Andy Lally is one of the best drivers the Grand Am series has to offer. The three-time champion already has two wins this season, continuing to add to a record number of top three and top five finishes in the series. With two 24 Hours of Daytona victories under his belt, it would seem the 34-year-old has accomplished everything he’s set out to do in road racing.
That’s why it’s not surprising to see one of auto racing’s best looking to broaden his horizons just a bit. In a revealing interview with our Phil Allaway, Lally talks stock car racing on the eve of his first Sprint Cup start in the No. 71 TRG Motorsports Chevy, hoping a solid run Monday will be a springboard to bigger and better things.
Phil Allaway, Frontstretch: You’ve qualified for your first Cup race in the 15th position. Afterwards, you were really amped up in your interview with ESPN. Can I get your thoughts on how that lap felt?
Andy Lally, No. 71 TaxSlayer.com Chevy: It was just an amazing experience. It was… quite a tension-filled practice session because we had a little bit of a hiccup somewhere in the fuel line and it was making the engine misfire a little bit, so we didn’t get as much focused practice time as we want[ed]. The guys did a great job. Slugger [Labbe] and the crew did a great job in tearing the car apart and getting it back together.
With eight minutes to go [in practice], we got out and we laid down three laps that were decent, and good enough where that if we could improve on that a little, we would be in the show. But, the pressure was still on at that point because I hadn’t run with an engine at full power, so I didn’t know where all the braking points were going to be, how far down [in power] it had been, etc. So when we rolled out for qualifying, it was… we were taking some chances, and it was certainly one of the highest pressure points that I’ve ever had in my career.
Allaway: Do you know what was up with the engine Friday?
Lally: [To team member working on a laptop] Do we know what’s up? [Laughs] We’re still tearing stuff apart trying to figure out for sure. We changed a lot of stuff when we got back.
Allaway: In the press release leading up to this race, it made a big deal about you being a New Yorker making your debut at a New York track. What does it mean to you to be making your debut here at the Glen, as opposed to Sonoma, or even a place like Pocono, or Michigan?
Lally: Being able to make your Sprint Cup debut in the first place is always a wonderful opportunity that you will always cherish. But to be able to do it at your home track, in your home state, just adds to the excitement and anticipation of being able to get the job done. Once we completed that lap yesterday, [Slugger] came over the radio and told me what time we did… and we knew that we were locked in the show at that point with that lap. So, I was thrilled, and it was relieving because it had been so many years of desiring to do this race, and watching it as a kid growing up. I was just telling my buddy here, I remember watching Ricky Rudd in the No. 26 Quaker State car back in the day win the Bud at the Glen [in 1988]. Just amazing, amazing memories of wanting to come here… and to finally fulfill that dream, getting that opportunity to come in and do a decent job… it was awesome.
Allaway: The race you just mentioned was actually the first race I remember watching on TV.
Lally: No kidding.
Allaway: Now, even though this is your first Sprint Cup race, you’ve had other experiences in NASCAR. You did the races in Montreal and Watkins Glen with JTG Racing in 2007, and 12 races in the Truck Series. Was last year in the Truck Series supposed to be a full schedule?
Lally: The goal was to do the full Craftsman Truck Series schedule, and we started out with about a third of the budget. There was anticipation that Kevin [Buckler, TRG Motorsports owner] was going to have something on line to finish out the rest of the season. So, we just started out with the hopes of trying to do exactly that. But, we never added any additional sponsorship, so by the time the budget ran out, I think we were seven or eight races in. I understand that they had to pull me out of the seat, and they had to find a driver that had a sponsor to come along with him at that point already and continue on with the program (TJ Bell, with Heathcliff’s Cat Litter sponsorship).
That’s just racing. It’s a business, and that’s just how it is. I’d look forward to getting another opportunity in the Craftsman Trucks someday, Nationwide Series even. It’s a blast just getting into these races – it doesn’t matter whether it’s on a road course or oval.
Allaway: In the eight races that you got to do in the No. 7 Truck, what were your impressions of the series?
Lally: I had an absolute blast. It was everything that I thought it would be, to tell you the truth. Huge competition, high speeds, close racing… that’s what I love about stock car stuff. The stuff that I normally do, the sports car racing, the prototypes and the GT cars… the cars are intense, they go real fast, they handle really well, and the racing most of the time is really good. But you’re never alone in a stock car race. You’re always side-by-side, battling it out door-to-door… and if you’re not two-wide, you’re three-wide.
For me, I’m more of a racing fan than a car fan. I can appreciate the lines and the beauty of a really well-built exotic sports car, but for me, bangin’ doors and sliding through corners two-wide is what it’s all about.
Allaway: Grand-Am has a lot of rules about incidental contact between cars. They generally frown upon it – not just with wrecking, but just bumping. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Lally: It’s subjective a lot, unfortunately, and in that series, there are plenty of times when we’re bangin’ doors and doing little bumps here and there. Some of the bigger stuff, they frown upon, which is reasonable to a point. Sometimes, they take it a little bit too far, but in general, the Rolex Grand-Am Series is a wonderful series. It’s super competitive and getting better every year. They’ve taken sports car racing from…having problems to awesome. And it’s the best sports car series in the world right now.
Allaway: [Grand-Am’s] a good watch. You were in the race Friday [the Crown Royal 200] driving the No. 66 Porsche and finished seventh. How’s your season in that series going so far?
Lally: Our season on the sports car side with TRG is a little bit up and down. We won the 24 Hours of Daytona, we won here in the Koni Challenge race, we had really good results and podium finishes… but we’ve had a lot of lows. I would say that it’s been a good year. Any year you win the 24 Hours of Daytona, no matter what happens for the rest of the year… as long as you’re healthy, it’s a good year.
To add a win here at the Glen was really special, with it being my home track and all. My family was here for the race. We are still battling a little. The competition has stepped up. I think a lot of the scales have tipped in favor of another manufacturer, and we’re trying to get ourselves out of a hole and get a little better.
Allaway: They have the equivalency formula for all the different cars, though. It’s actually a really diverse series when you really think about it – especially in the GT class.
Lally: That’s one of the things that people really appreciate about the Grand-Am Series. We’re racing in the GT Class against [other] Porsches, Mustangs, Pontiac GXP.R’s (racing’s version of the Pontiac G6), Ferraris, Mazdas, BMW, the GTO-R. There’s a lot of available options out there. Next year, the Audi will be available.
Allaway: The R8?
Lally: Yeah, right from the factory. It’s pretty cool. So, it’s a big challenge for the sanctioning body to make all these cars equal. There’s a lot of give and take here. Some people are going to be happy with their rules, while others are sandbagging their stuff. I’ve been on both ends with that, and it’s a part of racing that you have to accept. The prototype class on top of that has some great racers, as well as some great engineers, and they put on a really great show. When you mix them altogether, it gets a little bit chaotic, but it’s a great show.
Allaway: Yesterday’s Grand-Am was a dual event, but in the past, it’s been a DP-only event.
Lally: Yeah. It was originally a dual event, then it became a DP-only event. I did some racing in a DP a few seasons ago before I signed with TRG. This is my fifth season with TRG and it’s going really well.
As the DP class grew to nearly 30 entries, the decision was made to make it DP-only so that NASCAR fans who were not used to multiple class racing, but who still wanted to see good action, could see good action. Now, as the economy has floundered, the GT cars were added to bring the field near 40.
Allaway: Did this deal just come together for this weekend through your ties to the Grand-Am wing of TRG?
Lally: This deal came together because, from the start, Kevin [Buckler] and I started talking about building TRG Motorsports. Every team owner I’ve worked for on the sports car side, I’ve said that it would be great to do some stock car stuff and tried to get them to turn over a new leaf. Kevin was the first one to actually listen to me, and he looked at the program and saw some potential in it.
It takes so many hours of preparation and he [Buckler] is one of the most prepared people in the paddock. We started up together and did those Nationwide races together a while back, partnered with JTG, and we were waiting for an opportunity to bring me along for a chance to do Cup starts.
Allaway: And this just so happened to be the right time.
Lally: Yes, we got the car in the field and we get to show off our new sponsor TaxSlayer.com here this weekend and see what we can get done.
Allaway: So, what’s the plan for the beginning of the race? Are you going to try to assault a couple of positions, or just lay back?
Lally: Here, if you’re not aggressive, you’re going backwards. You have to be aggressive, but at the same time, I don’t want to take a chance that I might get in over my head or put myself in a situation where somebody else is in over their head and possibly take me out at the same time. That’s going to be tough with these double-file results every time we go yellow.
We’ve got to keep it on the road, keep the rubber side down, keep all four fenders on the car, and make sure we don’t break anything. When we go green with 15 laps to go, we want to be in the right spot so that we can race to the checkers.
Allaway: How’s the communication been so far?
Lally: Great. It’s actually one of the things that I’ve been most happy about with this team. For a new guy, unknown, coming in, the whole team has been good with welcoming me with open arms and being patient with my learning curve and trying to get things going in the right direction. Slugger and the guys have been good from day one, lap one that we’ve been together. I think that it’s been a progressive march in getting this car to be better and better.
Allaway: Excellent. Are there any common elements (employees, etc.) between the NASCAR and Grand-Am wings of TRG?
Lally: On the race weekends, no, but at the race shop, yes. We’ve got a race shop in Petaluma [California], but now, most of the stuff is at the TRG Motorsports shop in North Carolina. It’s a 35,000 sq foot shop housing the Porsche, the Mercedes SLR McLaren and the Cup cars, as well as the trucks and the ARCA cars that we have.
Allaway: I know it’s August now, but for 2010, are you going to continue to pursue plans in NASCAR, or are you going to stay in Grand-Am?
Lally: I’m going to go wherever the best opportunity is for me; but for me, if something came along for a full-time stock ride, or even a partial stock car ride, whether it be in the Trucks, Nationwide Series or Sprint Cup, I’d jump at it. This is where I want to be.
Allaway: Great. Have you inquired about possibly driving in the Nationwide race in Montreal in a couple of weeks?
Lally: I’ve been trying to get a seat in there. I’ve been knocking on a few doors, trying to see what’s available. If we can come out of here with a decent result, maybe a few doors will open.
Allaway: OK, one more. How about some personal interests outside of racing?
Lally: Mountain biking and street luge. Those are my two passions. I do a lot of mountain bike races, endurance races. I just did a six-hour solo race three weeks ago in Georgia and I did a 24-hour race in West Virginia. It keeps me fit. That’s what I do for my cardio so I can be strong in those cars.