INDIANAPOLIS (Sept. 27, 2011) – On the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights Series schedule, the Kentucky 100 only stands out because it is the second-to-the-last race of the season.

For the drivers and crew members of the four-car Sam Schmidt Motorsports (SSM) Indy Lights team, Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, however, has quickly become the most important event of the season. The 67-lap event around the 1.5-mile oval will be the first run since 2004 without SSM Indy Lights team manager Chris Griffis.

Griffis died suddenly two weeks ago while playing in a pick-up basketball game, something he did regularly. Outside of racing, he was a family man, a neighbor and a sports enthusiast who loved basketball and jet skiing. He leaves behind a beautiful wife, two lovely daughters and a fulfilling life away from the racetrack.

In motorsports, he leaves a legacy. When others his age were still in college or still trying to figure out what to do with their lives, Griffis had already worked his way up to being a crew chief in the ultra-competitive world of Indy-style racing at a young age. His teams found victory lane often, including the hallowed winner’s circle of the Indianapolis 500.

His career transitioned into the fledgling Indy Lights Series in 2003, and the first team he guided in the series dominated and won the championship that year. In 2004, Griffis was hired by Sam Schmidt to run his Indy Lights operation. It’s here where a solid career in racing by Griffis was crafted into a legacy.

Given free reign by Schmidt, the Griffis-led SSM Indy Lights team has been one of the most successful organizations in all of racing the last eight years. The team’s numerous accomplishments since 2004 include:

  • Four Indy Lights championships
  • 45 Indy Lights race victories
  • 57 Indy Lights pole awards
  • Five wins in the prestigious Firestone Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

 

It’s expected that SSM driver Josef Newgarden will capture the team’s fifth Indy Lights Series championship in Kentucky. He only needs to finish 13th or better. It would be the fifth Indy Lights championship for SSM under Griffis. With the championship he won as Panther Racing’s Indy Lights team manager in 2003, Griffis will have won six of the 10 contested Indy Lights championships, adding to his legacy.

The dedicated SSM crew members and the current lineup of SSM drivers want nothing more than to add to Griffis’ legacy in the last two races of the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights Series season. So, although they will be racing with heavy hearts in Kentucky, expect SSM drivers Victor Carbone, Bryan Clauson, Esteban Guerrieri and Newgarden to each have a heavy right foot, as well.

Victor Carbone, Driver of the No. 3 Nevoni/Sam Schmidt Motorsports Dallara:

With Sam’s focus being on his new IndyCar team this year, he has said Chris Griffis has been running the Indy Lights program entirely on his own. What was it like racing for Chris?

 

“Chris was the guy who could take care of anything I needed. I knew he would be there for me. He was always really professional and serious, and I knew I could always rely on him. I learned a lot from Chris and his experience was something that always impressed me.”

What kind of a presence did he have around the team?

 

“Around the team, Chris treated everyone like family, and that’s how a team should be. He was really a good person and will be greatly missed.”

 

Based on your test there, what type of race are you expecting in Kentucky?

 

“Kentucky is really similar to Las Vegas, just a bit bumpier. It’s flat out all the time, so it should create a close race. The set-up of the car and smoothness are the big aspects to be fast on those types of track, so I am looking forward to another challenge.”

 

Esteban Guerrieri, Driver of the No.7 Lucas Oil/Sam Schmidt Motorsports Dallara:

With Sam’s focus being on his new IndyCar team this year, he has said Chris Griffis has been running the Indy Lights program entirely on his own. What was it like racing for Chris?

“Chris told me once, ‘people either hate me or love me.’ I feel as I’m in the second group. His attention to details and practical organization made the team run smoothly and efficiently. And the cherry on the top was his ‘well-hidden’ since of humor, which I got along really well with. It was just great working with him.”

What kind of a presence did he have around the team?

 

“As team manager, he obviously was the person who ran the whole team. Chris knew everything that was going on with all four cars. I saw him ‘hands-on’ many times this year, helping the mechanics when time was short. That shows awesome team spirit. He always walked the talk, and that’s how he earned the respect from the team. He was the real leader. There was no other way SSM would have gotten what it has in the last seven years without him.”

 

From the team’s videos and data you’ve seen, what type of race are you expecting in Kentucky?

 

“We don’t really know what to expect from the track because my engineer has said that it changes a lot year after year. Sometimes you can run two-wide, but sometimes it’s single-file. What I do know is that it’s a bit bumpier than other ovals, so we have to watch out not to get caught by surprise. Race set-up will be crucial. Of course, our aim is to be competitive for the top spots. And I know that we have the tools to do that, so we’ll stick to our plan and go for it.”

 

Josef Newgarden, Driver of the No. 11 Copart/Score Big/Robo-Pong/Sam Schmidt Motorsports Dallara:

With Sam’s focus being on his new IndyCar team this year, he has said Chris Griffis has been running the Indy Lights program entirely on his own. What was it like racing for Chris?

“Once you got to know him, Chris was really easy to race for. He was certainly a great guy and a very caring guy. Maybe not everyone knew that or saw that side of him. But, if you got to know him, you really got to see his true colors and how genuine of a guy he really was. He was an incredible leader. He was the person who drove the Indy Lights team. Obviously, he was the point man for the four-car team, so a lot of this championship is all due to him. I feel so blessed that I was able to meet him and know him for what little time I did know him. It’s a very unfortunate thing to lose him so early in his life.”

What kind of a presence did Chris have around the team?

 

“He had a very positive presence around the team, especially if you knew him well. The big thing he tried to display was strength. He was really the backbone of the team, so his presence gave us a feeling of security. We knew that things were taken care of when he was around. And, if you ever needed anything, you knew you could go to him and it would get done. Having him around gave the whole organization confidence. It will be very bittersweet if we clinch in Kentucky. It will be very difficult not having Chris there to be part of that. It obviously would have been best if he was there and we were able to do it together. He was just so instrumental with everything that happened with the team. A lot of this championship is because of him. So, it’s going to be tough from that aspect, but it will certainly be very nice for the whole team to do it right out of the gate after he passed.”

Has your motivation changed for these last two races?

“I’d like to finish the season on a high note. I don’t want to take it easy just because the championship is pretty much sealed up and we don’t have to push, anymore. I’m not looking at it like that, and I certainly know our team isn’t looking at it like that. Our guys want to win, and we certainly have a lot more motivation, now, with everything that’s happened with Chris. We really have a lot driving us, now, in terms of the last couple of events.”

From the team’s videos and the data you’ve seen, what type of race are you expecting in Kentucky?

“Kentucky seems to be very bumpy, from what I’ve heard from several of the other drivers. So, that should make it interesting in keeping it (the car) off the wall. It seems like it’s going to be a tough track to drive, not just physically going over the bumps, but also in trying to keep the car going in the right direction. It seems like a place that can bite you fairly easily if you’re not up on your toes. So, that’s going to promote a good challenge in that everyone needs to be really aware and try not to wreck any racecars while we’re there. That’s going to be the big thing, but then, also trying to get the set-up right for the bumps.”

The last race, Baltimore, was a challenging weekend for you. What did you learn from that race?

“Sometimes it’s a good thing to have some adversity to work through, and that’s certainly what that race was. I started making a lot of errors, and that’s what put us in that position (14th on the starting grid). But being able to overcome that and put yourself on the right track when you need it most – in the race – it was great. It was good to show people how you perform under pressure on a challenging track because it shows versatility.”

Bryan Clauson, Driver of the No. 77 Mazda Road To Indy/Curb Records/Sam Schmidt Motorsports Dallara:

With Sam’s focus being on his new IndyCar team this year, he has said Chris Griffis has been running the Indy Lights program entirely on his own. What was it like racing for Chris?

“Racing for Chris was an absolute blast. He was the first person from the team I met when I came to the team, and he really helped me get settled and comfortable in the new environment. His sharing of his insight and knowledge helped me adapt to the Indy-type cars much more quickly. What Chris has done with the program over the last several years is just remarkable, and we will all be racing with heavy hearts at Kentucky.”

What kind of a presence did he have around the team?

 

“Chris was our leader, hands down. But, more than just our leader, he was a great friend. Over the short time since I joined the team, we had grown close and spent some time together away from the racetrack on the basketball court and even snowmobiling. You can’t put a value on what Chris meant to this organization (as a leader) and what he meant to the people in it (as a friend).”

You’re familiar with Kentucky Speedway, so what type of race are you expecting there?

 

“Although I haven’t had the opportunity to turn laps in an Indy Lights car at Kentucky, I have thousands of laps there in a stock car. It’s a place I know like the back of my hand. Although it will be much different driving a Lights car around Kentucky, it is always nice to be familiar with the racetrack. It will be interesting to see how the race plays out, as you’d expect a mile-and-a-half track to be more about drafting and big packs. But, from what I know about Kentucky, the lack of grip and the amount of bumps make handling a premium. I can’t wait to get back in the Lights car this weekend.”