Q&A: Skeleton Bronze Medalist Matt Antoine on Rahal, racing, Milwaukee IndyFest

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Olympic Bronze Medalist in Men’s Skeleton, Matt Antoine, is also a big open-wheel racing fan in his spare time. He’s scheduled to attend this weekend’s Milwaukee IndyFest as a guest of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Antoine, originally from Prairie du Chien, Wis. and now training in Colorado, caught up with MotorSportsTalk’s Tony DiZinno heading into the weekend.

MotorSportsTalk: How did the opportunity to come to Milwaukee IndyFest and meet Bobby Rahal come together? 

Matt Antoine: Bobby is part of our board; the purpose is to promote the longevity of our sport for years to come. It’s a newly formed board. They were in Colorado Springs for one of their meetings. It’s where I train during the summertime.

So that was my first opportunity to meet him – and told him I was from Wisconsin. I’d went up to Elkhart Lake, Wis., and he basically asked if I wanted to come. We exchanged some emails, and made the plans. I don’t necessarily know all the details, but I will definitely be there on race day. I’ll get an opportunity to meet the team, and we’re setting up a 2-seater ride.

MST: Have you chatted with Steve Holcomb (fellow Olympic medalist; bobsled) on his two-seater ride (at Houston)?

MA: Nope, I haven’t.

MST: Tell me a bit about how you got hooked on racing.

MA: We went up Elkhart 2-3 times a summer. My brother, dad and myself. He grew up in England, watching auto sports. We grew up watching F1, and he’d take us up to Elkhart Lake. We went up for the CART races. It was just a fantastic weekend. I’m biased – it’s the first race track I went to, but it’s one of the great road courses in the world.

I’ve never been to Milwaukee, so this will be my first experience there. I think the last Indy race we went to was in … maybe 2000 or 2001. But I make time to watch on TV.

MST: What do you think of Bobby himself? 

MA: I was a huge fan of his – we joked about it dinner. As a kid, we went up for one of the CART races, and it was my goal to get every driver’s autograph. One of the last ones I got was Bobby’s – he was difficult to catch. We had to wait outside for an hour and a half, and got his autograph. It’s kind of coming full circle to meet him now on a personal level.

MST: Any other circuits you’ve been to?

MA: Montreal, for one Formula One race, in terms of the mainstream.

MST: What appeals to you about the speed and the sport? 

MA: I’ve always had a love for speed – growing up following auto racing, I thought it was what I was going to do. So there was always that draw and excitement of racing. I also love the technical aspect – and that’s what I do know with skeleton. You’re always figuring out how to make it better, make it faster. That’s one thing I appreciates it about auto sports. I admire many aspects about it.

At the same time, you see the strategy, of teams going to win. There’s the transitioning from practice to qualifying to racing.

Every track is different. You build a progression into a racing.

MST: How do you prepare for each of your runs during a meet? 

MA: We only get about 6-8 runs prior to race day at a given week. You’re drawing on past years and races. You have the general aspects of the track, this corner, that corner, looking through notes. You walk (the course) and see if there’s changes. See what affects the ice and speed. Then you’re watching other sleds and how they react. It’s drawing on past experiences, your time on track is very limited.

You have a general plan, and tweak from there. There might be 6-8 different setups. You’re writing down those notes – asking what’s better or worse – and you put all those small pieces together. On race day, hopefully you’ve figured it out. Then the last 10 percent you find on race day. It’s having to put together all that knowledge, and piece it all together.

MST: How does each track vary and how do you prep for it?

MA: There’s a lot that could change – it depends on how much ice is put on the track. The corners change. You’re following what the weather is like, the moisture, that causes frost buildup. If the ice is smooth, warmer ice versus colder ice determines the amount of grip. Everything is shaved and cut by hand, so it’s subtle changes with people prepare the track. Tend to be more round or square. It’s recognizing that and making subtle changes. Even though it’s technically the same track, there’s all those small changes. Winning a race versus coming in 10th-15th-20th is fractions of a second. Makes a huge effect.

MST: Are Skeleton and sliding sports similar to racing in that it doesn’t translate as well on TV as it does in person?

MA: Absolutely – it’s just like racing in that sense. On TV it looks fast, but you don’t comprehend it until you see the cars. It’s the same with the sliding sports. People come out for the first time to watch and are just blown away. You’re understanding the control and speed. TV never really does justice. And every course varies… we’re anywhere from 70-90 mph and corner design changes. Given the pressure of the corners, you’re probably up to 4-5 Gs.

MST: Are there any runs you’re more amped for or do you stay the same for each one?

MA: There’s definitely some variation depending on the level of competition, say a national race versus the Olympics. One thing you do to be successful, is that I treat every race and situation the same. Some vary more than others. But it is the same process. You go through the ritual in the morning. You do those final preparations. You get warmed up, do the visualization, when you take your run. You know what you have to execute. You can’t react, otherwise it’s too late. Going through that in your head – when you do go out, it’s second nature.

My best races are the ones where I remember the least about, because you’re almost on autopilot and instincts take over.

MST: Getting that medal, what did it mean for you and your sport?

MA: It’s so huge for the sport… it’s our nature to only be popular every 4 years. But results like that do help bring attention and popularity. After every Olympics there’s a lot more inquiries, and that’s how I came into it in 2002. I’m the first medal in Skeleton since 2002. From our results in Sochi – it’s been a very large influx compared to the last couple Olympics. It’s great to see the growth and to be a part of that.

MST: Have you had the chance to meet (NBCSN lead motorsports announcer) Leigh Diffey yet? What did his enthusiasm bring to the Olympics?

MA: We haven’t yet met in person – we’ve exchanged emails and tweets.

I absolutely agree, he was huge. We’ve had normal races throughout the past few years, and you may have good announcers, but they don’t bring that racing knowledge, and it does suffer. So with Leigh there, it was fantastic having him involved. I went back and watched later – and I was really excited to see how well it went over. People said at home the coverage was fantastic.

MST: Your racing hero/heroes is/are?

MA: My biggest racing hero growing up was Michael Schumacher. When I began to take an interest in racing was when he came in. I followed and admired him the most. He’s the person. We’re all still pulling for him in his recovery.

Among Antoine’s other recent activities, he’s been among a number of athletes to have taken the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge – one he posted to YouTube as the “Ice Bucket Challenge for the Renaissance Man.”

NHRA: Tony Schumacher breaks Top Fuel speed record twice, hits a best of 336.57 mph

Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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The “Shoe” put his foot into it Friday during the first of two days of qualifying for the NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in suburban Phoenix.

Tony Schumacher, an 8-time NHRA Top Fuel champion, rewrote the Top Fuel mph record book twice, while Clay Millican did so once, marking the first time in NHRA history that the national speed record was broken three times in the same day.

Schumacher ran a speed of 334.65 mph in his first qualifying run at 3.649 seconds. Millican surpassed that speed mark in the second round of qualifying with a 335.23 mph effort.

Then Schumacher broke the record yet again in his second qualifying attempt in the U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster with a blistering speed of 336.57 mph at 3.667 seconds.

And with one more day of qualifying Saturday and final eliminations on Sunday, there’s a possibility that the record-setting may not be over.

“It’s only Friday in Phoenix and there is a lot of racing left to be done this weekend, but today tells me that we have an awful lot of power in this car,” Schumacher said. “Working with my crew chief Mike Neff this season continues to pay its dividends, and this team has really gelled so far.”

Also, Brittany Force returned to the track after suffering a hard wreck two weeks ago in the season-opening race in Pomona, California. Force, who did not make a full pass, is currently in the 13th qualifying position with a 4.454-second pass at 172.72 mph.

“It’s going to take a few runs to figure out this car. It is our car from last season. The guys had to haul back to Indy (after the Winternationals), pull this car out, rebuild it and get it here in time,” Force said. “We get two more tomorrow. I’m not worried. Plus, it works better for me, getting slowly back into it.”

In Funny Car, Jack Beckman took the provisional No. 1 qualifying spot with a second qualifying run of 332.43 mph at 3.845 seconds in his Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger R/T.

“When it’s this cold the tracks get so tricky, because it can get so cold that the window for hitting a great run closes,” Beckman said. “I like the fact that we were able to make great back-to-back runs like that, especially after we had some trouble with the car in the semifinals in Pomona.”

In Pro Stock, Alex Laughlin had the hot foot, taking the provisional top spot with a second qualifying run of 209.43 mph at 6.537 seconds in his Hot Wheels Car Care Chevrolet Camaro. Laughlin is looking to earn his first No. 1 qualifying spot of the season and just the second of his Pro Stock career.

“It’s awesome to be able to go to sleep tonight as the current No. 1 qualifier,” Laughlin said. “Obviously anything can change tomorrow, but we ran stellar times during testing and I don’t know if it’s the car or the track but I definitely hope that we are finally connecting the dots.”

Qualifying continues at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday.

FRIDAY’S RESULTS:

TOP FUEL — 1. Tony Schumacher, 3.649 seconds, 336.57 mph; 2. Steve Torrence, 3.655, 331.85; 3.

Clay Millican, 3.664, 335.23; 4. Richie Crampton, 3.683, 325.30; 5. Billy Torrence, 3.697, 331.45; 6. Blake Alexander, 3.705, 329.58; 7. Antron Brown, 3.717, 333.66; 8. Mike Salinas, 3.737, 326.32; 9. Terry McMillen, 3.740, 316.45; 10. Leah Pritchett, 3.755, 291.07; 11. Doug Kalitta, 3.786, 321.42; 12. Scott Palmer, 3.788, 326.63; 13. Brittany Force, 4.454, 172.72; 14. Greg Carrillo, 4.553, 176.49; 15. Troy Buff, 4.560, 164.53; 16. Kebin Kinsley, 9.187, 74.21.

FUNNY CAR — 1. Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 3.845, 332.43; 2. Courtney Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.845, 328.70; 3. Jonnie Lindberg, Toyota Camry, 3.866, 317.27; 4. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.879, 328.62; 5. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 3.888, 333.25; 6. Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.926, 330.88; 7. Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.927, 329.26; 8. J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.944, 324.20; 9. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 3.971, 316.75; 10. Jeff Diehl, Camry, 4.148, 306.67; 11. Richard Townsend, Camry, 4.244, 235.27; 12. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 4.333, 209.59; 13. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.474, 188.81; 14. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.551, 182.82; 15. John Force, Camaro, 6.745, 96.00; 16. Del Worsham, Camry, 7.374, 93.25.

Not Qualified: 17. Jim Campbell, 7.402, 91.58.

PRO STOCK — 1. Alex Laughlin, Chevy Camaro, 6.537, 209.49; 2. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.545, 210.54; 3. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.546, 211.13; 4. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.553, 210.57; 5. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.554, 209.49; 6. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.558, 210.31; 7. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.561, 210.41; 8. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.567, 210.08; 9. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.572, 210.50; 10. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.573, 209.65; 11. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.581, 209.36; 12. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.582, 208.84; 13. Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.591, 209.65; 14. Val Smeland, Camaro, 6.640, 208.65; 15. Steve Graham, Camaro, 6.659, 208.55; 16. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 6.690, 206.83.

Not Qualified: 17. Joey Grose, 6.730, 205.94.

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