Book Talk: Author Details PacWest Racing’s Rise and Fall

Speedway, IN — John Oreovicz’s childhood interest in cars was the basis for his career as a motorsports journalist, including more than 25 years with ESPN.com and other racing news organizations. He was already hooked on racing by the time he attended his first Indianapolis 500 more than 40 years ago, and Indy car racing has continued to play a central role in his life.

Now, the Indiana native who lives within walking distance of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has turned his attention to long-form writing about the racing world he documented during his career. He previously collaborated with Gordon Kirby and Tom Morgan on 2004’s A Winning Adventure: Honda’s Decade in CART Racing.

Oreovicz’s new solo effort, just published in August, is Time Flies: A History of PacWest Racing, based on his two-year stint working for owner Bruce McCaw as the organization’s media relations director. We appreciate his time answering our questions about the book.

Bruce McCaw, Scott Dixon and the PacWest team celebrate Dixon’s win at Nazareth in 2001. Photo: PacWest

Does your book cover the Bruce McCaw years or the team’s entire history from 1993 through 2016?

The main focus is on PacWest’s nine-year run in the CART series, from late 1993 to 2001. But the book also delves into Bruce McCaw’s deep appreciation for cars and gives a glimpse into that side of his life. Beyond telling the story of one racing team, it helps explain the challenges that all competitors in Indy car racing faced during a very critical period for the sport. PacWest’s successful Indy Lights team and the title-winning North American Super Touring Championship effort are also profiled. With 344 pages, plus 360 photos and illustrations, it’s pretty comprehensive.

What were your most compelling reasons for wanting to tell the story of PacWest?

PacWest doesn’t have the history or pedigree of Team Penske, Newman/Haas Racing, or Chip Ganassi Racing. However, it is an interesting case study as a start-up in a highly competitive, established industry. PacWest tried to adopt a ‘big picture’ perspective in terms of seeking sponsorship and established several business-to-business practices that are common today.

Some really great people held key positions in the team, including Paul ‘Ziggy’ Harcus, Guillame ‘Rocky’ Rocquelin, Russell Cameron, Steve Fusek, Allen McDonald, and of course the late John Anderson. PacWest was also instrumental in launching Scott Dixon’s Indy car career; Scott won the 2000 CART-sanctioned Indy Lights championship for PacWest, then became the youngest race winner in the sport’s history at the time when he took a victory at Nazareth Speedway in 2001 three months short of his 21st birthday. That record has been eclipsed a handful of times since then, most recently by Colton Herta.

 

You were director of media relations for PacWest during what’s considered its breakout year in 1997. What are some of your favorite memories?

That whole year was a whirlwind because I was learning on the job. I never set out to go into PR; that was a move driven by finances and just trying to get a more solid foothold in the industry after four years of freelancing. For the first half of the season, I probably didn’t know what I was doing, and it showed. The first podium at Long Beach, when Mauricio Gugelmin finished 2nd to Alex Zanardi, helped me settle in.

Spending the race week in Brazil with Mauricio was a treat. Our hosts with Souza Cruz, the tobacco company that sponsored Mo’s car, treated the team to a wonderful experience — beaches, kart racing, and churrascarias. Mo took pole position in Brazil and everyone thought he was on the brink of the team’s first win. Then came the big letdown in Detroit, where both cars tried to complete the race on one pit stop, and both ran out of fuel on the last lap while running 1-2. Greg Moore got a gift that day! Then Mark Blundell won at Portland in what remains the closest road racing finish in the 115-year history of Indy style racing.

After that, we expected to run at the front and compete for wins every weekend. And for the most part, we did. My biggest failure as the PR man was to secure a front row picture at Road America after Mauricio and Mark qualified 1-2. My memory is hazy, but it rained so hard that I don’t think they ever actually gridded the cars. The season finale at California Speedway was simply fantastic. Mauricio ran a 242.333mph lap in practice that is still unofficially the sport’s fastest lap. Blundell won the race, completing a remarkable second half of the season in which he also beat Zanardi in a straight fight to win at Toronto.

My personal highlight was being privileged to accompany the drivers to some prestigious end-of-year awards ceremonies. Mauricio won a Golden Helmet’ award from Autosprint magazine, and I’ll never forget bombing around the Italian countryside wedged into the back of a tiny Ford Puma with Gugelmin, his old friend and teammate Ivan Capelli and Ivan’s girlfriend. Then Mark was honored as British Competition Driver of the Year at the Autosport Awards. Prior to that, Bruce was kind enough to arrange for me to meet Nick Mason at his old Ten Tenths shop near London Waterloo station. The cars were nice, but my biggest thrill was seeing Nick’s hand-painted drum kit from the 1977 Pink Floyd tour…

 

What did you find most interesting about PacWest’s formation?

Bruce McCaw was an accomplished club and vintage racer, but PacWest was his first foray into auto racing as a business, or a professional venture. The book explains how Bruce helped support Dominic Dobson’s Indy 500 aspirations in the early 1990s before becoming the co-entrant of the Burns Racing entry in 1993. The Burns team ran a 1992 Galmer chassis, and they were able to persuade the cars creators — Alan Mertens and Andy Brown — to help them run the car at Indy in 1993.

That’s where the seed was planted for PacWest. McCaw recognized the need for a solid engineering base. PacWest was formed in the summer of 1993 to run a few late-season road races with the ’92 Galmer. McCaw took over Rick Galles’ share of Galmer Engineering, originally intending to revive the Galmer chassis project. That’s an interesting “What if?” that never happened, but PacWest instead committed to a full two-car effort in 1994 using Lola customer chassis.

 

What about interesting aspects during its rise and “heyday”?

I think the rapid rise of the team in 1997 surprised a lot of people, including myself. Clearly, having the right “package” of chassis, engine and tires was the critical factor in the CART series. Firestone was building a huge advantage over Goodyear; the 1997 Mercedes/Ilmor engine was arguably as good as the championship-winning Honda. But the team’s fall from 1998 to 2000 was equally surprising.

PacWest hitched its star to Ilmor/Mercedes, and the engine was simply not competitive or even reliable during those years. Greg Moore was the only driver who ever won a race with the Mercedes ‘E’ or ‘F’ engines, and when Ilmor co-owner Roger Penske dropped the Mercedes engine at the end of 1999, it showed an alarming lack of confidence in his own company’s product. A year later, Penske was series champion with Honda, and PacWest was shaken to the core when Mercedes pulled out of the CART series with immediate effect. With a more stable Toyota engine package in 2001, Dixon showed incredible promise, adding a handful of other top five finishes to his win at Nazareth. But the team was unable to survive the loss of sponsorship from Mercedes and Motorola.

Does the book cover the sale of PacWest to Kevin Kalkhoven and Craig Pollock in 2002 and the subsequent years until it shut down in 2016?

We do cover “After PacWest” in a lengthy sidebar. PacWest team manager Russell Cameron provided Craig Pollock and Kevin Kalkhoven the infrastructure they needed to form PK Racing. We cover the history of that organization through its various personnel and name changes. Cristiano da Matta, Will Power, Tony Kanaan and Sebastien Bourdais all won races for what was eventually called KV Racing Technology, which operated from the old PacWest shop in northwest Indianapolis. It’s an interesting addendum to the PacWest story.

Order your copy from The Racer Store and experience the detailed history of PacWest Racing.