Champ Car Media Conference
Topics: Champ Car
MODERATOR: Ryan Hunter-Reay will be entering his second year of Champ Car competition after a successful rookie season last year in which he won the Lexmark Indy 300 in Surfer'S Paradise Australia. Thank you for joining us. Keith, obviously last year your first shot in a true full season two-car team, it went very well, Mario Dominguez had a great year for you guys, finished sixth in the points, you got your first ever 1, 2 finish, and now gearing up for a two-car attack on the series this year with Mario and Ryan. Talk about what you guys learned from running a two-car team last year and how it put you in a position to run two cars this year.
KEITH WIGGINS: Well, I think it's always been a goal for us to run two cars. You know, in past lives, two cars was always the norm, and to be honest, it's a lot more of a balance to a team. One car, just like three cars, sometimes there's a balance that goes into different directions, and from an information point of view, just having a good, strong team and met with an engineering group, obviously you have a better source of people to put into that sort of group. And having the feedback from two drivers, especially in a series where there's a lot of street circuits and you turn up and while you have information, reaction is the key to getting it right on the Friday and the Saturday. Two cars is better because you have to have the budget to run two cars. And when we started this program back in 2000 for the 2001 start, if you like, it was always a goal to run two cars. Due to the cost control within the series, it allowed us to do that last year. It was a big step forward for us last year. It helped in many ways because we've all been in the business, it was pretty easy to gear up to two cars. I think we had a good two-car team because we always want to polish that for a little bit and make sure that everything is top quality for both drivers. We've just been refining that for this year because we've taken a bit of time to get it together. The client has been up and down. We've been trying to put the best possible deals we can together and get the best possible drivers that we can get. But obviously, having the two cars established, you never go backwards. It's just a focus of putting the package together and making sure that we come out stronger than we were last year.
MODERATOR: You guys are maybe a little ahead of the curve so far, you've been out testing and you were heading down for three days of testing this coming week at Sebring with a large contingent of Champ Cars, there will be 10 or 11 race cars down there this weekend. Are you happy with where you are at this point, obviously given the short start we have, but you reasonably happy with where you are at the moment?
KEITH WIGGINS: Yeah, I think so. You know, the proof is doing it when the season starts. But certainly, we've never changed our focus. We've been focused on the Champ Car series and we've never detracted and we've worked during the winter. From a rules point of view because there's a certain period of time when everybody tread carefully just to make sure that we are going in the right direction. We are just really -- kept focusing on it, and I hope that helps us be ready for the season. As I say, we just stayed focused on it and hopefully we've made some improvements over last year, and how much will show on the racetrack.
MODERATOR: We're looking forward to seeing how it shakes out for you once we get going in Long Beach. Good luck this year. Ryan Hunter-Reay, coming off a very successful rookie season in which he made 18 starts, finished 14th in the points, had his first podium finish at the Mid-Ohio course where he ran up front all weekend and capped that off with an exciting win at Surfer'S Paradise Australia. He heads into his second year, signing with Herdez Competition to run Ford Cosworth Lola sponsored by Herdez. How do you feel about making the jump to an established team?
RYAN HUNTER REAY: I feel very optimistic about it. To be an integral part of a professional program, coming off my season last year put myself in the best possible position to win races and ultimately challenge for the championship, and I feel that with Herdez Competition and Mr. Wiggins. Definitely looking forward to the season. I started off with testing here at Sebring and Fontana, and we have been extremely productive, moving in the right direction and things have been going great so far with the team. I'm really comfortable with the team and I'm really looking forward every time I get on the track.
MODERATOR: Tell us about that jump from the Reynard to the Lola this year.
RYAN HUNTER REAY: Well, I don't know if it's a jump, really. I think the Reynard is harder to drive. But the Lola definitely has been -- loved every lap I've turned in it, really, and it's a bit easier to drive I think. Then again, I haven't raced with it. There are going to be a few differences when the tires go off, but I'm sure it will be something that I can deal with.
Q. First I would like to talk about the race, you race last year -- can you describe the feeling about the existing atmosphere between the drivers, the team, the organizers and the rest?
RYAN HUNTER REAY: The existing atmosphere? I don't think it really has changed. The series itself I think is the most challenging to a driver just because of the different set of circumstances that we race under. We race in the rain, we race on dry, road courses, street courses, ovals, everything you can throw at a driver all in one. I'm with a great team. I love Champ Car. I love the event. So for me under the atmosphere as you are talking about is where I want to be racing. I hope that answers your question.
Q. Now Mr. Wiggins, as you know, Chip Ganassi is a friend of Frank Wiggins, no relation; right?
KEITH WIGGINS: Well, everybody is friends with everybody in this business.
Q. At the end of one or two years -- inaudible -- did you think to do the same?
KEITH WIGGINS: You know, obviously, the managers of the drivers that Chip has had and the people, friends of mine that I know and as much -- they brought them over to race for what they considered the best team; and then taking them back to Europe effectively for the managers of course who would like some money, to put them back in the top. Chip is one of those, and Chip obviously is a good combination with the manager that we are talking about; one or two drivers, if a manager wants to put them with the best team, logically to get the best results; and that's where they are going to get that, just to go back into Formula 1. I don't think Chip -- I know that he's good friends of Frank any more than obviously all of those guys I know very well in Europe as well. I've never been in the business of a driver/manager. I've had a lot of good drivers through my hands in the years; if I had done that, I would be very wealthy. But I think it's just not something that I've done. My focus has always been whatever we are doing to get the best guys that we can and get the best results that we can to win races or championships. Now, through the years, there's always compromises sometimes because finance plays a huge part. You always want to get out of those situations so that you can just pick the drivers, and, as I say, there's always highs and lows in this business. I'm hoping that we are getting to a stage where we'll be back on those highs which comes just by hard work. I would -- my involvement is purely to run a team; that if the drivers win, they win, and we benefit and the drivers benefit. If there's an opportunity for those drivers over the other side, that depends if that's something they want to do and if they have an interest. You know, I have those contacts, but I've never used them because it's just not my end of the business. I would certainly help anybody that I thought was justified helping. But it's not a part of the process that we have at Herdez Competition.
Q. The State of Champ Car racing, what the field will be and so forth, obviously, you guys are in the middle of it, from what you hear, all of the teams and drivers, how do you look at the field for the year and where do you think the level of competition is going to be, if Ryan could talk about it a little bit and perhaps if Keith could add some thoughts.
RYAN HUNTER REAY: For me, this year's driver lineup brings an opportunity for some F-1 guys to come in and some new Champ Car drivers. At the front of the grid it's still going to be the sharp end of the grid. We'll still have champions from last year, Michel Jourdain, all of the front runners, Bruno Sebastien, and of course, both Herdez drivers, myself being one included. So it's going to be -- you know, I'm more optimistic about this season than last in the driver lineup, actually.
KEITH WIGGINS: I agree with Ryan, actually. I quite -- having had a lot of discussions. It's funny how the series goes through different issues, a lot of concern that there has been, and of course speculation and a lot of stuff is created by the competition to make everything look a little bit worse. We've been -- Champ Car has been through a difficult period and it's easy for people to shoot at targets. I believe it's come out of it in a better situation than it was before it was a public company. We are set to do great things. We just need good business sense, and it's run well and it's still the best series in the world. There's a lot of people obviously trying to knot knock it out at the moment. People make business decisions to go and do things if the money is right. =Our focus is very much to be here at Champ Car. I think, actually, the competition -- well, everybody I'm a firm believer that you want to be the best and not have a weaker series. You know, it's still -- is it easier than five years ago? I still don't believe it's easier to finish in the top two or three because there's always different races, different circumstances, but we have always had those races. In terms of, you know, is it easier to finish eighth or sixth or seventh, last year it was, but to win a race, you still have got half the players that we had last year, you've still got the top guys. I actually think same as Ryan, talking to a number of the drivers, and I know the guys are look to come in here, the Wilsons and Ralph and a few others, I think potentially, we have stronger group of drivers than we had last year. All of these things have to come together but we are looking very strong. We have 17 to 18 cars already, I believe it's 18 already. You know, competition at the front end which is where we want to focus, of course, is always strong. If you beat Paul Tracy or you beat both the Haas boys, you still have done what you need to do.
Q. Both for Keith and Ryan, in some of the circles up here and some of the papers, some pundits who profess to know what's going on, this series is dead, this series is gone, they are never going to get going, and you've sort of addressed it already, but I wonder if this doesn't make you guys -- and I mean everybody in this series, more determined to say, forget that rubbish, we know it's a bunch of BS, you have a strong series and now we are going to have more cars coming in. Does that thing -- does that muck, if you want to use your vernacular, make you guys even more determined this year?
KEITH WIGGINS: I think, yes. I think the people that -- the boys that are heading up with the Champ Car, it's a small thing, but believe it's very important that people are putting their own money into something. I'm sure that knowing those individuals, they are more determined than ever. I think from a personal point of view, I'm more concerned -- but as I said before, I really haven't taken on -- my determination is more to build the team. I've never really doubted the series; and therefore, my determination has not gotten stronger because of that. I feel a bit -- for some of the boys over there, what they are going through, logically, an opportunity for other people to try to undermine it, pull it apart; that's the tough thing and that has an effect on them. From my point of view, we just keep going with it. It is, as I've already said, it's the best series in the world. You know, it's just been mismanaged in the past and unfortunately left to toter on a bit. And it's difficult to have two series of open-wheel racing in America when money is not flashing, and maybe anyway it wouldn't be good, but that doesn't appear to be possible. So, you've got to ride what you think is the best horse.
Q. Ryan, a question for you, it's been one of the knocks against this series, and in particular, that there are not enough American drivers in the series. Well, in terms of American drivers yourself, Vasser and Allmendinger, you have three Americans, three Canadians. So maybe you're looking at something with a little more international heat here because you've got three yanks and you have three Canadians, as you say; this could go better this year than it has in the past?
RYAN HUNTER REAY: Yeah, absolutely. You say that, but people say that about the American driver shortage, this is really an international series. We do race most of our racing in the United States. I represent the United States in this fight for the Championship, and when it comes down to it, I think there are three of the best American road races in the series. Obviously you have one or two more in there. But there are some very talented Canadian racers from the U.K., mexico, from all over the world that deserve seats, as well. It is a series that's based in the United States but it's not necessarily a series that is just about, you know, like NASCAR, where it's all Americans whereas you have maybe one -- I think I've seen a Japanese driver there or something like that. It's a different product. We are the top level of road racing in North America and that's where we stand. It's a battle of the nations, as well. I like that part of it that there's only three or four Americans.
MODERATOR: This is the tenth anniversary of the Nation's Cup, which is awarded to the country whose Champ Car drivers amass the most points, and as Ryan alluded to, it's going to be one of the most hotly-contested battles for the Nation's Cup that we've ever had.
Q. If you could tell us a bit about before you made your agreement, what opportunities you were seriously looking at and how the market was; was it a buyer's market or a seller's market? Could you each comment?
KEITH WIGGINS: Well, it depends on what you're buying or selling. I think it's strange because on the one hand, everybody said, oh, well, you know, Champ Car sponsors, a lot of people, obviously everybody is very nervous about the series. So in theory, it should have been the worst time for potential -- people wanting to join the series. Now, obviously, when we took over this team, it was a bad team, so a lot of the people weren't very attracted to you anyway. I've always had the connections that I've had in Europe with a lot of drivers, managers and whatever else, and it's still the doors, the phone doesn't ring that much, whatever. Whereas this year, I think there's two things. One is, oh, this is one of the better teams. And of course, the two other I would say the ones that we want to beat were full, so to speak. But I also think with Formula 1, with racing everywhere around the world, it's tough. Let's not forget the calls we get from friends saying that there's jobs going. We have been in a position where I've never had, and I'm not exaggerating, when I say there was probably ten drivers that we were talking to and some very good drivers, drivers we've talked to in the past. And I wasn't interested in talking to anybody that wasn't a good driver. So we probably had three or four guys that I would say I have a tremendous amount of respect for and their ability. But, having said all that, and it's not just because he's on the line, I think I pretty much focused on Ryan from last year. Again, I don't think I've ever really wavered because I had negotiations with some other very good drivers, because it is in this life you still have to keep the business going and we had to make things work between us as best we could. We never really lost focus. I didn't -- Ryan is a driver, that was my first choice and we just had to make that happen if possible. But, I think that the interest for drivers was very strong, which was good for the series. Of course, you know, if you can get rides with other teams -- whether that's possible or not, but we just wanted to stay focused on what we wanted to try and do.
RYAN HUNTER REAY: Well, Keith had spoken with me before the last race, which was Australia and that was before I actually won the race. He had watched me in qualifying and liked how I looked, liked how I was driving the car and we talked more and more. It was not just a black and white, I call him, hey, here is the deal and try and work something out. We have been working on this for a long time and try to get together. I thought this was the best situation for me, as well. It was not easy, per se, just because, you know, the unfortunate situation with what Champ Car had to go through this off-season and how long it took, that really made it difficult for a lot of people to get their situation together. The market was not as it always was. It was not how it was a few years ago. It was difficult, for sure. But, you know when it comes down to it, we want to win races. From my point of view, I thought Herdez was in the best position; and Keith being Herdez, he thought for me it was the best position. When it came down to it, that's where we are.
Q. Did you speak to many other teams, what other driving opportunities there were for you?
RYAN HUNTER REAY: I spoke with maybe one, one or two. I spoke with one or two. Like he said, it's the same exact thing for me, I wouldn't waver from that direction from day one.
Q. How confident are you that there will be a full field?
RYAN HUNTER REAY: I'm confident, just like we had to make -- for our program, depends how quickly these people get the negotiations done. But I'm confident that we will have an extremely competitive field this year. Exactly what number of cars is going to make the -- I can't say for sure, but, you know, I have to say thanks to Mr. Genlosi (ph) Mr. Koi (ph) for keeping this whole thing going and I think -- they promised to make it happen. I have full faith that it will.
Q. Last year was what I would call a pivotal year for yourself. Probably you would, too. What was the most significant thing, either positive or negative that you learned last year?
RYAN HUNTER REAY: Well, I learned somewhat last year, I was only two years -- it's only my second year in a team environment. I had a lot to learn. I was only 22 years old. I learned a lot and every race I went to, I learned a lot. It would be hard to hit on it. Really, I think Mid-Ohio was a big day for me when I learned how to deal with -- I had every sponsor that we had in that team fly in the day before the race from Mid-Ohio because I qualified on the outside pole. Everybody flew in. There was a huge amount of interest around me. The team got to the front of the grid the whole season and I kept my head down and pulled it off. It was really a mental issue for me in how to deal with that. That was a big learning point for me. And getting in the race in Australia, also, very challenging position. It was a lot.
Q. Has there been any pressure on you as a team owner to -- call it pressure or call it a chance to go over to another series?
KEITH WIGGINS: No, no, there hasn't, actually. I guess I could feel hurt on that basis or not. I think, you know, there probably has through a few indirect subtleties, different issues that have occurred going back a bit. But as I say, I guess I've been pretty firm, clear of what we are doing and, no, we haven't really had -- the approaches that many other people have had and that's probably because we have aligned ourselves with the series very early. I think there was potentially one to try to attract the Hispanic section into IRL before Christmas and that came through sort of another doorway. We haven't had any direct approaches. Maybe we are just not famous enough to be given all that money, I don't know.
Q. Ryan, some of the drivers have a tendency to -- inaudible -- have you had an opportunity to use it, and if so, how do you like it, what's it like; and if you haven't what do you think it's going to be like or what have you heard from other drivers who have used it?
RYAN HUNTER REAY: Yeah, I definitely felt a definite boost there when I hit the button. It makes a big difference coming out of the corner. If you hit it later in the straight, it's not exactly the biggest boost, but if you hit it coming out of the corners, you can definitely feel it. I think it will create a lot of interesting situations this year. As I said, the other people, I think it can create a situation where it can fight you or it can help you. It's just going to be a situation of management, how you use that 60 seconds over a race and how well you use it, really. You have to be smart about it for sure. You can't just go hitting the button whenever you're behind the car. You know, I didn't test it that much. But Mario has tested one in the past and he said this one is more powerful than in the past. So, you know, I guess we'll see.
Q. It gives you something like 50 horsepower for a short period, is that enough to get alongside somebody?
RYAN HUNTER REAY: Sure, especially when you have very evenly-matched cars and when we're running nose to tail, and it's tight racing, you can definitely make a run for a pass. Granted, people are going to have to be smart with it. You hit the button and you're going that much faster at the end of the straight. Like I said, it's going to create some interesting situations.
Q. With your sponsor being from Mexico, do you have any comments on the recent change promoting the Mexican races?
KEITH WIGGINS: No, I don't. I know that the key -- is not going to change the event. I think it was done for business reasons and I'm not intimately involved in it. No, I think it's, as I say, it's a business reasoning and I don't think there's a chance to see any problems with it at all.
Q. Will it affect your team at all?
KEITH WIGGINS: No.
Q. Look back at the team last year and where you are this year and compare the two teams, especially now with Roberto as part of the team?
KEITH WIGGINS: Well, the team is a progression of people, a progression of building because there's always that -- you go in history, you get there and build and very often it never stays on top and it goes down again and it's very much a chemistry thing. I think we built a good team last year. It needed to be better, but like everything the first year, it's a 50 percent change around to make you better and it's 25 percent of a difference between last year and this year is probably an 80 percent change. We are very happy with the crew that we had. Very happy with the whole chemistry. And the big thing between 2001, even 2002, on paper I knew that the team was getting better. In 2003 was really where we established a structure in the company which includes a lot of areas even from technical, and commercially because we are not working on partnership and sponsors from outside of Mexico to make the whole group stronger in the business section. So the team grew and because the engineering department developed into much more of a department, just working away hard and working on it, we started to build that structure. This year, we've made a few more changes and, you know, brought on some more experienced people to build on that structure, and because we have to prove that, but it's just that it's a better team than it was last year. Hopefully, you know, that five to eight percent, driver-wise, Mario continues to develop and bringing Ryan in is very exciting because he has done his rookie year, so he knows it. Roberto was a great, great man and Roberto -- we've known each other and he did a good job to help us be part of that team. Things just move on and it's good to bring new blood into everything and keep -- the biggest thing is challenge, and the will to win. We have to keep that continually in the team. So a long way around it. Hopefully that answers your question.
Q. Do you feel any pressure this year now that it's your sophomore season, of that progression that you showed last year, that you need to continue that progression for 2004?
RYAN HUNTER REAY: Well, I want to challenge for the championship this year. I want to win every race that I can. Every week I go out, I'm going to be trying my hardest and giving it my all to win and bring the team forward. As for pressure, I mean, it's not really an issue of pressure. I think being a professional race car driver, driving for a professional operation like Herdez, you have to perform every weekend. You have to perform every time you're on the track, really. You can't give up at any time. There's no excuse to. So that pressure is on you all the time. That's what you're paid to do.
Q. NASCAR driver Ricky Rudd (ph) said last week talking about last year's finish, two-thousandths of a second win over Busch, sometimes we get so caught up in the business of motor racing and in the politics of motor racing, we forget that really it's just entertainment and we have to be entertainers first. Can each of you comment on that?
KEITH WIGGINS: Well, my view on that, you know, it's very true, it's a fundamental part. I believe we perform a service. You could say we are the weekend circus; when we come to town, we are very entertaining. I think it's 100% true because, you know, in my past experiences, Formula 3000, Formula 3, all you want to do is win. And obviously Formula 1 wasn't that great. But you always have that mental thing, provided you win every race, and that's fine by us, because you want a technical advantage, you want an advantage on the other guy. That's what you're there to do. I agree totally. You have to stand back and sometimes through the years, there's been some crisis times financially where you have to look back and look at why people spend the money, what attracts them to you. It's not just motor racing. It's because you are providing them with a service like any other sports -- or any other product of entertainment. I think that's something that we are working very hard on and also worked on that side and background and future that we are offering business-to-business development, as well as a reason for people to spend money with you. So it's 100% true what he says, because in their areas, you don't have to worry because NASCAR is a very big machine in terms of marketing. Less sort of technical, but I'm sure when you're involved in it, you're just as wound up in it as if you race Formula 4, Formula 1, whatever, whatever you do is what you're focused on. You do tend to sometimes forget the rest of the world exists.
RYAN HUNTER REAY: For me, it's the same thing. I mean, I go out on a race weekend and it's not necessarily like I, when I put my helmet inside a race, I'm going to go in and change these people. I think when you have so many different people coming together and they have such a passion to win that becomes entertaining. It's through drivers just giving it 110% to win, making those passes that it becomes entertaining. Like for me, my whole life is racing. My whole life revolves around it. It is entertainment. But all I care about is winning and I think it becomes entertainment through that.
Q. You have done a little testing with the team, how are you working together with Mario and how do you foresee you working together as teammates this year?
RYAN HUNTER REAY: Well, as any relationship goes, it will only get better with time and communication. I think the best about Mario and me together is we are going to push each other very hard this year. We are both young guys. We both are right about the same area in our careers, the same situation. We are driving for the same team and race cars that are prepared the same. So we are going to push each other extremely hard this year, and I think that's what's going to really help us with our pace on the track. We also have new engineers, Michael O'Connell (ph), working the team, itself, the crew, everything really for me is working really well right now. I get along great with the crew. I get along great with my engineer, my teammates and we are making a lot of progress on setup changes, on developing the car for the season. For me, I'm very optimistic.
MODERATOR: We open you three days testing on Sebring on Wednesday. Thank you very much for joining us. Best of luck in 2004 season and beyond.
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