Indy Racing League Media Conference
Topics: Indy Racing League
July 9, 2008
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us for today's Indy Racing League teleconference. Starting the call with us is IndyCar Series driver Helio Castroneves, and Nashville Super Speedway president Cliff Hawks, and in a few minutes we'll be joined by Firestone Indy Lights driver, Richard Antinucci.
Good afternoon, gentlemen. Thank you for joining us. Helio is in his seventh full season driving for Team Penske. He ranks fifth all-time with 12 career victories and first all-time with 23 career poles, and this year Helio ranked second in points and has eight Top-5 finishes in the first ten races and was on the pole at Motegi. This will be the IndyCar Series eighth visit to Nashville Super Speedway.
Cliff, first a question to you and then I'll let you have a question for Helio. The IndyCar Series obviously has had some great races at Nashville in the past. Tell us about the buzz down there as race weekend approaches and is there anything new or different fans can expect this season?
CLIFF HAWKS: Well, this will be our eighth year to host the Indy Racing League, and as always, the ticket sales for the event are very strong. And this marketplace has really embraced the Indy Racing League since year one when we began with the series, and the media has really gravitated to this event, as well, which is always exciting. So the event creates a big buzz in Nashville and throughout middle Tennessee, which we're always excited about.
I would say that fans could expect all of the amenities and things that we offer around the Indy race, including the Fan Walk, which for $10 allows fans to take a tram into the infield and see everything going on in the garage and pit road. We'll also have Kate and Casey Kovala (ph) live in concert prior to the race. They are being featured now on duet on CMT TV, and that's going to be a great, live show leading up to the pre-race.
But I would say that the one thing fans can look forward to, and I know are looking forward to here in middle Tennessee is the larger Car Town this year, and I think that's going to make for an even more exciting race here at the Super Speedway over and above what we've seen in the past, if that's possible.
So I would say that would probably be one of the things that fans can expect to be different and I think is very welcomed.
And Helio, I would just ask you, if you would comment a little bit on what it's like for you and the other competitors to come into a marketplace like Nashville that has really embraced the series over the last eight years, and what it's like to compete in front of the capacity crowds that we have here?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Well, listening to what you say, I totally agree that Nashville, it's one of the places that definitely embraces the IndyCar Series. I think when I was there for the first time, I remember that every time we go there, people enjoy it. And for us, it's an awesome scenario, and it's great to go to a place where you're welcomed.
And, well, we can ask anybody about that. We always feel so pleased about it. I can see that the fans in Nashville, they are extremely excited and enjoy the IndyCar Series there and they definitely go for it.
No question about it, especially the history. I've been promoting the race many, many times; even once that I went to Elvis's studio to record a CD, which thank God I am a very good race car driver; otherwise, I would definitely be in trouble. I think that I can drive and I can dance, but probably not sing.
I have to say that, wow, I mean, with all of these years that I've been in IndyCar Series and Nashville's been part of the championship, no question about it, you can ask any driver, and everyone enjoys it. The track is definitely a challenge because it's concrete. So definitely for the drivers and for the engineers, it's a challenge to find grip but once you have it, there's a great chance you'll be in good shape.
Not only that, it's a unique trophy, having the guitar as a trophy. I do not have that. I really cherish and I really want to have that in my collection, so hopefully this year will be the year.
CLIFF HAWKS: Helio, the guitar is here, and we look forward to having you here this weekend and everyone else from Indy.
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Thank you so much.
THE MODERATOR: You talked a little about the challenges of the concrete surface and the challenge of finding grip on there; is that because it's so bumpy, kind of has a reputation of being a bumpy track?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Well, there are several things. Yes, when you go on to the highway, you feel that they have the seams in a different direction, which makes it very bumpy
But in terms of that, it's not a problem. But concrete definitely versus asphalt, it's just a little bit different. In fact, Firestone, every year they do everything they can to develop a better tire, and I don't think this year is going to be different. They are going to continue working to make it better. It is just the level of grip is just different, which is normal.
You see in NASCAR, I believe it's Dover, also it's a concrete area, so it just depends the way they built the track and it just makes it challenging. When you definitely go above 200 miles an hour on the truck, it is tough and it's cool, and racing at night, it's really fun for the IndyCar drivers.
Yeah, it will be interesting, and I can't tell you how much I want to be there and hopefully I will be learning how to play the guitar.
THE MODERATOR: Let's look ahead at a couple of the other races coming up. We're in this six-race stretch right now. Mid-Ohio is obviously another place that you've had lots of success and you won the pole there last year, and you won two races in CART in 2000 and 2001. Talk about what you enjoy so much about that track.
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Well, Mid-Ohio is a different track obviously than Nashville. You have up-and-down elevations. You have twists and turns, turns right and left, very physical, demanding. But at the same time, it's very fun.
Last year, I do believe it was probably the best I've seen in terms of the public participating and being part of it. You see all of the mountains and the hills that they have there; it was kind of full and everybody was enjoying having the IndyCar Series there.
So for me, Mid-Ohio, it's a very unique place. And once you've figured out what to do, it's fun, too.
THE MODERATOR: How much tougher has the road racing been this year with the addition of the new drivers and teams?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: It's been very competitive. Not only that, but the challenge for new teams and new drivers, it's unique.
But it's great, not only for us to make us better drivers, but especially for the fans. They can see on average, 26, 28 cars in the field; when they have an oval like that, they are facing more traffic and when some of the cars are not handling very good. When you go to road courses, you have more cars to pass for another challenge, as well. So definitely it's been very good for the series.
THE MODERATOR: And one more question from me. Looking even a little bit further ahead to Edmonton, obviously a place you've never raced; how much do you think it will be similar to St. Pete, and have you talked with any of the other drivers, guys like Justin Wilson, Graham Rahal who have raced there to get a feel about it?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: I've never been to Edmonton, but I heard that it's a beautiful place and I heard that the Canadians are really looking forward to having us there.
Well, I can only say that I'm looking forward to it, as well, to be there. But in terms of similarities, in terms of what it's going to look like, I guess I'm going to have to wait and see.
Q. As you said in your opening remarks, you've always enjoyed coming to Nashville, had a great relationship. I talked to Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon last week, and they said the same thing. And having said that, there's a rumor this might be your last trip here; what's your reaction to it, and what's your feelings about it if IRL should drop Nashville next year?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Well, for us, we are not the ones to decide if we should have a race there or not. Definitely for us, we enjoy so much being in Nashville, it's going to be sad if that's true.
But right now, the only thing I can say, I had a lot of fun being with everyone from Nashville, you know, and working with everyone from there. Especially now that I've been part of Dancing With the Stars and Julianne (Hough) living over there, so it will be great to have new friends over there to come and watch.
So for me, Nashville it should be part of the circuit; it's been for so many years, but obviously it's not me that's going to decide if it should be or not. So the only thing I can say, is if it happens, it will be missed.
Q. Helio, how much does it grate a little bit that you've been close here at Nashville but you haven't gotten the win? Is it just a matter of things finally falling into place
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Well, that's part of it. But you know, it's one of those things, I do feel that I want to win as bad as anybody, and probably because I never win here, it's one of those races that you're like, man, I've got to do it, and there's something I need to change to make it happen. And if you ask me, yes, being at the right time at the right time, I think being lucky is part of it, because for many, many years we had mechanical issues.
I believe this year we are more prepared, but you're right, hopefully things fall into place and we are going to be celebrating at the end of the day, or the evening.
Q. I know you talked about Mid-Ohio, looking ahead here a couple of weeks, you scaled the fences here before; what's it going to take for you to do it again in an IRL car?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: No question, this year it's been competitive with the Champ Car guys. But I guess last week unfortunately at Watkins Glen, we had several issues with mechanics, etc., and weren't able to be up front.
We feel we have a very competitive car. Last year we got a pole position and finished in the Top 3 and we feel that this YEAR, we can make crack that first win that we're looking for and probably it will be Mid-Ohio, if not Nashville, which is the one that I'm looking for so bad.
Again, conserving fuel is one of those things that helps a lot to win racing in CART, and last year was the same scenario, as well. I believe if you do the same things, probably it will pay off this year, as well. The only difference is we have more cars thinking like that, as well so, that will be something.
Q. Last year, when this race started, it was such a goofy way they started that race; can you talk about that first lap and the pace car pulling off the top of the key? It seem like a real disjointed type of thing there.
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Yeah, I think if I recall, it was Marco crashing or flipping over or something like that. Well, it's racing and nothing you can predict. I was in pole position and I was doing everything I can obviously to have a decent start and in the same way to not put any harm on my position.
But, you know, it's racing and sometimes driver take unnecessary risks, but you can't blame anybody or the pace car because of what they are doing for the start. But it is what it is and hopefully this year, we'll start the same way but just change a little bit the finish.
Q. Considering what happened with Dario last week, what is the perception IndyCar drivers have of NASCAR? Is it still sort of the land of opportunity, or is the grass looking kind of greener where you guys are right now?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Well, no question about it, if you ask me, many, many people have already asked me about NASCAR, you're always kind of thinking when you see those first incredible drivers, plus the series, it grew so much in the last ten, 15 years. So, yes, you always see it as an option, but it depends on the time and the opportunity.
I cannot speak about Dario, what happened, because I have no idea what's related. But the only thing I can say, IndyCar Series, no question about it, making the merge, it makes more -- it seems to be going in the right direction. We seem to have a bright future ahead of us, and maybe the right opportunity. It's for the IRL drivers and for the open-wheel series is to keep over here because it definitely is going to get better.
So I'm looking to do that. I just re-signed with Team Penske, and I'm extremely happy to hopefully clinch the championship this year, and in the next few years.
Q. You mentioned re-signing. All of the reports I've seen have said you will be in the IndyCar Series long-term, but if Ryan Newman were to leave the stock car side, could you slide over there like Sam did?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Unfortunately that's something that I have not discussed with the team. But one thing I know, in the next few years, I'm definitely going to be in the IndyCar Series, and whatever happens in the future, we've got to see what's the opportunity and the timing.
Q. So the foreseeable future, next couple years you're in the IndyCar?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: I'm in IndyCar in the future, yes.
Q. Forgive me if this is already covered, but after the re-signing announcement, where do you see your future in IndyCar? You've won the biggest race of the series two times; is it just looking for that first championship?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: No, not only that, just because I won the biggest race doesn't mean I don't want to win again. I mean, I want to hopefully, you know, succeed. We're very close to having a third -- I know if I did it once or twice, I know I can do it a third time, and that's my goal. My goal is to continue being there, and as well, the championship. It doesn't matter if you win once; that means, okay, I'm over, that's it, let's go to the next challenge.
The next challenge is to continue being on top, and probably sometimes people don't understand that that is the hardest thing, just to be there. That's why my goal right now is to focus on this year, and I'm extremely happy with the team. I'm happy that they are happy with me as well, and we have been able to get an agreement, and now it's move on.
As I said, the series, it's getting brighter and hopefully it looks like we're going to have good, good, sponsorships for the series, a lot more good things happening to the series, it looks like it's going to happen.
So the only thing that I can see is it's a great opportunity for everyone, not only myself, but for everyone that is part of the open-wheel series, and that's why I want to continue to succeed and accomplish my goals.
Q. Tim Cindric talked the other day and said they never considered another driver for your position. Is there any question in your mind that you would re-sign with Penske?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Not at all, the good news is between Roger Penske and I, Tim Cindric and I, I've always been out spoken about how I've enjoyed staying on the team and they always seem to be very loyal and true, as well. Like I said, as long as I'm competitive and as long as I feel that I can help the team develop and reach their goals, I'm going to continue working as hard as I can, because it's an honor to be part of the Team Penske organization.
Q. How would you grade how the Champ Car drivers are doing so far this year? Are they coming along better than you expected or are they struggling a bit more than you expected?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: You know the short ovals, they seem to be extremely good. I can see that they improve a lot. Maybe for the one-and-a-half-mile oval, it might be a little bit tougher, because we developed this car since 2003, and obviously, you know, little tricks that they still are learning.
We paid that price when we moved to IRL in 2002, and I remember, we had a hard time to keep some time in the Top-6 in those type of circuits.
So I think that they are doing extremely well, and now that we are going to go to road courses, they will be in good shape.
Q. Just talk again about Nashville, looking at your stats, I don't think you've ever led a lap here. What is it about this track that is giving you fits here at Nashville?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Thanks for reminding me of that.
I guess, I don't know, man, my expectation is always to go for it, and sometimes we probably didn't find the right direction, or, I don't know, I always like to be there because I know it's a challenging place. But sometimes drivers can't find a little bit of obstacles, and you just don't know what to do. I've tried everything in the past few years to find the speed and find this kind of scenario.
In a race car, you have to remember there are so many variables that one little thing that may be is right under your nose, and you don't know and you didn't try, so you have to wait for one more year and try it again.
Obviously the testing is very limited. It was a long time that we've tested in Nashville, and when you test, no question, you mind a lot of small details that improve you. So I think that's one of the reasons that we are not able to do so well.
But no question about it, we've been working 24/7 to make sure this year we changed the situation.
Q. I just wanted to talk to you a little bit about the championship. More often than not in your Indy Car Series career, you've been at or right there in the championship, but now you're in another one this year. Has there been -- have you decided to make a change in mind-set for what you want to do for this year's title race, and if so, has it been a minor change from what you've done in the past or has it been a major change for you?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Well, I have to say, I'm feeling different. You know, sometimes people ask, oh, you didn't win a race, and I say, listen, if I can win this championship without winning racing, trust me, we're going to be extremely happy.
But we know how valuable it is to win a race, so we focus not only on the championship; we focus on both, and winning races. But if we don't have the opportunity because the competition is so hard, we are not just going to throw a second or third place or fourth or fifth place away just because we know we cannot win.
I feel that not only myself, it's the time's mentality and focus. Again, we constantly continue working. Having Ryan Briscoe right now on the team, it's a great asset. He's a fast guy and he has a lot of experience, as well, in numerous different race cars, you know, so that actually is also good for us to keep improving.
Again, our team, it's extremely comfortable right now, and yes, we want to make sure we get our first spot and make the gap smaller, every weekend.
So Nashville, no question, we think is the same way.
Q. Last year obviously the guy in front of you, Scott Dixon, was able to rattle off a bunch of wins in this stretch, and this year he did win at Texas; does it give you a boost of confidence that you're staying within striking distance of him?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Absolutely. He knows that, too. Last week, as you can see, he had everything in his hand to make a very comfortable lead on the championship, and by overconfidence, probably, I don't know, or whatever happens, you know, it just slipped away. And that for me is a great opportunity for a comeback. I do feel Nashville is going to be a good race for us.
Q. Everybody works hard in the garage. Are good results just hard work meeting good luck, or is it hard work overcoming bad luck?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Good comment. I have to say that the race starts actually on Friday, and for us, the actual race day, it's basically the results of what you prepared in those practice and qualifying, you know, because like I said, because you have a limited test, you just can't -- you just can't find enough information.
And that's why if you have a team that may right away have all of a sudden get off the truck positive and ready to go, yes, he's lucky and he's going to be much better than most, and it depends obviously on circumstances on the track, which this year is going to be essential. I mean, we are talking about 26 cars, or 28, I don't know.
But we always know that it's second line, second groove in Nashville. It's extremely hard, and when you're facing traffic like that, it's going to be a little bit harder to find a way for people to overtake other guys. That might be crucial.
So again, I do feel that we are going to be looking strong, and hopefully Thursday -- or hopefully Friday, we are going to make our luck on Sunday much better.
Q. Along the same lines, hot streaks, they come and go; is that like finding the magic and having the magic disappear?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: I think so. If it were magic, trust me, I would make sure that we would make everything right, but racing, you cannot predict until the finish lap or the checkered flag.
So what happened last week, I do feel that it just shows that Scott and also the team, they can make a mistake, as well, and that's good for us. They have weak spots, as well, and we hope the momentum keeps going for us, because it will definitely help us in the championship.
THE MODERATOR: Helio and Cliff, thank you for joining us this afternoon, and best of us to both of you on a real successful weekend in Nashville.
We are joined now by Richard Antinucci. Richard is in his second season in Firestone Indy Lights driving for Sam Schmidt Motorsports after competing only on road courses last season and recording wins at Infineon and Mid-Ohio, and in a full year this year, he won at St. Petersburg and Watkins Glen last weekend and leads the Firestone Indy Lights points standings.
Congratulations on the victory last week especially. How tough was it to come from fifth to first on a track like Watkins Glen?
RICHARD ANTINUCCI: First of all, thanks a lot.
Well, it was difficult for sure, but you know, the grid reversal represents the slowest in theory on a normal, natural result of the Top-6 starting in first place for race two, and the fastest guy starting at the latter end of it.
So in theory and in practice, both Matos and myself were probably the fastest, in that order, him being the quickest and me being second quickest. So we moved through the field relatively easy due to our pace, our extra pace that we had on the guys who were starting up front.
The grid reversal managed to make the championship and the racing more exciting and I think it did so, and we got some nice passes, and I think without the yellows, we would have moved to within five laps and that's just how it is. It was pretty good, pretty smooth. If I had Matos' pole sitter to try to pass, that would be a whole different issue. He's fast and he's got the speed to defend himself, and I actually tried to pull away.
THE MODERATOR: We're coming back to Mid-Ohio in a couple of weeks, site of your first victory last year, was that when things really started clicking for you guys last year?
RICHARD ANTINUCCI: Actually it clicked just before then at the race at Watkins Glen. Having done only a part-time schedule last year, only the road courses, we attended five racing weekends, racing weekends, instead of the 12.
So we went to Watkins Glen, having never tested there. We were actually six seconds off the pace in the first test; we chipped away. We ended up the week being one of the quickest cars on the track and I was stuck behind traffic but I managed to pass Mutoh in the race and it was a good representation of a quick car and a quick driver package. We managed to pass him and stay in front and finish fifth from eighth in the field.
What we understood was a lot of how to run the car quickly and to get the best out of the engine running it in the torque and the power band all the time. We chose the right gears, and then we applied that philosophy in Mid-Ohio and it just clicked from the word go.
THE MODERATOR: Now this year, you have the lead in the championship, four of the final races this season are on road courses; do you feel like that puts you in the driver's seat for the championship?
RICHARD ANTINUCCI: No, you know, looking race-by-race, I've won Cup races before, big titles like a world championship, one-off event or two events. I've never won a long-distance championship and I've never done it but I've watched people do it before, and they take it race-by-race and be as humble as they can. I have no choice but to be humble because I'm not exactly running away with a 200-point lead
So I have to see every new oval as a new event for me. And also the road courses, you can't just take it for granted. We have tough competition and Raphael Matos is considered one of the best open-wheel racers in the whole continent. He's also one of the best I've ever raced against. I have a lot of respect for him. He's very fast. We managed to go head-to-head last weekend and gain a lot of points. We do seem to be a bit stronger than the others, but that can change every weekend. I think Frank Perera and Jonny Reid are also an excellent challenge, and my teammates can be fast.
So, you know, given the right circumstances, hopefully we'll get a lot of points out of those next four or five races on the road courses but to prove to the IndyCar people I'd love to get a win on an oval as well.
THE MODERATOR: My next question, this has been your first year racing on ovals, tell us about how that adaptation gone for you.
RICHARD ANTINUCCI: First of all it's an excellent experience. When you're you go struggling on ovals with your car balance, it's a terrible feeling because you're trying to stay within the walls and you're kind of like a sitting duck, hard to defend yourself.
It's as if you are on one big corner and if you have an imbalance it really comes out strong and true quickly; whereas on a road course, you can mask that, you have lefts and rights and different characteristics on the track, so you can break up the rhythm.
On ovals you struggle more.
Basically have had two top twos and three Top-10s and then two top 16s. So 13th and 16th is not exactly my cup of tea and it's not what I race for, neither is ninth place. But Homestead, the season-opener we led most of the laps, finished second. Frustrating to finish second, actually, in those circumstances, but we'll take it, Indy we caught up at the end and almost won the show but we did get second.
On two big representative ovals, we did well and on three others we've struggled. So it's been up-and-down and I'd really like to make that whole curve more consistent.
THE MODERATOR: Driving for Sam Schmidt, he's a guy that's had a series of champions come through his team. Can you maybe take us back to last season and how much did you get to know Sam while racing against him, and then what led you to joining his team during the off-season?
RICHARD ANTINUCCI: Well, we probably got his attention by winning in Ohio. We were definitely faster than them there. We were the fastest that weekend. It was a great weekend. We had a mishap in qualifying and went through the field, the fastest car, pulled away three seconds in seven laps or something, and we had almost half a second up and Alex Lloyd was the dominator until then. We proved we were probably as quick as him or quicker on the road courses are when we went to Sonoma. Qualified on the pole comfortably and he won the first race, and we charged from 7th and won the second
After that, he just came and spoke to me, after things were done, the season was over, and we just had a talk. And yeah, I think, you know, we have a lot of respect for each other and he's given me a great opportunity, through him, Lucas Oil and Lifelock, they have given me a great deal. They have brought people forward from that 7 car and I just hope to continue that trend.
THE MODERATOR: What types of things does Sam do to help develop drivers like yourself? He's somewhat of a hands-on owner. Is he there for advice, or what are the things that you've gained from him?
RICHARD ANTINUCCI: Absolutely. First of all, he's a very intelligent person. He thinks a lot and he listens to anyone; he has time for anyone. So in my case, he's also a big fan of mine. I'm racing for his car and I am one of his products this year. Him and I get along very well. I think already last year I felt comfortable speaking to him. He's won races on ovals and he has a lot of good advice, and he's also seen a lot of drivers do the right things and then do the wrong things, so he can definitely give you advice.
He's not one to force you to do something or to force advice on you. He'll just let it out there and if you want it, pick it up. But I definitely go out of my way to speak to him and to learn. He's made me a better driver I think this season and prepared myself for better first-case scenarios, coming up to do ovals, for example, preparing me on what to expect and stuff and it's worked out well so far.
Q. Is every race like a roller coaster ride of emotions and sensations, or has it become routine to you after finishing up your rookie year?
RICHARD ANTINUCCI: Well, I've never gotten used to the butterflies or whatever it is and expectations for the weekend. I try to perform and as flatly and not be as emotional as possible, but inside is not what you show on the outside. And hopefully, with experience, not just last year racing in the Indy Lights, but having raced since 2000 in motorsport cars and stuff, you know, you tend to become -- to perform more consistently.
But the emotions inside, I feel adrenaline every time. It's like you don't get used to it and you're like, damn, this makes me get old. So I always have those emotions and there's always turmoil, but just try to bunch it up all together and get the best out of it without showing those emotions.
Q. Also, do you feel that the ability for race car drivers, do you think the ability to adjust and to adapt is probably the best skill that you could have or that any driver could have?
RICHARD ANTINUCCI: I think that is the best skill, you get to a new track, learn it as quickly as you can, and be on the pace as soon as you can.
Also I think IndyCar car is one of the best championships in the world for that, too, because they throw short ovals at you, long ovals, speedways and street circuits and road courses. There are not many series out there that have such a great mix. So it does put the driver and his adaptation skills to the test.
THE MODERATOR: Richard, want to thank you again for joining us and wish you the best of luck this coming weekend.
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