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.”

Tony Kanaan says his message of IndyCar-NASCAR unity aimed at fans

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Over a 22-year IndyCar career featuring its share of adversity, Tony Kanaan has learned to embrace trying to find the positives in a negative situation.

He believes NASCAR and IndyCar will find a tiny silver lining from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The series will race together at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course in a July 4 doubleheader, which he believes sends a message of unity he’d like to see from the world during this dark period.

“It’s time to send that message (of unity),” Kanaan told “Happy Hours” hosts Kevin Harvick and Matt Yocum in a Wednesday afternoon interview on SiriusXM’s NASCAR Channel. “If we don’t come out of this situation as better people, globally, in every way, shape or form … it’s just being kind to people. Hopefully, we’ll be sending the right messages, doing radio shows together, doing live on Instagram together, doing races together.

ON NBCSN: IndyCar at virtual Barber Motorsports Park, Saturday, 2:30 p.m.

MORE: Jimmie Johnson wants to run IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader

“I was bugging Jimmie Johnson to say, ‘Can I be a guest in NASCAR on iRacing?’ I think the misperception, and probably a little our fault as well, is that people don’t know how (IndyCar and NASCAR drivers) respect each and how we think each other’s jobs are so cool.”

It was Kanaan’s comment last week that “it’s not us and them. It is the motorsports world’ that prompted Harvick to ask the 2004 IndyCar champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner about his views on past IndyCar and NASCAR divisions.

Harvick noted that “over the years, IndyCar and NASCAR have that separate stigma as far as the fans, but the racers in the middle, we talk with each other. We’re just racers. I think it’s absolutely great” the doubleheader will happen.

Kanaan said he felt it was the right message to send because of the fans. “For drivers, I don’t think we ever thought of it that way,” he said. “We always respected each other and thought each other’s jobs were cool. That tweet was for our fans who say, ‘Those cars are too fast. Those cars are too slow.’ It’s time for us to stop. It’s a racing family.

“For people who don’t understand about racing, any race car is cool. Doesn’t matter if it’s a go kart, a sprint car, a  Cup car, it doesn’t matter. … The situation, we’re in, we’re all equal. It doesn’t matter how much money you have. We’re all in the same boat now. We can’t do what we love. It just clicked. I said it’s time to send that message. Hopefully this will be the end for ‘you guys and us’ for the fans. For drivers, I don’t think we ever thought of it that way.”

The GMR IndyCar Grand Prix is scheduled to be run July 4 on the IMS road course ahead of the Xfinity race, which will mean that the NTT Series’ Firestone rubber will be on the asphalt before the Goodyears of NASCAR hit the track.

Recalling a NASCAR test many years ago at Nazareth Speedway when he turned laps a second faster because there’d been an IndyCar race the previous day, Harvick asked Kanaan whether the varying tire compounds might present a challenge.

“I don’t there is a solution for that,” Kanaan said. “It’s part of the job, and we need to realize that you guys run different tires. We run softer tires. It’s no different than (IndyCar) racing with the trucks at Texas. It’s probably harder on an oval than a road course.

“But I like it. It’s part of the challenge and makes the race weekend more interesting, the people who can manage that as well.”

Even though he is sidelined, Kanaan still will stay busy this weekend, racing in Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. IndyCar iRacing Challenge event at virtual Barber Motorsports Park on NBCSN. He will be tuning in Sunday at 1 p.m. on Fox and FS1 as NASCAR hits Bristol Motor Speedway.

“Last Sunday I had my alarm set for 12:40 p.m., because at 1 o’clock (NASCAR was) on,” Kanaan said with a laugh. “I told (wife) Lauren, ‘Let’s turn the TV on and watch the NASCAR race!’ I was excited, and it wasn’t even real. She’s like, ‘Man, look at you … I said, ‘That’s what we got.’ It’s been a weird year.”

Harvick also will be racing Sunday, having recently joined Kanaan in installing a new racing simulator at home.

“Let’s do this Kevin: Come do an IndyCar race on iRacing,” Kanaan said. “I’ll do NASCAR. Now that you have a sim. What do you think?”

“Well, I’ll have to go to my 7-year-old to figure out how to drive it fast,” Harvick said.

“He’s been practicing. I’m really good at crashing.”