Part two of our three-part Team Chat with James Weaver. The American Le Man Series media guide called him “one of the world’s great racing drivers, no matter which discipline.” James Weaver raced for thirty years before retiring in 2006. He had 100 career wins and over 200 podium finishes, the bulk of these triumphs accomplished during his twenty-year career with Dyson Racing. He was a fearsome competitor and one of the sport’s best set-up drivers. His graciousness, irrepressible humor and affable personality made him a favorite of the fans and racing’s best ambassador.
What was it like just starting out? You said once that you paid 12 pounds ($20.00) for the wedding ring for your wife. What was it like to be a struggling driver?
“It is such a dream – you want to go racing, and you are completely oblivious to normal life and possessions and anything – all you want to do is go racing. But now when you speak to the drivers, all they say is they want to win, but our generation, we did not think in those terms. All we wanted to do was go racing and winning was a natural result of doing a good job. It was not what you wanted to do per se.”
Did you have a plan?
“Sadly not – if I had, I would have done a lot better! Literally it was hand to mouth – how are going to pay the bills for the next week, how are you going to get to the next race. You just went from one disaster to another!”
Were they fun days?
“Looking back, the Formula Ford days were absolute dynamite. You work all night at the factory where we built the cars, and than go racing on the weekends. I think with overtime, if you worked a 60-hour week, I could earn about 70 pounds. But I could live like a king on my terms. I could go racing three weekends out of four and life could not have been better. I used to have a van and would just live out of the van.”
Did you think you would end up where you did?
“When I first came to America, I was pretty much on my knees. I had been struggling too much for too long. When I got to America, I was ‘drinking at the Last Chance Saloon.’ And than Rob picked me up and saved my bacon because I was pretty much done by than. It rejuvenated me. By the time I got to 1990, I was driving reasonably well. I reckon by 1996 I was getting pretty good and by 1998 I was pretty much on top of it. But it takes a long time to learn your craft and you never stop learning.”
Where do you keep your trophies?
“At home, I think I have two. One is the Henry Rillett trophy which I can see here in my office which I won when I was in Formula Ford in 1979. There is a standing joke that I got awarded it and I still don’t know what it is for. When I was coming up through the ranks, I use to give all my trophies to the teams and my Dyson trophies are safely in the shop in Poughkeepsie.”
Did you ever buy your wife a larger wedding ring?
“I did actually. We went to the Badminton Horse Trials. Think it was in the mid ‘90’s. Garrards, which used to be the Crown Jewelers, were there. (Every time her majesty wanted a new bit of jewelry, she would just ring them up and they would knock something off….) They had a stand there with a beautiful gold ring with three diamonds in it for a barking amount of money. She fell in love with it, and I thought, well she has put up with her twelve pound ring long enough, I may as well buy her something decent.”
Why do you call Rob ‘the governor’?
“I met Rob at Le Mans. And when I came to America, I called him Mr. Dyson. And he said, ‘call me Rob’, and I thought, ‘I can’t do that. Rob, that is over familiar and shows lack of respect, I don’t really know him that well’. At home, if you call someone ‘the governor’, it is respectful, but with a tinge of informality. So I just settled on the governor, because he was the governor. I think pretty much everyone calls him the governor now. He said he was at Indianapolis last year and Chip Ganassi came up to him and said “Ah, governor, how are you.” Dario Franchiiti calls him the governor. Always makes me chuckle since Roger Penske is the “captain”, but I work for the governor and I am sure a governor outranks a captain quite easily!”
What was a typical day at the races like with Dyson Racing?
“We would have breakfast at the hotel and be at the track at 8:00 or sooner. As soon as you get to the track, you go over all the set-up changes from the night before, and discuss what you are going to do for the day. You look at the weather, check what tires you are going to run, and than launch into the first practice session. We used to have a thing called the truck set up. We would put a huge amount of care in preparing the car at the shop, so when it went on the truck, it was as good as it could be and it had a set-up that we knew and understood. So that every time you jumped in the car, you could register what you had – yeah, that feels good and everything is working properly and than you would fiddle with the set up from there. But regardless of how you are working on the set-up, the biggest thing is always the tires and getting them to work properly on the car. We spent a huge amount of time fiddling with the tire pressures, cross weighting the car here and there, lots of ride height changes – lots of little changes, nothing really major – we trusted the truck set up. Now, with all the data you have now a days, once you get out of the car, you are sitting in front of a computer until you get back in the car again. When I was driving with Butch and Andy, we would compare all of our laps and talk amongst ourselves. You are quicker here, Andy is quicker there, and we all would compare the data and what we were doing. So with the three of us, we could always do better because we could learn off the other two. And that is a huge advantage when you are running a two-car team because you are learning off the other car as well. Both what the drivers are doing, plus you can run two different set-ups.”
What is the best part of being a race car driver?
“Not having to work for a living, I would guess! I used to love absolutely everything about it. But I suppose the best bit is when you are driving for a good team and you know you have a good car and you know you can get it on the pole. You go rolling down pit lane to qualify, you have a brand new set of tires on and than everything stops and all of a sudden, it just goes lovely and peaceful. You have a wonderful feeling of serenity, you can be bolting along at 180 miles per hour, but if feels like 30 and you have all the time in the world. I think it is the mental buzz. If you process the information fast enough, you can pretty much stop the speed, so all you have to do is think – OK, a little bit more lock here, some more throttle there. The mental buzz from that is extraordinary. Going back to the Formula Ford days, everything would come at you like it was fired out of a cannon and it was massively exciting, but when you get really good at racing, the speed, you don’t even notice it: it feels like 20 miles per hour, and you think ‘how did that happen’ because you went into racing wanting to feel like you were going really fast. It is really quite interesting.”
In a race itself, do you still get those laps of serenity like you do in qualifying?
“The feeling is exactly the same, it is just that in qualifying you have brand new tires, there is very little fuel in the car, you have the ride height as low as you can go and you have everything maxed out and that is the best you are going to do all weekend. But in a race, it is the absolutely the same. You can go sailing past the pits and you can see all the boys and you see Pat Smith having a cup of coffee and register what everyone is doing. It is amazing what you see and what you can take in. I used to just love it.”
You register the crowd and everything in your surroundings?
“It is literally like driving along in a rental car at 30 mph – you can look around, check out all the instruments, work out your fuel consumption, when you are going to have to pit next, how all the tire pressures are looking on the dash – OK, I need to change that one a little bit, that one is good there. The whole thing of trying to absorb as much information as you can and try to process it is very very satisfying. I suppose it is like flying a fighter plane and you are trying to shoot the guy down in front, there is no point in being so focused only on that, that you do not realize you have somebody glued to your tail trying to shoot you down. People used to say that you really need to be focused, but I never used to focus, because to me, if you rely on focusing, you are only one-step away from choking. What you have to do is enjoy what you are doing and put no thought into your driving whatsoever, but think about everything around you and managing the car. It is like running down the stairs: if you think about where you are putting your feet, you fall flat on your face every time, but if you just race down to the bottom of the stairs as fast as you can, you will get there no problem. I think the buzz of what you get out of racing is different for different people but I certainly got a huge amount out of it.”
Do you watch races on TV now?
I watch the occasional Grand Prix. I probably watch about half of them. But when I am in America I always turn on the Speed Channel. I quite like watching the stock car races. To me, it does not look like a race, it looks like a traffic jam! I can’t figure it out at all. How on earth did he get from there to there and why is he back there? It is like the motorways in heavy traffic when one lane starts going faster and you get a freight train and you go ‘that is not fair.’”
If had to do it over again, would you do anything different?
“I would have had a plan. I would have had definite strategy.”
Are you not pleased with the course of your career?
“It is very much like racing. Even if you are on pole position, you will come back to the pits and say, ‘Well done boys, great, but I could have done this better and that better.’ It is just the nature of the beast that whatever you do, it is not good enough, and the moment you think it is good enough, you will go backwards. Once you have done it, say, set a good lap time, well than it is no good because you have already done it. I suppose it would be like climbing a mountain. OK, where is the next tallest one. If you settle on that one mountain, that will be your peak.”
If you had a “plan”, where do you think you would have ended up?
“Probably in a worse mess! I think naturally no matter what you think has or has not happened in your life, if you had any sort of success at all, you have to count yourself incredibly fortunate. And I don’t think I had the right personality to succeed in Grand Prix racing. My personality suited sports car racing and I really loved it. In reality, I would not have wanted anything different. I had so much fun with so many great people, driving brilliant cars, why would you want to change that? But if you are just looking at it purely dispassionately, than you can always say you could have made better decisions and done better things, but would I have been any happier? I very much doubt it.”