Indy Racing League Media Conference
Topics: Indy Racing League
MODERATOR: We'll get started today with our final scheduled press conference of the today. We've assembled a group of IndyCar Series drivers that we call our veterans, although some of them are new to the IndyCar Series. We had a group of young guns earlier, the new generation coming up. We look at these guys as the ones that established themselves in motorsports with race victories and championships. That's the reason that we chose this group of drivers for this press conference. We'll start with taking comments from each one of them, then open it up to questions from the media. Starting at the far end, we with Gil de Ferran. Gil, if you could start us off by talking about the return to the IndyCar Series. This is not a new series to you, unlike some of the drivers up here. Tell us how that benefits you, having participated in the series in the past.
GIL de FERRAN: I'm not sure I understand your question. I'm sorry.
MODERATOR: Just tell us about having been in the IndyCar Series in the past. Do you think you have an advantage over maybe some of these guys who it's their first year in the series?
GIL de FERRAN: Oh, now I understand. Sorry about that. I'm a bit slow today. Still maybe the accident, hitting the head (laughter). Well, it's really hard to comment how the same experience affects different people. All I can say is that as far as we are concerned, having gone through the experience of doing a whole championship, going through every race, having made mistakes, having made good choices and bad choices, we feel like we're going into the 2003 season with a lot more knowledge than what we had going into the 2002 season. That's always good because you feel like you learn something, you got a little more experience, your judgment is slightly more polished and refined, you know the requirements slightly better. I guess if you're going into the first season, that's the disadvantage you have. I mean, these guys here need no introduction. I'm sure they will get up to speed fairly quickly.
MODERATOR: We'll move on to Jaques Lazier. He drives for Team Menard. Jaques, you're coming back from a year where you experienced a pretty severe injury, so this will be your first time back in the car really for a full-time race season. Can you talk to us about your health, and how does that prepare you for the season or what are you doing differently since you haven't been in the car in a while?
JACQUES LAZIER: I think the biggest thing has just been the off-season and the rehab that I've had to go through. It's been pretty extensive. I fractured my T11, T12 and L1 vertebras. I actually had a star burst fracture of the T12, which basically shattered and blew out. The rehab has been pretty long and brutal, so I'm very excited to be back at the racetrack. I feel stronger than I did before. I'm actually very excited to be here, be a part of the Johns-Manville Team Menard and represent Chevrolet.
MODERATOR: We have Robbie Buhl, who has been in the IndyCar Series for quite time with Dreyer & Reinbold. He represents both the owner and driver angle. Talk to us about preparing during the off-season. We know there's been a lot of talk about the second car with Sarah Fisher, we heard from her earlier today. Tell us about the driver aspect, how that differs from the owner aspect during the off-season?
ROBBIE BUHL: You have to wear a couple hats, but it's all for the same end. Last year we had a tough year from a liability standpoint. We're excited last year is over, and we're concentrating on this year. We're excited to have Chevy power, all our same sponsors are back, Dial and (inaudible) are back with us. We're working hard, like you said, to put a car together for Sarah this year. She'll be here running this weekend, and Phoenix, as well, for the open test. Hopefully we'll get things all finished up on her car and focus on the whole year.
MODERATOR: Next we have Michael Andretti. Michael, you also represent the owner factor. The first year for you as an owner. Talk to us about the owner aspect, how you feel about that, if you're getting comfortable in that role, then secondly tell us about your decision to retire after the Indianapolis 500.
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: I guess I need to talk to him a little bit. I'm a bit of a rookie at this, being an owner/driver. I'm very excited about it. It couldn't have come together any better. I'm so excited to have guys like Dario and Tony and Dan coming on as drivers for us, the great sponsors we've been able to put together, our partnership with Honda. For a first time coming in as an owner, I don't think I could do it any better. I'm so excited about that. I can't wait to get out there and be able to show what we got because I think we have a really good program this year. As for my retirement, basically I just felt like the ownership is going to take away a little bit from what I can do on the racetrack. I don't want to be out there not knowing that I'm giving 110% on the racetrack. I just felt it's not fair to my driving to do that, or the team. I felt that timing would be that I'll retire after Indianapolis because I still want to have one more last shot as trying to win Indianapolis. We came up with this plan. Actually, I was still contemplating what I was going to do up until a few weeks ago. Finally I came to a decision that I just felt like it wasn't fair to the team to do both, so I chose to go with the ownership role because that's where I feel my future is in racing.
MODERATOR: Tony Kanaan is our next speaker. A teammate with Team 7-Eleven and Michael Andretti. Talk to us about the IndyCar Series and what your thoughts are on the competition level. Obviously, your teammates are going to be competitive, people are speculating. What about racing against your teammates as well as the other competition in the league?
TONY KANAAN: I had a taste a little bit in Indianapolis last year how competitive this series is. Once I got the call from Michael to be part of his team, obviously it was a pleasure. It was a good mix together. You can have a competitive team and people that you like a lot to work with. Between me and Dario, the relationship, we've been good friends for a long time. Michael, I always got a lot of respect for him. We had good battles in the past in some of the races. I think that's probably what makes him think about me driving for him. Dan is coming on board, as well. The team, like he said, was all coming together so well that I couldn't make a better decision about the series. The results, they speak for themselves. The races that these guys had last year was awesome. So close, I was watching and getting excited. Sometimes I would flip the channel just because I didn't want to see what was going to happen in the last lap. It was like getting my heartbeat up. I'm really excited. I think it's going to be a very good year for all of us. The series is growing so much. Now the competition is going to be even higher.
MODERATOR: Scott Sharp with Kelley Racing. Scott, your team has had a lot of changes, you have changed a lot on the mechanic end, but overall it's still a consistent organization, still Kelley Racing. How does that help you coming into the season having the same team, sponsors, teammates?
SCOTT SHARP: I think we're really excited to be with Toyota. Made a big step up, being able to consummate that relationship. I think we had Steve that came on and consulted with us a fair amount last year, and him and Tom decided at the end of last season to make a lot of changes. 50% of the personnel is new. Probably (inaudible)% of my car is new. Hopefully what we've learned over the last couple seasons can help springboard us for this year. There's places we ran really well; there's places we can improve on. Hopefully that can provide the areas we need to concentrate on.
MODERATOR: Dario Franchitti, also with the Andretti Green Racing group. This is your first year in the IndyCar Series. Talk to us, like Tony did, about the competition level, what you're expecting from your teammates and the other drivers this year.
DARIO FRANCHITTI: First of all, I'm devastated to be included with the veterans here. Nothing against you guys (laughter). Doesn't seem a long time ago we were talking about rookies. The gray hair club - we're looking pretty good (laughter).
SPEAKER: Where is your suit?
DARIO FRANCHITTI: Ask my boss. I don't know.
SPEAKER: The budget has gone into his driving contract, not his suit.
DARIO FRANCHITTI: Yeah, as far as competition goes, I think the series was incredibly competitive last year. As Tony said, we watched a couple races at tracks on Saturday nights. Yeah, they were incredibly close. No one person went away and dominated the series. I think this season's going to be more of the same. I think with the inclusion of Honda and Toyota, the new teams that have come on board, as well, I think everything's just going to tighten up even more. I think to find any kind of advantage here is going to be very, very difficult. We're out there to win. That's what every one of us on the team is all about. We'll see what happens.
MODERATOR: At this time we'll turn it over to the journalists for questions.
Q. I hate to do this to you, Gil, but earlier today Helio was here.
GIL de FERRAN: I hope he was entertaining.
Q. He was asked about the fact that you are technical in your testing, how much you enjoy this. He said, "I just put my foot down and drive." Do you have any kind of response to him? Do you think it's better to be technical or it's better to be just intuitive or what?
GIL de FERRAN: I think everybody has got a different approach. All I can tell you about Helio is that he's a very serious professional. Even though he's got his happy-go-lucky demeanor, in a way he is happy-go-lucky, but he's a very serious professional, he's very dedicated, he's very studious. He thinks hard about what he does with his driving and with the car. Don't be fooled, that's what I'm saying (laughter). I mean, Helio is certainly one of the best professionals I ever came across. But everybody's got a little different approach. In the end of the day, you got to come up with the results. I don't care which road you take to get to Rome, you still got to get to Rome somehow, which is eventually you got to stick your foot to the floor and you got to do the time and hopefully win the races. Was that enlightening or what (laughter)?
Q. Jaques, give us your thoughts on coming back into a full season of racing after being off for quite a while.
JACQUES LAZIER: I'm actually very excited about being back for the full season. I had a lot of anticipation of what we're going to do this year. Obviously, everything was cut short last year. We were running fourth in the points when the accident happened. We had a real good test going into Indy before the accident. I feel like I'm really stronger than I was last year, more focused than I was last year, and I'm really excited to try to put together the 16 best races that I can and try to compete for a championship.
Q. What did you do to keep your support up when you were in rehab?
JACQUES LAZIER: Unfortunately, for the last month and a half, it was just sitting in bed. Lots of Nickelodeon. I did have a little three-month-old at the time. We watched about everything we could. From there, it was a lot of swimming, dedicated about four hours to swimming every day for the first month, and then from there it was back on to trying to retrain my body for endurance, lots of running, lots of weight training.
Q. How much support did Buddy give you?
JACQUES LAZIER: He went through a very similar accident. Obviously, his was a little lower down in the sacrum. But Buddy has always been extremely helpful with me through every stage of my career, able to help me with any kind of problems I had. The one thing about my brother, I have to go out of my way to ask for his help, and when I do he's always there 100% always willing to help.
Q. Jaques, you mentioned now a full season. Has that been confirmed with your team owner?
JACQUES LAZIER: It has not been officially confirmed. In my heart I feel that I will be Team Menard's driver for this year.
Q. Scott Sharp, can you talk about, elaborate on this competition? It seems to me like you've added about 30 to 40% more cars to the front mix, where last year you knew that the Panther car and the two Penske cars were going to be there, you added maybe one or two or three, maybe more in the race. Now you have about 10 cars in the final lap at most races being close. Can you talk about how much extra competition you feel like there is?
SCOTT SHARP: At least 10, I think. Probably the number is quite a bit higher than that. Obviously, we've gotten some great drivers, some great teams, people that you know are going to run at the front. In the same context, if you look at the last few years, anyone who's joined the series has come in and had to compete certainly among the top few drivers really hard to win. Obviously, what Panther Racing has done is a great testament to that. I think you combine that with how well the series drivers ran last year at Indy versus other people that came in the event. I think really just the base has grown. I think our high-bank tracks are just going to be incredible races this year, where you could have 15 to 17 cars all a couple tenths apart. I think that's the type of racing you're going to have at a lot of places.
Q. Dario, what do you expect from some of these high-banked venues? You've been a part of some great racing, no question, but this mile and a half experience has been something different in open-wheel racing.
DARIO FRANCHITTI: I'll have to get behind the wheel, then I can tell you a lot more about it.
Q. Did you change the channel like Tony did?
DARIO FRANCHITTI: No, no, I managed to keep viewing there. For sure, the races have been exciting. Like I say, I think for us up here, the only view that really matters for us is the one from the cockpit. Once I've done some laps in that position, I'll give you a better idea of what it feels like for me. There's no doubt it's going to be exciting.
Q. Robbie, because of your experience in the IndyCar Series, what are your thoughts on the race in Motegi, going to Japan? How important is that for IndyCar Series to go international?
ROBBIE BUHL: You have to look at who has been a long time series sponsor and supporter, Bridgestone, Firestone, now over there with having Honda and Toyota in the series. I've never been to Japan. I'm looking forward to it. When you look at the track, it looks like a challenging track. To talk to some of these guys that have run there, they say it is a challenging track from that standpoint. The facility is first class. I think it just falls in line with the type of tracks we've been running in the IRL. We're running at all these new venues being built in this country. To go to a first class one in Japan I think will be exciting.
Q. Michael, if you're winning the points battle after Indy, will you still retire?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: First person that asked me that was Dario. I said, "I hope to God I am," because that's the best way to go out, on top.
Q. Can you explain to us the situation, Dan Wheldon is with your team. Will he move into your car with 7-Eleven? Will he stay with his?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: What's going to happen is Dan is going to run Indianapolis. We're going to run four cars there. He's going to be driving the Klein Tools Jim Beam car. Then when I retire, he's going to take over my spot, but not in a 7-Eleven car, he's going to continue in the same car that he was driving with the Klein Tools and Jim Beam. 711 will be his number (laughter).
Q. Dario, we talked about you guys being veterans already. The Infiniti Pro Series obviously is a support series for the IndyCar Series. Do you guys ever get questions from the Infiniti Pro Series or even the IndyCar Series drivers that are rookies or the younger generation? Can anybody speak on that, maybe somebody you mentor?
TONY KANAAN: I ask Michael all the time what to do.
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: I have Dan Wheldon. I'm going to be definitely trying to help him in any way that I can. You're an old veteran. You don't need help. A guy like Dan is a rookie. He's going to need all the help he can get. First thing I'm going to do is keep these two away from him. I'll try to put him under a wing, try to help him out, try to speed up his learning curve a little bit with my experience hopefully.
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