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CART Media Conference

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Open Wheel Racing Topics:  CART

CART Media Conference

JJ Lehto
August 11, 1998

T.E. McHALE: Good afternoon to everyone. Welcome to the CART Media Teleconference. Thanks to all of you for being with us today and a special welcome to our guest this afternoon, driver JJ Lehto, of Hogan Racing. Welcome, JJ. Thanks for taking the time to join us today.

JJ LEHTO: Thank you very much.

T.E. McHALE: JJ is in his rookie season in the FedEx Championship Series having made 13 starts this year in the Hogan Motor Leasing Incorporated Reynard Mercedes. He has earned PPG Cup points with finishes of 10th at Rio de Janeiro and 9th in St. Louis. His 15th place finish at last weekend's Miller Lite 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course was his best since St. Louis and his 4th top 15 effort of the season. JJ's top start this season has been 4th at St. Louis where the starting grid was based on practice times. His best qualifying effort to date is 8th at Milwaukee. Heading into this weekend's Texaco/Havoline 200 at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, he stands 22nd in the FedEx Championship Series point standings with seven points. He is also third in the Jim Truman Rookie-of-the-Year competition trailing Tony Kanaan of the Tasman Motorsports Group and Helio Castroneves of Alumax Motorsports, Team Bettenhausen. The Texaco/Havoline 200, Round 14 of the FedEx Championship Series will be televised live this Sunday on ESPN beginning at 3:30 P.M. eastern time. With that, we will open the floor for questions.

Q. People talk about the importance of continuity in the team and, you know, you think in terms of a couple of years two or three years working with the same people. What is the situation there, obviously you are all new to each other, and do you see a second year at Hogan?

JJ LEHTO: Yeah, of course. I mean, basically Team Hogan has an option for me for the next two years and, well, they haven't taken it up yet and it is not the time for that yet. But, of course it is very important to have some continuity with the team and specifically like Team Hogan this year, it is really a new team there; a lot of new people, and a new driver and we just have to weld together. It takes time. For sure, the first year is always like a learning year and second year you start to get the things going.

Q. Can you talk about your progress through this year?

JJ LEHTO: Well, I mean, we have been having some bad times, some good times. Surprisingly we have been very good on the ovals and we have been struggling on the road courses and street courses, although the last race in Mid-Ohio was good for us because we were very competitive all week. Unfortunately, we had a little bad luck in the race, but I think we made some changes in engineering side for Mid-Ohio and basically that helped a lot. I mean, the team really started to come together and we had a very good car and good weekend so we are looking forward to going to Elkhart Lake.

Q. I'd like to ask you your impressions of the way Mika Hikkanen is going this season in Formula 1 and whether you think -- or whether you have been at all surprised by how well he is caught (sic)?

JJ LEHTO: Not at all. It was expected. I mean, for sure, Team McLaren with Mercedes' engine, they have a very good engine this year and the team is a top-class team and Mika has been there for many mean years; it was about the time to get the things together and start to win races. So, it is really good. I mean, looks very strong at the moment and they have been doing very well, so he has a good chance to win the Championship.

Q. Do you think he will get the job done then?

JJ LEHTO: Well, I mean, there is still a long season to go. But, he has been handling it very well so far. So, if everything goes on his favor, you know, for sure he has a good chance to win it.

Q. Let us talk a little bit about your going to Road America, first time there at the track, and you got a pretty tall order cut out for you trying to chase down old Alex Zanardi down there and get some Rookie-of-the-Year points for you and Carl Hogan?

JJ LEHTO: That is what we need. We need a lot of points and it was so encouraging to have a good race basically or good time at Mid-Ohio, so we are really looking forward to going to Elkart Lake, but we haven't been testing there and I haven't seen the circuit yet so there are a lot of things to learn as quick as possible. If we have a good car, I am feeling good for the weekend.

Q. Where do you think your strongest suit has been so far this year?

JJ LEHTO: (laughs) Well, so far it has been on the oval circuits and especially in St. Louis, we had a very good race and very competitive car. But basically all the ovals has been very, very good for us.

Q. Of course, you will also want to know where the line to the concession is for the bratwurst - that is kind of a world-class thing there. But, you come from a road racing background - how difficult is it to get these kind of cars to, you know, work really well on those road courses?

JJ LEHTO: Well, it seems to be more difficult because I mean, basically, so many things has changed for this season; especially the tires because Goodyear and Firestone, they are fighting against each other very heavily and there is a lot of development going on all the time so the tire has been changing quite a lot from last year, especially the constructions and compounds and that makes the -- really the last year setups not very suitable for this year's cars so you really have to test a lot to get the cars and chassis to work together. If you don't test a lot, it is always hurting you a little bit.

Q. I was wondering if you are surprised with your success on the ovals?

JJ LEHTO: Well, honest to say, I am a little bit surprised. But, I mean, basically we did a lot of testing, though, before the season starting with Team Hogan, I mean, we tested a lot in Homestead and also -- you know, it is just -- I started to feel very comfortable very quickly on the ovals and it always helps when you have a good car and good setup, so it is easier to adapt yourself into the ovals. I think the biggest thing -- you can be quick there and the big thing is just to learn to race and overtake the car as quick as possible and that is something that there is still a lot of things to learn for me.

Q. Your impressions of racing in America.

JJ LEHTO: Good. Very competitive here. I mean, if you compare it to Formula 1, this is so much more competitive because all the cars are so equal; all the times are so close and all the drivers are good. So, it is just -- it is really good fun. I mean, I am sure that all the Europeans, when they come over here to race, they will be a little bit surprised how good is the quality here.

Q. What about racing in front of American fans?

JJ LEHTO: Well, it is good fun. It is a little bit different though comparing to European fans because in Europe they -- basically, they know the drivers a little bit better and they come to see the drivers. I think -- I have a feeling a little bit that the Americans they come to see the race weekend and the whole event more. They don't know the drivers so personally than they know in Europe.

Q. Does that surprise you?

JJ LEHTO: A little bit, yeah. But it is a different culture here and people think a little bit different way here.

Q. I am wondering, the incident you had with Zanardi on the back stretch at Mid-Ohio, and then a part of your car ends up in PJ Jones' lap and that courses the awful wreck with Michael Andretti. You know you had nothing to do with that, but do you still feel a little bit of -- a tinge of whatever because a part of your car actually caused Michael to do that end-over-end?

JJ LEHTO: Well, I mean, that is just a racing incident. Nothing you can do about it. It is like we were racing and I was just trying to overtake Alex and he just really blocked me. So it is just one of those things. But, it is unbelievable that something like that can happen, that the wing takes off and lands just in the middle of the cockpit. Just on PJ's lap and blocks his steering; especially on the speeds we were doing there because it was something like 170, 180 miles an hour. So it was surprising. But, you know, luckily Michael is okay and nothing happened to him. Thank God the cars are strong enough nowadays.

Q. Did you or were you tempted to walk up to Zanardi afterwards and kind of throw your hands out and go: What are you doing?

JJ LEHTO: Well, I mean, I wasn't the only one.

Q. (laughs) You were not alone.

JJ LEHTO: Yeah, I wasn't alone. I think that there was a lot of frustrated people and there has been a lot of frustrated people this season anyway. So, I mean, Alex has been a little bit wild to me when he is overtaking and if he is having a bad day, you know, you know, sometimes you get these bad days and it doesn't mean that everybody else has to have a bad day as well, you know, with him.

Q. Is the competitiveness, do you think -- you talked of the frustration this year with a number of drivers. Is it because of the competition and it is so close and everybody really has to, besides wanting to, they have to do well to take care of their sponsors, etcetera, do you think that is causing some of the overaggressive driving?

JJ LEHTO: Well, not really. I mean, if you can see that there is not that many so aggressive drivers. They are doing good overtakings, they are clean, they have good racing and there is good rules. But, sometimes like Alex, what he did to Helio Castro-Neves at the end of the race; when he bunted me, and -- you know, if somebody is just overaggressive and trying to do things which are not possible, that is like playing with other peoples' lives a little bit too much. And that is no fun.

Q. Like you have said before, you have been in Formula 1, you have done a number of other types of series in racing before coming to CART. What has been -- I guess this is kind of a two-part question. What has been your biggest challenge coming to CART and adjusting to how everything has gone and what has been your biggest surprise after racing more than half the season so far?

JJ LEHTO: Well, I think that the biggest challenge for me was Formula 1 when I had my big accident, you know, I broke my neck just to get back in the racing, and I had to go sort of the touring cars after my accident just to get myself back into racing. And, I really wanted to get back to single-seaters and I was fighting very hard to get here. I always wanted to race in America, and I am happy to get this chance with Team Hogan now. I think that the biggest surprise this year is really the competitiveness of the series because there is so many good drivers and so many good teams and there is no big differences between the teams. If they have a good driver and the team is working, the car is working well, everybody can do well here and you really have to get everything right for the weekend to be successful.

Q. I was curious, do you feel at somewhat a disadvantage going to so many new tracks compared to the other drivers who have been there before?

JJ LEHTO: It is always a little bit disadvantage because it is like, let's say we have a practice on Friday, we have a practice on Saturday; then we have two qualifying sessions, but like the practice on Friday it is one and a half hours, minus all the yellow flag cautions and things like that so it minimizes it something like 50 minutes practice time which is not that much. And, it is really good if you have a possibility to go and test before the race weekend always.

Q. I guess first off, how are you feeling after Michigan?

JJ LEHTO: Well, I am still a little bit sore. My ribs are still aching a lot and I had to use a lot of painkillers and just get it numb for the race, get some shots, but it is getting better. It is always when you hurt the ribs it takes a couple of weeks to get over it.

Q. The incident with Zanardi and, you know, the officiating dealt with the problem really quickly. That seems to me to be quite different from the way these things are taken care of in Formula 1. Can you explain that?

JJ LEHTO: Well, I mean --

Q. Or is that a leading question?

JJ LEHTO: Well, it is just -- the thing is like the racing here is with the IndyCars is like the cars are so much stronger so you can really -- you can use the car and you can really push somebody off the circuit, you know, if you want to do that. It is possible with these cars. Like in Formula 1, if you touch the other car, for sure you are going to break the suspension immediately and that is the end of the race for you. So it is a little bit different kind of racing. I mean, really, nowadays these cars are so fast and it is just -- you know, if there is no respect between the drivers, somebody is going to get hurt. That is what we don't want---we don't want to see that.

Q. Do you think the officials in CART deal with the problems quicker?

JJ LEHTO: Well, I mean, that is for sure, there is some situations where they something act a little bit quicker, like this case, I haven't been here for a long time, this is my first season but there has been a lot of talk already earlier on and I have been hearing it a lot, so, at least it was good that they took some action now and then we will see how it proceeds.

Q. You said you were surprised at how well you were doing on the ovals. What sort of challenge are they presenting to you that you didn't realize or what type of learning curve did you have to go through?

JJ LEHTO: The biggest thing was because on the ovals, you use very hard tires and you have stagger and the car is set up so differently. It is just to get the feel. In the beginning when you go out first times and you drive the car on the ovals, you can't feel anything because it is so finetuning, just little things that make such a big difference in the end, you know, if you just get the car right. So you really have to get the good feeling out of the car and get it tuned up, test for your liking. The other thing is that on the road courses and street courses normally you don't have to sort of drive 100% all the time. You can sometimes, a little bit relaxing, just get a little rest for your head as well. But, on the ovals, it seems to be that you have to be there 100% all the time and concentration has to be so good. If you just lose your mind a little bit, you just lose a lot of time on the lap. So it is really different kind of racing. You really have to be into it all the time.

Q. Do you enjoy the ovals?

JJ LEHTO: A lot. I like the ovals a lot.

Q. It is always a pleasure to talk to you and it was a pleasure to have you on my show earlier this year. You are a true gentleman of the sport.

JJ LEHTO: Thank you.

Q. What was your thought when that car went in front of you Sunday?

JJ LEHTO: I mean, luckily I was slowing down because I had a puncture in the tire so I had to slow down the speed otherwise I guess I would have been just in the same time turning into the corner when Michael was just coming across the circuit. I guess I was a little bit lucky as well to slow down enough. But it was unbelievable. I have never seen anything like that. For sure, Michael must have been in the shock as well, to be flying all over the place. But, you know, we really saw that the cars are strong and they are really protecting the driver pretty well. I mean, if that would have been a weaker car, for sure, it would have been much worse than it was. We have to be happy, all the drivers, that the safety of the cars are so high.

Q. You mentioned a moment ago about the suspension on the Formula 1 car. As Zanardi went through the grass coming out of the turn or coming from the pits and the way the car bounced and jumped and bounced, had that been a Formula car, he wouldn't have had any wheels on the car?

JJ LEHTO: For sure, you would have lost something on the floor and some aerodynamical parts. These cars are that much heavier so they can make the parts a little bit stronger. You can sort of airborne once in a while and you are still okay with the car.

Q. You come from Formula 1, you like it over here. He can't wait to get back. I don't understand that.

JJ LEHTO: What do you mean?

Q. Well, I don't understand why he wants to go back unless it is just money.

JJ LEHTO: You mean Alex?

Q. Yes.

JJ LEHTO: Well, I guess he has some personal reasons for that. I don't know. I mean, is he a super hero here and he has a good name so for sure he can make a good living in America as well. But, you know, there must be something personal as well going on.

Q. What have you heard about Elkart Lake? I am curious whether you have talked to anybody about it.

JJ LEHTO: Well, I have talked to a lot of drivers, you know, I mean, first of all, I have to tell you all that I am not living in St. Louis. I am living in Scottsdale, you know, so let us get this one right. And, I got some neighbors here Mark Blundell and PJ Jones and they all say that the circuit is really nice. It is really a driver's circuit and everybody enjoys to go there, so I am really looking forward to go.

Q. Was there any apprehension or concern when you made the decision to come over the U.S. because I mean, some people worry about moving from one city to another. You moved from one country to another.

JJ LEHTO: Yeah, I mean, from Scandinavia to Scottsdale which is -- I mean, big weather difference. We have a lot of darkness and cold weather there. And, I mean, it is a big commitment always. I have two little kids and my wife and so I had to bring my whole family here and start the life again. It is really -- you want to do something, you want to do it properly and it is very important nowadays because you have 19 races per year. It is impossible to go back to Europe and come racing only here. You really have to make the commitment to move over here and start the life again. But, I think that we made a right choice and we have been enjoying it so far a lot.

Q. Does it help the fact that you have so many racers in Scottsdale that made that same commitment that you did?

JJ LEHTO: Yeah, I mean, that helps, of course. They have already experienced what to expect in America and they knew the places and they could show us the places we were able to find the house and things like that. At least you have some friends to start with. That makes the difference; especially for the kids and for the wife because they are not coming to the races all the time and it they just have to find a new life here.

Q. You were mentioning earlier about the accident that you had when you were in Formula I. Everyone knows that there is a lot of risks that you take in auto racing and especially having come through such a serious accident and seeing deaths of other racing drivers, how do you deal with that sort of fear factor every time you go out on the track?

JJ LEHTO: Well, I mean, you have an accident, you have an accident, you know, that is that. It was four years ago and I wanted to race. That is the thing, sometimes you get into the bad accident and it is just one of these things, everybody knows the risks and it is part of the life being a race driver. So I am not really thinking about it any longer. It is just every time I jump in a car I just go and enjoy it. I am not thinking about the risk.

T.E. McHALE: We will wrap it up for the day. I want to thank JJ Lehto who resides in Scottsdale, Arizona for being our guest this afternoon on the teleconference. JJ, thanks again for joining us, best of luck this weekend in the Texaco/Havoline 200. And in the rest of the FedEx Championship Series season.

JJ LEHTO: Thank you very much.

T.E. McHALE: Thanks to all you for joining us. We will talk to you again next week.

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