In the trenches with Allan McNish

In the trenches with Allan McNish

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In the trenches with Allan McNish

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Wives, girlfriends and engineers. If you’re looking for the people who know a driver’s talents, failings and basic underpinnings, it’s one of those three. For Scotland’s Allan McNish, who announced his retirement from P1 racing on Tuesday, his lovely wife Kelly knows the 44-year-old throughout. And on a professional level one that dates back to the 1990s the same can be said of Audi Sport engineer Brad Kettler.

Kettler (BELOW) and McNish formed an enduring bond at Porsche prior to Audi’s move to pursue victory at Le Mans starting in 1999. Kettler, an American sports car racing veteran, would end up spending more than 15 years of his life tied to McNish, acting as his engineer, crew chief, strategist, team manager or anyone one of a few other roles as the two changed teams and manufacturers.

Asked to share some of his unique insights and memories from working so closely with the wee Scot, Kettler’s appreciation for the triple Le Mans winner is best served by letting him share a few stories with minimal interruption.

“It started in ’97 when I was running the Rohr Porsche GT-1 program in that Professional SportsCar series,” he said. “I got a fax from Alwin Springer at Porsche off the old dot matrix in my little office there, the little hovel of a building where we build the car near Cincinnati. I ripped it off the machine and walked out into the shop and said, Has anybody ever heard of Allan McNish?’ You should’ve heard the responsenonobody had ever heard of him. I knew he’d done some famous stuff at that point, but we’d never heard of him.

“He came out and drove the car at Las Vegas. Springer had me all pumped up about sending this guy, superstar and such, he’s really good. Says he hope you guys can see eye-to-eye. He’s a little bit tough. He’s going to push you hard. All the bullsh*t. All the normal stuff.

“And so I was really kind of on pins and needles waiting to meet Superman. And I remember being in the paddock there at Las Vegas. And there was this little guy with this great big driver bag dragging it behind him down through the paddock. And I said, ‘Oh dear Lord, I hope that’s not our guy.’ And it was. His bag was as big as he was.

“And he was all business that day. Real serious. Was going to show us how serious he was. We got off to a little bit of a pretentious start. A little bit of back and forth between engineer and driver, but we won the first race we entered. And then we got good and drunk together after that and had a better understanding of each other.“That’s where that began. He came in midseason. We had won our category at the (Daytona) 24 Hours in the GT1 category, which is unheard of. Then we had a poor run at Sebring but the people who we were competing against had an even worse outing and we were still in the points lead.

“So Allan’s like, ‘OK, we’ve got to try to do something to win this championship.’ And that was when the new GT1 came into the fray. I went over to Europe and got it. Alwin had been teaching me how to run it and been training me in the background on that car. I went and got the car from Roock. The Shubel Company had bought two cars from Porsche. And one of them was owned by a big bank in Frankfurt and the Roock brothers weren’t paying their bill, go figure, and they had a chance to slog this car off to the United States to get somebody who could pay the lease on it. Jochen Rohr stood up and signed on the dotted line to pay the lease and they sent it to the States.

“That’s how we got it. It actually raced at Le Mans as a Wilkinson Sword car, was dressed up like a razor, where the wing was the razor part and the car was all shaped like a handle. Kind of cool.

“Then Allan showed up. We put him and Andy Pilgrim together and they were dynamite. They did great. I think we won six or seven races that year with it. Won the championship and then Daytona the next year by virtue of that car. Because we’d done so good that we got the nod from Mr. Singer at Porsche. Singer sent me a test car, sent me an old, clapped out nasty old test car to Cincinnati for me to overhaul for another (Daytona) 24 Hours.

“And this is a blood-and-guts story the young guys need to hear. I got a container with a car in it and a worn-out old car filthy dirty and a bunch of new parts. No instructions, no faxes, no e-mails, nothing. There you go. Put that sh*t together, boy. We didn’t get any instructions, setup sheets, nothing. We didn’t get anything. We sort of weeded through all the parts, figured out what they more or less wanted us to put on it. And put the thing together and we took it to Daytona and we won our category, finished second overall in ’98 with that car. And that was with Allan again. Those first two years working together with Allan did a lot for our careers.”

Drawing from a working relationship spanned 1997-2013, Kettler reflected on what made McNish the most feared sports car driver of his era.

“Well, I can tell you one thing is that he never changed. He’s just as fierce, he’s just as focused, he’s just as opinionated today as he ever was. In some ways he’s never changed. And that’s the nice part about it. The same young man that wrote me a report in ’97 that sarcastically said, BK, some kind of data system would be nice to havethen we could actually keep track of some of the stuff we learn,’ is the same guy today that will write a report on the hybrid recharging activity and everything else he sees that needs improving in the sports car. It’s his unwavering honesty about these things that’s always been the same.

“He’s been shaped by maturity, he’s been shaped by success, he’s been shaped by education and so forth, but the raw element of him is very much the same. And a spade’s a spade with Allan. He’s never been really susceptible to a lot of pressure to be a politician or to be an ambassador, even. He’ll do it if he believes in the cause. But Scots are blunt and he’s very much that way. He’s always pushed the people he worked with, never really bit his tongue because you don’t build a Le Mans-winning program by being nice. You do it by being honest, and Allan remained committed to that honest all along, which I think helped take him so far.”

Kettler and McNish also had their share of disagreements, which were eventually resolved.

“We had a great sending-off we won the championship in ’97 and we won the race in ’98 at Daytona and so forth and we did it as a team. Rohr didn’t get much more going after that because we were kind of in financial dire straits at that point. So I ended up working for (Champion Racing owner) Dave Maraj. So me and Allan had a falling-out because he was too critical of the car and too critical of me and he was frustrated by the position of being driving this old limousine when he deserved to be in top cars.

“At that time, Dave’s team was rough and rocky and I was doing the best I could with it. Allan got to the point where he was really picking on me and laying a lot of frustration on me and so forth. And I told Dave I didn’t want to deal with him anymore. I said, I know he’s fast, I know he’s good but he’s just tearing the team down because he’s deconstructive, he’s not constructive. I need constructive people in this group.’

“Then Dave basically tricked us into being in the same office at the end of ’98. He tricked us into having a meeting. We were both supposed to come and meet him but we didn’t know each other was going to be there. Once he got us in the room and he got the door closed, he said, Look you two, you’re going to settle your differences because we’re going to get on with what we’re here to do.’ And we did. I agreed that I’d listen to him more and he agreed that he’d be more constructive with his criticisms. And then we all just kind of agreed, you know, as close as men can come to a group hug. And then we went off and continued racing together.”

Once the air was cleared, the two resumed what had already become an incredibly successful partnership. With a win at the 1998 24 Hours of Le Mans (RIGHT), McNish’s stock was on the rise and it wasn’t long before Audi came calling. His American engineer would also join the Four Rings, adding to their endurance racing journey.

“Allan has been good to me. He was not only a friend in the race car but he was a friend in the boardroom and in the discussion room. And in the deal-making part of the process. He stood up for me. He kept me inside the machine when somebody needed to put my name in there. He did that for me because we were friends and because he knew that I would perform for him. I’d give him everything I had and no one ever questioned if he gave me or the team everything he had.”Kettler has been a witness to most of McNish’s sports car drives, playing various roles in some of his greatest wins and prized championship victories. Asked to pick a few events that defined McNish’s general skills and terrier-like tenacity, Kettler was drawn to some of Allan’s less publicized performances.

“There’s two that spring to mind immediately. One was beating Peugeot in the closing phases of Sebring in 2009 (ABOVE). That onewe’d been working a lot on the traction control protocol and stuff for that car and really trying to get the guys to drive digitally, in other words, to trust the electronics and put their foot down and let the car sort it out. And in that race, he at that point absolutely embraced everything he’d learned. He put it all in, left it all on the racetrack. Took three seconds a lap off those guys. They had a little bit of bad luck, but we were able to beat him because Allan was so determined to beat them. If hadn’t of been so committed to the car and wringing its neck, there’s no way he makes up enough time to get the win. beat him fair and square. He did a good job at it.

“And the other one was Laguna Seca 2006, where he ran an hour and 23 minutes on a tank of fuel because we basically botched the strategy and had stopped a bit too early. And the yellow we thought was coming didn’t come. He had to lift and roll through the corners and save fuel and so forth, and he took the R10 farther than anybody ever imagined it could go on a tank to make up for our screw up and won the race. I wasn’t his engineer that day, H (Howden Haynes) was, and we were going through the numbers and, I’ve got to tell you, it looked absolutely impossible at one point. And Allan kept saving, kept lifting, working on his pace, he kept doing things in the car to make it work, keep up a pace that we couldn’t imagine. To go that long on a tank and win, I mean, that’s completely unheard of.

“And then there’s been plenty of other ones. Silverstone this year. He spun in the closing phases, chasing Marcel [Fassler], and flat-spotted his tires. He came in on schedule but basically out of contention without a new set of tires and ran it down and passed him. Amazing. That’s just what he can do. That’s just what he’s capable of when he’s got his mind set.”

McNish will remain with Audi in an off-track role, and Kettler, who heads the Audi Sport Customer Racing program in North America, will continue to collaborate with his former driver during his trips to Europe to support Audi’s WEC effort. Coming off of an epic season one where he won Le Mans and the WEC championship, Kettler’s glad to see his wee friend Allan is hanging up his helmet at the right time.

“He’s had a great career. And he had that big crash in 2011 at Le Mans and he had some other ones. I asked him one time, I said, How many big ones do you think you can have in your career?’ And he said, I don’t know, but I think I might’ve filled my quota already.’ I wasn’t looking at it in a grim way, I was just looking at it in a way that in the old days, in Fangio’s era, you had one. That was it.

“And these guys now can have three or four or whatever and they can live through them and learn from them and survive it OK. But he had two or three big ones. He had a couple big ones that nobody ever knew about, and there comes a point where you’ve won it all and the risks to earn more start to look kind of silly.

“I rate him at the absolute top, and honestly, I’m really happy he’s retiring. He’s going to be able to give back to the sport. And hopefully have a long, great career out of the car. He’s earned it.”

Allan McNish looks back and ahead with Marshall Pruett

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