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Team Rahal Media Conference

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Open Wheel Racing Topics:  Team Rahal

Team Rahal Media Conference

Bobby Rahal
Jimmy Vasser
Mike Welsh
November 16, 2001


TOM BLATTLER: I want to welcome everyone today for our announcement here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. We just got finished with our press conference today. We had the principals of Miller Brewing Company, Mike Welsh, along with team owners Bobby Rahal and David Letterman and our driver Jimmy Vasser. Today the announcement was Miller Brewing Company announced they will return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Indianapolis 500 for the 86th running of the world's most famous race on May 26th, 2002, as primary sponsor of Team Rahal and veteran driver Jimmy Vasser. Today we have Mike Welsh the director of event marketing. Mike, if you want to go ahead and explain about Miller's coming back to Indy since 1995.

MIKE WELSH: Yes. We had the pleasure today of announcing that Miller Lite will be joining Team Rahal and driver Jimmy Vasser in competing in the 2002 Indianapolis 500.

TOM BLATTLER: How do you feel about getting that team back together, Mike?

MIKE WELSH: I tell you, we've had a long-standing history with the speedway. Right now our brands are currently the official beer of both the Brickyard 400 as well as the US Grand Prix. To come back to the 500 with such a premiere entry is very exciting for us, our employees, as well as our distributors.

TOM BLATTLER: Great. I also want to let you know for many years here at Indianapolis, Miller Brewing sponsored the Pit Stop Contest that was held on Carburetion Day. That was for 18 years. They also sponsored the Wall of Fame at the speedway. I think it's exciting for Miller to come back. Bobby, I know being the 1986 500 winner, placing second once and third twice, this place has a lot of meaning for you.

BOBBY RAHAL: It does, Tom. As I said earlier today, probably the greatest moment in my racing life was here in '86, and the worst moment of my racing life was here in '93 when we didn't qualify. Especially coming back here, it brings back a lot of memories from '82 on. Coming here, it's more of an adventure than a race, I thought. You were here for a month. It just went on and on and on. A lot of excitement and tension, about every emotion you can feel you felt here. It's great to be back. I'm hoping that not only am I able to experience the joy of winning as a driver, but also this year the experience of winning as an owner. I think with Jimmy and the staff we have at Team Rahal, I think we have a good chance of doing so.

TOM BLATTLER: I want to introduce Jimmy, as well. Jimmy has raced at the speedway here six times, finished fourth twice, including this year, with Chip Ganassi Racing. JV, you mentioned earlier today this brings back a lot of memories yourself. Coming with Bobby and David is very special to you, as well.

JIMMY VASSER: Absolutely. I mean, having the opportunity to win this race is one of the most important things to me right now in my racing career, and certainly coming back with Bobby, former champion, and David Letterman, who is a native here and Indiana. You can tell when you speak to him about the Indianapolis 500, he has true passion in his eye for it. And to drive the Miller Lite car, it's a very recognized car, has a lot of great history in motor sports. I'm extremely proud to come and represent all those factions and be a part of the team. I think we're well positioned to win the race. But first, like Bob said in '93, you know what can happen. First you have to qualify. After spending all day yesterday at the shop in Columbus, chatting with the guys, seeing how the team has progressed over the years, I don't think -- I know that come May there isn't going to be another team that has a chance of wining this race. We have a lot of work ahead of us. Today we're beginning it.

TOM BLATTLER: Great. Let's now open it for questions.

Q. Bobby, the time you were away from Indy, it was a tumultuous time for Indy cars. How do you feel now being able to come back and have an experienced driver like Jimmy in your return to the speedway?

BOBBY RAHAL: We tried to come back the last couple years. I'm particularly thankful to Mike and everybody at Miller Brewing Company, John Bowlin, everyone, that we're back. It's because of their commitment to it that brings us here. Bob Mikulay, everybody at Miller. They all stepped up. This isn't an easy deal. As I've said earlier today, we come in here with our eyes wide open. We know that there's a challenge here, that this isn't a laydown by any means. We're going to have to be at our best to first qualify and then compete. It's great having that opportunity after all these years of trying. Then to bring Jimmy. I mean, I have to say when Scott Roembke and I, Mark Johnson, we talked about Kenny leaving, I just felt that Jimmy presented by far the best opportunity out there. This guy, I thought he was quick, he was smart, he knows how to win. Especially this place, I always felt this place was more of a mental exercise than it was a physical one because you're here so long and there's so many frustrations, so many ups and downs. You really have to keep your act together. That's tough to do. We're putting a lot of heat on Jimmy right now by saying all this stuff (laughter). But I think he was an automatic as far as I was concerned.

Q. Bringing the best of both series together, do you see that the race is now like an NFL-AFL rivalry?

BOBBY RAHAL: I think it's always had that opportunity, especially now with CART going toward the three and a half liter spec for the future. Anything we can do to allow the two -- I think the two sanctioning bodies, they each have tremendous strengths in their own respective ways. IRL is not going away. I don't think CART is going away. At least let's get a formula or format that allows the players, maybe if only once a year here at Indianapolis, who knows, maybe guys from the IRL will come to a CART race, vice versa. Let's at least get the format right so in the end open-wheel racing is a winner. I've said this for many years. We have to find a way to bring these two categories together in some way, shape or form. I think us coming here, just as Roger did last year, Chip before that, the three and a half liter engine, these are all steps in the right direction.

Q. Bobby, has there been any discussion or thought about possibly running the car in a race prior to the 500?

BOBBY RAHAL: Well, we've talked about it. I mean, I think first is to have a beneficial testing program. Sometimes races, you don't really get to test much. I think maybe the race is a good experience for -- would be a good experience for us just to see how everything works. Races are different than testing. But our first priority is to make sure that we have the best test possible. Right now we're not committed to going to anything other than the 500. But I think if we find that it would be beneficial to go to maybe one race, I think there's maybe only one we could do, then we have to look at it. Right now there's no commitment to do so.

Q. What about testing? Where do you plan on conducting those?

BOBBY RAHAL: I think obviously there's an Indy test next spring. More importantly, I think Homestead seems to be a pretty good place to test. There's a Fontana test. I don't think we're really going to be testing until January because we want to make sure that we test with what's going to be the right package for next year. Those won't be out for some time. We have to make sure we're not testing something that then we change dramatically and all that testing will have been for nothing.

Q. Bobby, go back, if you would, to 1986 and just talk about what that race meant to you. Talk about the team's return to Indy.

BOBBY RAHAL: They had the pace car out here from '86 with us today. I have to say, I have my pace car in sort of my car barn. I notice that there's a picture of me, Jim Trueman and Debi on the back of the thing going through turn one. You can't help but get emotional. It brings back a lot of things. It was a great day for all of us, some in different ways than others. To come back here, while I'll never appreciate that kind of satisfaction again, because obviously I've retired, I'm certainly interested in seeing how it is to be a winning owner. Hopefully this year.

Q. Jimmy, what kind of things can you learn from a team owner like Bobby Rahal and the championships that he won, all the racing experiences that he's had?

JIMMY VASSER: I've already learned a tremendous amount from Bobby. If you looked at my career, you might see some patterns or a lot of similarities between how Bobby conducts himself at the race meetings, how he runs his races. I've already learned quite a bit from watching him from afar, getting to know him a bit better. I'm sure that come race day, Bob and I are going to have a lot of talks before now and the beginning of the CART season, and the Indy 500. If there's anything he feels that I need to learn, I'm sure I'm going to hear about it.

Q. Bobby, can you tell us, will the car be entirely a Miller car? Will there be any Shell signage? Also, do you know what you'll be doing in terms of chassis and engines? Sounded from what you were saying about testing, you haven't made those decisions yet.

BOBBY RAHAL: Miller is the major sponsor of the car. I sense it will look -- I'm not sure if it will look like this year's car. That's up to the artists at Miller. It's only because of Miller that we're here at this stage. They've made a big commitment to us. You know, I think it will reflect that. Certainly we're hoping that Shell and some of our other sponsors will climb on board, as well. This is a Miller program. This is our tenth year together. I think it's a helluva way to kick off the tenth year. As far as engine/chassis combination, we haven't made our final decision. We've talked to everybody, as you might imagine. I guess a case could be made for every option that's out there. But I think in the next 14 days or so, we'll pretty much have it figured out.

Q. Bobby, if you were to do a race, would Phoenix be one you would consider highly or would you choose maybe another site?

BOBBY RAHAL: I think it's more a matter of what Jimmy could do. I don't know if it would make sense for us to have somebody in it that wasn't going to race it here. I think that's probably going to drive it more than anything. But having said that, because we haven't made a decision whether we're going to do one or not, until we cross that bridge, then we'll figure out just who. But I don't really see much point have somebody other than Jimmy driving the car.

Q. Could you give me an update on Buddy's situation?

BOBBY RAHAL: As you know, I'm a big Buddy Rice fan. We're working hard. It's tough right now. The economy is not helping us or anybody else, I suppose. But we hope to test Buddy soon. You know, I think, again, our feelings about Buddy's capabilities have not changed. We're just trying to find the wherewithal to give him his opportunity.

Q. Is he under contract for next year still?

BOBBY RAHAL: No, he's not.

Q. Jimmy, given that you're the guy who has the most experience with the IRL package, what sort of input will you have in the decision making on the technical package; and sort of on a bigger basis, given your experience there the past couple years, what do you think you can bring to the program?

JIMMY VASSER: I think the decision-making process and choosing the package is well down the road. I have been in the loop. Certainly I won't have all the influence. It seems to me in my short time with the team, Bobby and the management to seem to tap into all the likely sources, the guys that might have some good input. I will say this. I'll be a hundred percent confident that whatever decision is made on chassis and engine, it will be what's in the best interest of the team for us to win the race. I think that will be forthcoming here in the next few weeks. You know, I like to think I can bring something to the effort, for sure - at least my abilities to drive the car well. In the last two years I've had some experience. I've said to the guys in an engineering meeting yesterday, I've said it before, there's a lot more similarities between the IRL spec car and the cart car than there are differences. So I think that Team Rahal's success, primarily on the super speedways, it's been phenomenal the last few years, is going to be advantageous to us here when we come to the speedway.

Q. Jimmy, after winning a cart championship and winning a number of races in CART competition, how important is it to be competitive and have a chance to win the Indy 500? Can you put a bit of perspective on where the Indy 500 ranks among the races you have competed in and won?

JIMMY VASSER: Well, I mean, it's important to be competitive not only in the Indy 500 but in CART. Anything short of me winning the championship and the Indy 500 for Team Rahal next year is really a failure. We're not coming to do it for fun or make the show. We realize first we have to qualify. The goals are to win. I think there will be disappointment throughout the shop if we don't achieve those goals. I think we all feel we're extremely capable of doing that.

Q. Bobby, do you still hope to run a second car at Indy? If so, when will you have made that decision?

BOBBY RAHAL: We're entertaining it. Funding is going to be the big issue, particularly now when you look, the bar day to day is being raised here, with Penske coming last year, Chip the year before that, John Barnes' team is quite good, John Menard and Tom Kelly. These guys run professional outfits. The bar is being raised every day. I think the resources are that are going to be necessary to compete effectively are just becoming greater and greater. You know, that's going to be the big issue for us. I mean, I think we have some opportunities. It's not done yet. It would probably make some sense for us to run a second car. But the biggest thing I'm not going to do is do anything to harm or to put at risk this effort, which is our effort with Jimmy. That's first and foremost. If we get the right kind of support, we have the right guy to drive it, then great, let's run two cars. That's all the better for the team. Until then, it's a one-car deal.

Q. At this point is that kind of how you're looking at your Champ car, as well?

BOBBY RAHAL: Actually, I'm feeling more optimistic about that. It's not done. If as I said to someone today, if I was a betting man, it's better than 50/50. We're working hard to get that done as soon as we can. As I say, though, it's not done yet. But things are progressing.

Q. Bobby, you talked about the packages. Kind of sounded like maybe you might be laying off to see what Chevy comes up with in a few weeks. Have you considered, I know Roger and probably Morris Nunn and Tom Kelly are kind of working together with the Ilmor guys to develop that engine. Would you consider being part of that?

BOBBY RAHAL: I think we've certainly met with not everybody, but the major players on the engine front. I believe Nissan is going to make a big effort. That's certainly at least what you hear. During this year it looked like especially on the big tracks they were pretty competitive. They've obviously made great strides with Walkinshaw coming in there now to do those engines, there's a lot of smart people at QWR. You have to look at that. Ilmor is certainly one option, but there are others. I think we have -- I don't want to say you're going to throw a dart at the dart board because the choice is close. You can make the choice for any one combination. I suspect, as Jimmy said, we're well down the line. I think in the next 14 days we're going to pretty much know where we're going.

Q. Is this an effort that's going to be entirely in-house?

BOBBY RAHAL: Yes. We looked at that last year as was that a way for us to get here, like a joint venture, similar to what Barry did last year. I guess we have a pretty good group of people back in Columbus. I think you have to run a separate organization. I don't think you can take your CART guys and put them onto the IRL, Indy 500 program. You might be able to take a couple, but I think you really have to devote the resources for an independent team. As a result, I guess I feel in the end we needed to make sure it was our deal. We may try to bring people in who have expertise and experience on the IRL side. For the most part, this is a Team Rahal program.

Q. Are there key people who have worked with Team Rahal over the past few years who will be specifically involved in this? I'm talking crew guys.

BOBBY RAHAL: Well, I think Mark has been given the task of forming the team, Mark Johnson. But certainly we've got some good people, especially on the engineering side. Tim Reiter from an engineering standpoint will probably play a big role here. I don't think the actual people as far as who is going to go where has actually been decided at this stage.

Q. Jimmy, not to be a pessimist here, but say it looks like a single-car effort for both Indianapolis and for Champ cars with CART. Can you talk about some of the adjustments you'll have to make? The advantages of running two cars have been well-documented. What about running a single car in both series if that comes to pass?

JIMMY VASSER: It's not a problem at all. I think we take the situations we're in and we move forward. Sometimes a two-car team can also be a disadvantage. I'm the guy who thinks the glass is half full. Either situation that we're faced with, we're still capable of achieving the goals. I think that's, number one, to win the CART championship, and number two, to win the Indianapolis 500, as well. While we are striving to probably run two cars in each scenario, in my personal opinion it's not that much of a disadvantage, if at all, if we have to function with a one-car effort. I mean, after all, Bobby won the championship in '92 with a one-car effort. There's many examples of success there.

Q. Will you be announcing the package in January?

BOBBY RAHAL: I think we'll probably announce it prior to January. I think probably mid December we should have it pretty well sorted out.

Q. Bob, when we were talking about Phoenix, you mentioned if anybody should drive it, it's going to be Jimmy. There's no conflict on the schedule with that race.

BOBBY RAHAL: I don't have the schedule in front of me. You know, last year Penske went there. I don't know how much good it did him. He won the race, but I don't know if that was because of Phoenix or that was because they did a lot of work. I think Fontana is a non-conflicting event, too. I really don't know. As I say, we haven't made a decision one way or the other yet whether we're going to do a race prior to the 500. But certainly if Phoenix wasn't a conflict, and if we did decide to go forth and do a race prior to the 500, you'd have to sit there and give it strong consideration.

Q. Bobby, have you considered possibly running the Triple Crown 500 at some stage, maybe not this year, maybe the year after?

BOBBY RAHAL: Can't say I have. Can't say that I have.

Q. Do you have a definite timetable for the rest of your announcement for what you're going to do in CART this year and possibly next year?

BOBBY RAHAL: Well, I mean, obviously I would hope it's put together sooner rather than later. But I don't have a specific time. I mean, obviously at some point in time it's too late. As I've said, I'm feeling a little more optimistic as of late. You know, I don't think it's going to be in the next two weeks, but by year's end perhaps.

Q. What do you think about the new engine formula? Do you think on that side of the issue your car is going to be able to find a manufacturer that will supply engines?

BOBBY RAHAL: I think it's the right thing to do. I was a big proponent of it, A. B, I think there are engine manufacturers that are ready to participate. I guess I'm not worried about engines being available. If you own the engines, I guess you can pretty much take them wherever they go. It's up to you. Obviously I've been reading all the things about Toyota. I think the rules are going to be very similar. They should be. I'm very much in support of that. The economic realities are going to force the issue more than anything else. The economy itself, the whole world economy, US economy, is having a big effect on motor sport right now. For all its success, NASCAR is losing sponsors and teams. We don't live in a bubble. We're not immune to outside forces. We have to respond to them. I believe anything we can do, as I said a year ago, to enhance open-wheel racing, we ought to do it.

Q. Are you happy to be back home, away from Formula 1?

BOBBY RAHAL: I had lunch the other day with Steve Nichols, really the main engineering guys, Mark Hanford. We became friends over the year. I certainly miss the creative, technical side of the situation. But that's about all I miss.

Q. As you know, Roger is expected to maybe announce he's going to move to the IRL. If that happens, a negative impact on CART? How much of an impact do you see?

BOBBY RAHAL: I mean, Roger Penske is obviously an icon in the sport. I'm not sure one man's bigger than a series. I understand the issues that potentially are driving him that way. The tobacco ruling has caused people to choose sides. The fact that Roger is on the board of ISC. There's a lot of reasons I suppose that are creating it. Hopefully Roger will do both. There's no reason we couldn't do both in the future. I think if you get the engine rules the same, the chassis rules relatively the same, I think you'd like to have a little more freedom to do some things. If we can get it where you can compete reasonably in both, why not. It just benefits both. As I've said, and Roger has said for many years, there are others, Chip, that we have to figure out a way to make it easy to grow open-wheel racing. It's obvious having two separate organizations isn't getting it done.

Q. If the engines are very similar, are the chassis interchangeable or would you have to have different chassis?

BOBBY RAHAL: For me, I'm a believer that we should adopt -- they're so close anyway. What you read about the 2003 IRL chassis, they're going to have a real proper gearbox now, sequential. I don't think there's much between them, to be honest. They have some regulations about wing angles and things like that for their circuits. If you look at the cars, the specs just kind of start driving everything by themselves towards one look. Why not? I think what makes a difference is one is on road courses and one is on ovals. The two are legitimate. The two venues are legitimate. As I said, if the rules are close to the same so you can show up here at Indy every May and duke it out, why not?

Q. Jimmy, since you've done it the last couple years doing Indy, Bobby has said doing another IRL race may depend on what you can do, if Bobby were to come to you, would you want to do another IRL race prior to Indy? If so, which one?

JIMMY VASSER: It's not a matter of want or desire or can do. I think I'm a member of this race team. We've got things that we need to do. We have a lot of work to do to prepare for the CART season. We've got four test days I've seen on the calendar already here at Indianapolis with the IRL program with the Miller car. I think if we feel it's necessary for the effort, and there's no conflicts with the parallel program that's going to go on with the CART thing, then I think certainly we'll make a decision that's in the best interest of the effort. We'll have to make those decisions down the road. I think we probably can do anything we want to do. It is going to be a matter of necessity and what we feel we need to do.

TOM BLATTLER: At this point we'll wrap it up. We want to thank everybody for joining us today.



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