CART Media Conference
March 9, 1999
T.E. McHALE: Thanks Dario for joining us this afternoon and wish him the best of success in the 1999 FedEx Championship Series. Thanks and good luck to you. We're going to welcome Jimmy Vasser. Jimmy completes our list of guests as one of the most consistent drivers in the FedEx Championship Series. Driver of the No. 12 Target Honda Reynard. Jimmy was runner-up to teammate Alex Zanardi to last year's FedEx Championship Series. The third consecutive year in which he's recorded a Top 3 finish in the season standings, including the 1996 championship. Jimmy's 1998 season included victories at Nazareth in Milwaukee, climaxed with a $1 million payday in the season finale a California speedway. He also captured pole positions at Japan and Cleveland and scored PPG Cup points in 15 of 19 starts, giving him 53 points-paying finishes in his last 63 starts dating to 1995 at Milwaukee. Jimmy has been running at the finish in 48 of his past 53 dating the 1995 season finale at Laguna Seca. He leads Target/Chip Ganassi racing at its bid for unprecedented fourth consecutive FedEx Championship Series and won the inaugural CART event contested at the Miami Motor Sports Complex in 1996.
Q. Jimmy is the pressure now on to win another championship? Realistically, how tough would it be to have a four-peat? I mean, have you guys as a team talked with that or does it even come up?
JIMMY VASSER: Obviously, it's our goal to win races and win the championship. It's going to be very tough. The competition, it's there and it's deep. You know, we're up for the task. I think that we've done things that we've done in the past very similar as far as off-season testing and preparation, and you know -- but the pressure is the same all the time. There's built-in pressure to just perform at the highest level that you can and to keep your position and your sponsors happy and to keep your job; so, there's not really any more pressure because there is a 4th-possible championship for our race team. But, you know, it's a-level; so the pressure is always there. I think that we have a shot at it. You know, but as do many, many drivers and race teams out there, but it's just going to take a little while for it to unfold. And we're just going to come out and take it one race at a time and rake in as many race points as we can early.
Q. How much is CART -- take away the fact that you were Alex's teammate for those years, how much is CART hurt by losing its two-time defending champion from a marketing standpoint? There's a lot put in to building a lot of equity in his name and in CART and Target and your team and stuff. How much has it hurt the series losing the two-time champion to another series?
JIMMY VASSER: It hurts a bit. You'd have to talk to the marketing analyst to figure that out. It not only hurts our race team and our sponsorship but CART to a certain extent. You can't dwell on that. We enjoyed our time together with Alex, and I'm sure everybody in CART did. It's not detrimental. Things like that happen in life. We still have -- we still have a very strong field of drivers and teams that we're going to do just fine -- do just fine without Alex. Montoya is doing a tremendous job. He's a really good kid and very interesting and he's a great character; so I think that while you have a loss with Alex Zanardi, Alex Montoya is a great addition to the series as well.
Q. There are been some questions with these other drivers that have been on before you about CART and where it's going and from a marketing standpoint, how they are trying to get their act together in relation to what NASCAR has done and Winston Cup has done. What is lacking? Is there anything lacking as far as selling the series? Just from your driver standpoint, what do you guys see that's still lacking there?
JIMMY VASSER: You know, I don't really know. I haven't really -- I don't sit down and think about the problems with CART and what it's lacking and so forth. I think the racing is fantastic and it's a great series. We have got a great schedule. I think from a -- if you're just analyzing it from a marketeer's standpoint, I think the only thing that it's lacking is TV ratings. And if they can get that going, and with that comes more public interest, then I think they are off and running.
Q. Every time I've watched you, you've got to be one of the most intelligent, impressive guys on the ovals and that have come around in a very, very long time.
JIMMY VASSER: Thanks.
Q. And looking at the strength of your road course performance, the only place that maybe needs polish is the street courses. What have you guys done to address that issue?
JIMMY VASSER: We're always working to make the car as good as you can in the off-season testing. The thing is you can't duplicate the street circuit that you do. You try to go to Sebring or Firebird East and do some testing that you think might apply. While my performance might be down in the street circuits, you can see that Zanardi's wasn't; so we do have a pool of information that did work for our race team and we utilized that. It's not totally not unattainable. We have had success on street surface before and we will again. We just need to do it in a more consistent fashion.
Q. The other question I had for you is Juan's feedback and his driving style similar enough to where you two can help each other?
JIMMY VASSER: Yeah. It's been pretty good so far. He's got a tremendous background in his short career. He's only 23 years old, but he's done so many things already. Formula 3000 champion; obviously, William's test driver, he logged nearly 10,000 kilometers in a Williams Formula 1. So he comes with a tremendous track record, and with that comes a lot of experience. So while he's young, he's very experienced and he's definitely been a help already. And I think he's going to prove to be quite helpful and a championship contender. I think I'm not going to be surprised to see him win races this year.
Q. You had always said that you and Alex were really close on and off the track and everything. Can you just talk about it from a personal aspect of if it's going to be difficult this year not having him around? Is it not going to be quite as much fun going to the race track this year?
JIMMY VASSER: I think in any aspect of life, when you -- when you have a, you know a best friend a great friend like I had in Alex Zanardi and they are kind of -- then all of the sudden they exit your life, to a certain extent, it's difficult. And how that pertains to our season and our racing team, you know, it's definitely going to be a little -- a little more lonely. You miss your friend. But there's on a personal level. And I'm sure I'm going to have a lot less laughs, and I'm going to miss my friend Alex. But on a professional level, while he added a tremendous amount to our race team and we're going to miss him, you know, we're -- we are pretty well-oiled race team. And things are going to go on and I think we're going to be able to do -- to do similar things that we've done in the past. And while Alex had a tremendous track record and was a great champion, I think we can still achieve similar things and, you know, also from a professional standpoint, it might be a little easier to win a race now and then.
Q. A quick follow-up. Is there going to come a point when you're going to be tired of being asked this question, just a, say, "Alex is gone. He ain't coming back, let's get on with things here?"
JIMMY VASSER: I don't think I'll get tired of it. You know, I'll get tired of it if the same guy keeps asking the same question but if somebody has got a question -- I don't get tired about talking about Alex. I don't think there's any question about the character he was or he is and the kind of guy he is. You know, you just don't run across individuals like that very often in your life, and it's not a chore to speak about it him.
Q. I've got two unrelated questions. The first of them is whether you worry a little about the European perception of CART being sort of taken entirely on what Alex does in Formula 1 this season and what his team is going through transition. Do you feel that CART's reputation might -- might suffer as a result?
JIMMY VASSER: No, because I have all the confidence in Alex Zanardi to do a great job. I think he's a fantastic driver. I'm aware -- I'm more aware probably of some of the things that happened in this team than the general public; aware of the problems that he had in Australia on Saturday qualifying and ruined his weekend, I believe. So while he got off to a little bit of a rocky start, there are reasons and problems there that doesn't really get announced and I have all the confidence he's going to do a fantastic job. I really don't feel that CART's representation and CART is riding on his shoulders. There's much more to motor racing than that. I don't think he bears the burden of proving CART's validity in the world of motor sports. I'd like to think it already has been proven and it stands on its own.
Q. Do you consider Dario Franchitti as a contender, and if you do, what has impressed you about him in the time you've seen him in CART?
JIMMY VASSER: Well, anybody would be an idiot not to consider Dario Franchitti a championship contender: Races three won and the fashion in which he won them, the consistency and the speed he had. Last season predominantly at the end and when he was considered a non-threat at Fontana, he was right at the front when he went out. So Franchitti is going to be in my mind, if not the, certainly one of the men to be beat. He is very impressive in his sheer speed on the road courses, and certainly in the -- at Houston it was phenomenal, the speed that he had and those were the two things that really impressed me the most about him.
Q. Do you think with the predomination of all the races that would give you the slight edge over a challenger like that or that's what it might come down to: The fact that you've done better in ovals if that carries over?
JIMMY VASSER: I don't really analyze that way. It is not predominantly ovals in the series. It's pretty well-balanced.
Q. I just go with the addition of Chicago being another oval.
JIMMY VASSER: He's run up front at Fontana. He's run up front at St. Louis. He had a 4th at Milwaukee. He's capable. I think the ovals -- I really believe the ovals aren't that difficult. If you get your car working well and you do get used to them a bit, they are not as difficult as perhaps a road course; so I think you can adapt to an oval a lot easier than a guy who struggles on a road course. But I think guys are pretty equal on most types of circuits. It's just a matter of working with the cars and getting them working right on that particular weekend. Dario is going to be strong in all facets of the season, I believe.
Q. Can you talk about a lot of guys were pursuing you last year. Would the fact that the symmetry from in this team has been so good? You've developed such a good relationship. Did that weigh more heavily maybe than the money being thrown at you?
JIMMY VASSER: Absolutely. I've got four years invested in the team now and I'll be getting my fifth. It's the people. It's the people not just on the team, but the people in our sponsorship team. I really feel like I'm part of a Target family and while I did very seriously consider other -- other options, for the same reasons with people there, too, very interesting people and you know that I had desires to work with. But it was a very difficult decision. It's not like, you know, I didn't have, you know, a table full of offers, but I had a couple that were very interesting, but when it came down to it, I really couldn't leave -- I really don't leave my family there at Target/Chip Ganassi. I really didn't have a reason to. I couldn't come up with a strong reason. Really when you make a decision like that you're making a decision that's going to be for the better -- for the better for my racing career, for my personal satisfaction. I just couldn't find it better, and I'm very, very happy where I'm at and looking forward to the next three years.
Q. Jimmy, how would you characterize the testing year for you this year versus other years, briefly?
JIMMY VASSER: It's been very similar. We have, you know, there's been encouraging. It just tells me from years past that we are in a position to do similar things. We've been running good on all types of tracks. Honda has been doing a fantastic job with their new package. Firestone tires are still the tire to have. Unfortunately, when we first had them, there weren't many of them out there. Now it's virtually the whole field. But they still perform well and we still know how to utilize the tires to our advantage, I believe. And there seems to be an air of confidence running through all the members of the race team. To answer your question, it feels very similar to how it has in the past years.
Q. (Inaudible) Do you feel CART should be more like the WWF?
JIMMY VASSER: I didn't say I didn't think it wasn't exciting show and I didn't like that. I think that CART needs to do whatever they need to do to get the TV numbers up, and I think that they certainly don't need to change any aspects of our racing. I think it's very exciting and top level.
Q. But if you look at this off-season compared to say the last two off-seasons, is there anything that gives you hope that you will return back to the top of the podium at the end of the year?
JIMMY VASSER: Yeah. I've said it before, I think that everything we've done this off-season, it still seems very similar. We're running well. We're not having any major problems with our race cars or our race team. Our speed teams to be good, competitive and I feel that we're ready to go. You know, we started the long roads with 20 races, and taking one race at a time I know it sound a cliche, but that's the way you have to do it. You don't wallow in your past success. You just go. You take your victories and you take your lumps and you move on.
Q. After winning a championship, do you become more hungry for the second one, especially when you didn't back it up, or is it different kind of hunger than trying to get your first title?
JIMMY VASSER: I think feel definitely a different kind of hunger than getting your first. You know to expect a little bit more. Actually, I feel very hungry for the championship this year. I got -- one cup on one end of my bookcase and I need the other end of a bookend, you know. Alex, we've already got his bookcase set up, and he's given me a little bit of a cattle prod on the sides. Every time I turn around, he keeps jabbing me with a poker and telling me about the championship and telling me to do it. So I'm game and I'm ready to go and my teammate Montoya, also, I think is going to be definitely a contender in the championship. Even though I didn't win the last few championships, I certainly feel I'm part of them, with the racing team. I did help -- anyway, I'd like to get it this year. Anyway, we can get it for the team to have four straight is the big picture.
Q. Maybe since you helped Alex, maybe Alex can loan you his trophy until you get your next one?
JIMMY VASSER: There's no loaning of the trophies going on.
Q. Your new teammate, he's young and you mentioned he's only 23. When Zanardi came over here he was a rookie, but it was really kind of a false designation because I guess he performed very much unlike a rookie. And although Montoya doesn't have the same experiences and is coming over here at a younger age, you had mentioned earlier that you thought he was capable of winning a race. Is he the kind of guy that can do what Alex did in his first year? Is he that good and does the package allow him to be capable of not just winning a race but actually challenging for the championship right in his first season?
JIMMY VASSER: I think he's capable, absolutely. He's shown tremendous speed. He's shown consistency. He's shown maturity. He hasn't done a lot of crashing or, you know, immature things that you might expect out of a rookie driver. He's shown a tremendous high level of adaptability to the cars and to the tracks and the ovals. He's got -- he's got a very high level of determination and given that with his track record and high regard in which he's held a lot of really respectable people in motor racing in Europe, you know, I think you have no choice but to consider him potential race winner, potential championship contender. And I think he deserves that benefit of the doubt.
Q. Just about the addition of the Hawaii race, that's obviously a big payoff to aim for. What do you think about the whole idea?
JIMMY VASSER: Well, I think it's fantastic. I'm very excited about the opportunity of being one of the 16 drivers that get to go over and have a shot at 5 million dollars, it's just to be able to try to win that in one afternoon is a real milestone and for most of racing, and it's fantastic for CART. And I think that marketed properly and in the right manner starting now, that that race should have such a high level of visibility that it's going to have nothing but a great effect on the visibility of CART racing.
Q. Talking to Dario earlier, he told me what tell me what your impressions of Greg Moore, one of the front runners.
JIMMY VASSER: He's the guy you thought you were going to beat -- last couple years, I mean he's come out strong in the last couple years. For whatever reason his season is kind of stalled mid-season and you know, really kind of his championship hopes have fiddled away in a similar fashion the last couple of years. But he's shown that he's certainly, you know, he's going to be if not like I said about Dario, if not the guy, one of the guys to beat for the championship. He's been there on all types of circuits. It's not a question of speed. For Greg and his team, it's more of a question of putting it together. They can do it. No doubt about it. He's definitely one of, if not the favorite, for the championship in my eyes. It's just a matter of putting it together. Getting the reliability bit out of his car. That's let him down a few times. He's involved in some kind of weird, freakish incidents in races. And it's happened two years in a row to him now and that's -- if I were them, that's where they would need to focus is to finish off the season. They start out well and get points lead and then they just seem to stall sometime in June.
T.E. McHALE: Thank you. Jimmy thanks for being with us today and Target/Chip Ganassi as they chase unprecedented fourth FedEx Championship Series title. Thanks to all of you who join us. We appreciate your persevere answer we appreciate you being with us and we wish you a good afternoon.
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