Pruett still going strong

Published 2:22 pm Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Scott Pruett walked through the crowded paddock at Infineon Raceway and almost no one recognized him.

Most people who swarmed around the food concessions and the souvenir kiosks at the Sonoma, Calif., track a couple of weeks ago had no idea that one of America’s premier all-around racers was within easy autograph range.

Such is the lot of the 48-year-old Pruett, a former open-wheel, NASCAR and Trans-Am driver and now one of the top stars of the Rolex Grand-Am Sports Car Series.

“I’ve signed my share of autographs and dealt with all that stuff,” Pruett said. “But I’m just happy to still be driving race cars. That’s what I love.”

And Pruett is still a serious race car driver. That’s supported by his latest championship, wrapped up last Sunday in Millville, N.J., in the Chip Ganassi Racing Daytona Prototype Lexus he co-drives with Memo Rojas, 21 years his junior.

It’s the eighth title of Pruett’s professional career, breaking the American record he had held jointly with sports car legend Peter Gregg.

But driving race cars is only one of Pruett’s interests.

He and wife Judy recently published their fourth successful children’s book, all of them based on racing. And the day after he competed at Infineon, Pruett harvested his first crop of wine grapes at his home in Auburn, Calif., in the Sierra foothills.

“Things have been going good, with six wins and leading the championship (this year),” Pruett said. “That side of it is great. Going to do my first harvest of my own fruit Sunday after the race. Children’s books are going great. Family’s doing great. Life’s good.”

Things got a little scary last week when Pruett crashed hard in practice in Millville, splitting the car in two and being transported to a hospital for examination. But he walked out of the hospital later that day and was able to take his normal turn in the race on Sunday, finishing ninth in the team’s backup car.

It certainly wasn’t the first crash for Pruett, who missed the entire 1990 season after a brutal wreck that badly injured both of his legs while testing a CART car in West Palm Beach, Fla.

But Pruett got back into a race car as soon as he was able.

“It’s a habit that’s hard to break. This is my 40th year of driving,” Pruett said. “I started when I was 8, racing go-karts, and I’ve raced every year since then. If you would have talked to me when I was 21, 22 years old and told me I’d still be doing it now and winning championships and winning races and doing all the stuff we’ve been doing over the last few years, I would have said, ‘You’re kidding me, man. No way.’ ”

Pruett has paid a price for all those years of high G Forces and crashes.

“Every morning is my worst time of the day,'” he said. “My first step out of bed every morning is the worst. My ankle hurts, my knees hurt, my back hurts, my elbows hurt, my shoulder’s tore up. It sounds like a football player. But, once you get up and kind of get working, things get better.

“And in the race car, that’s the best place to be. You’ve got all that blood flowing, Adrenalin.”

For the 27-year-old Rojas, having Pruett as his teammate has been an education as well.

“He’s been successful in stock cars, sports cars, IndyCars,” Rojas said. “There’s very few people you can learn that much from.

“You’re always learning but, at this level, everybody knows how to drive. But what I really learn from him is how he approaches situations, like how he approached things mentally — a race, qualifying, a championship lead. When you need to be aggressive, when you need to be conservative, that kind of things. As a young driver, sometimes you get very influenced by your emotions and you risk unnecessarily. That kind of maturity comes with time, and Scott has been here a long time.”

Pruett was a regular in CART from 1988 to 1999. He won two races and had 15 top-three finishes during that period.

In 2000, he moved to NASCAR’s top stock car series with former CART team owner Cal Wells and drove 28 races with one top-10 finish before being fired.

“As much as I was the realist of the program, and told all the (sponsors) it was going to be three years, everybody wants immediate gratification,” Pruett said. “It was a brand new team, a brand new driver, let’s be realistic. … We had what I thought was a pretty good season for a first year. It wasn’t good enough. They pulled the plug, changed driver, changed other things.”

But somebody with a career as long as Pruett’s has to be an optimist.

“If I hadn’t left NASCAR, I wouldn’t have wound up going to Le Mans with Corvette and won the 24-hour race,” he noted, smiling.

Pruett won his third Trans-Am championship in 2003, then moved to Grand-Am with Ganassi, where he won the 2004 title.

“This team is fantastic,” he said. “Chip, I don’t care what series he’s in, he does such a terrific job. … And the series, the part that I love about it, the cars are important, but it’s all about the racing.”

So is Scott Pruett.