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: Top 10 storylines of the 2019 season

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The 2019 NHRA season wound up being one where there was almost as much news and highlights made off the drag strip as on it.

That was the case in two of the top four storylines for the recently completed season, with the top story occurring even before the first pass down a drag strip in competition took place.

We’ve also included a poll for you to vote and see if you agree with our picks or not.

Here’s how our top 10 looks:

1. A Force-ful departure: Just two weeks before the 2019 season was due to open, Funny Car driver Courtney Force, daughter of 16-time champion John Force, stunned the drag racing world by announcing she was taking a hiatus from the sport – although she insisted she was not retiring. The wife of IndyCar driver Graham Rahal, Force turned over her high dollar Advance Auto Parts sponsorship to sister and Top Fuel driver Brittany Force, who had previously been sponsored by Monster Energy. Courtney Force became the second high-profile female drag racer to step away from the sport in just over a year, joining fellow Funny Car driver Alexis DeJoria, who went on hiatus after the 2017 season. This past October, DeJoria announced she would return to full-time NHRA competition in 2020. But as for Courtney, she remains on hiatus for at least the time being.

2. Torrence’s Texas two-step: Proud Texas native Steve Torrence won his second consecutive Top Fuel championship in 2019, winning nine races (including eight in a nine-race stretch). While Torrence enjoyed an outstanding season in 2018, winning 11 races and becoming the first driver in NHRA history to win all six races in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs, he won just one playoff race in 2019. But he still managed to earn just enough points to hold off his closest rival, Doug Kalitta, by a mere three points for the second championship. Also of note: Steve’s father Billy finished a career-best fifth in the final standings, even though he competed in just 16 of the season’s 24 national events.

3. What happened to ‘The Sarge’? Tony Schumacher is the winningest Top Fuel driver in NHRA history, with eight championships and 84 national event wins. But he was essentially AWOL in 2019, failing to compete in even one race. The reason: sponsorship. Or more precisely, lack thereof. The U.S. Army, which had sponsored Schumacher for nearly 20 years – which prompted him to adopt the colorful nickname of “The Sarge” pulled its funding after the 2018 season, leaving Schumacher without a fully-funded ride for 2019. Rather than try to race piecemeal from race to race with limited sponsorship, the son of team owner Don Schumacher decided to watch the season from the sidelines. How Schumacher could not attract a new big dollar sponsor, given his domination and success in the Top Fuel class, is almost unfathomable. Unfortunately, it’s looking like Schumacher – who turns 50 on Christmas Day – may remain sidelined in 2020.

John Force

4. A Force to be reckoned with once again: Even though he fell short of adding to his record 16 NHRA Funny Car championships, the 2019 season was definitely one of resurgence for John Force, the sport’s winningest and most popular driver ever. Force, who turned 70 years old in May, isn’t letting age slow him down, earning two wins during the season – including a milestone 150th Funny Car victory of his career – and finished fourth in the standings (up from ninth in 2018, seventh in 2017, and his best finish since he ended up fourth in 2016).

Robert Hight

5. At the Hight of his success: Robert Hight isn’t flashy or verbose as his boss, John Force. But when he’s not working as president of John Force Racing, the soft-spoken Hight has become one of the premier drivers in Funny Car history. In 2019, he earned his third Funny Car championship – his second in the last three seasons and third since 2009. Along the way, he captured six wins, was runner-up three other times, reached the semifinals five times and led all drivers as the No. 1 qualifier for eight races (a full one-third of the season). This was perhaps the most dominant championship of all for Hight, including leading the Funny Car standings for 23 of the 24-race season.

Erica Enders

6. Erica’s baaaaccckkkk: Erica Enders is back on top of her game, and on top of the Pro Stock category, earning her third championship in the last six seasons (and first since 2015). Admittedly, her championship came in the first year of a shortened Pro Stock schedule, having been cut from a full 24 races to just 18. Still, the Texas native won two races, finished runner-up three other times and reached the semifinals four other times. Also of note, Enders’ Elite Motorsports teammate, five-time Pro Stoc champ Jeg Coughlin Jr., came oh, so close to winning his sixth title, finishing just 21 points behind Enders in the final standings.

Doug Kalitta

7. What does he have to do to win first championship? Doug Kalitta came the closest he ever has to earning the first Top Fuel championship of his 20-year drag racing career, finishing just three points behind Steve Torrence in the Top Fuel rankings. It was almost heartbreaking as Kalitta seemingly did everything he needed to do to win the championship, including winning the season-ending race in Pomona, California, one of three wins he earned (as well as two runner-up finishes and six semifinal showings). Kalitta began the season with a win at Pomona, as well. But Torrence came into the season-ending event at Pomona with just enough of a lead (and reached the semifinals) to hold off Kalitta’s challenge. How close was Kalitta from winning the championship? If he had advanced one more round in any of the six playoff races, he would have bested Torrence. Unfortunately, in a sense, Kalitta – nephew of legendary NHRA team owner and racer Connie Kalitta – has become the Mark Martin of NHRA Top Fuel: always a bridesmaid but never a bride when it comes to winning a championship. But there’s still hope, Kalitta fans: he’s going to give it another try in 2020. Maybe that will be his year – finally.

Andrew Hines

8. He’s one heck of an easy rider: Andrew Hines made it look easy in 2019 – although it was far from it – when he earned his sixth career NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle championship (and first since 2015). Son of past PSM champion Byron Hines, Andrew Hines enjoyed one of the most dominating seasons ever of his career — not to mention one of the most dominating seasons in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category — winning eight of the 16 PSM events contested, along with earning two runner-up and three semifinal finishes. Hines held off 2016 PSM champ Jerry Savoie by 26 points and 2018 champ Matt Smith by 46 points.

JR Todd

9. What a difference a year makes: JR Todd had an exceptional season in 2018, with six wins, two runner-up finishes and six semifinal showings. Not surprisingly, the Indiana native went on to win the Funny Car championship that season for Kalitta Motorsports. But one year later, Todd was seemingly an afterthought when it came to challenging for the Funny Car crown once again. For as good as he was in 2018, Todd struggled through much of the 2019 season with just one win, three runner-up and two other semifinal finishes, ultimately finishing seventh in the standings, a distant 246 points behind series champ Robert Hight, who was second to Todd in 2018.

Austin Prock

10. Strong start for sport’s top rookie: When your father is renowned crew chief Jimmy Prock, it’s clear that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. Such is the case of Austin Prock, who finished his first season in Top Fuel by earning NHRA’s rookie of the year honors. The younger Prock finished eighth in the Top Fuel season standings, including one win and five semifinal finishes driving for John Force Racing. Ironically, he finished one spot higher than three-time Top Fuel champ Antron Brown, who had a rough season, finishing ninth in the standings, with no wins, two runner-up showings and reached the semifinals just five times.

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