Interviewers: Bob Gardetto and Mike Volkmann
We’d like to thank you very much for joining us here today. We have some very distinguished guests from Cunningham Motorsports, Tom Hessert and Austin Wayne Self, drivers for the #77 and #22 Dodge Chargers for 2013.
Tom: Thank you very much for having us on. It’s a lot of fun. We’re glad to be back with Cunningham Motorsports this year and excited to be back in the Dodge. You know, my teammate there Austin, I got to meet him down in Daytona. We had a nice time and hopefully he has a lot of success this year with our team and 2013 should be a full success for both of us.
Austin, what is your take on being with a new program? Also, what’s your take on being with a veteran driver such as Tom? What do you hope to gain in terms of knowledge and experience from such a widely known organization?
Austin: It’s going to be a really big year for me. We’ve got five races scheduled: Toledo, Road America, Winchester, Iowa and Salem and I think we’re with the best team out there, and getting to work with Tom’s going to be – it’s going to help me out a lot. You know, five years in the ARCA series, he definitely knows a lot about it. Yeah, I'm really excited and hoping for a great year. Hope we can pull off some wins. If not, Top threes.
Austin, you’re competing or were competing in the late model divisions of NASCAR and also the Pro Modifieds. you've got some real good finishes there. What are some of your experiences as far as your best experiences from that and how much of that do you take into the ARCA series with you?
Austin: I think just getting to run around a bunch on different tracks trying to figure out how the tracks are, different drivers, is really going to help me out this year. Getting to run on Richmond, you’re running with some of the big drivers and some of the competitive drivers. I think it’s really going to help me out for the ARCA series. And just being up there in North Carolina I've learned a lot.
Tom, what led you to come back and join Cunningham Motorsports again?
Tom: Well, I was in Cunningham Motorsports back in 2010 and we had an excellent season. You know, won a race, had a bunch of Top fives and Top tens and had a shot at the championship, but eventually finished third. And then the last two years I was driving for Ken Schraeder and had an excellent relationship with him and his team and keep that to this day, but the Cunningham opportunity became available and it was exciting to get back in the #77 car and everything worked out that way. I think Cunningham’s proved over the years that they can win races with whoever sits in those cars, so it’s going to be an exciting season and hopefully we can get down there in Daytona and start the year off right.
We actually had a really good test last week down in Talladega with our superspeedway car and definitely learned some stuff and I think we’re all pretty pumped up and excited to head to the beach next week.
Who’s crew chiefing who? I imagine Paul Anders is with Austin I believe?
Tom: Well, I think Paul’s going to crew chief for the races that Austin is not there and I think Paul has some commitments with the East car, and then if I run the other races where Paul has a commitment, there’s going to be another gentleman, Chad, who worked with the #22 car at the Daytona test. I think Chad will be on board here soon, and I'm pretty sure he’s going to be at Daytona this week working with the #22 car, the team car.
I think Cunningham does a really good job before they leave the race shop and that’s what’s most important. With Paul being kind of the team manager and also in a crew chief role, when those cars roll out the door, the #22 and #77 are so well prepared and so identically prepared that once you get to the racetrack, you know everyone on the team works together so well that I think whoever is crew chiefing will find success.
Last year, Cunningham Motorsports had only one car; how much did they have to expand in order to get a two car team for the season?
Tom: Back in 2010, when I was there with myself in the #77 and Dakota Armstrong in the #22, we ran two full-time teams and I believe it was a 20 or 21 race schedule back then. So we both had our own fleet of cars that we used and cycled out throughout the year where there’d be a dirt car or short track car or intermediate or superspeedway. Even then, we ran two road courses.
So really, the fleet of racecars hasn’t changed at all, and they’ve only added a couple here and there and then strengthened them by only running one car every couple years. The fleet that maybe had some damage or we didn’t run full-time, the team’s been able to get everything up in working order and everything ready to go and geared up to run two full-time teams.
We understand Cunningham is still aligned with Penske, and they are running with the Dodge this year. Has some of that equipment trickled down from the cup series to allow you to run both those cars this year? Or are you running with the R6 engines this year or how’s that working out on an engineering side?
Tom: Well I think that the relationship with Penske is pretty strong and I think beginning to really strengthen in 2009 when Parker Kligerman was there and won a bunch of races. Since then I think we still have time available to use their K-ring, their pull-down rig, and their chassis. With that being said, when Penske switched to a different manufacturer for 2013, their engine shop has remained open to do business for the ARCA team like ourselves and some truck teams. And with that being said, the R6 engine is available to us and I'm sure Austin thinks too having a tie to such a great organization as Penske is definitely a big advantage for us.
Tom, you’re from New Jersey, correct?
Tom: Yes, yes sir.
So you raced up in the Jersey area, then kind of migrated south and started racing more in the East series. you've had quite a group of races here. I've seen you even raced in Grand-Am and you've done some Pro Cup and ARCA. So you’re much more well-rounded than some of the other guys who are out there. Has the road racing side of it helped you more or less when it comes to learning how to handle the aspects or dynamics of the car in everything from the superspeedway side all the way to even dirt tracks?
Tom: I've been so fortunate coming up through racing that I've been able to try out a lot of different types of race cars. You know, you learn a little bit from each one, whether it be an open wheel midget or sprint car, to get a good throttle control or car control, or with the road racing it’s a little bit more technical and intricate on that side. Then the stock car, it’s a lot of… it takes every little bit.
Everything you get to drive, you can learn something from and apply it in a different way. A place like Daytona or Talladega, your experiences from Daytona or Talladega are really the only ones that are going to help you. It’s just a totally different animal. But the little bit of road course background that I do have, that certainly helps when we race the Road America or New Jersey this year. Then the dirt that I raced in the sprint cars and midgets in Silver Crown, that’s great for when we go to Springfield and DuQuoin.
So it’s a terrific series, and one of the great things about it is that we race on so many different types of race tracks. And I've been fortunate enough to have been to most of them now in the ARCA car, and before I was there in the ARCA car maybe I’d been there before in a midget or who knows. But it’s really fun to drive a lot of different types of race cars. I'm always trying to get the opportunity to drive something new. And actually, I got a call yesterday that someone at ARCA signed me up to run a school bus race – figure eight school bus race at the Speedway the day after the midget race. So that’ll be my next type of race to check off on my bucket list.
Austin, with the Legends cars and the Pro Modifieds that you had been racing before, what is the difference in terms of technical feel of the car?
Austin: Well, actually, I haven’t been able to get a Legends car. I started out in go-karts. But I went to Modifieds, I learned a lot with the circle track and short track stuff, but I think – I mean, the races we’re racing this year, that’s going to be a little bit bigger and the car’s a lot different. And I think you've got to be able to adapt and at the end of the day it’s got four wheels and a motor. I think we’ll be able to figure it out, what we’ll do there. But I think when we get to Daytona I think we’ll be well prepared.
Have you gone to anything like Salem or Toledo at all or any of that to get a feel for those tracks? Or will you be doing that soon?
Austin: We’re going to try to. If not, they have the weeks before the race to test. But also we’ll start testing other stuff. But right now, we’ve been to the Motor Mile and we’ve had one or two tests. We had one test actually. We actually haven’t started testing much yet.
Austin, you’re local to me; it’s kind of a small world out here. I'm actually currently the Vice President of the Hill Country Car Club, so you’re definitely a local guy to us and we are rooting for you because you raced with us when you were younger. I'm sure you remember running at HC Casey and at Iron Rock?
Austin: Yes, of course. I think the first place I ever drove a car was at the Hill Country. I think the first time I drove a car I was four at the Hill Country and I raced there for I think about five years, the go kart stuff, and I had a really good time doing that. I had a really great time at Iron Rock. Yeah. I guess it is a small world. I didn’t think I’d ever meet anybody else from Hill Country.
Mike: I figured you’d get a kick out of that real quick. ... You’re a young driver starting to make your way up in the world here. Would you have any advice for any of the young Allpar members or the parents of Allpar members? The parents that are out there thinking about getting their kids involved in motorsports. And is there anything you would do differently?
Austin: Right now I don’t think there’s anything I would do differently. I think the only advice I could give is the advice I think I've done myself, start out in go karts, learn car handling, communicating with the crew chief, telling him what the car’s doing, and I guess trying to get into anything as early as you can and make sure you have a lot of experience before you try proving yourself.
Once you get to the point where you want to make it something you want to do for the rest of your life or for a while and try to get sponsors, get that media stuff going with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, all that stuff. In the long run that’s going to be a big help if not what gets you there.
I see you were able at the Octoberfast event at San Antonio Speedway which was closed for many years, and reopened basically for one race only. Is there a good possibility that you might be able to make the four or five races that they’re going to try to have this year?
Austin: I was there at the race, but I was there with Raymond trying a modified car. I was on the #15 car down there. I qualified second and during the race we got into it… got hit from behind and ended up in the wall early in the race. But I really hope we can make it down there.
We have a bunch of racing stuff going on up here, but I want to go back to Texas and play around and do that. San Antonio’s a really unique track. Never been anything on it at all. You’re not only racing the other drivers, but you’re dodging obstacles on the track? I really enjoyed that and I definitely hope we can make it back there.
Maybe you can convince Cunningham to bring down the equipment and have some fun down here. Bring Tom with you and show…
Austin: I'm sure Tom hasn’t seen a track like that. It’s an old track, beat up, but it’s got heart and the fans there are great. There’s a bunch of fans there and they love racing down there.
Let me jump to Tom; which tracks do you prefer?
Tom: Well I like all race tracks. We seem to go pretty well after superspeedway races which is more of… I'm sure you've heard people refer to it as just a high-speed chess match, but yeah, we seem to go pretty well with those. I enjoy the road courses, the dirt tracks, and we seem to really excel in the short tracks. Like I said earlier, the schedule’s so diverse that we hit every kind of racetrack so it’s a pretty cool series; but if I had to pick, I’d certainly say I’d like to go to Salem or Toledo or something like that. The short track racing’s cool, it’s fun, it’s rough but that’s the exciting part for me. I've always said our TV races, of course Daytona and Talladega and Michigan and all the big intermediate tracks, but the best show is always on your half mile.
Are you looking into getting into NASCAR? Or are you going to get into any of the higher-up levels among that after ARCA? Or is this where you’re comfortable with for the time?
Tom: Well, I love ARCA. It’s a terrific series. I've had a great time racing here in my career but yeah, obviously my goal would be to eventually move on to Truck or Nationwide or something even greater at some point. But right now my focus is on winning next week on the Daytona and see what happens after that.
Greg from Texas, do you have a question for Austin or Tom Hessert tonight?
Greg: Yeah, I have a question for Austin. Hey Austin, I was wondering what you’re looking to improve on for the 2013 season? You did a great job in 2012. I was just wondering if there’s something you’re going to try to focus on for 2013 that’ll put you above and beyond the rest or help you go the extra mile?
Austin: Well Greg, I think the one thing I didn’t do enough last year was win. But I think we’ll do the best we can, Top 3s, and it’s going to be a whole new start. Yeah, I guess if we can, win more races. If not, Top 3s and just do the best we can. Do better.
Tom, you have another partner with you who’s also new to Cunningham Motorsports. What type of driver is Michael and how has he been able to help you or vise-versa?
Tom: I think it’s Michelle. He’s from Nice, France. A lot of his background is in road racing. He was around the ARCA Series a few years ago with Todd Bowsher in the #21 car. I think that his oval experience and certainly American stockcar racing is pretty limited, but you know, he did a really good job at the Daytona and had no issues at all and I was able to kind of help him out the little bit that I could. And we went out and did a couple runs in the pack together in the drift and he did a great job. So I think he’ll have the… I know he’s got a great car. You know, the guys will certainly bring him a good racecar. As long as he stays out of trouble and keeps it on the bottom he’ll be in good shape at the end of the race.
What is generally the plan of attack for you guys when you’re at Daytona?
Tom: Our cars have changed so much in the last couple of years with the rule changes, it’s not like it was back a few years ago, where we had much more horsepower and the cars traveled much more with the rear and the front spring package that we had. Now we’re quite a bit slower by ourselves; you still pick up a lot in the draft. But you know, a couple years ago we were going quite a bit quicker so passing was easier, you had more throttle response, you could do a little bit more.
In Daytona this year, your starting position is going to be absolutely crucial. You’re going to see a lot of people at the beginning of practice, I think practice is four hours on Thursday. It’s four hours with 40-some cars there, and it’s fairly limited as to the amount of cars allowed on the track at once. So you'll see, I'm sure there’ll be a lot of single car runs for first and then once we kind of get figured out with the package we like and we’re confident with our speed and we hit a wall that that’s all we’re going to go, then we’ll switch over, pull some tape off it and let a little bit of air pressure out of it, and go make some race runs. And that’ll encompass getting the pack of five or six guys that we feel like we have a good level of experience and we can trust.
I'm sure our teammate will come with us. You know, a guy like Grant Enfinger who was my roommate for a couple of years, he’s a great driver who is good to go with guys like Frank Kilmer and probably Gilhart. You know, people that you can trust and try to see how your car works around them; see how your car is out in front of the pack; see what the water temperature is when you’re running in the middle of the pack.
You just kind of move around. Everything you try to simulate in practice, it really doesn’t mean anything because once you get in the race and there’s 40 other guys moving around it totally changes the dynamics. But you do as much as you can to prepare and be ready ahead of time.
Austin, because you’re 16 years old you are limited on some of the tracks you can run on. In ARCA, it’s one mile and smaller, correct?
Austin: That is correct. As much as I’d love to go to Daytona and race with Tom this year I'm not going to get to do that for at least another season. We picked out some tracks that would be good and some tracks that I've been wanting to go to and some tracks that I've haven’t seen before, so I’ll be really excited to get on all of them.
Cunningham has both the R5 and the R6 engine. Are they running both, or are they just limiting themselves to the R6? Does one have more advantage than the other?
Tom: Well, I think the R6 is definitely a very promising engine. It’s a compact, neat little unit that I think everyone’s pretty pleased with. It has a lot of advantages, not just as far as horsepower. I think as far as weight distribution, size, the way things are structured inside the engine compartment, everyone likes the R6.
But with that being said, our rule package where we run a spacer at the superspeedways now, or at the intermediate tracks, and an even bigger restrictor at Daytona and Talladega coupled with an 8800 revo meter with the Mallory ignition… Penske this year is just going to try to find the best combination, whether it be the R5 or the R6. And it just depends on how things are working out with the rule package and what they think is going to be best. You know, if they find something here or there, that’s what we’ll run. But as of now I think we’re planning on R6s for Daytona for sure.
Tom, how personally do you know the owners of Cunningham Motorsports? What is Cunningham like as a person, an individual, and/or Kerry Scherer? How do they talk to you or give you advice on running your car versus what Paul Anders tells or asks you to do?
Tom: Well, you know, Briggs just kind of takes on almost a mentor type of role or like a fatherly role. He’s a little bit older than Kerry and has been around racing a long time as has his family. You know, a lot of sports car wins, a lot of different facets of motorsports.
Then Kerry is more of the manager type that you talk to every day, more involved with the day-to-day of the team. You know, I think Kerry and Briggs speak almost every day about what’s happening with the race team and what’s going on, and then the relationship that you have with your crew chief or with Paul, that’s really who I talk to a lot as far as a plan for the race, what’s going on with – what are we doing with our race car? What are we doing with our engines? All that kind of stuff, Paul’s really on top of all that.
Then Kerry, I talk to him a couple times a week, kind of touch base, see what’s going on, give him the recap on maybe when we went testing. Maybe this is what we’re doing. But we have a great relationship.
They’re both very hands-on owners, very engaged with a strong desire to win. They haven’t been able to get an ARCA championship yet and certainly their goal is for this year to accomplish that.
So Kerry’s more involved day-to-day. Does that more include into what Paul Anders does on the inside of things?
Tom: I think Kerry and Briggs are both involved on the day-to-day. Paul is definitely more the engineering mind, more behind the racecar, what actually goes into the car, the preparation on the surface. You can find Paul underneath the car with the rear-end housing or trying to clock a spring the way he wants to. So there’s a lot of stuff that you’re going to find Paul doing that you’re not going to find Kerry doing or Briggs doing, but there’s a lot of stuff you’re going to find Kerry and Briggs doing that Paul won’t do. And the same with me. There’s stuff that I’ll do that those guys won’t. So every person on the team has a role and a job to do and it takes every bit to build a winning organization and that’s what Kerry, Briggs and Paul have done.
Paul Anders himself… he’s had Alex Bowman, he’s had Parker Kligerman, two rookies in the series. Does it take any pressure off of him knowing that he’s got a veteran that he gets to work with now?
Tom: Alex already had quite a bit of stock car experience when he came to ARCA. He ran some races with Venturini at the end of 2011 and Parker’s stock car experience was very limited. When he was there, he caught on very quickly, and they didn’t seem to have any problems, because I think they won like nine races.
Paul’s been a crew chief for a long time. He’s a championship crew chief at the cup level with Alan Corky so there isn’t anything you’re going to throw [at] Paul that he’s not going to have an answer for.
I think that it’ll be nice that I've got a little bit of experience in the back of my mind to pull from and then Paul also working with Cunningham in 2010, he kind of knows… when I came back to the team this year it was like I’d never left. A lot of the same guys were there: Paul was there, Kerry, Briggs, Tim Andrews who’s Paul’s son, Michael Ross, Bob, Steve, a bunch of guys at the shop have already been there and I already knew them. So I don’t really feel like we’re going to go through any awkward transition phase. We should be ready to hit the ground running and go after wins right away.
A lot of our fans know Briggs and his father, especially from way back in the days when his father was running with Chrysler. It was Hemi engines and creating his own cars and whatnot. How much of that love or that association has that trickled down to the cars that you guys build today? Is that one reason he’s staying with Chrysler now, and is it because of that love or is there going to be a need to switch manufacturers later on as time goes by?
Tom: Well I think that the relationship with Penske is certainly part of it. Cunningham Motorsports in general has just been with Dodge for a long time. You know, I don’t really know the origin of it but I think Briggs is so passionate about racing that he’s excited… Briggs will be excited if we’re racing scooters down the front lawn or Indy car racing. So he’s just a fun guy. He’s passionate about life, he’s passionate about racing, and just wants to see his racecar in the victory lane.
you've got the R6 and the R5 obviously. Do you know as of right now what you plan to be running at Daytona next week?
Tom: As of now, we’re going to run an R6 down there. With that being said, we’re just looking for the best package whether it be an R5 [or R6]. You know, an R5 is a great engine, very reliable, but the development that’s been done to it by these bigger teams, it’s pretty much from what I understand pretty maxed out on its potential whereas the R6 is still in its development stages and they’re making it bigger and better every day. But you know, I don’t care what’s under the hood. If it’s an R5 or R6, it doesn’t matter. Whatever’s the best package we can go with for whatever particular function we need to fit the racetrack. And that’s really our plan, and with Penske Racing doing the engines, I know that they’re certainly going to do that.
Austin, the plan for you is to be both doing more of the ARCA and K&N East Series for this year. What do you expect out of running in the K&N East Series versus ARCA that may possibly help you out over time in being able to get to that next level?
Austin: Well, I'm definitely not worried about having the best car. You know, Paul Anders and the whole Cunningham team’s crew here, they have good cars. And rather than staying in ARCA, I'm still not worried about staying in. I think these guys will be able to adapt. I don’t think it’s going to be a huge change for them. They’re really, really smart. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem having a fast car. I just hope I can learn the tracks and figure out the cars quick enough so we can win. I believe we can do that, but it’s a bunch of big-name tracks and hopefully we can get our name out there and take it to the next level.
Do you want to take the time to mention your sponsors at this point in time?
Austin: We’ve got… as of right now we have AM Technical Solutions Enterprise, OTX, and Function Racing. I've got to thank them for giving me a chance to be out here. If it wasn’t for them, if it wasn’t for Cunningham, I wouldn’t be out here driving these big cars. Big thanks to them.
And Tom, you’re involved in Cherry Hill Classic Cars and whatnot. What is your association with them, and are you involved with any other charities?
Tom: Cherry Hill Classic Cars is a local car dealership up there in New Jersey that my family’s been involved with for a long time. As far as charities and stuff, there’s a great charity around Daytona that was one of Paul Newman’s camps. It’s Camp Boggy Creek. It’s… I just had a relationship with a nice woman named Sarah Curtis that was around working in the races when my dad was racing in the late 80s/early 90s and I was just a little guy watching the races. And then when I got old enough she started working at the camp and it’s just always been a thing where I just try to contribute some portion of whatever we were able to win throughout the season.
I'm looking forward to seeing her and maybe some of the camp at Daytona next week and hopefully we’ll be able to make some sort of contribution. You know, whatever we do, it’s just always nice to do something, give back something that we can. It’s for a great cause, and one of the nice things about motorsports is there’s a lot of charity and there’s a lot of giving back to the community.
What kind of track is your primary focus? Does that affect how you set up for upcoming races?
Tom: I wouldn’t say you put any priority on any type of race track. You know, for the championship, you've got to be good everywhere. That’s our goal. Our goal is to be able to go for wins everywhere. Now with that being said, naturally we’re just going to be better at some racetracks compared to others. But when those cars leave the racetrack or leave the race shop there’s no more emphasis on a superspeedway program over a short track or intermediate or road course or dirt. Like I said, it’s like Jimmy Johnson or Brad Keselowski up in the cup series. They don’t put any more emphasis on the road course or the mile and a half. They’ve got to be good everywhere because they all pay the same amount of points.
I want to take the time to thank both of you guys for coming on the show tonight and giving us a little bit of a background as to what’s coming up for the season. We really hope you guys do well for Cunningham Motorsports and also representing Chrysler on the tracks and we hope you guys do very well this year. At this time, we just want to go ahead and wrap the show up.
Tom: Thanks for having me on. Austin, it was nice chatting with you and I guess we’ll see you down in Daytona next week, buddy.
And Austin, thank you very much for coming on the show tonight. Appreciate it much.
Austin: Thanks for having me.
No problem. And Mike, it’s always been a pleasure working with you and we’ll obviously see you more a little bit later as we have more shows coming up.
Also see Dodge, Plymouth, and Chrysler wins in ARCA; re-entering ARCA in 1989 with a V8 LeBaron
Once...as Jerry Olesen wrote..."The cars were production line models, which were reinforced at key points...These days, they race 'cars that never were,' so to speak, and much of the relevance to actual automobiles has been lost. "
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