Tanner Whitten: “2016 is Going to be a Phenomenal Year”
After years of waiting, original GRC Lites test driver Tanner Whitten finally got his chance to race the car he helped develop in 2015. Running for the brand-new DirtFish Motorsports team, Whitten grabbed a race win and three podiums, briefly leading the championship standings and ending the year firmly within the top five in points.
2016 will see Whitten take on a new challenge with a new team: linking up with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, he’ll be focusing entirely on race wins as he runs half of this year’s schedule alongside full-time driver Cabot Bigham. In an exclusive interview, Whitten reflects on the decision to run part-time, working with a teammate, and how the series has grown over the past few years:
Last year had its ups and downs, but in the end, you managed to grab a win, three podiums, and fifth in points. How would you sum up your rookie GRC Lites season as a whole?
It was a very interesting season to say the least. We started out strong with several podiums, a win in Detroit and ultimately the points lead but then the wheels literally fell off. A terrible accident in testing after DC left us scrambling to be ready for the latter half of the season and we never really re-gained our momentum. Going from leading in the points to fifth in two races is not how I visioned the season ending.
You’ve made a big move across the paddock to Dreyer & Reinbold Racing this year, a team with an Indy 500 pedigree that won four races last year. What makes DRR the right fit for you?
Being from the Midwest, It’s that hometown atmosphere that attracted us to each other. They’re the greatest group of guys, they’re motivated and they understand that this series is becoming more and more pavement oriented. Having Dennis Reinbold’s facilities in Indianapolis makes the transition so much easier for me. Most of all they want to win races just like I do!
We’ll have one full-time driver this year, and myself splitting the other car throughout the season. We can go out there, fight for wins, not be worried about driver points, and just worry about the team points—helping Cabot get up front and trying to win the driver’s championship. I think we’re going to be in a really good position to do all of those things.
It looks like there are a lot of new drivers and teams coming in this year and I think it’s going to be another exciting season. It’s amazing to see how quickly this series, and this class is growing.
You’re only running a partial schedule in 2016. What’s the strategy behind the races that you chose, and how can a limited schedule help you as you look to move up to a Supercar sooner than later?
It was natural to go to these major markets for our marketing partners. It’s impossible to grow in this sport without the support that we need, and the partners that we’re working with this year have more of a draw to the markets that we chose: Dallas, Daytona, Seattle, and Los Angeles. They’re also some of the biggest markets in the series, so it was very natural to go where they wanted us to go. Everything we do this year is to position myself and my brand for the move to a Supercar in 2017.
Your teammate this year is Cabot Bigham, a rookie driver like you were last year. How much have you two worked together so far this offseason, and with your extensive Lites experience, how important will your input be as the team chases a championship this year?
We’ve been working and training together quite a bit. We met for the first time at the shop in Indianapolis when we were getting our seats fit, and then just started working out with the team at the team gym. Always finding time to make it to one of the local karting tracks.
I’m not worried about Cabot getting up to speed one bit. When you look at the drivers that came from the same background that he did, one being Alex Keyes, the crossover potential is obvious.
I think we’re going to be doing a lot of different scenarios in testing—me riding with him, him riding with me, trying to get up to speed on the pavement side of the car. It’s one of those deals where we’re going to be doing some team driving with Cabot to make sure he’s in a position to collect maximum points, but at the same time, we all want to win! So it’s going to be fun to see two DRR cars running up front this year.
This year’s schedule is quite a bit different from the one the series had last year. You’ve split the schedule down the middle—you’re racing at two returning events and two new ones. Where are you the most excited about competing in 2016?
I think probably the one I’m most excited about is the Los Angeles market. Naturally, LA being the market that’s going to be the final, and last year we had a decent run there in the second race and ended up fourth. LA’s just a great market. The fans there are very loyal and are very excited about us coming to town. So I think it’s going to be a great one for us.
As someone who has been involved with the Lites project since the beginning, what are your thoughts on how the class has grown over the past few years? How much more difficult do you think it will be to run up front this year than even last year, where five different drivers won races?
I think it’s just going to keep getting better and better. The competition last year was just amazing; I’ve never competed in a series where the competition was that stiff. There were six drivers, maybe even seven, in each race that could go out there and win the final. And I don’t expect anything different this year.
With the announcement of Oliver returning, all of us in the paddock will be gunning to prevent him from retaining his title. But at the same time Oliver is one of the drivers I respect the most and am excited to share some battles with him throughout the year.
The biggest thing is, we want to put on a show for the fans who come to the races and watch on NBC Sports. That’s what it’s all about!
Finally, what are the goals for this year? Since you’re not running for a points championship, what kinds of expectations do you have for the events you’ll be running?
Race wins, that’s what we’re there for. When you’re racing a limited schedule like we are, that’s your number one focus.
It’s been great working with Dreyer & Reinbold—they have a great marketing agency behind them with Protential out of Chicago. They are very knowledgable on how the motorsports world works bringing their experience from NASCAR, NHRA, and IRL to GRC. It’s awesome to have some really good marketing partners behind us, a really good marketing agency to help push us, not just on-track but off-track as well.
We’re really looking forward to this year. I’m just ready to go—I’m not going to be racing in Phoenix, but I’ll be there with the team. Stop by and say hello!
Photo credit: Jacob Reinholdt (1, 4); Louis Yio (2-3)