CART Media Conference
MERRILL CAIN: Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining us today on this week's CART media teleconference. I'm Merrill Cain with CART public relations. We're excited to welcome to the call the latest winner in the CART FedEx Championship Series, Mario Dominguez, driver of the #55 Herdez Ford-Lola Bridgestone, who earned his first ever Champ car win last Sunday. Adrian Fernandez of Fernandez Racing, who was injured in the spectacular first-lap accident on Sunday, will be joining us a bit later. First off, let's welcome in Mario Dominguez. Thanks for joining us this afternoon.
MARIO DOMINGUEZ: Thanks for having me.
MERRILL CAIN: On Sunday Mario virtually locked up the Jim Trueman Rookie-of-the-Year award by playing the pit window perfectly in the rain-shortened race, capturing the checkered flag in front of a wet and lively crowd in Australia's Gold Coast. Has the reality of your first win in Champ cars really sunk in yet?
MARIO DOMINGUEZ: It was a very, very good win for the team. The reality hasn't really sunk in. It was a very well-deserved win by the team because not only did they fix that car after the big crash at the beginning, but they had a wonderful strategy in the pits. Just very excited, very happy for the whole team. I think this is what we needed to cheer us up. We've had all the bad breaks this year. Finally a very good one came back. We got paid back. Somebody up there was looking over us. I'm just happy about that. It's just something that we needed, that the sponsors needed. Herdez has been working for many years to get a result like this. I'm happy that I gave it to them. Del Via has been a supportive company, Corona and Tele Visa. They're very happy about it. Now we have to keep on working hard and focus on getting good results.
MERRILL CAIN: You mentioned you were involved in that first-lap accident, the one that took out Adrian Fernandez and Toranosuke Takagi, as well. They had to be transported to the hospital. How tough was it to get through that first lap accident, the conditions you experienced, and talk about the effort of the team to get the car back into the race? What went into that strategy that ultimately wound up with you claiming your first victory in CART?
MARIO DOMINGUEZ: Well, first of all, after that crash, I was very worried about all the drivers. I was hoping that everyone was going to be okay. Once I found out that, yes, the injuries were not severe, everyone was going to be already, I felt relieved. I think all the spectators, all the teams, all the drivers were relieved that nothing bad had happened. Then I was just worried. I never thought my team was going to be able to get the car ready for the race. I was just very frustrated at that moment, that I was not going to be able to race. You work so hard all year. You go all the way to Australia, and not even be able to race. I could not describe to you how bad I was feeling. My team put it together. They fixed the car. They fixed it perfectly. I was so happy when I knew I was going to be able to race again, you wouldn't believe it. Then to win it, I mean, that's just unbelievable. The whole strategy was fantastic. It was a very good gamble by Joe, the team strategist, but it paid off. We just stretched and stretched our pit window at the beginning. It was just a wonderful thing to come in first. It was obviously a tough race. In the end, somebody had to be there. Who better than us?
MERRILL CAIN: We'll take some questions from the media.
Q. This is excellent you finally have won a race here. The monkey on your back is gone here. For a while, there's going to be some folks out there who are going to say there is a little asterisk next to this win because it was wet, controversy over the finish, pit window. That's all water under the bridge. Is there any additional pressure on you in your own mind that you need to get out there and win another one where there isn't the rain, all the controversy?
MARIO DOMINGUEZ: Well, of course, no question, this win was - I've always said it - more a team win than me. My driving didn't play a huge part in it. It was just team strategy. It was a wonderful team for us. But there's always been pressure for me to perform and to win races. Yeah, sure, I want to get out there and prove myself. I want to get out there in Fontana and have another win, have a very good result. I'm looking forward to this race, for the next challenge. But obviously and definitely, this is the kind of result that will cheer us up and totally lift our spirits.
Q. Some drivers have been critical of the rule where there's a mandatory pit window in a race. What is your opinion? Should CART get rid of this mandatory pit window or refine it?
MARIO DOMINGUEZ: The reason they did it is because before people were winning races by saving fuel, by running really slow throughout the whole race. It would be a similar circumstance to the way I won this race in Australia, being very lucky. So what CART wants is for the drivers to go out there and drive 100% every single lap of the race. They shortened the pit windows, that way nobody will be saving fuel. You drive as hard as you can all the time. This going slow, saving fuel strategies, those kind of things, don't play such a big part. In the end, nobody is ever happy with everything. You can't have everybody happy. I think this has been better for the show, no question about it. The CART races this year have been better. All the drivers think it's better. It's completely different to be driving 100% than driving not 100%, saving fuel, shortshifting, doing things like that in order to win by another strategy. It's much better when you win by driving 100%.
Q. You have to be excited about finishing in Mexico City.
MARIO DOMINGUEZ: Finishing the season in Mexico City is the best thing that could ever happen to us. Looking forward to that race. It's going to be fantastic. I think that track is the best in the CART series. The facilities are state-of-the-art. The track is just beautiful. It's perfect. One of the most beautiful racetracks in the world. We're expecting 400,000 people for the weekend. It's going to be a wonderful event to finish the season.
Q. When you look back at the way the weekend unfolded, was there ever any thought that you might walk away a winner?
MARIO DOMINGUEZ: To every race we get to, we always walk with the hopes and ideas of trying to win it. But to tell you the truth, I've been so unlucky this year, I've had so many bad breaks, and Friday didn't begin too well. I had a crash, sure enough I hit exactly the wrong spot on the track where the car was badly damaged, so I had to go to the spare car. During the race, I never, never expected that I was going to be able to win it because of all the bad luck I had this year. I thought, if somebody is going to get the lucky break, it's not going to be me. What goes around comes around. Like I said, I think somebody up there was looking over us. All the effort, all the hard work that's been put into this by the sponsors, by the team, by the guys, the engineers, myself, finally paid off. It was a good break, a lucky break. But we made our luck in this race, so it was good.
Q. Is it almost appropriate that you guys would win the way that you did? If it was basically a speed win, everybody says the driver wins. Now everybody can truly say the team won.
MARIO DOMINGUEZ: Of course, the team won. Even in other races, the team is a big part of it. I would be like a quarterback in a football team. I cannot do it by myself. I need everybody around me working and helping me out. Unfortunately, motorsports sometimes is a bit unfair because people only get to see the driver in the race on the TV, but they don't see the days, hours, weeks and months of hard work that the mechanics, the engineers, designers, everybody puts into a race weekend. It's just unbelievable. Like I said, this team was very motivated. We needed a result like this to cheer us up and to lift us because there had been a lot of hard work and no payback. Like I said, we have had all the bad luck breaks. Finally we have a good one.
Q. Lot of phone calls from home?
MARIO DOMINGUEZ: You won't believe it. I've been doing interview after interview, even from Australia. People call me at 4 in the morning for interviews here and there. Right now as I've been talking on the phone for this little time, I've probably gotten five calls on my phone for interviews in Mexico.
Q. Nice to be popular.
MARIO DOMINGUEZ: It's good. Everybody in Mexico is happy. It's definitely a win for Mexico. Luck was on our side this time.
Q. It was a great character-building weekend. How do you feel about it?
MARIO DOMINGUEZ: It was great. As you say, it was character building. We had a hard crash on Friday. We just had a tough weekend, then the crash at the beginning of the race. I just felt so bad. All of a sudden we come away with a win. It's just an unbelievable turn of emotions. I'm just so happy for the team and for myself and for the sponsors. Really, there was a lot of need for a result like this.
Q. I had somebody describe the race weekend as somewhat akin to world rallye competition, survival of the fittest.
MARIO DOMINGUEZ: It was unbelievable. You wouldn't believe how hard it was to drive under those yellow flag conditions. It was hard. First of all, you couldn't see anything. It was raining so hard, the car was floating around, it was slippery. Cristiano da Matta spun under yellow flag conditions. That shows you how hard it was out there. He's the best driver, and he spun.
Q. Talk about Fontana. How do you adjust to the change to a Superspeedway?
MARIO DOMINGUEZ: Looking forward to it. It's a Superspeedway. The team has a very good oval setup. Tom Brown is a very good engineer on ovals. We've been fast on ovals. One of our best results were in Japan, that very fast oval there. We were fourth place with 10 laps to go. Unfortunately, got taken away. This race in Fontana is something we've been looking forward to. It's just nice to know when I'm going to get to that track, my car is going to be fast. We've been looking forward for months.
Q. Merrill, under the previous rules, before the mandatory pit stops came into effect, it seems to me there was a limitation on the amount of fuel that was given to each race team during a race, whereas now we have unlimited fuel. Is that correct?
MERRILL CAIN: That's correct.
Q. Everybody talked about the race, how surprised you were. Can you fill us in on some of the background of how you came to get to CART, where you started in Mexico, what series, where you've run, how you feel that's prepared you for this?
MARIO DOMINGUEZ: Well, I tell you, my way to CART has not been easy. I started racing 16 years ago when I was 10 years old. I started racing go-karts. I was three times national champion there. Then I won a scholarship to go run the Formula Russell Mazda in California. I won the championship there back in '92. I got a chance to drive one Indy Lights race back then. From then on, it's just been a struggle. I've been driving for different various teams in Mexico, very low-budget teams, Formula 3, Formula 2, all kinds of racing in Mexico. I was able to get wins here and there, but obviously not all the time. The teams were under-budgeted. Finally in '96, Herdez Competition, which was really the best racing team in Mexico, it would be like racing for Team Newman/Haas in CART this year, that's the way Herdez Competition was in Mexico then. They hired me to race Formula 3000. Right away I started winning with them. We won the Formula 3 championship in '98. They took me to Indy Lights. We won our first race there, then ran two years for a Mexican team. Then ran for PacWest last year in Indy Lights. Had a few podiums, a couple pole positions, decent season overall. I did a test two years ago with team Herdez Competition in Sebring in the Champ cars. The test went very well. I was very fast. Team was very happy with me. Last year I got the best call of my life where they said they were thinking of putting me in the car this year. It's been a struggle, to say the least. I could definitely write a book about it.
Q. Looking ahead to Fontana, how have you prepared for it? You haven't been on a high-speed oval this year. Any way that you prepared for this or practiced for it?
MARIO DOMINGUEZ: Well, not really. Actually we get about half an hour of practice in the morning on Friday. That's the only way you get prepared for it. Believe me, Japan was very high-speed oval, and so was England. It would be something similar to it. It won't be that different.
Q. You're going to be probably going 25, 30 miles an hour quicker.
MARIO DOMINGUEZ: I think in Japan we were having a top speed of 218, if memory serves me right. I think it will be like 230. It will be quicker. At that speed, 10, 20 miles an hour is a lot.
MERRILL CAIN: You talked about how much of a team win this was, how everybody in the team had a hand in it. That certainly has to feel good. The team was formerly Bettenhausen Motorsports. What does this mean to the Bettenhausen family? A long struggle with this team to get to the point it's gotten. What do you think it means to them as they sit back and watch you take the checkered flag?
MARIO DOMINGUEZ: Well, the team is now Herdez Competition. I had the opportunity to meet Tony Bettenhausen a few years back when they were negotiating for having Herdez come on board as a sponsor. Michel Jourdain was the driver. I tell you, it's one of the nicest persons, human beings, I've ever met. Himself, his family, Larry his friend that unfortunately passed away on the plane. They were all unbelievable, so nice, such big hearts. I was definitely thinking of him that night after that win. It was something that I knew he'd be happy about because he started this team many years ago. It's his legacy. It's something that Tom Brown and I were talking about yesterday about him. I think Tony Bettenhausen will definitely be happy to know that the team that he started won a race. I'm happy to be the driver of that one for this team, their first race, and also the sponsors in Mexico. Team Herdez has been sponsoring this effort for many years, I think since 1994, Champ cars, they started out with Carlos. I'm just so happy I was the one that gave them their first win.
MERRILL CAIN: Ford had a 1-2 sweep. Great performance from the Ford-Cosworth engine, you taking first, Patrick Carpentier taking second. Talk about the Ford engine, and your thoughts next year when Cosworth will be the exclusive engine supplier.
MARIO DOMINGUEZ: I enjoyed working with Ford very much this year. Not only with the engine, they're just a wonderful company. They've been very supportive of me. Not to mention that I got a Ford Expedition from them. I love that car. I drive it in Indianapolis. Next year I think it will be great that all the cars will be running Ford-Cosworth. It's just going to be more and more competitive, a much more reliable series. It will be very good. It's a quality engine that you need for a series such as CART.
MERRILL CAIN: You made a comment post race about the fans in Australia, how it said so much about them that they stuck through the rain. Over 100,000 fans were on-site on Sunday. Many of them stayed till the very end. Talk about that. You said it was probably the best fans you'd ever seen.
MARIO DOMINGUEZ: I think they're the best fans I've seen really. It's unbelievable. That race is so huge in Australia, you won't believe it. It's just like a huge festival. The whole week, ever since I got there on Sunday, it was like a party. The fans stuck through the rain. They stayed there. They're just excited about it. They love the racing. They love their motorsports. They love the whole Champ car weekend there. It's a wonderful event in Australia. I was told it was huge, but I never expected anything like it. The enthusiasm they have is just amazing. You should see, in between the practice of the cars, they have like shows on the tracks, motorcycles, planes flying over doing air shows, fighter planes. They really know how to put on a show down there. They have bars inside the racetrack. People are partying, dancing. It's just like a huge festival. It's like a big party. I'd like to go and watch the race one of these days and just have fun.
MERRILL CAIN: Won't get away with that as defending champ next year.
MARIO DOMINGUEZ: Not next year. In a few years when I retire, I'll definitely go watch Australia and enjoy it.
MERRILL CAIN: Mario, congratulations. Great win for you and your team at the Honda Indy 300. See you this weekend at California Speedway.
MARIO DOMINGUEZ: Thank you very much. See you this weekend.
MERRILL CAIN: We now welcome Adrian Fernandez, owner of Fernandez Racing, driver of the #51 Tecate Quaker State Telmex Honda/Lola/Bridgestone. He was injured in the opening lap of the Honda Indy 300 and suffered two minor thoracic fractures in his neck as a result of the crash. Adrian will miss this Sunday's CART race at California Speedway, and his status is still in doubt for the final race in Mexico City, a race important to Adrian. How are you feeling and do you think there is a chance that you'll be able to compete in Mexico City in a few weeks?
ADRIAN FERNANDEZ: I don't feel good. I feel pretty stiff. I have a broken neck. The chances of racing in Mexico right now we don't know. It's just a matter of waiting for Terry, for the doctors to see what's going to happen.
MERRILL CAIN: Talk to us about the accident itself. You were involved in a pretty serious one earlier this year in Vancouver that resulted in basically a hairline fracture of the hip. Can you talk about it? Do you feel any ill effects from that injury still? Was this one of the worst crashes you've been in? It looked to the naked eye like one of the worst crashes we've seen in recent history.
ADRIAN FERNANDEZ: It was pretty bad. It was unfortunate because it was something that could have been avoided. We never should have started this race, that's for one. Basically when Mario hit Takagi, he launched him into the air, and basically Takagi landed on top of my head. That's basically when he fractured my two vertebras, T2 and T3. That was one of the most serious accidents. Vancouver was also very serious. It was just unfortunate. Like I say, when we start the race, I could not see absolutely nothing. I couldn't see the racetrack. I could not see the grandstands, the walls, anything. It was absolutely stupid to start this race, to be honest.
MERRILL CAIN: Mother Nature didn't do us any favors over the weekend.
ADRIAN FERNANDEZ: No.
MERRILL CAIN: Max Papis will be stepping into the car to replace you this weekend in Fontana. You raced Max earlier in the year when you were injured at Mid-Ohio. Talk about Max and what he brings to the table.
ADRIAN FERNANDEZ: Max has been with us in Mid-Ohio. He's a good driver. He has a lot of experience. It was the logical choice for us to get him back into the car, which he's going to be working again with his engineers like he was working at the beginning of the year, which is Dave Watson. He will feel like at home. He's very experienced in this type of track. I feel pretty confident he will do a very good job for us.
MERRILL CAIN: We want to see if there's any quick questions for you.
Q. Has there ever been another period in your racing career where you've had so much bad luck in terms of injuries?
ADRIAN FERNANDEZ: No, not really, not really. It's unfortunate because these accidents, I've been a victim of bad situations. Things happen sometimes in life like that. There's nothing you can do. I mean, I just could not believe, there's so many cars out on the track, the only one that this car is flying on top of is mine. Just one of those things. Really destroyed my steering wheel. Very close to having my head taken off my body, it was so close. I've never been so unlucky in this type of event. It's just how it goes sometimes. We just have to keep doing our best. Hopefully next year will be a little bit cleaner.
Q. It might be a good time to bring up the point, with you guys being in such great physical condition, I think anybody who wasn't in such good physical shape probably would still be recovering from the crash in Vancouver. The fact that you are in such good shape, that is really going to speed along your recovery.
ADRIAN FERNANDEZ: Absolutely. That really helps lot. That helped me in all my injuries, when I broke my wrist, when I broke my hip. It's something that definitely helps. I hope that type of thing will help me so I can race in Mexico.
Q. What was going through your mind when you realized what was happening?
ADRIAN FERNANDEZ: Well, as soon as we started the race, I said we're in trouble, because we could not see anything. Visibility was absolutely zero. I was pretty afraid that I was going to hit somebody or somebody was going to hit me. Eventually that's what happened, somebody hit me. Jimmy hit me. Not his fault, it's just he couldn't see also. After that, it was just a matter of waiting. You just close your eyes and waiting. People hitting you, hitting you, hitting you. Suddenly, everything stopped on the track. For a while, nothing happened. Then I heard that apparently Mario was like two, three seconds behind, suddenly he was the last guy to hit. When he hit, apparently he hit pretty hard. He was coming a pretty good speed. He hit pretty hard Tora. As soon as he hit him, he broke his hip. Tora went and landed on top of my head. That moment, to see him, when he was in the air, landing on my head, it was a very scary moment because I could see that it was at a bad angle. His roll bar was really hitting my face. For a moment, I thought I was not going to be able to survive this one.
Q. Talking about Max, once again you have reached out to him. Any chance of putting Max in another car within your stable for next season?
ADRIAN FERNANDEZ: Right now we're working on several things. Max is obviously one of our top priorities. If there is something we can do, definitely we will put Max in the series. Max I think is somebody we need in the series. That's why we considered him to replace us again this weekend. He's a guy that has a lot of experience, has a good name. It would be a good asset to keep him in CART definitely.
MERRILL CAIN: We want to clarify, Toranosuke Takagi was the other driver injured in the first lap accident. He suffered two small fractures of the pelvis. It is hopeful he'll be able to compete this weekend. A testament to the shape you are in and the safety, the ability to protect you in the cars as best we can. We will see you in Fontana this weekend.
ADRIAN FERNANDEZ: I'll be there all weekend.
MERRILL CAIN: Looking forward to seeing you. Thanks for joining us today. We wish you well in your recovery.
ADRIAN FERNANDEZ: Thank you.
MERRILL CAIN: We thank for Mario Dominguez and Adrian Fernandez. CART will return to the track this weekend with the 500 presented by Toyota at California Speedway. The race will be carried live on the SPEED Channel with coverage beginning at 3:30 p.m. eastern time. Thanks to all who participated in today's phone call and have a great afternoon.
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