By Bob Margolis, Yahoo! Sports
October 24, 2006
He's quite comfortable being a stranger in a strange land.
But Guenther Steiner isn't a stranger to racing, just to NASCAR.
Even so, as the vice president of competition for Team Red Bull – one of the new Toyota Nextel Cup organizations – he already is feeling right at home in the Nextel Cup garage.
Standing well over six feet tall with strong, chiseled looks, Steiner stands out in the garage. And if those distinctive looks don't get your attention, his strong German accent will.
But don't let the accent fool you. Despite his Germanic name, Steiner is an Italian, born and bred in northern Italy in a portion of the country where German is the language spoken and auto racing is a part of the culture.
He is a powerful man who speaks with authority about racing, possessing the kind of knowledge, passion and enthusiasm that draws you in when he speaks. But just when you're thinking it can't get any more intense, he breaks out in laughter that has you thinking that maybe he's not taking it too seriously.
It's a long way from Merano, Italy, to Mooresville, N.C., for the 41-year-old Steiner, who brings a racing resume that includes stints in all the major series in Europe – including Formula One, where he served as managing director for Jaguar's F1 program before leaving and eventually returning to the team after Red Bull purchased and renamed it.
Steiner's tenure with Red Bull's F1 operation was little more than a year old when he was asked to head up its new NASCAR program. The program debuts as a Toyota-powered Cup team next season with drivers Brian Vickers and A.J. Allmendinger behind the wheel.
At first, there were the usual jokes from his associates. Then, after Steiner told them how big NASCAR was in the United States, the laughing stopped.
"Nobody laughs about it now," Steiner said. "Intelligent and serious people in Europe know that NASCAR is a good and very competitive series."
Steiner. (Photo: Michael Levitt/LAT)
It didn't take long before Steiner himself was taken aback by the scope of the series.
"Just to see how big this series is – the crowds, the number of cars, the amount of money," Steiner said. "Living in Europe, you have no idea how big it is."
He noted that most Europeans' view of NASCAR is naive. Most believe each team is comprised of 30 or 40 members who show up on race weekends and compete. They have no idea how much manpower it takes to field just one Nextel Cup car, much less today's current trend of four or more cars out of one organization.
Steiner also likes the size of the race field. Running 43 cars is vastly different than most other racing series, especially Formula One. But because of field size, Red Bull won't have a guaranteed spot in the season opener in Daytona next season.
Steiner says the team will be ready, and that the challenge of having to qualify for the race serves as the ideal kind of stimulus for his first-year team.
"It's a good thing," Steiner said. "Not to know if we'll be qualified or not – it's a different view. In F1, if you're one of 20 cars, you know you'll make it."
He added that the longer races, the bigger fields and the numerous opportunities to work on making the cars better makes racing in NASCAR more appealing.
"[In F1], eventually you find yourself two or three laps down and you're 20th or 15th if other cars drop out," Steiner said. "I think that this makes it more interesting."
Field size is one thing, but Steiner wasn't prepared for the enormity of NASCAR's crowds. In Europe, a crowd of 60,000 at an F1 race is a full house – not quite the 150,000-plus in the crowd for the Bristol race Steiner attended in August.
"It was incredible," Steiner said. "It's like the gladiators in the arena are coming back. If someone from Europe was going to see a NASCAR race, then Bristol is the place to go.
"It's non-stop and things happen so fast. And you're so close to the action you can smell the race because you're right there on top of the track."
Steiner and his group, headed by team general manager Marty Gaunt, have mapped out a three-year plan for Team Red Bull. During the first year, they want to be able to qualify for all the races, which Steiner acknowledges will be a tall task.
"We want to have a respectful showing," Steiner said. "We want to be able to have the respect of the other teams, which is important for Red Bull."
In year two, he expects to begin to see top-10s. And in year three, the aim is nothing less than to contend for the title.
"I think you have to give us three years, because we're not coming in and underestimating the others," Steiner said. "Some of them have been doing it for 20 or 30 years. There are a lot of good teams out there."
Many in the garage have speculated that Toyota will spend outrageous amounts to make its teams competitive quickly, and Red Bull is known for spending huge sums of money to promote its product – and its racing ventures are seen as part of that promotion. Rumors floating around the cup garage have the team already spending well over $30 million – even before its first race, which unofficially was at Lowe's Motor Speedway earlier this month (Bill Elliott failed to qualify in a Red Bull Dodge).
Steiner laughs when asked about that amount and says, "I don't confirm, I don't deny that."
"It's hard to determine what is a little or a lot," he said. "It's what you get back from it that counts. It's less investment here [than in Formula One]. But it doesn't mean that it’s a little."
Steiner says that first race at Lowe's, by the way, was more of a test for the team, with its official debut coming February in Daytona. He prefers to look at the Lowe's weekend as more of off-Broadway rehearsal rather than a real performance.
"We didn't expect to not qualify, but in the end it's a rehearsal and these things happen," Steiner said. "We'll take what we learned and use it to prepare a better car to qualify with for Atlanta."
The team hopes to run Allmendinger this weekend at Atlanta.
Steiner brings an attitude and know-how specifically suited to starting a team from scratch – a task which includes finding the right people with the high level of dedication and willingness to give the extra effort needed to build a successful organization from the ground up.
He is a picture of confidence.
With his unique perspective and dynamic personality, Steiner will be worth watching over the next few years. He acknowledges the pressure to deliver is great, but no worse than anything he's dealt with in the past.
But he'd like to see results sooner than later.
"We like to do things quickly over here," Steiner said. "We're Red Bull. We're a little more ambitious."
Veteran motorsports writer Bob Margolis is Yahoo! Sports' NASCAR reporter. Send Bob a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Tuesday, Oct 24, 2006 3:24 pm, EDT
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