Kirby on Kneifel

Gordon Kirby talks to Chris Kneifel about life as CART's chief steward

Kirby on Kneifel

New chief steward Chris Kneifel has quickly shown this year that he is one of CART's strongest suits. The 39-year old Kneifel raced for more than twenty years in Formula Ford, Formula Atlantic, Champ cars, GT and sports cars before retiring earlier this year to begin his new career as CART's chief steward. He's already mandated a probationary period for Gil de Ferran after de Ferran ignored a black flag in Japan and then pulled Tora Takagi out of the race in Milwaukee for dangerous driving. Then after last weekend's race in Toronto Kneifel penalised Takagi again and also placed Paul Tracy on probation after both were involved in multiple incidents in the Canadian street race.

"It wasn't just from looking at videotapes," Kneifel said of the Toronto penalties. "I talked to a lot of people, eyewitnesses if you will, and also spent a lot of time conferring with close associates, people inside CART, just to make sure the measures were appropriate and so I could push the right buttons and send the messages I wanted to send.

"I also wanted to be careful to not overstep and inflict too harsh a penalty. That was the main thing to make sure appropriate measures were taken and I think they were pretty much spot on. I'm very comfortable with where we are."

Kneifel told Tracy and Takagi in recent days that there are specific details to their probationary periods which he won't discuss publicly.

"Fundamentally, I'm not a big fan of probation," Kneifel noted. "You hear the word probation and my interpretation if I where a driver in this series would be that it's just a word that's pretty meaningless. So what I did with their probation is add terms to it, which are very clear. Attached to the terms are what they're looking at if they don't comply. That is between me and the teams and the drivers, but they aren't hollow probations.

"That's also what led me to taking away points because I didn't want to say simply, you're on probation. I felt very strongly that I wanted to do something that had legitimate teeth in it. Then it was just a matter of making sure that I was in the ballpark in terms of what I was doing."

Kneifel says he believes the loss of points is a much more effective penalty than a straight financial fine. "To me the teams and the drivers can afford the money. It doesn't hurt them. Points is what it's all about. Points are hard to score in this series and they're pretty damn valuable.

"Do you think Dario Franchitti would like to have one more point from two years ago? (The Scot finished on equal points with Juan Pablo Montoya in 1999, but lost out on the title because he had fewer wins). Potentially, at the end of the day, two points is a big deal. It could be a lot of money. Only the future will tell that, but the intent was for the points to have an effect dollar-wise and to send a clear message."

Kneifel talked with Tracy this week. "I had a real nice chat with Paul on Thursday morning. We talked for probably a half-hour and I said to him what I wanted him to do is go out and win one of the road course races and I want him to do it in the right way. I said, you can do it Paul. You can win any one of them, if not all of them, because the guy's got the ability to do it and to do it the right way. I think he's pretty clear where I'm coming from and that's why his probation doesn't include this race (Michigan) or Chicago because the areas of concern I have with him are on road courses."

He's also had some conversation with Takagi although language differences with the Japanese ace meant Kneifel had more detailed discussions with Takagi's team boss Derrick Waker and engineer Rob Edwards.

"I've had more conversation with Derrick Walker and Rob Edwards than directly with Tora," Kneifel readily admitted. "The language is definitely an issue. There were a couple of things I did communicate with Tora. Number one, the deck is not stacked against him. He still has to perform to the best of his ability and try to achieve maximum results. That's what he's here to do and I want him to be able to do that and I don't want to stand in his way or the team's way.

"Has he got something hanging over his head? Yes, he does. I assured him he would be treated fairly. I'm not laying in the weeds for him, or anyone else for that matter. As far as I'm concerned he's got a clean sheet of paper but he can't afford to mess up. He can't do what's been done before and I'm pretty sure he understands that.

"The other thing I encouraged him to do was to try and mend some fences in the paddock. I think that's important. These guys have to be able to live together out on the track. They have to have a high level of trust in each other and right now that's probably his biggest issue."

Kneifel wants to steer CART towards having fewer, shorter full-course yellows on the events held on road and street courses, as well as improving the way stranded cars are removed from dangerous positions on the track.

"The guys on the safety team will hang it out for the drivers and if we can give them some tools to help them. We can not only reduce the number of full-course cautions, but we can reduce the time. We can become more efficient in general.

"In terms of cranes, that's an idea that people throw out all the time. I think we have some fairly serious issues in terms of feasibility just because of the track layouts. That doesn't mean it's not worth looking at. It may not be like Formula 1 where it's universal, but if we can pick and choose our spots, that might be a good thing, even if it's just getting the wrecked cars out of there sooner and helping with the clean-up."

Kneifel says CART will continue to be more inclined to get stalled but undamaged cars back in action. A perfect example was last weekend's race in Toronto where Michael Andretti fell to the back of the field because of a first lap incident and came back to win the race.

"CART's history has been that if we can get guys going if their cars aren't damaged we like to do that, as evidenced by our Toronto winner. That was a classic example of why we do that. If it was a matter of grabbing Michael's car with a crane he would have been out of the race. As it was, it was probably one of the best stories of the year.

"So we don't want to totally emulate Formula 1, because we're not Formula 1. We're Champ cars. I think there are a lot of things that make our series very unique and very exciting that don't need to be changed, but I do think we need to become more efficient with less yellows and shorter yellows."

After five months on the job Kneifel says he's learned a lot. "I think probably the thing that I've struggled most with is the fact that my heart's in it so much. I really care about all the guys in the teams and the drivers and the volunteers and employees of CART. Making sure that this thing is as good as it can be means a lot to me. Between the headaches and the stomach aches, that's where I have to learn to control that balance and that was something that I really wasn't prepared for.

"It's important to me that this is right, particularly for the drivers, but I'm very pleased with the relationships that are being established, and it's a continuing process, with the teams and drivers. You have to be a bad guy sometimes but I think my style is not going to be yelling and screaming and raising a ruckus. When I have to be firm I'll be firm and the messages are the firm ones.

"I don't think I have to be a jerk to get my point across. That's just not my style. I'm sure there may be sometime when I have to come unglued a little bit, but I haven't got there yet and I guess I ultimately would hope that it doesn't come to that.

"The drivers and teams can come and see me any time if they're not happy with something or somebody or something that I've done, or a ruling or call. I know when it falls against a guy, I'm not going to expect him to be happy. That's obvious. I can fairly easily anticipate the guys that are going to be cranked off about something. So I haven't been surprised yet with someone's presence knocking on my door.

"The one thing I'm trying to do is make them feel like they can come and get their thoughts out and try and make it constructive. That doesn't mean that I always have to agree with them. Nor does it mean that they're necessarily right, but I think they deserve the opportunity to have a voice. And I think ultimately it makes me better and I think it'll make the series better.

"I can tell you that this approach is something that is very different than Wally and Kirk have done in the past. It's not me being soft on anything. I've never once changed a decision. I'll stand by it. I've had a lot of the team bosses say they almost feel bad that they're grinding on me so much and I said, don't. That's your job. This is what it's all about. You guys need to play that game and you've got to have your oar in the water. If I want you to bug off, I'll tell you to bug off, but the bottom line is that I value their opinion.

"These are the guys that are in the trenches. The drivers are the guys in the front lines and they know what's going on. They all have their own agendas and my job is to figure out what their agendas are and subtract that from what they're saying, and somewhere therein lays the truth.

"This is one of the areas in terms of CART changing that I have to sell internally. There's still the notion that when someone is upset that we've had a call that so and so passed under the yellow or car X should be in front of car Y and someone's upset about that, and I sit down and talk with them and then when I go back and speak to my people inside CART and discuss what we did and ask was this the right call or not, there's a little resistance there.

"I think people tend to take things personally and if people are upset with the situation or a call that I made, I don't take it personally. I think if I can sell this inside CART it will make us stronger.

"I can tell you that this approach is vastly different than what goes on in any other sanctioning body because I guarantee you there isn't one that's willing to say we could have done that one better or to admit where we screwed up. If I made a mistake I'll say I made a mistake and I'll stand by it because I don't profess for one second to be perfect, nor do I profess that all of our systems are perfect.

"I'm willing to stand up and say that call wasn't as good as it could have been, or it wasn't fair, or we flat out blew that one. That's the human side to it. It happens, and I think at the end of the day that makes us stronger rather than just saying, tough luck, that's how it is, get lost. Then you never go through the process of being introspective and saying, how can we get better?

"I think these teams and drivers deserve the best, and I'm not suggesting for a moment that they're not getting the best because they are getting the best efforts of a fantastic group of people. But you've got to raise the bar and you have to keep pushing yourself to make that happen. I'm trying to push us internally to force some of that and that's not always the easiest thing to do, but we'll get there. I just have to do that by leading by example. That's probably the best way I can do it."

Kneifel says he's discovered he has to take a much wider view in his new role than he did as a driver. "The one thing that's quite different even coming to tracks that I'm very familiar with, having raced on them many times, is that now I'm looking at them as a chief steward, not as a driver. In my own mind I almost say I've got rookie stripes on too because everything that I'm looking at now is just a totally different viewpoint. As I become more familiar with the facilities and so forth my head is in a totally different area. The focus I had as a driver really was so narrow and this is so broad, so it's pretty different.

"But I think having the racing background helps a lot--just being in control. Knowing what these guys heads are thinking at certain times of the race is very beneficial."

Kneifel says he believes the drivers and everyone in CART is slowly beginning to understand and accept his approach. "As some of these penalties come down I think word will get out around the paddock that I want to run a pretty tight ship. They have to learn what my expectations are and what my thresholds are and to push the limits. That's what it's all about.

"Now we're starting to get through the year it's not that I look forward to that, but hopefully the message will get out that things are really different than they were in the past. And really, I'm giving the drivers what they're asking for. I'll give them that strong hand of leadership and strict enforcement. I'll give that to them and it's just a matter of them learning how I operate."

In the politically turbulent world of CART, Chris Kneifel could perhaps be the best thing that's happened in years.

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