Indy Racing League Media Conference
Topics: Indy Racing League
TOM SAVAGE: Good afternoon, everyone. We would like to welcome two Indy Racing League drivers to today's call. Joining us to open the call is Infiniti Pro Series driver James Chesson, who will be making his IRL debut at this weekend at Chicagoland. James first climbed into a Pro Series car August 16th at Kentucky Speedway for a test with IRL officials, and it's been some time since the 24-year-old has been behind the wheel of a race car as he took the 2003 season off. In 2002, James raced with USAC and had nine pavement starts, including third place finishes at the midget series Copper World Classic in Phoenix and the night before the 500 event at Indianapolis Raceway Park. In 2001, Chesson made his debut in the World of Outlaws Sprint cars series. This year James' brother PJ has won the last three Pro Series races. We'll later be joined by IndyCar Series driver Dan Wheldon, who currently sits second place in the championship points race. Before we get to Dan, we'll spend a few minutes with James. Mr. Chesson, thanks for joining us today.
JAMES CHESSON: Thank you. I really appreciate it.
TOM SAVAGE: We know you took last year off. Seeing your brother tearing it up in the Pro Series schedule must have given you the bug a little bit to get back in it.
JAMES CHESSON: It did. It's funny because starting out this year, I didn't have any intentions of actually getting in a car even this year at all. I think him with his success and just running and me being around it all, joking with his car owner, we've been saying how great would it be to have brothers in the series, going off about that. Next thing you know, let's sign up and test, here we go. It's on now. I'm excited about it.
TOM SAVAGE: At what point this year did it dawn on you? Was it the win at Michigan, seeing him get in the car for the first time? I remember seeing you in Victory Lane at Michigan. You were certainly as excited as anyone. At what point did you think you might make a run at this?
JAMES CHESSON: Well, I've always been competitive throughout my life, in whatever sport. I think just getting back into that level of competitiveness was something that I just loved to do. With his success and just seeing how well he's been doing, the team that he's with, I think that that definitely sparked. And just the whole racing bit, because I've always loved racing, always enjoyed that, getting back into it, especially with him, because we haven't raced together probably in three years. I think with my dad involved, it's become more of a family event. I think that that's really probably sparked the most. It's a lot of fun going to the races, competing together. I think that's a big part of it.
TOM SAVAGE: I'll ask you the same question that we posed to PJ before. I know you'll get a lot of that, comparing the two, but what are your goals as you take a step forward this weekend? A possible run at Indianapolis someday?
JAMES CHESSON: Well, yeah, of course that would be something amazing to accomplish, is to run at Indy in the 500. I think that would be, you know, definitely a goal. To win it obviously I think would be the ultimate in achieving that goal. I don't know. I haven't run these cars in a race yet. I haven't been around another car. I'm looking forward to just competing this weekend, just starting there, then I think it will be a lot easier to give you an accurate reading of what my future goals are. It's hard to say right now, just stepping in this weekend.
TOM SAVAGE: You took last year off. PJ did, as well. I'd be curious as to what you two guys were doing last summer.
JAMES CHESSON: Well, I started working for my father in the family business at the end of 2002. I actually enjoyed it, oddly enough. That was kind of surprising to myself, working 6:30 till 7:00 almost every day, five, six days a week. That kept me busy for a while, managing one store. He's into the automotive tire and service centers here in New Jersey. There's a couple of stores that I just sort of walked into, decided I wanted to learn a little bit about it. That's basically what I've been doing for my '03 season.
TOM SAVAGE: We're glad you're going to be back in a race car. Unlike your brother, you've actually had some USAC pavement starts. You cut your teeth in the high-banked ovals. Can you talk about the differences of running the Sprint cars on a high-banked oval to these types of cars?
JAMES CHESSON: I think probably the best way to relate it would be between the downforce. I think there's so much with the Outlaw cars, big wing, side boards. The Pro Series cars also have a considerable amount of downforce. I think you can say that the feeling of a car being stuck to a racetrack and really being able to maneuver really well, I think you can compare the two. Other than that, being on dirt and pavement, there's a lot to be learned just in the basics of pavement, going from dirt to pavement. Yes, there are a few similarities, but there are also differences as well. I think maybe that wild ride in the Sprint car is really what helps you excel maybe on the pavement with the Pro Series cars.
TOM SAVAGE: How long did it take down in Kentucky, how many laps, before you felt comfortable, felt like you knew what the car was doing?
JAMES CHESSON: Well, the weirdest thing was --
TOM SAVAGE: Have you gotten there yet?
JAMES CHESSON: I definitely did it. I feel comfortable. I think it was getting used to the shifting part. It felt like I was laying on my sofa at home basically in my car. It was really comfortable, just feeling-wise. Once you get used to the g-forces, the speed, I think it all becomes -- you get more and more comfortable as you go. I think I felt pretty good at the end of the day. We kept a lot of downforce on the car, which made it even more comfortable. It was a good experience. I was really happy with the way it went that day because the team I think at that point had grown a lot, they had put a car out there that felt just really comfortable, really stable. I was able to rip off some pretty good laps.
TOM SAVAGE: How did you get started in this whole thing? I don't know that New Jersey is a hot bed for Sprint car racing. Maybe I'm wrong. How did you get involved in this?
JAMES CHESSON: My dad, he's always been a motor head. He was a drag guy when he was younger. Then he got into dirt modifies. Billy Pouch drove for him a while back. We always used to joke at the dinner table with my father. We used to say, "Steve calls us up, wants us to go drive a Sprint car out at the Grove this weekend." That was always pretty funny conversation. One thing led to another and we ended up in Sprint cars running in central Pennsylvania with the best of the best out there.
TOM SAVAGE: This year the Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Rice, his father was a dragster racer as well. Good history to work towards.
JAMES CHESSON: Yes.
TOM SAVAGE: The car, is it similar?
JAMES CHESSON: The number is 67, so it's like PJ's. It's got white wings. It's got just a few splashes of white on it basically. That's pretty much it. I think you'll see the red car is looking pretty good this weekend, I really do.
TOM SAVAGE: Your expectations going into these final three races? I can't imagine PJ thought he would even get one much less three in a row. Your expectation these final three races?
JAMES CHESSON: My expectations? I think just to get out there and get comfortable around other cars and hopefully be able to help PJ in this whole points thing. I guess he's running for Rookie-of-the-Year possibly. I think that working with him on the track to help him achieve his goals for this year, which I think he's already well gone above and beyond that, which he thought he would do this year. I don't know, for myself, just get out there and run. I mean, who knows, maybe I'll do something this year, maybe not. I think after Chicago, I'll probably have a pretty good idea.
TOM SAVAGE: We'll open it up for a couple questions.
Q. You and PJ always had a lot of success with the Outlaws, kind of known on the circuit as more of a free spirit. Talk about how you've melded in with the Nunns and all with their operation?
JAMES CHESSON: I have to tell you, Morris and Catherine Nunn, they're awesome individuals. Catherine, really she's a no-nonsense woman. I really like that about her. I think she's fun to be around. She's put together a great team. I think PJ and myself are definitely free spirits, being younger and brothers. I think we bring a lot to this deal as well, which I think is a positive, because I think it will keep both teams closer together at the end of the day.
TOM SAVAGE: We'll get you go, James. We look forward to you getting behind the wheel of the 67 car this weekend at Chicagoland. Thanks for joining us today.
JAMES CHESSON: Thanks very much.
TOM SAVAGE: We're joined by IndyCar Series Dan Wheldon, coming off his third victory of the year at Nazareth. Are you with us?
DAN WHELDON: Yes.
TOM SAVAGE: Dan also had wins at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan and Richmond International Speedway this year. Wheldon is currently second in the points championship, trailing teammate Tony Kanaan by 72 points. Thanks for joining us today.
DAN WHELDON: Pleasure to be here again.
TOM SAVAGE: You entered this weekend with three race wins out of the first 13 races. You still trail your teammate by a sizable margin. I know you're happy for Tony, but are you going to try to get the gap closer with three to go?
DAN WHELDON: Sure, I would like to be on top. I'm very happy that certainly if it's not me on top, one of my teammates is on top. But I think a lot of the stuff that's happened to me this year has been a little bit out of my control with the finishes that we've had that have been off of the podium. So that makes it a little easier certainly. But nonetheless, I still do think I have a chance of winning the championship, and I'm going to take every risk possible in order to try and achieve one of my dreams in winning the championship. It's not going to be easy. I mean, obviously Tony has been very, very consistent throughout the season, and it doesn't look like he's going to stop any time soon. The amount of points that I'll pick up on him is minimal. Like I say, I'm just going to do the best I can and try and increase my win tally before the season's out. I have to say with the IRL the way it is, it's never easy to do that. Certainly sounds much easier talking about it than putting it into practice.
TOM SAVAGE: Do you guys ever talk about it, you and Tony? Is that like a Major League Baseball pitcher, where you don't talk about it a no-hitter? Do you kid around with him and say, "I'm coming after you these last three, I know I'm 72 back, but"?
DAN WHELDON: I certainly kid around with him much. He doesn't call me, he's leading the championship by such a sizable margin (laughter). I certainly mess around with him and say, "Now you're leading the points by certainly over 50, you don't have to call your rookie teammate any more?" We joke around, but I think the one thing that -- I think I talk for the rest of the Andretti Green Racing, it's by no means over. Rahal have been doing an incredibly good job. Penske has been very fast lately. The Ganassi cars you can never discount. It looks like we're very comfortable where we're at, but we're certainly not. There's so many good people out there that can knock you off the top spot very, very quickly, that you really don't get too excited. I think the main thing is we just keep doing our own thing and maximizing what we have as a team in terms of equipment and trying to get the best results possible. If you do that, then we'll be okay. But we really haven't talked about the championship or finishing positions or anything as such as a team apart from the fact that we just do need to keep doing a good job. Like I say, there's so many good guys out there, it's very, very difficult right now.
TOM SAVAGE: You finished last year so strong, you had top five finishes in the final three races, top ten in the final six. You must have felt fairly confident coming into this season that your first win was right around the corner?
DAN WHELDON: Yeah, I mean, I think I was a little bit disappointed at the end of last season not to score a win. I really wanted that to try and propel me into this season. But I think certainly coming into this season I was very determined to do very well. I underestimated the IndyCars in general and the amount of experience you need to compete at the highest level with the guys that you race against. So because of last year, although I didn't compete a full season, I think -- well, I didn't compete in the full season, I obviously missed the first two races, I think I knew what to expect. I was going back to tracks that I'd been to. I felt more importantly what the car was like over a race distance. I mean, it almost is easier to drive the car fast. To drive the car fast over a distance, the way this track is, it's certainly physical. It makes the car enjoyable to drive but very, very challenging. So knowing what to expect I think made it easier. And did I expect to get three wins? You never expect to win every race in the season, but I certainly, certainly knew I would be able to compete for them, I was hoping weekend in, weekend out, which has been the case. I mean, nothing to get excited about, I still have three races to go. I'm happy with my win tally. But was I surprised? No, I wasn't surprised because I do expect as a driver that I'm in a very good team, very good support from Honda, so I've got the ingredients to win. It's down to me to win. If I didn't, I'd probably be out of a job. I don't like doing anything else, so I've got to make sure I do win.
TOM SAVAGE: What was your goal coming in this year, to win a championship, maybe win Indianapolis? I don't want to say were there expectations, but did you have goals coming into this year?
DAN WHELDON: The biggest goal for me is the Indianapolis 500. I love the race and I'm desperate to win it. You know, I'm so desperate to win the 500, it's probably a bad thing. But that was certainly my primary goal. I wasn't able to achieve that. That was very disappointing. But aside from that, and by no means when I say that do I take away from the championship, because I think it's obviously a very difficult championship to win. I just wanted to score as many wins as possible. I think I'm going to be around for a long time. In the future, we can win championships. But the main thing for me was to win as many races as possible, and not feel as I left the track having lost the race. I mean, it sounds silly, but you can sometimes put yourself in a position to win races and let them slip away. I didn't want to do that, particularly at this stage in my career. So far I think I've been able to do that. Another thing I wanted to do was really improve on the short ovals. I thought that was a weakness or certainly a weak area for me last year. I think both myself and Eddie Jones really focused on that over the winter testing, and certainly improved.
TOM SAVAGE: Last year you led 32 laps at Chicago. Does a racetrack like Chicagoland, does that suit you more? I know you touched on the smaller tracks. You've done well at Nazareth and Richmond this year. Which is to your liking?
DAN WHELDON: I really do like them. It's not like one of those boring answers, I'm not trying to be politically correct, but they're just different. Like obviously it's much more difficult to overtake on the short ovals. If you've got a very good car and you're leading, you have a very good shot of winning. I sound Scottish there. Dario will be proud of me that I used the word "shot." I think on the bigger ovals, it's much harder to predict the outcome of the race. You need to position yourself. You can't position yourself 50 laps from the end. It's way too close to do that. You've just got to get yourself roundabouts in the right position and then capitalize on your car's oval speed, people losing air in front of you. By that I mean people understeering up in the traffic or perhaps even getting loose and making the move on the car that way. You're running at 215 miles an hour plus side by side with groups of cars in front of you and behind you normally. There's two completely different disciplines. But I have to say I enjoy them both. This is a big weekend for me because it's my sponsor's home race, both of them, Jim Beam and Klein Tools.
TOM SAVAGE: Jim Beam, obviously they are in Chicago as well as Klein Tools, is that correct?
DAN WHELDON: Yes, both companies are. They'll have a lot of people out supporting me for the race. No, I think obviously we've had a very strong season up until this point, so it's got them very, very excited for this race. I think it's a track that I like. Obviously, it's a track that I started my IRL career in and at, so I'm looking forward to it. Last year we did lead some laps, as you said, and we performed strongly Chicago is difficult to predict. Last year I finished fourth and I was inches behind the three in front of me who crossed the line three abreast. It's definitely a difficult one to predict and it's all about positioning yourself.
TOM SAVAGE: Talk to us about St. Petersburg, your thoughts about going racing in the streets of St. Petersburg and road courses in general.
DAN WHELDON: Well, obviously I'm European, so I'm looking forward to turning right. From an IndyCar standpoint, I still have a lot to learn. I haven't driven on many of the street courses in an IndyCar, so I've got a lot to learn from Dario, Tony and Bryan from that standpoint. It's awesome for me. I'm not sure that I know how to do it anymore. I've been doing the ovals for so long. And I certainly enjoy the ovals. I think it will complete the championship. St. Petersburg will be special for me, I used to live there. What when I drove with Primus Racing, I actually lived there. It's actually going to be nice to be there. I actually got back from there recently. I actually drove on the track. You can see where it was marked out from before. So I followed the track. No, I'm very, very excited. I think it really does complete the championship by adding not just the St. Petersburg race but the other road course races that we've got. Looking forward to it.
TOM SAVAGE: We were down there for the press conference. Aesthetically it is a very cool racecourse. We're looking forward to coming down there. Your helmet, give me the background on the painting on your helmet. One of the cooler helmets in the IRL.
DAN WHELDON: I try and have my paint job to reflect my personality, so it's got that kind of feisty look to it. It does have a mural of Richard the Lionheart on the back. When I was driving in CART in 1995, the guys that ran me said I drove with a lot of heart. That's the way Richard the Lionheart fought in battle. Hence that has been on there since 1995, and it will never come off until the day I retire. Obviously it sports the England flag. It's kind of a mixture of everything. It's got like a little feisty look to it, but it's go the a cool, hip, young look to it as well with the right stuff, the England flag and the Richard the Lionheart on it. I think it's cool.
TOM SAVAGE: It is very cool. We look forward to seeing it again this weekend. Dan, thanks for joining us.
DAN WHELDON: Pleasure. Thank you very much.
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