if you are smart, make it coincide with where you think might offer your best odds of getting a job.
If you mean REALLY low budget, like you’ve done some racing but have no money to move up to the next step but you do have enough to get a plane ticket and go watch the race, then face-time is still a good thing. Get to the track, introduce yourself to team owners and reintroduce yourself again next week, and even if you think they remember your name, remind them again, because the odds are they don’t! Also, don’t take up too much of their time – I recommend under 60 seconds the first few times unless they instigate more conversation – but let them know what you want to do with your life. Your pressed khakis and tucked-in polo shirt may not go very far and you may not be remembered the first time around, but they will eventually get to know you. It’s tough. There’s no easy way around it. You will get shot down over and over and over. There will be some embarrassing moments when someone sees you, remembers that you are the kid that introduces themselves every week, and they will turn the other way or step into the hauler and close the door. Rejection sucks, but get over it! The timid ones aren’t going to make it in this business and you will need thick skin throughout your career, so anything you can do to build it up will help you in the long run. I’ve gone through all of this myself and I watch kids go through it today. I remember how much it stinks and how awkward it is to repeat the process with seemingly no light at the end of the tunnel…until, maybe, one day the luck goes your way and you get the opportunity you’ve been searching for. I got lucky by meeting some of the right people at the right time. Not everyone gets that lucky, but the more effort you put in, the more likely you are to get lucky!