CART Media Conference
September 23, 1997
T.E. McHALE: Good afternoon to everyone. Welcome to the CART media teleconference. We want to thank you all for joining us today and a special welcome to our guest this afternoon, PPG Cup champion Alex Zanardi of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. Welcome, Alex. Congratulations on your championship and thanks for taking the time to be with us today.
ALEX ZANARDI: It's my pleasure. Thank you very much.
T.E. McHALE: Alex clinched the 1997 PPG Cup Championship with his third-place finish in the September 7th Texaco/Havoline 300 at Laguna Seca Raceway. In so doing, he became the first Italian-born driver to win the PPG Cup since Mario Andretti in 1984 and the first resident of Italy ever to win an American national driving championship. Alex also joined Jacques Villeneuve as the only drivers in PPG CART World Series history to win Rookie of the Year honors and the PPG Cup championship in their first two seasons in the series. He and 1996 PPG Cup champion Jimmy Vasser became the first pair of drivers to win back-to-back championships for the same team since Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr. won back-to-back titles for Penske Racing in 1982 and '83. Alex enters Sunday's Marlboro 500 presented by Toyota at the new California Speedway with a series-high five victories at Long Beach, Cleveland, Michigan Speedway, Mid-Ohio and Road America, as well as a series-high four pole positions at Homestead, Australia, Cleveland and Vancouver. He owns six podium finishes in his last seven starts and has scored 126 PPG Cup points over that span. He leads the PPG CART World Series with 195 points and could join Al Unser Jr. In 1990 and '94 and Michael Andretti and Bobby Rahal both in 1991 as the only drivers to top the 200 point mark since the current scoring system was adopted in 1983. With that, I'm going to turn it over to Michael Knight of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing who has a few remarks before we get started with Alex. Mike?
MICHAEL KNIGHT: On behalf of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing, I want to thank all of you for taking time to join us today. I would like everyone to be aware that at the conclusion of the teleconference, if you have any need for follow-up questions, I will be available at (602) 661-5240. If you need any background or bio information or statistics faxed to you, you can call Tom Ryan at (612) 851-1600. I would like to briefly make you aware of a ceremony that will take place at the California Speedway on Saturday at 11:15 a.m. in the garage area conference room, and this pertains to Target/Chip Ganassi Racing's association this season with St. Jude's Children Research Hospital in Memphis. As you may be aware, the team has been donating money to St. Jude's for the construction of The Target House which will serve as the residence for families and patients who are receiving long-term care at St. Jude. On the basis of race wins, poles and laps led going into the Marlboro 500 this weekend, the total raised through this program is $46,225. However, in qualifying, both Alex and Jimmy Vasser will be wearing helmets, the color scheme of which were created by St. Jude Children's Research Hospital patients as part of a contest within the hospital which was actually Alex Zanardi's idea, and these helmets will be unveiled at 11:15 at the track. Alex's Simpson helmet was created by a St. Jude patient whose name is Jason Hardy, H-A-R-D-Y, who is 16 years old of Arlington, Tennessee, and Jason and his family will be at the track this weekend to see their first CART race and to present the helmet to Alex, as well as the patient who designed Jimmy Vasser's Bell helmet color scheme. Her name is Heidi McKinney, 14, of Dalton, Georgia. If any of you would like further information on this, again, if you give us a call after the teleconference, we can fax that to you. With that, I'll turn it back over to T.E. and say thank you to CART and T.E. For their help in arranging today's teleconference.
T.E. McHALE: Before we get started, just a reminder. There are a large number of people on the call that would like to speak with Alex. If you could limit your questions to a question and a follow-up, we'd appreciate it. With that, we're going to begin.
Q. Congratulations, man.
ALEX ZANARDI: Thank you.
Q. I was wondering, you certainly impressed a lot of people on our side of the pond here. I was wondering if you had impressed anyone on the other side. Have you gotten any feelers from Formula One teams this year?
ALEX ZANARDI: Well, obviously everybody knows my situation with Chip. I have to say that when I first signed the contract with Target/Chip Ganassi Racing, I was very, very happy. I was coming out of a period of my career that wasn't -- hasn't been particularly fortunate, and Chip gave me a great opportunity. So I obviously have to feel happy, even if things have changed for me, even if I have a lot of success, I'm going to be racing with the same -- with the same team next year, and then we'll see the situation. Obviously Europe is really far away, and I have a lot of supporters in Italy, especially, but now that I won the championship, I've got even more. So I think -- I think -- my future, at least, that neither one is still in the United States in the CART series and then I don't know. We'll see.
Q. Did you get any kind of test offers or anything during the season?
ALEX ZANARDI: No, I don't think -- I mean, my situation, I don't feel like I need to test anything. I need -- to be honest with you, I don't feel I need to prove anything. I feel I'm racing at the top of motor sport by racing in the CART series. I consider the CART series, besides Formula One, really the top of mother racing in the world, so it's just a little bit different business. But really I'm totally satisfied with what I'm doing. It doesn't necessarily mean that I'm going to be doing that forever. At the end of the day, I belong to Italy. That's my country. And maybe one day I would like before retirement to go back and race and try to have some success over there, but it is not a target right now. It's just an opportunity that I may consider at the time that it will come along.
Q. Thanks, Alex.
ALEX ZANARDI: You're welcome.
Q. Alex, I wanted to kind of ask you about -- I know that you've drawn some criticism for your driving in the second half of the season. How have you dealt with that through the second half, and has it sort of taken away from your championship a little bit?
ALEX ZANARDI: Well, the second half of the season has been very, very good. I believe we've been very competitive also in the first part, but unfortunately in this business, there is about a million of things that can go wrong, and about 900,000 probably are not controlled by yourself, but simply by luck. So when nothing happens, you have to say that you've been lucky. In those respects, I feel lucky because in the second part of the season we've been able to do our job very well, and the team has done a tremendous job. Chip Ganassi and all the crew have been terrific in any single second of our commitments in the race weekend, so it's nice to be able to score so many points in some races. But, you know, I never doubt that we could achieve great successes with what we've done this year, and even when we're not getting exactly what we thought we could have. So as I said, I never doubt we could do it and -- but it definitely feels better now that we actually did it.
Q. Alex, congratulations. And not that I want to see people doing this on the streets, but can you describe exactly how you do a doughnut.
ALEX ZANARDI: Well, it's very simple. I mean, with 900 horsepower, it's actually easy to spin the wheels no matter which gear you're in, and you just stop the car and press the throttle a little bit, release the clutch quite brutally, and the wheels start to spin. And then you just turn the wheel, the steering wheel, as much as you need and the car starts to spin by itself. It's probably the most simple thing to do. All you need is a little bit of room, and it's a lot of fun. I didn't end up by doing those doughnuts like a lot of people may think because I want to be on until the last minute of television coverage, it was just a way of celebrating a great accomplishment when we first won the race in Long Beach. And then it was amazing because all the fans fall in love with that, and I start to meet a lot of enthusiastic people that keep asking me to do it again, and sometimes I just do it. And I realized at one point that CART was right, that that could have been a little bit dangerous, especially for the photographer and all the journalists that were waiting for me in the Winner's Circle, so I tried to do it with a little bit more attention to the safety point, and that's how I did it in Elkhart Lake, but I'm looking forward to doing some more.
Q. When you decided to come drive CART, what attracted you to that series, and now after two years in it, what can CART do to make itself more attractive to, say, the general fan and race's popularity?
ALEX ZANARDI: Well, for me as a racing driver, I'm not saying the only thing I'm interested in doing is a single-seater car. I love my job, and I would feel very fortunate to be able to do my job also in different series, also including carts or something like that, but obviously I'm on top of the world right now because I just won a championship and with the type of car that I love the most. When I was a little kid and was racing go-carts, my dream was to drive Formula One, simply because that's what I had in front of my eyes. That was our brand, if you like, in Europe. I wasn't aware of the fact that overseas in the United States, there was a beautiful series called Indy Car at the time, and CART now, that could provide to the driver the same kind of sensation that a Formula One car would do. And it's very, very difficult to explain that unless you have really driven one of those cars. The fact that when you go around the corners, you can pull up to 4 Gs of lateral force, it means that those cars are really bolted down in the ground, and to be able to drive that car at the limit, it is something amazing, and it's -- again, it's very, very difficult to put it down into words. Concerning what CART could do to improve the popularity around the world, well, I don't know. I think there is a lot of politic involved into that. I don't think that we can do anything more to improve the challenge, to improve the show side of our series, if you like, because we do have certain technical rules that are perfect, if you want, and the challenge in the series itself is just amazing. I mean, every race, you can expect 20 different drivers to be able to win that event, and that's something that you may just be able to see in little series like Formula Four or something like that, but you wouldn't imagine to be able to see at the top of motor sports where there is huge budget involved with all the teams, and you would expect that the strongest teams with more money should be able to create a great advantage on the small teams, but that's not the case. I mean, the rules are very good, and this is a series where a new team with a decent budget with a good driver can come and win the first race right away, so the unpredictability is the reason of the success of our series. I believe if there is something more that can be done, it's much more in the promotion and maybe trying to take the series a little bit more overseas, maybe in Europe one day, and let people understand what we're talking about because a lot of people still don't know what we're talking about.
ALEX ZANARDI: Thank you.
Q. From a driver's perspective, what differences did you encounter in CART from Formula One racing?
ALEX ZANARDI: Well, technically speaking, there is one great difference which is the floor of the car in Formula One, the flat-bottom car, and in Indy Car, we have a ground effect. That makes the car much less sensitive to changes, and translated into simple words, it means that we can run a much softer setup. The car is more predictable to drive. That doesn't mean it's any easier because it puts the driver in the condition that he's got to get the best out of the car every single lock in the race because that's what everybody else is doing. So it's just a lot of fun to drive for the driver, and it is possible to delay the braking point and know that to try to overtake somebody and whether Formula One -- I believe, I mean, looking from the outside, it looks like it's all the size -- I mean, you get a brake at that point, the power at that particular point, and you cannot do anything different. We may have a little bit more margin to do different maneuvers, and that's just a lot of fun and very good for the show.
Q. What differences did you see in the level of the competition?
ALEX ZANARDI: I mean, if you would just watch the race on television, you would have to say our series is much better. I don't believe the drivers in Formula One are any worse because they don't overtake. It's simply a different concept of racing. Probably Formula One is -- it's, from the technological aspect, it's the top. In our series, we're much more interested in trying to provide to the fans a good show without forgetting that we're racing, and the best guy is -- he's going to have to end it up with a trophy in the events. But I guess once again, you know, the fact that any team can decide to buy which chassis they think is the best is a great advantage, because it's true that a car is still very expensive. The price of a car is about $500,000, but it's relatively low to the amount of money a Formula One team needs just to come up with a project or the design of a car that really is a prototype. And sometimes they spend a lot of millions of dollars in designing the car, and then they go and test and they realize that what they ended up with is not very good. And some teams, they may have the resolve to throw everything away, and they have to stick with that all season. So you can clearly understand that the challenge is -- when it comes to the races, it is strongly determined by those factors.
Q. Kind of going back to what a question asked earlier, the drive in Vancouver which if you watched it on TV, you kind of sat there and said, you know, what's he doing? He's going crazy. And then you get on probation, and how do you deal with, you know, perceptions of people that you're out of control or that, you know, you're taking unnecessary chances?
ALEX ZANARDI: Well, to be honest with you, our sport, it is -- may not be a sport. A lot of people say that it is not a sport, but I do believe it is a sport. And the good or bad thing, if you like, is that sometime you cannot -- if you do a mistake, you cannot say, "Hey, let me try again." It's not a tennis match where if you throw a ball in the grand stand, you may say, Boy, I don't have to do that again and you can come back and winning the match. In our series, sometimes when you do a little mistake, you end up in the fence and that's it for that day. You really have to concentrate to not make mistakes. If you do, you have to do the best way to change your strategy in order to come back. That is what I was doing. Now, you may not believe me, but in that particular race, I really had some serious troubles with the brakes. It happened that we didn't have the opportunity to pad the rollers very well in the morning in the warmup, and I picked up a mechanical vibration which was putting me in trouble everywhere but especially in the turn where I went off twice, because there were some bumps and it was very difficult to pump the brake pedal to get the right bite on the brakes. So twice I had the problem, which I don't consider was a mistake. But other than that, you know, it is normal that along the way, especially when you're doing well, you may get people trying to take advantage of all your little mistakes to put bad publicity on you. And I understand that, because it's always been like that in life. So they said I made a lot of cars. That's not true. The only contact I made was with Bryan Herta. And I respect the decision of the stewards because since I have my name in the championship, I accept the rules of the championship, and I accept the people that are entitled to apply those rules, so I can't really comment that. But you can clearly imagine that my feeling about that judgment is a bit different.
Q. Can you talk a bit about 500-mile races in general, and now that you've won one and how you approach this coming race. I remember your saying in Laguna Seca that, Gee, you almost wish there had been a shoulder problem or something that you could have missed that race, but now approaching it, how do you feel about it?
ALEX ZANARDI: No, I'm very excited to go to Fontana, and I'm going to try to do the best job I can. If I can win the race, you can bet I will not step back. Obviously the approach you need in the 500-mile race is really -- it's really -- it's really a -- pardon the expression -- a feeling of the way we race over here in the United States. In other words, in Europe, especially in Formula One, if you make or lose a tenth of a second at the first turn or the first lap, you can bet it's going to be that at the end of the race when the checker flag comes down. Over here, it's completely different. You have to have different approach. You may be a bit weak at the beginning of the race, but if you keep calm and if you keep working on your car, especially in the 500-mile race with all the neutralization of the race with -- for the yellows and for the quotients, yellow laps, you can come back and be very, very strong and win the race easily at the end. You can come back from being one lap or two laps down. So that's what you have to learn. The reason why drivers are doing what they're doing their job, is because they like the speed. They like to go fast, and so our instinct would suggest to squeeze the car that's a lemon and try to get the best out of the car every single lap. And it's hard to drive a car and not to push it to the limit, especially if the car isn't perfect. So that's what I've been learning the last almost two years. And that's why I was very, very proud of myself when I was able to win Michigan, because at the beginning of the race, I was in some deep trouble, both with the handling of the car and with the situation. I had to go -- I had to do a drive through the pits because I run over an air hose, and so I had to pay that penalty. So it was great for me to end it up winning the race, and hopefully I'll be able to do the same job this weekend.
Q. What if you start the race and the car is just perfect, how do you handle that?
ALEX ZANARDI: Well, if you get in front and the car is perfect, you can stay at the front because that's the most comfortable place to watch the movie of the race. But obviously you don't have to get overexcited. You don't have to believe that that win is already under your belt because that's a big mistake you can do. The weather may change, the temperature of the track may change. When 20-plus cars are going around the circle, they put rubber down in the corners, so the balance of the car can change. So that's part of the job of the driver, keeping track of what's going on and making little adjustments that will allow you to have the same perfect car at the end of the race because you can lead 99 percent of the lap, but then if you end it up with a bad car, it's not by overdriving that you're going to stay in the lead. In the super speedway, if you do overdrive, you're going to end it up in the fence for sure.
Q. Alex, congratulations on your championship.
ALEX ZANARDI: Thank you.
Q. You had some pretty hectic races to get to the championship this year. You've gone from the front of the grid to the middle to the back of the grid and battled back and came back to the front of the grid and often won. Of all your five wins, which was the most gratifying and which do you feel was the toughest?
ALEX ZANARDI: Well, Cleveland, no doubt. If you watch the tape of the race again, you will see that the joy and the happiness I had at the end of it, simply because when I fell down to 22nd after the penalty and -- the two penalties I had to pay, I was a bit depressed. I felt the race was gone. And then I did a couple of laps trying to maybe overdrive. I was overdriving and trying to get back, and I couldn't get in front of cars that were for some reason a couple of seconds slower than mine. At that point I just decided that I was not going to drive, I was not going to let my anger going through my driving, so I decide that I was going to do my best no matter what that would have been that day. I said to myself, Look, you have to drive and forget about the race and just try to get the best out of this car. Drive it like you do it in qualifying, but you have to do that for 70 laps. So I was able to do that, and when I saw the checker flag, I was like -- I was like living in another world, and myself, my brain came back, and I realized then at that point that I won the race. So it was such a surprise for me to realize that I came back from 22nd and weed out any yellows -- without any help of yellows, just with the help of my team because the boys were incredible in the pit stop. And, you know, just with the help of my team and with my car, I was able to pass all the people and clear the gap of 36 seconds that I had with the leader at the point I fell back. And, you know, I was really surprised. I mean, it was a great satisfaction that came for me all of a sudden because I just realized that when I saw the checker flag, you know. And so probably even more than the championship itself because it's true that it's a great accomplishment, but it came after all the hard work we'd been doing, me and the Target/Chip Ganassi Racing all season long. So when it finally came at Laguna Seca, we knew that more or less, the championship was ours long before that. So it was not such a surprise as Cleveland was.
Q. Alex, can you take seriously or put any stock into the reverse or stories coming out of Indianapolis about Tony George courting Formula One, even building a road course facility to run Formula One races there at some point?
ALEX ZANARDI: Well, I think that's a good idea. But that's the first -- that's the first time I hear it. And, you know, I mean, I've been here for just two seasons, and I know a little bit of what's going on, but I'm probably not the most qualified person to talk about those things. The only thing I know is that Indianapolis, the popularity as a race, as a event through the years, not because it always provide a great show to the fans, but it provide a great show to the fans with a lot of big and important names in the race itself. You know, that's what it takes. I think that's the problem that Formula One have, if you like, right now, because with the unfortunate loss of Senna and drivers like Mansell, Alain Prost in the years, now the only guy that really is making a difference is Michael Schumacher, and unless they find another guy that is in the same car and is capable of going at the same speed of that German, or beat him, they won't have a new reference point. Yes, there is a lot of quick and very talented driver, but the point is that until you don't beat the big names, you don't actually become a big name yourself. And I'm very, very great to all the drivers that have compete this year in our series, because thanks to them -- well, for sure, thanks to Target/Chip Ganassi Racing for sure and thanks to me, if you like, but thanks also to that great challenge and ended up winning it in a great series like CART is, now I'm a recognizable and I'm a recognizable driver around the world, and that's why I get a lot of credit also over in Europe for what I did. I don't know what's going to happen in Indianapolis, but I wish them success. I don't really know what to say.
Q. Jimmy Vasser told us that earlier in the season, he told us that you were doing the setups for road courses and that he -- your driving styles are different, and then when he started improving his finishes a lot, the last couple of races, he said that he had switched to his own setup. Do you know why they waited so long to decide that, and how did you, if you did, take into account Jimmy's style when you were working on the car?
ALEX ZANARDI: Well, it will take probably two days to explain that in little details, but in other words, Jimmy has different driving style is mainly because he left-foot brake. I use my right foot to brake. It means that if I'm braking, I cannot press the throttle. And the temptation when you're left-foot braking is you have a great opportunity to compensate for the problems of the car by touching on the throttle and at the same time hitting the brake pedals. Now, that's very dangerous because sometimes when you have a little problem, your instinct may suggest to you to do that and you don't stop and you don't try to fix the problem. Since I start to race in Indy Cars, I always try to end it up with the best setup I could until the last minute of qualifying because I believe that it is much easier to drive very fast a good car than what it is to drive just at a decent speed a bad car. So maybe that was my advantage. And on the top of everything, I have a lot of experience from Formula One. I did work in the best years I believe of Formula One while we had the active suspensions, and that was just a lot of -- a big, big plus for me. And so I believe at the beginning of the season, most of the time I ended up being much, much faster than Jimmy, and Jimmy decided at that point it was not worth to keep working in one direction, it was much simple to just switch to my setup because at least it would have gone more or less at the same speed I was going. And then he realized that in certain circuits, that was working, but in certain others with some type of corners that had certain characteristics, what I was doing in the car was completely different to what his instinct was suggesting to do. And so my setup wasn't totally working. So, yes, he spend more time in the last part of the season and he has concentrated more in trying to find what his requirements want, and he's been very successful because his performances have gone back to the point I think they should be, because Jimmy is a great driver, and there is no reason why he should be any slower than me.
Q. So when two drivers have different styles, you really need both of them to do the testing, you can't really adapt what one learned to the other style?
ALEX ZANARDI: Well, you know, ideally, you want to share all the informations, but that's possible just when two drivers have a great relationship, and I believe that Chip Ganassi is very fortunate to have two drivers like me and Jimmy because we are not simply teammates but we are great friends. And I loved to see Jimmy winning Laguna Seca. There was nobody happier than me, you know, at that particular day. So, yes, it is very important to share all the information, but you always need to back to back everything that works for one guy with the other one, because you never -- you never show it. I mean, it's always possible that something that works for one guy doesn't necessarily work for the other one. Most of the time, it is like that, but not always.
Q. You spoke a moment ago about what it was like to drive in a 500-mile race, and I've got to think that the fans who follow Indy Car will never know what it's like to sit in a car at somewhere around 230 miles an hour and watch the world go by. I have an idea that you may have an interesting perspective on that.
ALEX ZANARDI: It's incredible, especially because I -- it happened that last year, I experienced that very, very quickly. When I went to MIS for my first U.S. 500, I never did any testing before, and so I did my test actually on the Thursday before the race, and I went out, the car was set very well. Jimmy did a lot of testing there and ended up with a very good setup that he was kind enough to give it to me. And nothing, I just went out in fourth gear and I just thought, boy, that's incredible, that's beautiful, you know. I'm a racing driver, I love to speed, so by going that fast, I was amazed. I was fascinated. Then I went up to fifth, and I thought, boy, that's a little bit fast. Then the following lap, I went up to six, and I thought that's too fast, you know, I want to go home. It's incredible. Unfortunately, sometimes you get used to the speed, so you play with a little bit too much confidence with the steering wheels around those corners which is something that you should never do. But in any case, I mean, that's part of our job, and we've got to be able to never lose our focus. It is incredible anyway. Just to give you a example, at the Marlboro 500 last year, I lost the car at one point, beginning of the turn, and I finally ended up brushing the wall, and when I lost the car initially, I identified perfectly the point where I was going to brush the wall. I knew that I was going to touch the wall. So I went back the following night with my scooter to measure basically the distance between the point where I first lost the car and the point where I finally hit the wall, which felt to me like less than two seconds in the car. And that distance was about half a mile, believe it or not, and it happened just in the blink of an eye, so just to give you an idea of the speed we're traveling.
Q. And also I'm interested in your relationship with St. Jude as our studios are here in Memphis literally in the shadow of the hospital. A special feeling for these kids to have made helmets for you and Jimmy this weekend?
ALEX ZANARDI: It is something pretty special, especially because we have a sponsor, Target, is amazing. They don't simply pay lot of attention to what we're doing. They always want to get involved with what we're doing technically speaking with the team, and they always push very hard because they know speed costs money, and they want to go very fast, so they really put a lot in our team. But they try to get advantage of all our activities, not for their own purpose. Obviously, I mean, that's one of the matters, but also to try to really make people understand what's going on in normal life and how bad it can be sometimes for people that are not as lucky as we are to do whatever we want in life because of very, very unlucky things. And so last week, we went to visit St. Jude Children's Hospital and we met a lot of kids, and we thought it would have been a very sad visit, you know. In fact, it is in one side, but in the other end, you can see those kids and how brave they are. I believe they're much braver than us when we're driving at 130 miles an hour, because they really believe they have a lot of confidence in those doctors that are doing an excellent job for -- and -- I mean, such an unbelievable, totally free of charge for a lot of kids. It's unbelievable. And when Target had that idea of trying to build that Target House, and they wanted us to get involved with that in order to raise some funds to promote that program, we were just delighted, because we know what's behind it. And obviously what we can do is a very, very small part, but obviously we're very proud for the part that we're doing.
Q. Alex, congratulations on the championship.
ALEX ZANARDI: Thank you.
Q. In fact, you're what made CART racing exciting this year, and you are a true champion. You took your knocks and your penalties and you didn't wine and cry about it, and you wound up being the champion, and I think that you're a great champion.
ALEX ZANARDI: Thank you very much. Those are very nice words.
Q. Well, we have a sad announcement here at Gateway International here today. The track manager Keith Gray died this morning of a heart attack. I know some of you met him while you were there. That's all you can say on that.
T.E. McHALE: Sorry to hear that. Thank you for that. With that, I think we'll wrap it up for today. Alex, we want to thank you for being with us. We want to wish you the best of luck in the Marlboro 500 presented by Toyota coming up on Sunday. We want to thank Mike Knight for his help in making this happen and good day to all of you.
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