Bill Pappas heads to INDYCAR with long-term strategy, goals

Pappas (shown in 2002) hopes for a long-term stint with INDYCAR. Getty Images
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Trying to keep track of Bill Pappas’ resume in recent years has been like trying to keep track of Lady Gaga’s outfits.

You know they’re a talented individual, but you never knew from day-to-day what shirt they’d be wearing.

Pappas may be a 32-year veteran in racing but in the last several years he’s been through a variety of different teams and roles.

His greatest recent sustained success came with the late Justin Wilson at Dale Coyne Racing, but after 2013, Pappas went to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing where he only was for one year.

Last year, he was technical director for KV Racing Technology, and was also out after one year. He’s also spent a bit of time with RSR Racing, when Paul Gentilozzi’s team fielded an Oreca FLM09 car in the IMSA championship, in the Prototype Challenge class.

As Pappas heads into a series sanctioning body side, named Monday as INDYCAR’s Vice President of Competition, Race Engineering, he’s doing it with a longer-term approach.

“I look at it as I have had a great opportunity to be part of teams that have both been Honda- and Chevy-powered, so I think I have experience in understanding the needs of both sides,” Pappas told reporters during an INDYCAR conference call this afternoon.

“As far as me personally, I’ve been doing this close to 32 years. I’ve experienced a lot of success with some really great teams.

“At this point in my career, it is a long-term commitment. I’d like to be part of the future of IndyCar racing. There’s no better way than getting your feet in the trenches with the series to move it forward. Rather than pointing fingers, I want to be part of the solution.”

He’s also going to need to avoid the trap that befell his former boss Derrick Walker before him. Walker and Pappas worked together in the late 1990s with Gil de Ferran in the CART series.

Walker was hailed when hired by INDYCAR to the role of President of Competition and Operations, a role now held by Jay Frye after Walker left the series at the end of 2015. But while Walker had his successes, making it in the sometimes testy and fiery Verizon IndyCar Series paddock was harder to do.

“I’m just the same guy yesterday, the day before, a year ago. I’m just a racer. I’m just looking at it now from how we make it better, more consistent for everybody,” Pappas explained.

Frye, who along with Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles (head of INDYCAR parent company), also explained what they like about Pappas for this new role.

“In the whole technical area, we thought we had a unique opportunity to make a change that would do just that, as Bill Pappas became available to us,” Miles said.

“Forget the fact that we have the same high school alma mater here in Indianapolis; that’s a joke, but it’s true. But Bill has obviously earned his stripes over the years, winning the Indianapolis 500 in 2000 and serving ably in technical leadership for a number of teams.

“So for us, as we think about where we are, the need to do better as we implement changes to the car that we have, the need to think in earnest about what the future of the car will be, when there will be a new car, what that could involve.

“To have somebody who comes to us straight from the paddock with all his team experience, who is totally current, is important.”

Frye added, “Bill is certainly a racer. We saw an immediate opportunity to make a personnel move that would make things stronger. We jumped on it. We couldn’t be more excited about this.

“Bill and I have met and talked extensively over the last two or three weeks. I think the philosophy and direction and processes and procedures we discussed were very much in line.”

Pappas replaces Will Phillips, whose next step in his own career is yet to be revealed.

Juan Pablo Montoya immediately hailed Pappas’ new role; the two worked together at Target Chip Ganassi Racing when Montoya won the 2000 Indianapolis 500.

SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

Roczen change
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media
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Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.

Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.

But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.

“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”

Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.

Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”

The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.

But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.

“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”

Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.

“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.

“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.

“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”