Infiniti Pro Series: Futaba Freedom 100
Topics: Futaba Freedom 100
ASHLEIGH HIGGINS: Thank you all who are with us today for this call. As we look forward to the Futaba Freedom 100 May 22nd at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, we are joined by two guests from the IRL Menards Infiniti Pro Series. First off, we have three-time Indianapolis 500 starter and Menards Infiniti Pro Series team owner, Sam Schmidt. Sam Schmidt Motorsports has fielded entries in the Infiniti Pro Series since the series' inception and currently campaigns a two-car effort with drivers Thiago Medeiros and Arie Luyendyk Jr. Medeiros currently leads the Pro Series point standings as we head into the Futaba Freedom 100. A little later in the hour we'll be joined by Menards Infiniti Pro Series executive director Roger Bailey who will offer his thoughts on the IRL's official development series as the teams and drivers prepare for this weekend's premiere event. Sam, thanks for joining us today.
SAM SCHMIDT: No problem. Thank you, Ashleigh.
ASHLEIGH HIGGINS: Let's kick it off right away, your strong start to the season, your two drivers currently, one leads the points Thiago Medeiros, and Arie Luyendyk Jr. is fourth. Tell us about your goals heading into this season and more immediately as you head into the Futaba Freedom 100 this weekend.
SAM SCHMIDT: Well, as you said, we've been involved in the series since it started, and been really competitive since it started with kind of a lot of seconds and a lot of thirds. But it's not exactly simple for me to get around the country and travel as much as I have. We set some goals at the end of last season that we needed to do everything possible to win some races this year and put ourselves in a position to win the championship. We made some, you know, relatively minor personnel changes over the winter, you know, did some testing. I think we really kind of rounded out the program. We're seeing the results of that now with as good as we ran at Homestead and even feeling like we should have won that. But, you know, Phoenix, it all just kind of came together, one of those picture perfect weekends where everything just goes your way, and it wound up with the 1-2, which is the ultimate for a team. You know, going to the Freedom 100, obviously I would probably sacrifice our finish at Phoenix for the same type of result at the Freedom 100 because of where it's at. But, you know, we know all the other teams are gunning for us. We've been working really hard for the last six weeks and hopefully we can have a similar result there.
ASHLEIGH HIGGINS: Let's go ahead and open it up for questions for Sam.
Q. Are there any plans for you to possibly field a car in the 500?
SAM SCHMIDT: Why did I think somebody would ask that this morning (laughter)?
Q. Just thought I'd take a stab at it.
SAM SCHMIDT: Well, you know, I would think there's a similar probability to what we had last year. Obviously, it's important to have 33 cars in the 500. But at the same time, you know, we're focused on this week. We really have the cars to beat I think at the Freedom 100. That's kind of our short-term, you know, picture is that we really need to win that race. I think that will probably add to the motivation to do the Indy 500 thing. We're obviously talking to some people. There's a lot of rumors flying around. We'd love to do it, but we don't want to do it in a last-minute kind of unsatisfactory manner. If we can do something similar to what we did last year, then we'll do it. Otherwise, we'll just concentrate on the IPS deal.
Q. How much difference is there in running an IRL IndyCar Series team and the Pro Series team? Do you run them the same way?
SAM SCHMIDT: A few zeros, unfortunately (laughter). You know, I really enjoyed two and a half years of running an IRL team. I really enjoyed the strategy portion of it, the race environment, you know, everything else that comes along with that. I would say what I didn't enjoy was just the stress and the travel, the additional travel, and just the additional dollars. There's so much financial risk with the escalating costs, it just was really stressful. What I really like about our fit with the Infiniti Pro Series is that it is part of the ladder system to the Indy Racing League. I get drivers that have more of a clean sheet of paper to work with. Quite recently I understand the transition from a Formula 4 or Formula 2000 to VIPS to the IRL because I've done it. That's a lot of fun for me to be able to interact with drivers that are more or less sponges, whereas as an Indy Racing League team owner, by the time the drivers get there, they're already set in their ways, so to speak. I think this is actually a better fit for me, not only from a financial and sponsorship position, more from a quality of life for me, a little less travel and a little better fit as far as what I do with the team. We've got a great team now with the employees we have in place. Things are going quite smoothly. We really want to -- I guess ultimately I'd rather be the Penske of the IPS series than somebody in the mid-pack of the IRL. To add to the comment earlier, Indianapolis Motor Speedway is still the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I think we've put a lot of emphasis on this Freedom 100. I guess it wouldn't be like winning the Indy 500 as an owner or driver, but it would be pretty darn close. I think it would be a pretty emotional thing.
ASHLEIGH HIGGINS: Elaborate a bit more of the significance of having a race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, especially for these young guys.
SAM SCHMIDT: I mean, I think it's really instrumental in their career if they want to eventually wind up in the IndyCar Series. This track can be fairly intimidating if you're coming from a road racing background or a different type of series. I think in the test we averaged about 192 miles an hour, around there. That's definitely not chump change. From a spectator standpoint, the cars look almost as fast as the IndyCars. But really it's part of the ladder type of approach. If a person is going to go to the IndyCar Series, he ought to be racing at the same type of venues and learning at 20 or 30 miles an hour less, if at all possible, than just throwing him into the big cars. I think it's pretty important to learn about the aerodynamic effects of running around the place, all the other issues that happen before you are in the big show. It's one of only four races that are held there, so I think it's incredible for the series, having the live TV coverage. It's our biggest race of the year.
ASHLEIGH HIGGINS: Sam mentioned it would be live. The Futaba Freedom 100 will air live on ESPN-2 at 2 p.m. eastern on May 22nd. Following up, Sam, something you mentioned earlier about the drivers being sponges, your team appears to have excellent chemistry. To what do you attribute this? Is it in part the fact that you once were a driver? Obviously, you made three Indy 500 starts, you were a winner in the IndyCar Series. How much of an advantage do you think it now is that you're developing these young drivers?
SAM SCHMIDT: Yeah, I think it really helps because I've been in team environments where it wasn't really a team environment by definition, and then I've been in team environments where it was, you know, truly an open-book policy. I think our team policy is really to try and work really, really hard amongst the two cars to even try and distance them from the rest of the field. Our philosophy would be we'd rather have our two guys racing against each other for the win as opposed to them racing 15 other people. If we can work really hard as a team, share information, a totally open-book format, get those cars to be maybe a couple 10ths quicker than anybody else, the fact we have one competitor instead of 14, that's the ultimate team goal. I think what we've seen so far this year is everybody's willing to pitch in and do whatever it takes to get those two cars to the front.
Q. One question about your foundation, the money you've raised. Are there any gains being made in the area of paralysis?
SAM SCHMIDT: Yeah, I'm glad you brought that up. We had our fifth annual gala last Sunday evening on the north side of downtown. I think those that attended had a fantastic time. That's our major fundraising of the year involving teams, other teams and drivers. We had an outstanding turnout. Haven't got the final numbers in, but I'm sure it will be one of our best events ever as far as monies raised. But it's fantastic to have the support of the motorsports community that's not racing related as well. That whole process is going well. The foundation is going well. You asked the question about myself and paralysis research. I mean, I still maintain my physical therapy, and I'm a bit of a clinical trial myself because I haven't had the need to go back in the hospital like a person with my level of injury would probably have to go in the last four years. But the main thing as it regards research, it's even more important now to have the dollars and to have the awareness because of 911 and because of the war in Iraq. There's just been a total distraction in Washington as far as federal medical research dollars. We've had to go to more of a grass-roots effort, state by state, trying to raise funds for spinal cord research, more specifically stem cell research. It's still moving forward, just not at as a rapid rate as it was prior to 911, which is unfortunate. But, you know, we're definitely not going to give up. We'll keep just trying to do as much as we can privately.
Q. Are you as optimistic as you were maybe two or three years ago when I talked to you about this, about maybe finding a cure or something to help paralysis patients?
SAM SCHMIDT: Absolutely. I'm still totally as positive. I'm still not as knowledgeable on the in-depth research as I'd like to be. But what I've learned is still very positive. It's just that, you know, possibly the United States has been passed up on some of the more cutting-edge research simply because of the dollars. They're been a huge investment in England for stem cell research, Australia, China. There's other countries that have kind of taken the lead. But as far as myself and the Buonicontis, Christopher Reeves, everybody else involved in raising funds for this, we're all in the same place. We don't really care where it comes from, where we've got to go to get the treatments, we just want to see it happen. You know, there's not going to be any magic cure 12 months from now. We've got to do about 15 to 20 little steps along the way, all of which will have a positive impact on people with spinal cord injuries at different levels, and also people that have them, have a spinal cord injury over the next five to 10 years. I'm still totally optimistic there will be something for me to try in my lifetime, if not a whole lot sooner.
ASHLEIGH HIGGINS: Sam, before we let you go, talk a bit about your two drivers, the characters that you have there, they're both young, they're both relatively experienced in this series and are looking to move into the IndyCar Series. How do you manage those two personalities and their goals, moulding them without letting them get too far ahead of themselves?
SAM SCHMIDT: Well, it's definitely been exciting, and I think it's been a learning experience for all of us. Thiago is very focused. In Brazil you either really go to soccer or really go to race car driving. Those are really their two national sports. He's been a joy to work with. He goes and works out every morning. He's in the shop working on the computer, learning more about the data. He's a very focused guy. I knew watching him from a distance last year that, you know, he could definitely be a championship contender this year, which is really why we went after him so hard in the off-season, trying to get him as a driver. Just felt like he could help us in our efforts to win a championship. Arie is 180 degrees in the sense that, you know, his deal came together late, unfortunately. I think we're caught up on it now. As far as Homestead, it was just late. But, you know, he's quick out of the box. I obviously am close with the family, his father. You know, we've kind of been trying to put together a deal for a year and a half because I definitely don't think his results last year represented the effort or his talent. We really wanted to put him in a situation where he had a teammate that was equally as competitive and they could kind of drive each other. I think that's worked out well. Definitely with Arie being around, the scenery at times can be a bit of a distraction, but it's all positive. I think he's doing a good job this year. I sincerely hope his dad can find additional sponsorship, funding, to continue on after Indy. Right now, that's all we have is the Freedom 100. They're kind of on the fence as to the rest of the season. They really communicate well together. I think they both transfer information openly. Once again, it's a perfect team environment because they both want to qualify ahead of everybody else, just settle it amongst themselves. That's really good.
ASHLEIGH HIGGINS: Sam, thank you very much for being with us today. We wish you and your team the best of luck this weekend at the Futaba Freedom 100.
SAM SCHMIDT: No problem. I would definitely encourage everybody in the media to publicize this race. To me it's the best value in racing, when a family can come out, spend five bucks a head to watch the Freedom 100 race as well as practice for the entire day on a Saturday. Not a better way to spend a Saturday for that kind of money. Come on out and enjoy it.
ASHLEIGH HIGGINS: Exactly. Thank you, Sam.
SAM SCHMIDT: Thanks, Ashleigh.
ASHLEIGH HIGGINS: Now let's turn it over to Roger Bailey. Roger, as we mentioned, it Menards Infiniti Pro Series executive director. Roger has been around obviously since the series' inception. Roger, how are you today?
ROGER BAILEY: Very well, Ashleigh. Thank you.
ASHLEIGH HIGGINS: Let's start off with a question about our graduates. Three Menards Infiniti Pro Series, AJ Foyt IV, Mark Taylor, both series champions, and Ed Carpenter have qualified for this year's Indianapolis 500. All three of them have full-time IRL IndyCar Series rides. Talk about the importance of the Infiniti Pro Series as a training ground for the future Indy Racing League stars?
ROGER BAILEY: I think it's extremely important, more so than some other series we had where they didn't concentrate on ovals, in particular. I think there's a misconception out there, there certainly was when I came over there, you just turn left, turn left, turn left, turn left, back to square one again. Nothing could be further from the truth. I think having the Menards Infiniti Pro Series has allowed us to have a series at a lesser speed that concentrates strictly on the type of racing that the Indy Racing League is promoting at the time. It's also a big help for our guys to have a guy like Rick Mears, who is dedicated strictly to the Infiniti Pro Series. He's goes out every practice session we have, sits and watches the drivers, gets back on his scooter, comes back to the pits, saying, "You're going in too high here, too late there." That kind of information. From a man like Rick, it's invaluable. I think it's probably the only series in the world where we have a guy of this caliber that's prepared to dedicate his time to the promotion and creation of a series and to help young drivers. That can save you invaluable seat time. Instead of going around on the wrong line lap after lap after lap until you either make a mistake or realize that's not the quick way around, to have a guy like Rick come in and guide you, talk you through there. You know, he's been there, you know what he's telling you you need to listen. It's invaluable. Just to have the series from that standpoint, I think it's part of a much larger vision for Tony George. Tony certainly is dedicated to revamping open-wheel racing as we know it today. I think this is just a small part of the early structure. Years down the road when we look at what's really happened, we're going to see it was a very vital part of the league.
ASHLEIGH HIGGINS: Let's talk a bit about the talent pool in this year's Pro Series. We've seen some impressive performances from rookies in particular, Phil Giebler, Leonardo Maia, Jesse Mason. Talk about the depth of this talent pool.
ROGER BAILEY: Certainly the depth of talent continues to grow. I think we're fortunate we have still have some of the initial runners that started with us a couple years ago, that form the basis that started the series today. To be able to add to that talent pool, bring in some young drivers that have come over from in some cases Europe, European Formula 3, Formula 3000, Brazilian Formula 3 and the like, to be able to add those guys to the already fairly solid base we had is kind of encouraging. On top of that, I believe you were just speaking with Sam. Sam is a big advocate of the series, has done a lot of testing. Just prior to coming here, they tested three or four more drivers out in Kentucky. I think of those four they tested last week, three will eventually be with us. There's a lot more interest out there now. I think it's the same with a lot of things. When you start something new, people are reluctant to become involved. They want to stand back to make sure it's going to work before they spend their dollars. They think there's a lot of uncertainty in racing in general today. I think before people say, "Yeah, that's what we want to be," they want to stand back and see that it's going to be successful. Clearly now we've got a good, solid core of drivers. I think that will only get stronger as the year goes on. Like I say, those people that have sat on the fence up until now, have now decided, "Okay, it's here for good. Let's invest our money. This is where we want to be." Clearly, the Indy 500 is the crown jewel of automobile racing. Certainly the Futaba Freedom 100 is the crown jewel of the Menards Infiniti Pro Series. Everybody wants to be there. But at the end of the day, it's one race. It's the race, but it's one race in a 12-race series. We have to get good, solid fields for the balance of the races. That's the challenge right now. I can't remember a time when it's ever been harder than it is today to generate income to go racing. It's just part of a cycle. It's certainly on the good side of the cycle now. I see the series going from strength to strength. We've got something to look forward to.
ASHLEIGH HIGGINS: As Sam talked a bit about the importance of Indianapolis, you touched briefly on it as well. Now as we head into our second Futaba Freedom 100, we already have 19 entrants at the beginning of this week, practice again on Thursday. From your vantage point, what is the significance of this event?
ROGER BAILEY: I think the significance is that up until now, until the series was started, you came from some other form of racing and went to Indianapolis. The opportunity wasn't there to learn the circuit. You had the three or four weeks of May at Indy. During that period, you had to learn the circuit, learn how it all goes, and the system. People say, "Indianapolis is just another race." It truly isn't. I've heard experienced drivers say, "Wait till you get to Indy, it's a whole different ball bark." It is. I don't know what it is. I can't put my finger on it any more than they can. It's a very special race at a very special venue. I think to be able to learn the racetrack at 25 miles an hour, 30 miles an hour, some cases where you need to be running when you move up into the IRL series, it's a significant jump, but it's better than coming from zero to 220. Being able to go round here at 190 miles an hour, it's a great learning curve. I keep going back to Rick Mears. To have Rick to help guide you through there is just incredible. I think anybody that is seriously considering wanting to drive at the Indianapolis 500 clearly needs to be in the Menards Infiniti Pro Series a year, in some cases a couple of years. Once people get into oval racing, there's an awful lot to learn. I'm a firm believer that a race driver is a race driver. I don't think it matters where they come from. If you're a good race driver, you're a good race driver. But I think taking a good race driver, putting him into the series, teaching him the little nuances that you learn in this program is extremely helpful, almost mandatory, before you make that next big step.
ASHLEIGH HIGGINS: Let's talk about Ed Carpenter, AJ Foyt IV, and Mark Taylor. They're in their full-time rides with their IRL teams. Clearly they are at an advantage by running in the Pro Series. It enabled these teams to have a look at them, to be at the same racetrack at the same race weekend. Let's talk about the drivers' opportunities, but as well the development of the series this year now we're having half the races on the same days as the IndyCar Series. How much of a bonus is that for a young driver, to be able to be seen by these IndyCar Series team owners?
ROGER BAILEY: I think it's a great bonus. I think visibility is the most significant thing. Clearly Mark Taylor was extremely good in Europe in Formula 3. Had he not gone through the Pro Series, would he be driving for Panther now? I very much doubt it. Ed was with the USAC boys on Silver Crown. I think probably more people in this country knew Ed Carpenter because of his USAC endeavors than Mark who came from European Formula 3. The same with Anthony. He came out of a mixed background. I think he'd done some midget and Sprint car racing, some Formula Ford 2000. He had a little bit of a background of winged rear-engine cars. You know, all three of those guys have performed well in their prior life. I think coming to the Pro Series was just a step in that learning curve and has served all of them extremely well. I think as I have spoken to all of them, it gave them the opportunity not only to learn what they need to learn, but it gave them exposure in front of the people they need to be exposed to. I think with the Team Cheever, Red Bull Racing, Mark out there with Panther cars, I don't think either of those guys would have been in that ride now had they not gone through the series. I like to think there are people out there today, I know you mentioned Thiago and Arie, those people, I know that their goal is to be in the same seats as these three 12 months from now. There are people that will be. Another part of our program is not only bring along drivers, but there are some people with us today that ultimately want to own IndyCars. They probably didn't have either the knowledge or the financial commitment to start in at the top, and probably shouldn't. I think the sure-fire way to go downhill is to start in something that you can't handle. Being able to be a team owner in the Menards Infiniti Pro Series gives you that same exposure as being on the same weekends and the same racetracks as the big boys, but at a significantly less financial commitment. But at the same time you're dealing with the same people, Brian Barnhart, John, all the people that run the tech program, the races themselves are run by the same people that run the big races. You're right there dealing with the same people. I think it gives you a great opportunity to learn what you need to learn as a significantly less dollars. I think that's important also. There are many ways you can get here, but I think at the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to be in the Indy 500. I think this right now is the series that you need to be in to accomplish that.
ASHLEIGH HIGGINS: Sam mentioned earlier in the call about the great opportunity the Freedom 100 is for fans to come out and check out these Stars of Tomorrow. It's only $5 to watch the race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For those people who haven't had the opportunity to come out and see these cars and young drivers, what is it they should know about the Infiniti Pro Series before they come to the track? What should they be looking for? What are some of the things they should pay most attention to?
ROGER BAILEY: I think unless you're a hardened fan, you're very familiar with IRL cars, to come and see the Pro Series cars in action, you'd be hard-pressed to tell what you're looking at unless you're a hardened fan. The speeds on the straightaway and through the corners is obviously, by the lap times, somewhat slower. But when you see he them running together as a group, it's very difficult for the untrained eye to tell the difference. I certainly think that the Futaba Freedom 100 in conjunction with the balance of the IRL people testing for Bump Day on Sunday, I mean, it's a great value for a day out. I mean, 20 bucks for mom, dad, the two kids, you can't even go to the movies for that anymore. You can sit here the whole day. Good bands on the stage, good popcorn, hot dogs. Maybe $35, $40, you spend the whole day. I don't know any other venues where you can go out and do that anymore and have such an enjoyable time. Hopefully people will come out and look at the Stars of Tomorrow, along with the people that are going to be starting the 88th Indy 500 in a week's time. So it's a great opportunity not only to see but to compare them. Once you figure out which are the Pro Series cars and which are the IRL cars, you start to look at the times flashed up on the board, it's pretty obvious which are which. Running together, it's very difficult to tell the difference. The IndyCar does have considerably more horsepower, probably another 250 horsepower than what we're currently running with. The cars are very, very similar in size, very similar, the Menards Infiniti Pro Series are about a hundred pounds lighter than the current IRL cars. But visually it's very hard to tell. I think we've already got some of the ardent fans that follow the car, they know that's their driver. I'm hoping over the next couple years we can build the same kind of fan base as say the Busch Series with the Winston Cup, Nextel Cup that it is now. There's some people that's their thing. Just like owners, Brian Stewart, this is what he does. He is the equivalent to the Busch boy in the Pro Series. There are people thankfully that do want to continue on, go through the ranks, being IndyCar owners, then there are people like Brian that are very, very happy just being in this league. I think someone mentioned about being the small fish in the big pond or being the competitive fish in the smaller pond. There are people that want that. I don't think there's the headache in finding the funding, although it is difficult to find funding for any racing, there isn't the headache for funding a major league racing team.
ASHLEIGH HIGGINS: We'll sign off for the day, Roger. Thursday, May 20th, practice for the Futaba Freedom 100. It's $5. The following day qualifications, also $5. And Saturday, May 22nd, a $5 admission for the second annual Futaba Freedom 100, which will be broadcast live on ESPN-2 at 2 p.m. eastern. Thank you, again, to our guests, Sam Schmidt, owner of Sam Schmidt Motorsports, and Roger Bailey, executive director of the Menards Infiniti Pro Series for being with us. We hope everyone will come out to the Futaba Freedom 100. Thanks for participating, and we look forward to next week's teleconference.
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