In a Racing.GT exclusive, Bentley’s Guy Smith remembers his brief spell as a Champ Car racer with Rocketsports back in 2004 and explains why after winning Le Mans in 2003, it didn’t live up to expectations.
I’d been racing in British Formula 3 in ’96 and ’97 and didn’t really have the money to do Formula 3000, so I was wondering where I would go next. I went over to Laguna Seca to have a look at Indy Lights at the end of ’97 and thought it was really good – Cristiano Da Matta was there, Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, it was really taking off. I met Stefan Johansson there, we got chatting and to cut a long story short, we did a deal to do Indy Lights for 1998, where I won a couple of races and finished third in the championship.
The following year I did Indy Lights again. At that point, I hadn’t even thought about sportscars or Le Mans, I was just focusing on CART, but I had no deal, no money, no nothing, so in 2000 I did the sportscar programme with Stefan, I went to Le Mans and then the Bentley thing happened.
— Guy Smith (@TheGuySmith) May 26, 2014
But in 2004, I obviously kept an eye on Champ Car still and an opportunity came up with Paul Gentilozzi at Rocketsports. He had a driver who had paid for the season, but walked out halfway through, so the drive was already partially funded. I thought ‘that sounds like a great opportunity’ and we did the deal, but it was a mixed year.
Nelson Philippe was the guy before me who had left. He wasn’t that experienced and I thought he wasn’t getting the results because he was in above his head, but when I got there, I realised there was no engineer and the car had been crashed that many times on the ovals and patched back up again that it wasn’t much good.
When I got there, after being with Bentley and doing that programme, it was like a step down. I’d always looked up to Champ Car, but when I actually got there it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. The Indy Racing League at that point had all the momentum, Ganassi and Penske had both gone there and the main teams that were left were Newman Haas and Forsythe.
I remember Road America was my first time driving a Champ Car. I was going down the straight on the rev limiter in sixth thinking ‘Jeez, I’m flying, this is really good!’ then I went through the last couple of corners and had a massive moment. I came down the pitstraight and they were all on the pitwall waving at me, because one of the end-plates from the wing had fallen off, which is why I was going so quick on the straight… That was a baptism of fire!
The IRL had more ovals than road courses, whereas Champ Car was the road course series, but we still did a night race on the oval at Las Vegas. I actually really enjoyed it, it’s a unique challenge when all you’ve ever done is road racing because you have to learn completely a new skillset. Alex Tagliani was my team-mate and I got on with him really well, but unfortunately it was a team that was winding down and there were a lot of old parts kicking around. The following year, Ryan Hunter-Reay drove the same car and he didn’t qualify higher than 7th all year, so in some respects for me it made me think ‘I’m not such an idiot’ after all.
The good thing is that when that finished, it made me realise that I’ve ticked the box. Back in ’99 when I was doing Indy Lights with Forsythe, Naoki Hattori had a big crash in the first race at Homestad, so Derrick Walker rang me up to ask if I’d be interested in doing two or three races while Naoki recovered. I did a shootout with Memo Gidley for the drive and I was half a second quicker than him, so Walker rang me up afterwards and said ‘you’ve got the drive, can you come here to do the seat fit?’ But then at last minute, Honda said ‘actually we’re going to take Memo because he’s an American and we need to promote an American driver.’ I’d already told Forsythe I was leaving, so it was all a bit messy!
I also came quite close in 2000 when I was driving for Stefan [Johansson]. Robin Heard had some backers and was trying to put a deal together to do the Indy 500. It was all going to be branded as March, they were going to relaunch the name and I was going to drive. I did the rookie test at Indy with Al Unser as my coach and it all went really well, but unfortunately the money didn’t come through for the race. We were going to the bank every day but it never actually happened. To this day, no Smith has ever raced in the Indianapolis 500, which for such a common name is incredible!
I fleeted with it a little bit, but then when I started racing at Le Mans, it made me realise that sportscars were the way forward – it helped me focus forward and not to look back and think ‘I wish I’d done this’. I would have liked to have done Champ Cars in a really good team, but sportscars are what I enjoy and what I wanted to do. There were good and bad parts, but it was a cool experience.