Tim Keene joined the DeltaWing Racing Cars team in June as team manager, following a 20-year career with Chip Ganassi Racing. Keene’s Ganassi Grand-Am teams earned 40 victories, seven championships and five Rolex 24 of Daytona titles in his 10 seasons. Here Keene talks about growing up in racing, his first impressions of the DeltaWing concept – and the phone call that changed his career path.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Marlette, Michigan, northeast of Flint. My family moved to Indianapolis when I was quite young, so basically I grew up just west of Indianapolis, in Brownsburg.
What first got you interested in racing?
Our home was only about a quarter mile from Indianapolis Raceway Park (now Lucas Oil Raceway). They had road course racing, oval track racing and the US Nationals in drag racing, so I spent a lot of time there. My uncle and my grandfather lived in Michigan and used to drag race and I spent some summers up there. They built their own cars – a Willys, a Ford Anglia, a Camaro, a ’57 Chevy. I spent all my time around racing, I just loved it. I raced karts from 1987 until about 1993, and won the Indiana State dirt championship in 1989. I switched to racing in streets and parks, like Quincy in the Park, but at a certain point, to continue was risking injury so I stopped.
Where did you see your first race?
I don’t remember much about the first races I saw in person, because I was so young. But the first memory I do have was going to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when I was about six years old. I remember the Johnny Lightning Special car and thought it was cool.
Take us through your racing career to date.
In January of 1994, I got a call from a guy I used to race karts with. He worked for Chip Ganassi and said they were adding a second team, which was for Mauricio Gugelmin. I met with Tom Anderson, who was the team manager at the time – I didn’t even have a resume, I just went in and talked to him. I got the job a week later and a month later, was in Australia at my first CART IndyCar race. I started as the truck driver and did the typical sort of truckee thing, doing the tires and refueling the car during pit stops. I worked my way up to mechanic and continued doing the refueling on pit stops until 2003. Chip started the Grand-Am team in 2004 and I was put in charge of leading that.
I was ready for a change at that point. Quite frankly, I wasn’t a big fan of the IRL, of doing so many ovals. I thought it was a matter of time before people got hurt. It wasn’t like it was with CART. So I enjoyed going to the sports car side, I liked road course racing better anyway. It was a different challenge and at that time, the rules were a lot more flexible. You could do your own changes to the car to try and make it better; run whatever wing angles you wanted and that sort of thing. You could be a lot more creative so that was intriguing. We did pretty well – in the 10 years I was there, we won the championship seven times and finished second in the other three and won the Daytona 24-hour race five times.
What did you think of the DeltaWing concept when you first heard about it?
I was one of the few people who liked the DeltaWing concept when it was introduced as a potential IndyCar, because it was different. Racing in general is missing that “wow” factor and it was so different that I thought it was pretty neat. When it got turned into a sports car, it stayed the same for me, I was really intrigued. I liked the whole concept. When I parted ways with Ganassi, I had the chance to come down here. It’s a fun car to work with. It is really just about the only prototype out there that you can actually make some real changes on to improve performance and I think we’ve done that the last few months.
What are some of the unique challenges in working on the DeltaWing coupe?
Some things are different with the DeltaWing, like pit stops. The driver change takes longer because it is a difficult car to get in and out of. But at the end of the day, it’s just a race car. It looks different and reacts a bit differently, but really, there’s nothing that we do that you wouldn’t do on any other kind of race car. You’re just trying to make it go faster.
If I didn't work in racing, I'd be designing houses. I’d be a home builder or designer.
What is your favorite race and what is your best memory about that race?
My favorite race is the Indy 500 and I don’t think that will ever change. My best memory was winning it in 2000 with Juan Montoya. We crushed ‘em that day. It was fun.
Do you have a “hidden” talent?
Most people don’t know that I can draw pretty well, or that I can cook pretty well. I really don’t have one thing that I cook – the stuff that I make I just make up out of my head, mostly. Most times it works, but there have been a few that have gotten tossed out.
What do you do to chill out?
I like to play golf. I have a handicap between 20 or 25. It’s getting a big chilly here now, but I was playing three or four times a week after work. I have TaylorMade Burner Plus irons and I just got a 12-degree Cleveland driver – I just started hitting a driver again and it’s going pretty well. We’ve got some good golfers on the team, so we try to get out as much as we can.