Steve Dickson: “We’re Really Excited to Get Into a Series Like Red Bull GRC”
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing is one of America’s most successful race teams, with numerous race wins and championships in both IndyCar and sports car racing. RLL general manager Steve Dickson has been an integral part of those successes, working with team owner Bobby Rahal during his driving career in the 1980s all the way to overseeing the team in its current state.
But while open-wheel and GT racing are familiar realms for the organization, Red Bull Global Rallycross will represent a new challenge for the team. In an exclusive interview, Dickson explains the team’s attraction to the series, why Austin Dyne is the right fit for the team, and the short and long-term goals of the program:
For the first time, Red Bull Global Rallycross gets to welcome Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing to the grid in 2017 as its newest entry. Around the RLL shop, how much enthusiasm is there for your move into the series? What makes this a good time for RLL to add Red Bull GRC to its already strong IndyCar and IMSA programs?
Certainly, I think there was enthusiasm when we mentioned that we were going to be doing this to the guys. This is a team concept, whether it be anything from our IndyCar program to our BMW program, we want to integrate everything into it as a team. We’re really excited to get into a new series like this. We went to a couple of the races a couple of seasons ago, talked to the competitors, and we came back with the news, relayed the news to the guys here.
Of course everyone has seen it on TV, and it’s exciting—it’s kind of the cool thing going right now, that’s for sure, and everybody’s eager to be a part of it. From our standpoint, we’re in the business of racing, we have been for a long time, and with our business, we’ve been successful. We certainly hope to bring that to the table in the GRC series.
You’re going to be working with Austin Dyne and the capable M-Sport chassis platform for the 2017 season. How much have you had an opportunity to speak with Austin, or watch him drive? What makes this the right combination of team, car, and driver?
Obviously, Austin is bringing some experience that he’s had with the series to our team. What we can bring is—I hate to generalize, but as I mentioned before, we’re in the business of racing. We can go racing and kind of bring the things that Austin can capitalize on to the table, and make this a successful season for him.
For three decades, you’ve worked with Truesports and RLL and seen some incredible successes in open-wheel and sports car racing. But rallycross is a much different animal from either of these two sports. How will you have to prepare differently for these events than you would for an IndyCar or IMSA event, and what principles remain the same?
I’m kind of an old school guy when it comes to racing. I always feel that you have to cover the basics, and no matter what kind of program, first and foremost is preparation. I think that’s one of the big things that we can bring to the program, that type of preparedness with the car and optimizing everything before we get there. That’s going to take some testing and some various input from some of the vendors and manufacturers that help supply the car at the events.
I think that can just be the focal point of all of those different inputs. It’s the same thing we did when we got into sports car racing. Our forte had always been IndyCars, and we’ve always operated an IndyCar team, really since the early 1980s in association with Bobby as a driver. I think we’re going to bring our basic racing experience to all that, but we are going to rely on Austin, and we are going to rely on some of the engineers as part of the team he had last year. And that should be a good plug-and-play type thing, where we can maximize some of what Austin has been doing.
While this is your first year working with the M-Sport chassis, it will be Austin’s third season driving the car. How much does the team need to lean on the driver in this case to get comfortable with the new machinery? How much testing time do you expect to have before the season opener in Memphis to gather a notebook on setups and the like?
I think the program has come together a little bit late, so I’m not going to say we’re behind the 8 ball in regards to that, but certainly any program would like to have a little more time. With more time would come more testing. But I think we’ve got a proven package with the Ford and the MoTec program, and we’ve got the background information from the guys that Austin has brought to the team. So I think we would certainly like to have more testing, but we’re going to squeeze in what we can, and I think that’s where it’s up to all of us to bring whatever strengths we have together, to be as prepared as we can for the first race and build on them over the whole season.
I don’t think the expectations are that we’re going to out there and take over the top rung of the ladder from Volkswagen—there are good drivers, good teams, and factory support. But I think, for us, this is the best way to get involved, and I hope it complements what Austin is going to be doing. We’re going to work really hard on 2017 and look forward to the future, because that’s what you have to do: you have to start somewhere.
Where are you most excited about racing in your first Red Bull GRC season? A handful of the series’ markets are shared with open-wheel and sports car racing—are you more looking forward to seeing new fans in those locations, or new venues entirely?
There are several overlap markets, whether Los Angeles or some of the other events we’re going to be where we’re already in those markets. And I think those other ones are an opportunity for us, not just with our current sponsors, but also certainly new sponsors. It gives us an opportunity to bring people into our program through sponsorship of maybe the GRC program, where we may not have been able to entice them into it otherwise.
I think this provides a good opportunity for our team to help support existing markets that we’re in, and go to new ones for that very same reason—to have new exposure and new opportunities. We hope to play all sides of it, and I think the goal is to really work on 2017 and build on it. I’m not going to say it’s anything other than a building year for us; maybe it’s not for Austin, because obviously he’s been participating, but we can bring some of our strengths to this, not only in marketing and PR, but in everything that we do. We’ll just be better overall and a more successful program, with the goal of building towards the future.
2017 will be the first time that Red Bull GRC visits Indianapolis, one of America’s most iconic racing cities. What makes racing in the state of Indiana special? Considering how much racing Indianapolis hosts, where do you see rallycross fitting in?
It’s interesting—we talk about the various markets, and of course we’ve been experienced with racing, not only in the United States, but globally back in the days of CART and the IRL. And one of the things that we always find in the Indianapolis marketplace is that the people there are race fans. I think they enjoy racing of all sorts, and I think that’s shown by the success there. You can see everything from a drag race, to an IndyCar race, to NASCAR, to some of the best sprint car and stock car short track racing there is. And now, you add Global Rallycross.
I think it’s a complement to the market, but I think it’s also going to get people excited about this type of racing. It’s been good on TV, but for me, all racing is much better and more exciting to be there in person. I think that’s the opportunity that it brings.
Looking around the rest of the field, outside your own team, which teams do you have your eye on to have a good year? Is there anyone in particular you’re watching out for?
To be honest, I think all of them! From what I’ve seen with this type of racing, I think you go through the course of the race weekend, and with the heat races and the qualifying format, it presents various teams different opportunities to be in the main event. And with that, I think every team brings something to the table that way.
Certainly, I don’t think by any means there’s any dominant team—all of the factory efforts are really well supported and have everything. They have the drivers, the team members, and the on-track experience and various location experience going for them. So I think we’ve got to watch out for everybody, and we’re going to have to learn real quickly. In order to do that, I think we really need to have our eyes open to everybody out there.
Finally, let’s talk expectations for this year. It’s your first season on the Red Bull GRC grid, but you have an experienced driver and a proven car—what’s a fair estimate for how you expect 2017 to go? Likewise, what are your longer-term expectations for the team?
Like always, the goals in racing are pretty straightforward. We would like to be able to go through this season, and certainly by the end of the season, say that we’re competitive. We’re there to qualify and be in the main event, and give these other teams some grief.
In doing so, longer term, we want to give ourselves an opportunity to make a better platform for any future participation by any other manufacturers. Obviously we have associations with BMW and Honda in our other racing programs, and as they become involved or interested in GRC or expanding their role, our goals certainly would be to partner with an entity that can go out there and be dominant in the future. Again, they’re fairly simple goals, but they’re hard to achieve, that’s for sure!
Photo credit: Larry Chen/Louis Yio