Originally created 03/02/00

Richert building from scratch



HAMPTON, Ga. -- There wasn't a tool anywhere around the Atlanta Motor Speedway Monday that could help Doug Richert fix his driver's biggest problem -- frustration.

Richert, who turned wrenches for Dale Earnhardt during his rookie season in 1979, knows his role as crew chief at PPI Motorsports calls for equal doses of mechanical savvy and emotional soothing.

It is a daunting task to start a race team on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series from scratch, and to do it with a driver who, for the past 10 years, has raced in cars without a bumper or a roof.

"This is still a people sport," Richert said. "People build the cars; people race the cars. And it's important to keep people happy, to keep the morale of the team up."

That's why Richert spent as much time consoling rookie driver Scott Pruett after a grueling test session at Atlanta as he did directing a crew of 18 mechanics and computer technicians during the afternoon.

"Scott's frustrated. I'm frustrated," Richert said. "But we knew we'd struggle, especially early. We can't lose focus of the big picture. There's only been two races this year, so it's not time to panic."

Pruett's competitiveness won't allow him to be patient during his 180-mph cram session. A 10-year veteran of the CART IndyCar circuit, the 39-year-old driver now finds himself playing catchup in a sport that waits for nobody.

"This has been an experience," he said. "We knew it would be a huge hurdle for us. Right now, it's hard to see the forest through the trees. We knew it was going to be a struggle, especially since we just started building cars last September and we're going to a lot of race tracks that I've never seen. But I'm a racer. We're competitive. All you think about is running up front. It's hard to be patient."

Monday's session at Atlanta gave Pruett much-needed seat time on one of the toughest and fastest raceways on the stock car circuit. The team used a car built especially for the Daytona International Speedway and, as expected, it wasn't nearly as quick as a pair of intermediate cars that already were on their way to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Sunday's CarsDirect.com 400.

The Atlanta race is next week.

"I just wanted Scott to learn the line around here and to get some laps," Richert said. "What we need most is confidence. Until we get around to all the tracks once or twice, it's going to be a struggle."

Pruett had no trouble making the starting lineup for the season-opening Daytona 500. He started 15th and was on the lead lap in 19th-place as Dale Jarrett crossed the finish line.

A week later, Pruett's momentum hit the wall -- literally. He crashed one car at the North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, N.C., then he failed to make the 43-car starting lineup in a backup car.

"We've come a long way, but we've still got a long way to go," Pruett said. "I had never been to Rockingham before, and it was real hard to compete against guys who'd been going there for 20 years.

"Today is the first time I've been to Atlanta. I still have to go to places like Martinsville (Va.) and Bristol (Tenn.) and Darlington (S.C.) for the first time, too."

PPI Motorsports had seven computers at Monday's test session, each leftovers from the CART season. They mapped out telemetry a mile long, but Pruett said the most important information being gathered during the day was getting "a seat-of-the-pants" feel for Atlanta's high banks and short straightaways.

Pruett won a pair of IMSA GTO sports car championships and a SCCA Trans-Am sports car championship. He's spent the past 10 years on the CART Series, driving to a pair of open-wheeled victories.

The stock car series was rocked last summer when high-profile sponsors McDonald's and Tide announced they were dropping from race teams owned and driven by Bill Elliott and Ricky Rudd. Both sponsors then surprisingly signed with Cal Wells' PPI Motorsports, a racing operation that concentrated on the CART IndyCar Series and never had been involved in stock cars or the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

Wells offered the Tide ride to his IndyCar driver, and Pruett jumped at the opportunity. McDonald's remained with Elliott for the 2000 season as well as sponsoring a PPI Motorsports Ford for Anthony Lazzaro on the NASCAR Busch Series. Next year, Elliott will be on his own and Lazzaro, a sports car driver, will advance to Winston Cup.

"I was content with driving CART for the next four or five years, then retiring," Pruett said. "Then this came along. I've thought about this a couple times. I've talked about doing this before, but this was the first time I really had the chance.

"A few years ago, there wasn't any way I was going to drive Winston Cup. Cal wasn't interested in Winston Cup. All of a sudden, this deal came together. I'm here for the long haul. I'll be here three years -- good, bad or indifferent."

For now, it's a struggle. With no owner points from 1999 to qualify for provisional exemptions, Pruett knows he has to race his way into the starting lineup during time trials.

"There's not a lot I can use from IndyCars except the actual experience of racing," Pruett said. "The cars are totally different. I'm used to running 220-230 mph (in an IndyCar), but I also had a lot of downforce. These cars are big and heavy and slide around a lot. It's taking time to get used to a stock car. I know, eventually, we're going to be all right. The problem we have is we're all impatient. We want to run up front now."

Richert has worked with other rookies who turned out just fine. Earnhardt went on to win seven NASCAR Winston Cup Series Championships. Davey Allison, Jimmy Spencer and Kevin Lepage all got their starts with Richert.

"The last week has been all part of the growing pains," Richert said. "We didn't think this would be easy -- and we were right."

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@mindspring.com.

RACING FACTS

Next at race: CarsDirect.com 400 (Third of 34).

When: Sunday, 2:30 p.m.

Broadcast: Television - ABC; Radio - Motor Racing Network.

Where: Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The track: 1.5-mile quad-oval.

Last year's winner: Jeff Burton.

What it takes to win: There have only been two races at Las Vegas and both winners followed the same storyline - they were aboard Fords prepared by Jack Roush. Mark Martin won in 1998, and Burton followed in 1999. The raceway is wide, smooth and fast. Handling is a key, but horsepower is paramount. The cars that can exit the second and fourth turns at full throttle are the ones that will contend for the victory.

Morris News Service pick: Bobby Labonte.

Others to watch: Dale Earnhardt, Martin, Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton and Ward Burton.

Other major races: Saturday - Sam's Town 300 (NASCAR Busch Series) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.