It takes a breadth of experience to be able to put on pro races one month, and the NASA Championships the next, with lots of amateur events in between, but Craig Rust, president of the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course is the man for the job.
Starting in motorsports with Penske Motorsports in 1996, Rust was part of the original team that built what is now Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. When Penske sold his interest in the tracks to International Speedway Corporation, Rust worked for ISC.
Rust has been at Mid-Ohio since 2011. Before that he ran Nazareth Speedway in Pennsylvania, Chicagoland Speedway, the Route 66 Raceway drag strip and Watkins Glen for nine seasons starting in 2002. He was instrumental in bringing IndyCar back to the Glen in 2005.
It was at the Glen he met Kim Green and Kevin Savoree, who were interested in purchasing the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and having Rust run the facility. He’s been there since.
We caught up with Rust to ask him what it’s like to run such iconic road course facilities and learn the challenges between running pro events and major amateur events like the NASA Championships which take place this September 18-22.
Q: Looks like Mid-Ohio has been a busy place this year, what with the IMSA and IndyCar series racing at the track. What’s it like shifting gears between pro racing events and a big grassroots event like the NASA Championships?
A: They all bring their challenges, but the key point is when you bring the amateur or the grassroots series in, you want to make sure the facility looks good, things are neat. We want to make sure the garages are clean, the paddock’s cleaned up, the grass is cut. It’s interesting. I don’t care if you’re a pro racer or an amateur racer or somewhere in between, the commitment all these guys make to motorsports and the time they spend at the racetrack is immense. Sometimes, I’ll be honest with you, the amateurs can be a little bit harder on you than the pros.
The pros are coming in and they’re staying in nice hotel rooms or they’ve got million-dollar buses. They’ve got all the creature comforts where the amateurs obviously, there’s as big a spectrum of equipment people bring and how they stay. But on those pro weekends, the IndyCars, the IMSAs, the NASCAR, the facility can take quite a bit of wear and tear, from not only the series, but also the fans. So, you just want to make sure you turn it over and make it look nice. You understand that the NASA Championships are important, and we want to make sure we’re taking care of the series and the drivers, and the sponsors the best way we can.
Q: Mid-Ohio seems to attract a lot of spectators for the pro events and for grassroots events like the NASA Championships. Why do you think that is?
A: Where Mid-Ohio was born from, it has its roots in amateur sports car racing. Then when the Trumans took it over for so many years, that part of motorsports, or that niche of motorsports, was very important to Mr. Truman, so I think it just became part of the culture, of the track, of the staff, and of the surrounding area. The community, I think, really appreciates what these smaller series do, we’ll say non-pro. But when you go out there, the racing can be every bit as entertaining. These guys want to win. They’re not afraid to beat and bang a little bit when they can.
Most importantly, they put on a good show, so I think that you have a lot of fans in Central Ohio, especially within a one-hour radius of the racetrack, that they know we can go watch the NASA Championships. We can go in there, park and get our spot in 10 minutes as opposed to an hour. We’re not fighting crowds. It’s not as expensive. Whether it’s a couple of hours or we’re enjoying a day of racing, we can get in our car and be home in a half or an hour and enjoy the day. So, again, I go back to the culture of the community and of the fan base and where Mid-Ohio was born from.
Q: What are some of the more challenging aspects of setting up an event like the NASA Championships event at Mid-Ohio?
A: In some part, it can just be the number of entrants. Obviously in the National Championships, you’re having people come in from all over the country, and they bring with them their own fans. Again, making sure things are set up. Obviously, we are an older permanent road course in Central Ohio, so would we like to have 10 more acres of paved area? Absolutely, but that’s just not the case.
Weather can always be a challenge, but you never want to use that as an excuse, but again sometimes we have to park people on grass, and that can be a challenge. But at the end of the day, hosting an IndyCar or whatever and working with their leadership and setting things up the way that they need to run that series, it’s no different than working with the leadership of NASA and making sure things are set up in a way to have a successful week.
I think that would be the other piece of it, now that I say it, these National Championships tend to be over a longer period of time. Again, you want to be a first-class host, so you want to be sure you’re giving people some time off so making sure that we’re staffed properly to take care of the series, the entrants and the fans alike to make sure everybody has a good time.
As I like to say, ‘This is what we do.’ We’ve got an experienced staff, so you just try to do the best you can as you’re heading into it, and make sure you’re paying attention to details and you’re not overlooking things. You’ve just got to make sure everyone stays on their toes and focuses on the details to make sure we do a good job.
Q: There is a mystique, nationwide, to Mid-Ohio. What do you think makes the track so unique and engaging to drivers? Why does it have this, sort of, aura to it?
A: There are a few reasons, actually. I think if you look at the variety of motorsports events that we host, I think that really plays into it, and I’ll get back to that, but I always go back to that there are truly a handful of road courses in this country that carry that mystique, and we’re proud to be one of them. Watkins Glen, Laguna Seca, Elkhart Lake, Mid-Ohio, VIR, you’ve got these road courses, they’re unique, they’re permanent. There’s something special about the permanent road course, not to take anything away from the street races or anything like that, but I think there’s something very unique about the way these tracks were built into the natural terrain, and each one, when they were building it, they kept the aspect of the landscape. The turns and the rise and fall of the racetrack, the undulation that you get I think surprises a lot of people.
Obviously, history helps us. We’ve been fortunate. We’ve hosted a lot of great motorsports events, which leads to amateurs saying, ‘Wow, I want to drive a track that Mario Andretti drove, that Emerson Fitipaldi drove, that Al Unser Jr. drove, that Bobby Rahal drove.’ That, I think, helps. Mid-Ohio, specifically, one of the things that I have found, and it goes back to my comment about hosting a variety of motorsports, just works for IndyCars, for sports cars, for NASCAR, for motorcycles, for pros and amateurs alike. It just sets up that amateurs can drive it competitively. I don’t think it overwhelms them, but you’ve got to respect it, I think for pros as well. They can be aggressive on it, but they know you can get pinched by it pretty quickly. So, I think all those factors all kind of come in to make Mid-Ohio one of those tracks that appeals amateurs and pros.
Q: What’s the secret to going fast at Mid-Ohio?
A: I always tell people, I get asked about cars and engines and people talk to me about different things, and I stay away from underneath my hood. I’m a business guy, but in all seriousness over the years in talking to different racers, the one thing that always seems to be a common factor, they say Mid-Ohio is very “flow-ey.” When you start to have a good lap, and you stay in the line and you’re driving it and you’re hitting your brake markers properly and you’re hitting your gears, you can get around it pretty quick. And it flows. I guess I really can’t explain it, but there’s a flow to how it feels from the driver’s seat. When you have a bad lap, I hear it takes guys out of their groove a little bit and it takes a couple of laps to get back into it, and start hitting the marks again, and continue to set up good laps.
There are some great areas to pass, so traffic plays a big part in how people will lap it, so if you can hit lapped traffic in the right spot, you can keep dialing off great laps and have a good run. If not, it can put you back.
Q: When the event is over, what signifies a success to you?
A: You just want a good weather week for everybody. Bad weather brings challenges to everybody, so taking that out of the equation, if things are quiet, and I mean this across the board, if we’ve done our job well as a staff, the weekend, it should be about the competitors, and the teams, and the series, and the competition on the track. There shouldn’t be a lot of noise or phone calls about things you have to take care of, or all these little things that can crop up that can make it a challenging weekend.
If we do our jobs right and prepare the way I know our team can going into it, and my phone is quiet, and I can walk around and talk to people, and talk to fans, and take a look at the facility … that’s a successful event for me. Things seem very calm. When things just run truly smoothly, and nobody’s calling me, that’s a success.