CART Media Conference
T.E. McHALE: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the CART media teleconference. We are pleased that all of you could join us today. We want to address a special welcome to driver, Al Unser, Jr., and technical adviser Rick Mears of Marlboro Team Penske. Gentlemen, welcome and thanks for taking the time today to join us.
AL UNSER, JR.: Thank you.
RICK MEARS: Thank you.
T.E. McHALE: Our guests today own a combined 5 PPG CART World Series Championships between them. Rick winning Championships in 1979, 1981 and 1982 and Al claiming titles in 1990 and 1994. Rick and Bobby Rahal winner of PPG Cup Titles in 1986 and 1987 remain the only two drivers to win consecutive PPG CART World Series Crowns. Rick is the all-time Series leader in pole positions with 39; is second in career laps led with 3,286; ranks third in career PPG CART World Series victories with 26. Is 6th in career Series starts with 180. He retired at the end of the 1992 Series with $11,050,807 in career earnings - 6th all-time. Al, Jr. leads the career earnings list having entered this season with $17,735,906. He ranks second to Michael Andretti with 31 career PPG CART World Series victories and is tied with Michael for most wins in a single season, 8, during his PPG Cup title run in 1994. He also holds the Series record for most consecutive race victories with 4, set during his previous PPG Cup Championship season in 1990. He enters Saturday's Motorola 300 at the brand new Gateway International Raceway outside St. Louis; ranked 7th in the PPG Cup Standings with 32 points. Just a quick aside here, transcripts from today's teleconference will be available on Marlboro Racing News. And for those of you who cannot access the Marlboro Racing News service, transcripts will also be available to from Chris Mears of Marlboro Team Penske. To get a transcript call Chris at 561-575-6043. And with that, we will open it up for questions.
Q. Al, we got to ask you this: How tough is it on you psychologically or mentally, or is it at all tough on you being not at Indy this month and especially this weekend and is there some type of solace in the fact that there is an Unser in the Indy 500?
AL UNSER, JR.: Well, for myself, I miss it pretty much and I think it is great that Johnnie Unser, who is the son of Jerry Unser, was qualified in the top 33 and to have him kind of, you know, side-step the rule or something like that to let him in, I think is great. So, you know, we didn't really like the 25 and 8 to begin with and it is great that -- actually that the speedway is letting the fastest 33 start this year's race.
Q. But, Al, did it make a mockery a little bit about what you went through there in 1995 when suddenly at the end of the day, the other day, they let the other guys in?
AL UNSER, JR.: I don't know. I wouldn't say that. I did talk to Johnnie and I told him, "A lucky dog" (laughs) because of, you know, I just told him I wish they had -- I wish they would have expanded the field in 1995 for sure.
Q. Where are you at? Are you at St. Louis?
RICK MEARS: I am.
Q. Rick, have you seen the track?
RICK MEARS: Yes.
Q. And, what do you think about it, Rick? How do you think it is going to kind of shape up as a racetrack? What do you think is going to be challenging about it from what you can see so far?
RICK MEARS: I think it is going to be a good racetrack. I have only been able to make a couple of laps on it so far and from what I have seen, I think it is going to be definitely a fun racetrack. You know, the banking it has, I think it is going to allow for some good side-by-side running. And, then, being a little different at both ends, it is going to bring in the technical aspect of it to where, you know, you might have to give a little at one end to get a little more at the other. We don't know that for a fact until we get on the track and run, but with the radiuses being different at the opposite ends, it might, you know, have a few other things, you know, few things that you have to look at to combine the two which is always challenging to a driver and which is, you know, part of the fun of it.
Q. Any track you can compare it to, Rick, roughly?
RICK MEARS: Oh, not off hand. Similar, you know, as far as different from others, similar to Phoenix with the different radius at each end, but the banking is not as different as Phoenix is from one end to the other. So it is a little more consistent in that respect. But, that is probably one of the closest you can compare it to right now. And, again, it is hard to say until we really get out there and start running there a little bit and see what comes up.
Q. Have you seen the track, Al?
AL UNSER, JR.: I have not.
RICK MEARS: It is a good looking facility. They have done a nice job around here and I think everybody is going to be pleased with it.
Q. Al, now that the 25 and 8 Rule has relaxed, do you see a window of opportunity that you guys could be back at Indy next year or is it still going to come down to them relaxing the engine and chassis, who makes the engines and chassis?
AL UNSER, JR.: I still think it is going to come down to the cars and the rules with the race cars, you know, relaxing the 25 and 8 Rule, is definitely a step in the right direction. I definitely think it is a sign from the speedway that they might need Michael Andretti and Al, Jr. and Bobby Rahal and the stars of the CART Series to come and join them. But, you know, I don't know, I still think that they are pretty far apart between IRL and CART. And it is going to come down to the rules of the cars.
Q. The package that you are running this year seems to have improved greatly since last year. I am wondering if you could comment on how you like the Ilmor and how is it working with the new Penske chassis?
AL UNSER, JR.: Well, the Marlboro car is definitely a good short oval car, I think, you know, we have been very competitive with them on the short ovals with Paul Tracy, my teammate winning the last two races on the short ovals. I really am very happy with Goodyear. They have done a great job with coming out with the better tire than Firestone; which was -- a year ago, it was kind of the other way around. And, I am especially happy with Mercedes giving us the power to outrun that Honda. And, that was, you know -- the package a year ago was Honda and Firestone and this year, so far, it is Goodyear and Mercedes that is standing out. So it is great.
Q. How competitive do you feel you are going to be on the road courses once you hit those?
AL UNSER, JR.: We don't know. We have got -- we definitely have some work to do on the road courses. We didn't qualify all that well down in Australia or Long Beach and so, you know, we need to work on the car a little bit there. We do have some testing scheduled and we are going to find out.
Q. Al, based on your conversations with Roger, can you see him building a car just for Indy next year?
AL UNSER, JR.: I guess, kind of put it in a nutshell, I really feel that Roger Penske loves the Indy 500 as much as the Unsers do. And, he wants to get back there as bad as we do. But, the way the rules are and, you know, the way that they came out from my understanding is that, you know, if you do build a car, you have to make it available for whoever wants to buy it and then there is a price cap on that. And, so, for Roger's case, for instance, there is also a time period. If someone walks up and says: "Roger, I want to buy your car," Roger has to deliver that car at this certain price in three month's time. There is no way Roger can build cars for, you know, four, five or even one if a customer comes up and asks him. He can't build the car and still build cars for his team. Roger is not a car manufacturer and he is not in the car manufacturing business. And, so he is not set up for that at all. He is set up to build his own cars, to try and accomplish a mechanical advantage over his competitors. And, you know, which is one of the key reasons I drive for him because he builds great race cars. And, so, you know, the rules that they are applying on engine builders and car manufacturers, you know, would not -- would make it impossible for Roger to do.
Q. Al, although --
AL UNSER, JR.: And if he wanted to do it.
Q. Even though this is a second year that you will miss Indy or, I guess, the third, really, does it get any easier to live with not being there?
AL UNSER, JR.: The answer is no.
Q. How badly?
AL UNSER, JR.: Well, I said Johnnie Unser is a lucky dog.
Q. Will you there be on Sunday?
AL UNSER, JR.: I doubt it, no.
Q. Not only are you guys coming into a new track, but you are also coming into a pretty major market here in St. Louis. In that case, how important is it to you to put on a good show and try to solidify yourselves there?
AL UNSER, JR.: I don't think we have to solidify ourselves anywhere. I think that we are the best racing Series in the world and it is definitely the cars that I want to be driving - no doubt about it because they are the best performance and they are the safest. So, I think what we are going to a new marketplace to try and show the people of St. Louis and the surrounding areas that come out to our race a competitive, the highest-technically advanced cars in America and to watch them go fast and have a great time at the racetrack. I think that is what we are wanting to show the people in St. Louis and so on.
Q. I am just wondering if Penske is not able to build a car for next year's 500 and there is a possibility to compete, I was wondering what the possibility of buying a car from one of those manufacturers would be to run in the Indy 500 next year?
AL UNSER, JR.: I was kind of asked that a little bit earlier. What had happened during the split with the IRL, when they formed their Series and started the 25 and 8 and using the Indy 500 as a bargaining chip to get their series going, what happened in the CART Series is that everybody united with each other. The drivers united together. The mechanics united together. The sponsors united together and the car owners united. So, personally, I don't see it being broken up in any way. This series is stronger today than it ever has been. It is way stronger than it was even two years ago, and, without the Indy 500. And, so, you know, I really see everybody staying together, pulling together and will -- probably we will go back to the speedway and race the Indy 500 as a group; as united; that I wouldn't do it, you know, without Michael or so on. And, so, hopefully it will be done that way.
Q. Al, you have got two more ovals to run on and then all of a sudden you begin a series of road courses. I know that you said that you weren't quite as pleased with the car on the road courses as you are in the ovals. Have you got the opportunity to do some more testing and more development before you hit Detroit and then Portland? I know Paul was here last week; looked like he was running real, real strong. Have you talked to him since the testing last week and learned what they learned?
AL UNSER, JR.: I haven't had -- actually talked to Paul. But, I have talked to the team and they have made the car better for the road courses and so, you know, Paul's driving style is different from mine. And, so, with the improvements that they made, it sounded like they definitely helped the car for both Paul and I and, you know, but I am not going to be able to know anything until I get to Detroit and run it.
Q. Will you have the opportunity to do some road course testing before Detroit?
AL UNSER, JR.: No.
Q. Sorry to belabor this, Al. Do I understand that you don't expect to go back to the Indy 500 except as a member of Team Penske?
AL UNSER, JR.: For sure.
Q. And that Team Penske is highly unlikely that Team Penske will go back without their own car, engine package?
AL UNSER, JR.: Yeah, that would be pretty much -- yep.
Q. A second question, if I may. Paul Tracy is leading in the Championship. You are not quite as high in points. I think that there has been some difficulty in that relationship in the past, but it is better now. Could you comment on your relationship between the two of you?
AL UNSER, JR.: It is very good. Paul and I are working together now better than we ever have. And, he is doing a great job. I mean, everything is -- the chips are falling his direction which, you know, personally it would be great if they went mine. But, the outcome is that the team is winning. And, that is the most important thing is that we put a No. 1 on either of -- either one of these Marlboro cars. And, if we can do that, then I have won. If Paul keeps winning and does win the Championship, then it is my team that has won the Championship and it is all good stuff.
Q. I'd like to have both gentlemen answer this if they would. I wonder if what has gone on at the speedway and what is going on there, do either of the gentlemen feel what they have done in the past at the Indy 500 has been diminished?
RICK MEARS: I will go ahead with that. I think it has, you know, from time to time when we have had an opportunity, I have tried to watch a little bit of what has taken place there. And, after having myself been there since 1977 and knowing what Indy means to race car drivers all over the world, really it is kind of sad to me. At times I have watched and it has almost been in kind of embarrassed form. In that respect, I do think it diminishes and takes away. It doesn't take away from what we have done. I think it takes away from what Indy is today compared to what it used to be. And, I think that is the sad part. Again, hopefully down the road, things will come back together and we can kind of, you know, everybody get back on track and get back to where we should be:
AL UNSER, JR.: My thoughts are pretty much what Rick said. When I won Indy, in the two years that I won Indy, it was the greatest show on earth. And, it is hardest one to win. And, now, it is sad and, you know, we don't -- we don't miss anything about what is going on there now. I think Tony Bettenhausen said it the best, we do miss what used to be there so....
Q. This question is for Al. We had talked last week, I think with Tony Bettenhausen and Bobby Rahal. There was a suggestion made that there will be a compromise one day between the IRL and CART to allow you to run it at the speedway. And, that would be a sort of a form of kind of a Super Bowl, like the NFL and AFL had in the '60s where the two leagues came together. But, of course, both Tony and Bobby said there would be absolutely no way they could do it financially. I mean, just to have a separate cars for, you know, the CART Series and then to build a competitive car just for this one race each year, they said they couldn't do it. They were mentioning that Roger is capable of doing that. You also just mentioned, earlier in this interview, that you would think that the CART Teams would be united this way; that there wouldn't be just some that would break away and run at Indy and others for some reason that couldn't afford it. Do you still see that being the case? And, we have heard talk that Roger has called for rules from IRL, he is studying that, even talking about building a car. Do you think Roger would ever get to a point where they would run you and the CART Series and for this one race a year, you would spend the month of May at Indy and running their IRL cars, do you ever see that scenario evolving as a way of a compromise?
AL UNSER, JR.: Gosh, that is a question for Roger, really. I don't know. I am very proud of Marlboro Team Penske and to be their driver. And, I wouldn't do anything to risk losing that position. And, so, if Roger decides to do something like that, that would be great. If he doesn't, that would be great too. So, either way.
T.E. McHALE: I guess we will open it up for general questions. If you want to ask a question you need to press star 1 on your key pad to signal the operator. She will open the line for you to take a question. We can take a few more before we let our guests go today.
Q. Al, I am a little bit confused by some of the things that you said. At one point you said you wouldn't want to go back to Indy with Michael and somebody else - I couldn't hear. Who did you say? I couldn't hear and could you clarify that? Sound like you are saying, first of all, that you will do whatever Roger wants, but that your expectation, overall, is that CART will hang together?
AL UNSER, JR.: My gut feeling is that CART will remain together. They will remain united. When this whole thing hit, it took a lot for us to unite to begin with. And, I still think that it will remain that. But, I don't know. For sure, racing is a forever developing business and things change by the second. So, it is a very competitive business. So, I really don't know what is going to happen in the future. But, I can tell you, that winning Indy without Michael Andretti and Bobby Rahal and the greatest drivers in the world, would not mean anything if these guys -- if I wasn't racing against the best in the world winning, Indy wouldn't mean anything. And, that is what is going on there today. That is, you know, why, you know, Rick said what he said earlier that, you know, it has hurt and it is sad. And, that, you know, for me to watch on TV qualifying and during the practice days of nobody running on the track at 5 o'clock on a Friday afternoon for second weekend of qualifying, you have got Robby Gordon out there doing just demonstration pit spots. That is not the way it was when I was there. There was guys out there, lots of guys, searching for speed because they wanted to be a part, you know, they needed to get speed in order to make the show. Where, now, the guys aren't running because their engines aren't lasting long enough and then they really don't have to run because they are part of this 25 guaranteed spots. And, so, it is sad to see, you know, to take a traditional place like this and have it being done the way it is being done: Does that help?
Q. Al, I was wondering since they were relaxed a little bit on the 25 and 8 Rule, do you guys foresee them relaxing at all in any other areas such as possibly the engine and the chassis rules that they have now?
AL UNSER, JR.: I would hope so, yeah. I hope they go back to doing it the way that they used to do it which was taking our cars and putting them in their rule book. Because they are the safest cars. They are the highest technically advanced, all of that. So, with the speed that we are running, you need safety and the technology behind it. In my opinion, the IRL car is a step backwards in all of the above I just mentioned: Safety, the technology, all of it.
RICK MEARS: The 25 and 8 Rule, to me, really, by relaxing on that, it may be a show of, you know, wanting to get together and maybe wanting to work, but it didn't really mean anything. To me, the 25 and 8 Rule was established for the first year when a lot of the CART Teams still had a lot of the same equipment that the IRL Teams had. And, that is what that rule was for. Once they changed the cars, the rule didn't really mean anything as far as I am concerned. So, by relaxing on that, I don't see it as that much of a gain. I think -- that it could possibly and which hopefully is, you know, a show that they want to work -- work with us and try to get things together.
Q. Rick, do you think that they are sincere that they want to get back together or is that just maybe a way of putting pressure on you guys whereas they are saying, well, we are relaxing a little bit; now we expect you to make some sort of compromise?
RICK MEARS: Well, I would hope they are sincere. Gut feeling, to me, it is kind of trying to get the ball out of their court and into ours and I think they knocked it out of bounds.
Q. Rick, I wanted to ask, step away from Indy just a moment and ask you about Casey and Clint and their progress on the Indy Lites Tour. I know that they did pretty well in Savannah last week. Casey moving up 11 spots from where he started to 13th and Clint doing pretty well too. They almost -- both of them finished the race. Can you tell me about their development and what you have been able to add to their careers and getting them going on the circuit and how they have improved each week?
RICK MEARS: They are probably doing better development on their own than with my help. On the road course, we have not been able to put a good horse under them. Our oval setup has been pretty decent and they have been much more competitive on the ovals. This was only our second road course, Long Beach and then Savannah. And, you know, we don't have an engineer in place yet, which, you know, we are working on. But, they are coming along real well. As far as what little testing we have done, every time you get in the car you, see the improvement just from seat time that. That is what it is all about. And, we are learning also, as a team, trying to get everything put together. It is a very competitive series. It is very close. And, we knew this going in. That is why we got kind of a long range plan, take our time, you know, small steps and build a base because you don't jump into somebody's backyard and beat them overnight. It is going to take a lot of time. So, you know, all that said, it is coming together. And the kids are doing a great job with the cars and hopefully here in the next few races, we can do a little bit better job in the engineering department, so we can give them a better horse to run on.
Q. Al, I just wanted to wish you best of luck at Gateway. I have a question for Rick that is also related to your sons. With the division, of course, with the IRL and CART, I think I know the answer, but assumes is one of those big words. Where do your sons aspire to grow, into CART or any definite plans for the future?
RICK MEARS: Well, you probably do know the answer. (Laughs). Well, you know, right now we are working on the Lites program. And, we have got a long ways to go there as far as building. We are taking it kind of a day at a time here in building. Obviously, they would like to work their way into CART, into the CART Series. But, we haven't really looked that far ahead yet. This being the first year and getting a little bit of a late start, we are fully focused on the Lites program right now. And, you know, with the Penske Auto Centers Cars and trying to get them up to speed.
Q. Is there any recruiting going on from the other side?
RICK MEARS: Not of lately. I believe there was some early on. And, -- but there hasn't been lately. I think they know the answer.
Q. When you come to a new track like St. Louis and you take a few laps around like you have done earlier, are you looking at it from a technical viewpoint or trying to get almost an inner feel of what that track feels like?
RICK MEARS: It is really a little bit of both. I think really kind of the very first thing you look for is you know, the shape of the track, the conditions of the track, the transitions of the banking leading into the corner and leading out of the corner to see if they are abrupt or if they fall away quickly or slowly. That is kind of the first thing you look for, the smoothness of it. Then you do start -- after you kind of take a look at that, then you do start looking at the setup of the car; what kind of a setup it may take because of the configuration of the track, the different ends, that kind of thing. Again, we haven't made that many laps around it yet. I am going to go out today and in the morning and make some more laps and take a closer look at it. But, that is probably the main thing.
Q. The first part of your decision on what you need for that racetrack, do you look at it and say, here is how I would have driven it or do you look at it and say here is the way I think Paul and Al, Jr. will drive it?
RICK MEARS: I think it is pretty close in the same as far as, you know, how all three of us would drive it, as far as the pattern of the track, the shape of the track, your entries, where your apexes are, and all of that. And, as far as, you know -- thinking about the setup of the car, today these guys are so advanced in technology and you can almost, you know, put a setup on a car by going through the numbers - all the data, the length of the track, the shape of the track, the radius of the corners, the degree of banking. These guys are so good now, they can sit down; pull up all the numbers from the computer; go through the data, and get a very close setup of the car out of the trailer to start with. It is always difficult to tell the adhesion of the surface. That is kind of hard to equate. They can get it pretty close to start with. Then you just start tuning from there.
Q. Al, when you come to a new track like this, do you tend now to lean a bit more towards Rick and his technical advice than you would, say, in a normal situation?
AL UNSER, JR.: For sure. Rick is there to bounce questions off of and it is great to have him there to do that. But, he definitely is right, you know, about the technology and the setup coming off the truck, the engineers today are hitting it so close, it is unbelievable. And, then we do fine-tuning from there.
Q. A final question, kind of a general, with you, Al, I have sat here throughout this teleconference now for about 40 minutes. And I have heard you answer question after question about Indy, but you got your own big race coming up this weekend. Is that frustrating to always at every breath when one or more media guys are thrown together, you have got eight questions about Indy?
AL UNSER, JR.: It is frustrating because we are not there (laughs) You know, and that is all. I mean, we definitely have a race coming up and we got several races coming up that are every bit the caliber of the old Indy 500 and each one of these events are world events. So, you know, the Championship is everything to us nowadays. And, we will go from there.
Q. I have a question for Rick Mears. This has to do with his son and his nephew racing the Indy Lites Series. How is it for you and for them being in a series where they -- perhaps they pay more attention to blocking than you had experienced when you were racing the CART Series?
RICK MEARS: Believe me, I am working very hard on that. I don't agree with that. I never have. That doesn't take ability. It doesn't take talent. Anybody can do that. That is not racing. That is called blocking. And we aren't here to block. We are here to race. So, I even worked when the boys were in the Russell Series, I worked with them, telling them, "Guys, we have got to start it here, at this level," you know, right from the word go, to stop this, because it is dangerous, first off. That is the main thing. But, it also kills the show. If you have guys passing each other, that is what puts on a show. And as far as I am concerned, if somebody pulls over, they should black flag them. If somebody makes a move to block, they should black flag them and bring them in. Because if he allows the guy to pass him, then he gets the opportunity to pass the guy back, and that is what racing is all about. So, we are working on that, and it is not fair to the ones that don't block, is the main thing. It act likes a cancer, keeps growing, as happens. I never did agree with it. But, if I tell you, if somebody blocked me more than I wanted him to, I would mark it on the dash and if need be, sometime, I'd use it. But, that is what it causes. And, that is why it can't be done, because it just continues on. So, I think eventually -- they are working hard on it. I think eventually it will get straightened out.
Q. Rick, after the long drought for Team Penske to get these back-to-back wins, what does that mean in regards to respect, erasing of doubts, et cetera?
RICK MEARS: It helps a lot. The main thing is the momentum. The guys, they work their tail off, anyway, whether they are winning or not. But then when you get the results from all the effort put in, it really uplifts the spirits and gets the momentum going and then you continue on with it, so -- And, I think, you say "the long drought." We were very close last year to winning races and mechanical problems or whatever kept us out of the winner's circle. So, it is not like that we were that far off last year as far as it seems, but we did not win any races and that is what everybody looks at. So to be able to get back-to-back wins like this, it kind of reinforces that Penske Team Marlboro team is still there and you know, hopefully we are going to win some more. We have got the ball rolling now. If we can keep it rolling, it should come out very good at the end.
T.E. McHALE: With that, I think we will wrap it up for today. We want to say thanks again to our guests Rick Mears and Al Unser, Jr.. We want to wish the best to Marlboro Team Penske in the upcoming Gateway 300 this Saturday at Gateway International Raceway. We want to thank you all again for joining us and we will talk to you next week. Good day to you.
RICK MEARS: Thank you.
AL UNSER, JR.: Thank you.
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