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Indy Racing League Media Conference

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Open Wheel Racing Topics:  Indy Racing League

Indy Racing League Media Conference

Paul Dana
Bobby Rahal
Tom Slunecka
January 23, 2006


TIM HARMS: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us for the Indy Racing League teleconference. We have a special announcement today from Rahal Letterman Racing, and we have three guests on the line to participate in the call, including Rahal Letterman Racing co-owner and team founder Bobby Rahal. We also have IndyCar Series driver Paul Dana on the line. And Tom Slunecka, the executive director of the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council, which is a non-profit alliance of Ethanol industry leaders that have come together to grow the consumer demand for Ethanol. At this time I'll turn the call over to Mr. Rahal and let him share the team's announcement with us.

BOBBY RAHAL: Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone. It's my privilege and pleasure to announce today that Rahal Letterman Racing has agreed to terms with Paul Dana to drive the No. 17 Panoz/Honda in this year's IndyCar Series, and to also welcome the Ethanol and its attendant partners to our team as well. We're obviously quite excited about partnering with Ethanol, particularly as I note today that the price of oil was over $68 a barrel. So I think the relevance of what's going on in the Indy Racing League with Ethanol powering the cars this year in part makes the relationship between us I think even more meaningful, I suppose. Of course, to bring Paul into the team and really give him the ability to fulfill his goals and to go out and be competitive, which I know is what he wants, we're glad that the two parties chose us to join with them.

TIM HARMS: Paul, you're coming back as a rookie in the IndyCar Series. You had the three races last year, then unfortunately missed the rest of the season after the accident at the practice for the Indianapolis 500. I know you're excited about this deal. Give us your perspective, the importance of this relationship.

PAUL DANA: Well, my head's spinning I'm so excited. It's a huge honor. You work your whole career to make it to the IndyCar Series in the first place, and then from there to try to end up with a top-flight team that can give you the equipment to show what you can do. I'm blown away to be able to have an opportunity to work with a legend like Bobby and his whole team. Obviously, last year was kind of a frustrating deal with breaking my back so soon in the season and not really getting my feet on the ground. I've been working out hard. I'm fully recovered. I'm stronger than I've ever been in my life. Mentally my head is clear, I'm ready to go. The Ethanol industry, we're sponsored by a world class group of companies that represent an amazing American success story. Our program was looking for a long-term home with a world class race team, and we believe we found that with Rahal Letterman. Just the couple weeks I've been working with the guys on the shop floor, they exude that professionalism, intensity in everything they do. It's real clear this is a great opportunity and I intend to make the most of it.

TIM HARMS: Tom, you're executive director of the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council. You have been working with Paul the last couple years, and of course last year first foray into the IndyCar Series. This year, in addition to the change over to Rahal Letterman Racing, the league as a whole moving to the 10% Ethanol blend, then in 2007 going to a hundred percent Ethanol. Tell us from your perspective what this announcement means for the Ethanol folks.

TOM SLUNECKA: Well, without a doubt the Team Ethanol is just thrilled to be partnering with the Rahal Letterman Racing team to promote this high-performance attributes that Ethanol has. Consumers need to learn more about Ethanol, and there's just no better way of proving performance than to be a part of Indy Racing. All of the companies that are a part of our coalition, primarily our main sponsors that are helping to fund the race car, just couldn't be more thrilled with the decision how this thing has come together in only our second year of sponsorship.

TIM HARMS: Let's go ahead and open it up for some questions.

Q. Bobby, this is your third car for the group, third driver. Had you been planning to have a third entry or did you do this because Paul was available?

BOBBY RAHAL: Well, I mean, we'd been planning. Actually, we ran three cars last year. Particularly Indy, definitely thought that was a positive. Of course, we had the cars and we had the people. Unfortunately, as time went on, we did have to let a few people go, which we regretted, but just because of the situation. Then, you know, it evolved fairly quickly. Paul got in touch with us. As I said, already having the infrastructure and what have you to run multiple cars, I think that was probably an attraction to him, although I don't want to speak for him. Obviously, I think we've had some degree of success over the last several years. For us, it was an ongoing effort to continue to run three cars and just all the pieces came together.

Q. Paul, in your rehabilitation, you mentioned something about being mentally fit to be back in the car. Was there some trepidation getting back into the race car, overcoming the accident that you had?

PAUL DANA: I don't know. I'll tell you tomorrow morning when I drive the thing for the first time, to be honest. I don't believe it will be an issue. Certainly, you know, when you're competitive and you're trying to stay in a competitive zone, what you end up doing is you build on your positive experiences, and you focus on what about that made it positive where you were at, how that came about. We had a lot of success with the Hemelgarn Racing in the Infiniti Pro Series. I went into last year feeling really excited about the opportunity at a good place. Obviously, we had an uncompetitive run and then I got hurt. It kind of knocks you off balance a little bit. There's not a lot a lot you can do about it when you're in a back brace, to be honest with you, other than sit and watch. I was able to be on the roof last year and help spot with Jimmy, our replacement driver a little bit, and hang around the team. When you step aside from the cockpit a little bit, even though it's not your choice, you look at the whole race team operate, it gives you just a different perspective. I certainly tried to learn as much as I could last year as an observer. Then it was real important, as soon as the doctors let me, to hit the weight room hard and just hammer on the workouts. What that does is it just gets you competitive again, it gets you aggressive again. You know either you're excited about it or not, and certainly I'm extremely excited to get in and do it right and, like I said, hopefully show what I can do.

Q. Bobby, in your first conversations with Paul, were you concerned about where he was mentally or could you see that racing fire in his eyes?

BOBBY RAHAL: I wasn't concerned. I mean, Paul is a competitive guy. Fortunately, it never really happened to me. But being injured is something that happens in this sport. Anybody who gets into it understands that. So I think the idea that you have an incident, somehow that's going to put you off, I don't think -- it may happen, but I don't think it happens very often. Certainly Paul, you could just tell by the way he spoke, the commitment he had and the desire to really be with our team made it clear to me that this was not going to be an issue. If anything, I think he can be confident that he's going to have one of the best cars out there. Really that takes a lot. It adds pressure in one sense, but it takes a lot of pressure off in another, in the sense that you don't have to worry about whether you're getting the right stuff or not, whether the car is set up right or not, you know it is, and it's down to you. Ultimately, that's what every drivers wants.

Q. A 24-HOUR Daytona question. 1981 I think it was that you won.

BOBBY RAHAL: That's right.

Q. Is that your favorite memory of a 24-HOUR Daytona or is there something else when you look back at racing that race that really stands out in your mind?

BOBBY RAHAL: Well, I mean, I only did it a couple times, and that was by far the best year we had. In fact, I think, if I remember correctly, in 1983 we ran a prototype car, we had pole position. I think it was '83. Actually, it went very, very well in the race. We ended up unfortunately falling out right towards the end. But it was still a pretty good effort. That race is a difficult race. It's so much harder in my mind than, say, LeMans in France, because so much of it's run in the darkness. It really puts a lot of demands on the drivers. Of course, now they lit the place up a lot more than it was back then. But it's still a very busy racetrack, a lot of cars. Certainly I'd say that's my favorite memory. But having said that, my son is racing his first 24-Hour this year with an extremely good team, Porsche. I think if he were able to do well, that might surpass those feelings I had in 1981.

Q. Big week for you.

BOBBY RAHAL: It is a big week. My hat's off to Scott Roembke, my right-hand guy, the organization. I'm going to be in Florida, and they're all going to be out in Arizona testing. It's extremely important that we get off on the right foot down there. Of course, everybody will be there. I think everybody's anxious to get going. It's a busy week, but a good week.

Q. Bobby, used to be the deal was to have a two-car team. That would put you ahead. How important now is it to have three or more? What does the third car give you that maybe two don't?

BOBBY RAHAL: Well, I think more than anything, particularly as testing becomes even more restricted, which it is this year comparative to last, the more cars you have out there, the more information that can be extracted. Obviously it's critical that the three cars are able to contribute to the program. I think that certainly has given much of the reason as to why we did so well at Indy over the last several years, that we had three strong cars, three very good drivers, three people who could really contribute and participate in that process. We certainly aren't going into this year feeling any different about how we're going to do that. I think it's an advantage, a huge responsibility that comes with it. There's a lot of people involved, a lot of moving parts, so to speak. In the end, if it's managed correctly and organized correctly, I think it pays dividends. No question about it, if you look at Andretti Green, perhaps ourselves over the last several years, you've got to have -- I think having more than two cars is an advantage.

Q. Does Graham have permission to pull an all-nighter this weekend? The lineup for that race, what an All-Star lineup. This is quite a teeth-cutting, whatever you want to call it, moment for him, isn't it?

BOBBY RAHAL: Just about anybody who is anybody is driving this weekend. There's a tremendous number of the Daytona Prototypes. I do think he's probably in the best Porsche in that class in the field. He's with three extremely good drivers that have been successful in Porsches. I think the potential is very, very good. But as anybody will tell you that's ever driven one of those races, so many things can happen. Just staying out of everyone's way is half the battle. As I told Graham the other day, I said, "I'm not worried about you hitting somebody. You got to worry about getting hit." It's going to be a great experience for him, but he's done great in the car so far. With the kind of co-drivers he has, the team management in Tony Dow, I don't think he could ask for better.

Q. Paul, is this as big a moment career-wise for you thus far? I don't know if "break" is the right word because you kind of made this happen yourself. Where does this moment rank in your racing moments as far as the big break or whatever?

PAUL DANA: Easily it's the top. That's 'cause, you know, Rahal is the top. Like I said earlier, to be able to learn from a guy like Bobby who has done it all in the car and done it all as an owner outside of the car, like I mentioned, the guys I had a chance to work with a little bit, at least initially here on my car, Jimmy Prescott is going to be the crew chief, we're going to start working with Tim Rider as an engineer. Both those guys have been with Bobby since forever. The team manager there, Steve Dixon, has a huge amount of success back in Indy Lights days bringing young drivers along, all the Brazilians like Kanaan and Castroneves. Along with Ray with Danica recently. Then with Roembke running the ship. Everywhere you turn there, you're surrounded by people who are absolutely some of the best in the business. Like Bobby said, that actually makes it easier, I hope. You're not worried about whether the bolts are tight and whether the setup is right. If at any point you're wondering if that's true, you have two teammates to compare to and learn from. Like he said, I just have to drive. You spend your whole career trying to create that environment where all you have to do is push the pedals and then focus on the process, and the results tend to take care of themselves.

Q. What kind of pressure does that bring in its own self? Everybody thinks you have all the parts. What kind of pressure does that bring to perform?

PAUL DANA: I don't think it's any different. You don't do this at this level unless you expect to win. That's always your standard. You just want to be surrounded by people who have the same attitude and the ability to do it. The standard doesn't change at all. The tools with which to accomplish it have changed. That's what we all want.

Q. Bobby, a hometown question involving Danica. Do you have higher expectations for her and how has her maturity level changed over the past year?

BOBBY RAHAL: Well, I think my expectations are certainly higher this year than they were a year ago because I felt that she was right at the beginning, much like where Paul is right now. You know, the first thing first was to get that experience and to fit within the team structure. Now this year, one year later, particularly given the kind of year she had last year, I think we all, probably she more than anybody, expects to be right there every race in a position to potentially win it. She proved a lot to me last year, how she dealt with the pressure. I think there's very few people that could have dealt with it in the manner that she did, especially for someone so young. Our expectations are greater, but really probably no more so than her own. I think they're realistic. So we're excited about the year. I'm very excited about what the year brings for her because I think it's her year to shine. The same for Buddy. Buddy went through a rough patch last year. Knock on wood, we won't have to deal with that again this year. I feel good about -- as good as you can ever feel, I feel that good about the new season.

Q. Last year we saw the Ethanol car on the track at Indy for the first time. Really made a lot of folks stand up and say that the fuel can perform, do the kind of things that a race car fuel needs to do. What has been the talk among the drivers as we get closer to actually putting this fuel in the tanks and putting it on the track?

PAUL DANA: There hasn't been a whole lot of talk because obviously we're just entering the first season where we're running a t10% Ethanol, 90% Methanol blend. Actually, Rahal was one of the teams that participated in one of the first on-track tests with that with Honda just a few months ago to compare where they needed to be with their engine map pings compared to straight Ethanol. We're just in the first few weeks of that process. I think the drivers I've talked to, they understand first and foremost that a healthy series needs new sponsors and new committed groups that are looking to market through it. Any aggressive sponsorship package like the one we've put together is welcomed. From a technical standpoint, they're both alcohol fuels and they burn very, very similar. So one of the reasons this transition has happened is there aren't any significant technical hurdles to it. It's kind of a non-issue for the drivers, especially since it's not our car we're talking about. This whole program is structured about a league-wide change that's the rule. It doesn't matter for the drivers really what the fuel is. It's the same for everybody. They know that the on-track competition is as close as possible. Certainly from the sponsor's perspective, Fagan Inc., Brian Companies and ICM are charter sponsors on the program, they've taken a huge leadership role in the industry by putting thing together. It's just comes down to positioning the fuel as if it's good enough for 220 miles an hour with the fastest race cars in the driver, with the fastest drivers, at the most famous racetrack in the world, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway , it's good enough for your street car. Tom Slunecka and the group have a whole PR, marketing, advertising campaign built around that message. It's properly structured marketing programs like this that add health to the series. I think all the teams and drivers I've spoken to understand that.

Q. Paul, can you explain the difference between going into this year and last year. Last year you went in with a major horsepower disadvantage in the team you were in. With everybody getting equal engines, does that bring a big comfort level to it?

PAUL DANA: Yeah. I mean, obviously last year, it seemed Honda was the one to beat. Now everybody's got it. I think it will make the series a little bit more competitive, might condense the grid a little bit. Last year the teams that had Honda had half the field beat. No one has that advantage this year. The devil is in the details. The competitive teams and competitive programs are in everything from how the receptionist answers the phone in the morning at the team to the last little bit of preparation in the shop floor, having a depth of engineering resources to really push the envelope. That's where you win or lose. Certainly Rahal with the three-car structure and the their package the last couple years, it's a gigantic advantage for me to operate in that environment. I'm definitely looking forward to it.

Q. What about the transition to the Panoz? Do you think that's going to be an issue at all?

PAUL DANA: Yeah, I don't know. Like I said, I've been working out on my shifter kart, doing some tests in lower level formula cars to warm back up. I haven't actually driven an IndyCar. Tomorrow morning will be the first time since my injury. I've talked to the engineers a little bit. They say it will definitely feel a little bit different, but in a good way. They think it will be a little more predictable, a little more forgiving. You go through fitment in the shop, you think it feels right, but you don't know what it will be until you get hit with five g's. I'm sure it will be fine. The main thing is last year we were sort of developing a race team and driver at the same time. We've eliminated a whole bunch of variables. We're going to know that the car's right. It should just allow me to focus.

Q. Tom, could you talk a little more about those stepped up marketing efforts that Paul mentioned. Also, what is this going to mean as far as exposure for the Ethanol brand stepping up to the Rahal team?

TOM SLUNECKA: Well, I think the Ethanol industry just couldn't be more thrilled with this opportunity for us to get into a Class A team like the Rahal Letterman. With that type of backing, we're confident that the Ethanol and our E brand will be seen by millions more people. The campaign has been rolling now for just a little bit less than a year. Our exposure level is really at an all time high. We're finding consumers all over the countryside that see the E, whether it be on some of our promotional materials or wearables that some of our sponsors are wearing. They'll come up to them and say, "Gee, that's that IndyCar. That's amazing that you guys are helping to make this transition and get this American fuel into this great American race." Some of our efforts are going to include, we'll have more radio, some television, and a lot more print campaigns that are going to be out this year telling consumers in areas where they don't see Ethanol advertising how good it is and why this is the fuel of choice for the future.

TIM HARMS: Gentlemen, we thank you for taking the time to join us this afternoon. Again, congratulations on the exciting announcement. We wish you the best of luck in bringing it to great success in 2006.

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