CART Media Conference
February 25, 1997
MIKE ZIZZO: Today's special guests are four of the top five in the PPG Cup Championship last season. PPG Cup Champions Jimmy Vasser of Target/Chip Ganassi; Michael Andretti and Christian Fittipaldi of Newmann/Haas Racing and Al Unser, Jr. of Marlboro Team Penske will join us separately in approximately 15 minute intervals. Unfortunately, Alex Zanardi of Target/Chip Ganassi was unavailable to join us today due to his testing schedule in Seabring. Our first guest is our champion, Jimmy Vasser. Jimmy earned four victories in four poles last season and lead the championship race after all but one event last season. He will be heading the Homestead this week to defend his Marlboro Grand Prix of Miami, presented by Toyota title, which also one his first career victory. Jimmy drives the No. 1 Target Reynard Honda. Jimmy, welcome.
JIMMY VASSER: Thank you, Mike.
Q. Jimmy, with the new changes that the Homestead track might have, what effect they might have on both you and the race itself?
JIMMY VASSER: Well, I mean, things went pretty smooth at Homestead I thought. You know, a few incidents maybe with the loss of down-force running behind another car. But, you know, I think that it's going to take a few laps to feel it out once we go green. And I think it will be fine. I think that the lower down-force adds a little bit -- a little more driving to the equation. But, I think that it is pretty similar overall, because you have more track surface and more -- the corner is a bit wider. I think it is pretty similar overall in the driveability. I think we are going to be in for a good race.
Q. Do you think you will be able to surprise them as much as you did last year or do you think they are going to be more gearing for you?
JIMMY VASSER: Well, I mean, I don't know. You go out and just do your best and I think we are going to be competitive. We have tested pretty well there. I think we are not going to be totally out of the hunt and, you know, if I surprise them again, well, that is fine too. You know, we are going to be out looking for the win. But, it is going to be tough. I mean, spring training, as you have seen, a lot of teams are real close, a lot of the tires -- the tire companies are close, and the engine manufacturers are getting a lot closer. So, it is going to be a tough race, no doubt.
Q. Jimmy, how are you doing?
JIMMY VASSER: Great.
Q. You got off to such a great start last year. I won't say close to the championship, but you certainly weren't as dominant the second half of the year as you were the second. Do you think you are to where you were last year this time now?
JIMMY VASSER: I think we are from a team standpoint, we are in a similar position than we were last year. We had a real good off-season testing. The car is running real well. We have been pretty quick. So I think, you know, we are going to be in the hunt. And, kind of the thing we figured last year, the things that -- if we can put ourselves in a position -- if you are in the top 5, if you can put yourself in the top 5 pretty consistently, things are going to happen for you and you are going to win races; you are going to probably run real well and dominate a race or two and you are going to be in a position to win one if somebody has a misfortune. I think that is still our philosophy. And, I think going into Homestead, we can go -- we can follow that game plan and be in that position. Hopefully we can get out -- it will be very difficult, but hopefully we can get out to a similar start that we had last year and by winning the first race and win -- getting some good points early, and although this year, only thing we want different this year is to see if we can keep it consistently throughout the whole season.
Q. Jimmy, I remember talking to you at end of last year when you were being so cautious about everything and saying, oh, what it will be like if you would be champion and just the whole position that that would put you in within the whole spectrum of drivers and teams and everything. Now you had the whole off-season of being it and coming in as a defending champion. What has it been like for you? What kind of a different mindset, if any, do you have coming into this year?
JIMMY VASSER: Well, it has been fantastic, you know, being the champion, winning the championship, I mean, that is a goal you set out to achieve and not just for me, but for the whole team. I mean, it has been wonderful. But, I don't think -- it doesn't change my mindset at all. You got to go out and do the same things you did, you know, that got you there before. And, really that is all I know how to do, is just to be myself and go about things the way that I know how to go about them best. And, that is just taking it one race at a time and giving 110 percent. And, as long as you do that, then you can't get too disappointed on the bad stuff. And, I think it is important not to get too high on the wins or on things that happen good. So, I just try to stay on an even keel and go about things business as usual.
Q. Is it hard to stay on an even keel now, though, being the defending champion? Is there extra pressure at all?
JIMMY VASSER: Well, I haven't encountered that yet. But, you know, maybe ask me after a few races, but I don't think it is going to be a problem. I think -- I try not to allow anyway extra pressures on myself. And, we went through some situations through the middle of last season to the end that were pretty, I guess, pretty pressure packed, but you know, I have said it before: It is very difficult for me to allow more pressure to be put on me than already is. There is enough pressure just to perform and do your job and keep -- just to keep your job, so, there is enough built-in pressure in IndyCar Racing these days with the level of competition and so forth. So, it is very difficult to put more pressure on yourself.
Q. Listen, in terms of doing well in the beginning of the season, I am going to take a little different tack on it. How important is it emotionally to you and maybe psychologically against your competitors to do well right at the beginning of the season; not only the points for what you hope is going to be a second championship, but also to maybe let everybody else know that, hey, that championship last year was for real and I am for real?
JIMMY VASSER: Well, I mean, it is very important to do well all the time and it is great to do well early; to give yourself a little head start and, you know, boost the morale of the team and get things off to a good start. But, you know you want to do well all the time. I am not too concerned about really what other people think about, you know, I don't know what last year's championship or flukes or anything like that because you go out and do your best, like I said, a million times. And, that is all you can do. I think if anybody thinks that last year was a fluke, I mean, that is ridiculous. I am on a fantastic race team and our race team deserves everything that it got. So, I think we have been testing well in the off-season. We ran well at Homestead in spring training and we are going to be there. But, there is going to be a lot of people there that are going to have an opportunity to win this championship too and whoever does it with the level of competition of IndyCars today, whoever does it, that team deserve it.
Q. Is it good for you to have a teammate like Alex Zanardi who is so competitive?
JIMMY VASSER: Well, sure, I mean, I think you look any of the top teams today, they are two-car teams and both sides of the team are fantastic. And, I don't think -- I don't think that the competitive thing about -- I mean, the fact that you know, Alex runs real well, I don't even know if that has anything to do with my performance because I go out and give it 110% every time and if, you know, if somebody can -- if you can try harder just because somebody is there; then maybe up weren't trying hard to begin with. So, I think it is good that you have two channels of information that feed into the team and that is the good part of having a two-car team.
Q. Thanks a lot. Good luck this year.
JIMMY VASSER: Thank you very much.
Q. Jimmy, first of all, congratulations on 1996?
JIMMY VASSER: Thank you very much.
Q. My question is based on the five-week break between Miami and Australia. First of all, what is your opinion of it and secondly, what do you plan between the five-week break?
JIMMY VASSER: Well, the five-week break will be nice. It gives us a little breather before we start getting real busy through the summertime. And, actually the very week after the Thursday after Homestead, I get to go down to El Centro, California and fly in an F-18 and my teammate Alex Zanardi is going to come with. And, we are looking forward to that. It is a fantastic opportunity. And -- I mean, that is -- it is going to be pretty neat, I think. I just hope I can keep my stomach. I heard some people have a hard time keeping their stomach with a flight like that. And, I just hope I can hold my own there.
Q. Anything planned on MTV?
JIMMY VASSER: Nothing I have heard of yet. We did that thing last year that was really neat for the team and it was really cool. I'd love to do something with them in the future. But, to my knowledge, I don't think we have anything planned with them.
Q. Jimmy, I was going to ask you a question just about what you have seen in spring training and during the testing. Is there anybody out there -- we sort of know all the usual suspects for the championship. But, is there anybody out there that you think is going to sneak up on somebody or has the potential to kind of sneak up on somebody, maybe even one of the rookie drivers or one of the guys with a lot of experience anybody impressed you so far that way?
JIMMY VASSER: You mean aside from the usual cast of characters?
Q. That is right.
JIMMY VASSER: I think that Gugelmin has been running real well I think the PacWest team has raised their level up a bit and Gugelmin is looking pretty strong. Obviously, aside from all the top teams, the Penske team and Newman/Haas and the Target/Chip Ganassi team, I think you can -- I think the PacWest team is a team that is coming into the limelight a bit. And I have been pretty impressed with Richie Hearn. Richie Hearn posted some good times in the testing sessions that I have seen and for a young team like that, and a young driver, I am pretty impressed. So, you know, I think that those two guys might be two guys that you will see a lot of this year.
Q. Jimmy, again congratulations on your championship. I know that it is probably pretty much sunk in now. The champion usually has a lot of work to do. What are you going to be doing as far as personal appearances and other things between now and Friday?
JIMMY VASSER: Well, I don't know if we have anything that is out of the ordinary. We have our normal team stuff which is pretty busy. We are going to be doing the press conference I think at the track on Thursday. We have a Target store appearance also on Thursday evening and we have a team sponsor party on Friday night. But those are our usual -- the usual functions that our team has and, you know, I have been doing a lot of extra stuff, you know, being the champion and so forth, is a bit in the off-season and there is going to be some extra things that I have to do in the early part of the season, some things that pertain to Long Beach Grand Prix and so forth. But, I don't see a tremendous amount of extra work being the champion. And, certainly the championship has sunk in and it is has almost even sunk out, you know. Going into the season I am not really concerned about being champion and you just -- it is a clean slate now and I don't care how many championships you have, it is not going to help you do your job any better. You got to get out there and you got to just focus on taking it one session at a time and try to just do the best job that you can.
Q. Have you found any major differences between last year's car and this year's car during the testing?
JIMMY VASSER: There is some subtle differences, some small ones. I would say no major differences in the handling characteristics. I think that CART has done some major improvements in the safety -- in the areas of safety in the driver's cockpit primarily in the head area, and in some of the padding regulations, like behind the seat and so forth, but, no, the Reynard has basically been just a bit of an evolution from last year's car and not really, you know, a revolution. There is not a whole lot different. They changed the gearbox, but that hasn't really changed the handling characteristics of the car much at all.
Q. Jimmy, they took away about 100 horsepower when they lowered the boost to 40 inches of mercury for 1997. Not to belabor the obvious, but can you really feel that with the improvements that they have made in the Firestone tires?
JIMMY VASSER: You can feel the lack of horsepower a bit in driving in the acceleration, but the engine companies have done a good job to get some horsepower back. On the ovals it is difficult to feel because the speeds are up there because the tire manufacturers are making strides and the chassis manufacturers are getting bit better too. So, you are seeing the lap times are very similar to last year with the improvements that they have made and then obviously with the regulations taking the horsepower away. But it is very difficult -- to answer your question, it is very difficult to feel that. But, you can on a road course, in terms of acceleration.
Q. Can you describe a little bit about the physical training you have been going through and preparation for the season and what may be called still off-time or downtime? I mean, obviously there is the mental preparation, but I know you are pretty big into physical preparation also?
JIMMY VASSER: Well, I am -- when I get to a certain point and that was probably middle of December and as I speak now, my trainer is sitting staring at me because we are supposed to go to the gym. I get pretty involved in the training program right around new years. This year was a little bit beforehand and training sometimes two times a day and take a trainer on the road with me, all the testing and so forth. And, you know, for me, it is more of a mental thing. You have to be fit to drive the race car, there is no doubt about that. But, you know, everybody has got their own reasons why they do things like that. And for me, the primary reason is to get mentally prepared. While you are working out I do a lot of thinking about why I am working out and what I am going to be trying to achieve and also to know that I am doing the things that are necessary to win. And, the things that I am him putting in my time here; I am doing the roadwork. So, you know -- but I need to do that because in the off-season, after the season, I like to have my cheeseburgers and a few beers and lay around and flick the channels. So, it is definitely a necessity for me come two, three months before the season to buckle down and get fit.
Q. Do you feel it gives you the winning edge? I know in NASCAR right now, it seems to be the big wave because of Mark Martin's performance in the gym he seems to be turning a lot of other drivers on. Do you think in the future to be a winning driver you are going to have to not only be mentally fit, but certainly physically to the best of your ability?
JIMMY VASSER: In my opinion, they are both connected. I mean, if you are not physically fit than it is hard to remain mentally fit throughout the whole race. If you start to get a little bit tired, the mental aspect slips a bit, and you start to slip. But, I think -- you know, I haven't been into fitness all my life, but I have the last few years and, you know, I think that what I have learned is that I think it is good in life. I think when I am working out I feel like I have a clear mind throughout the day and everything, you know, seems to go seems to be a little bit clear to me. So I think that fitness is very important just in life.
MIKE ZIZZO: We are going to say good-bye to Jimmy and thank him. Jimmy, thanks for all your time and have a good workout.
JIMMY VASSER: Okay, great. See you guys later.
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