Indy Racing League Media Conference
Topics: Indy Racing League
March 18, 2009
TIM HARMS: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us for today's Indy Racing League teleconference. We're joined today by three members of Andretti Green Racing - we have team co-owner Michael Andretti and drivers Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti. Good afternoon, gentlemen.
Andretti Green is the winningest team in IndyCar series history with 34 victories and three championships, the only team that fields four cars in the series. AGR returns all four of its drivers in 2009 for the first time since 2005.
Michael, we'll start with you. I'm sure it's a good feeling to have all four drivers coming back. Can you take a minute and kind of tell us about each of the drivers and what your expectations are for each of them this season?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: First of all, hi, everybody. Yeah, we're very excited that it's the first year since 2005 that everybody is coming back together, and I think continuity is always an important thing, and it's nice to have that going into this year.
You know, I think we have high expectations from all four drivers. I think Tony and Marco are going to have great years, I really feel it, as well as I think Danica. Hopefully we can get her back into victory lane, and we want to give Hideki his first win, which we feel would be really huge for our team if we were able to achieve that, be able to get the first Japanese driver to win a major open wheel race.
You know, we have a lot of incentives for all four guys to be running up front, and we're going to do everything we can as a team to make it happen. So far the testing that we've done, I feel very good about what's been going on, and all the work that we've done over the winter, I think, is hopefully going to pay off, and we'll see at the first race at St. Pete.
TIM HARMS: You did make a couple of changes kind of behind the scenes, some new engineers in some places and also the change yourself, moving over to Danica's radio. What was the impetus kind of behind some of those changes?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: Well, when you make one change, it sort of is like a domino, or a puzzle I should say, and you have to make sure that when you make that move, it's not going to affect this or that. You know, we felt that putting me into the role that I'm going to be playing, which I really need another job like a hole in the head (laughing), but I'm excited about the challenge. But the team as a whole just felt that I would be able to help Danica. You know, she seems to respond to me in a lot of ways, and we felt that I might be able to use some of my experience to help her, and in doing so we moved Kyle back over to Marco, and we also made a change with his engineer. We've moved Eddie Jones, who used to be his engineer, over to Danica, and we have Peter Gibbons, who is coming back to engineering, who engineered me for many, many years in my career and who I think is one of the best in the business, and he's going to be moved to engineer Marco.
And for Tony we have a move that was actually adjusted at the end of last year when Eric Cowdin moved over to Penske and we moved Alan over to him. So we had some changes in the background, but I really, really feel that every single change that has been made has been a real positive for the team. I'm actually quite excited. I think we've hit the right combination for all four cars with this.
TIM HARMS: Tony, you've had at least one race victory in every season in the IndyCar Series, won the championship in 2004, and as Michael just alluded to, some changes for you, too, in getting used to a new engineer that you had worked with for a long time. Tell us a little bit about some of your goals now for 2009.
TONY KANAAN: Well, I mean, every year we talk about the same thing. I think the goals never change, especially when you're a part of the team that is the most successful team in IndyCar Series. So we're looking forward to the championship, and obviously we're looking forward to Indy.
I think the changes were good. It's taking me a little bit of time to adjust with my engineer just because I spent only 13 years with Eric (laughing), so we're not going to do it in a couple tests. But Alan is very good. Alan has been with Dario. They won the championship and the 500 together. He has a different way of working so I'm just getting used to it. But again, I'm excited.
We know what we're going to face, and we know exactly where we needed to improve last year, and I think we're not leaving anything on the table. I mean, the engineers have been working really hard, the drivers, too, so I think we expect to have a great year for sure. The competition is getting tougher and tougher, so we'll see what's going to happen. But I'm excited.
TIM HARMS: One other question for you: Towards the end of last year you wrapped up a new multi-year deal with the team. Does having something like that, especially a multi-year contract, does it change your approach at all, change the amount of pressure that you feel, anything like that?
TONY KANAAN: I mean, as a driver, of course, because I think if you think about you've got to renew again, then you don't think about it in February, but it starts to get up to June you start worrying about it. But to be honest, the pressure is always there. It's not because I sign a five-year deal that I can just say, okay, whatever, they have me and I can just drive around. I mean, a five-year deal can become a two-year deal or a one-year deal if you're not performing. It's all about the team and the performance. I think I wanted to stay there, they wanted me to stay, and hopefully it's more than a five-year deal once I retire or whatever we're going to do after that.
But it's a good feeling because I know they trust me and they know I trust them. But the pressure, we're going to keep adding pressure to ourselves every year, especially if we don't win every championship and every 500. It's just a great feeling to know that I'm part of a family that I'm going to be there for a long time. But it doesn't relieve any pressure on myself I would say.
TIM HARMS: Marco, let's ask you a couple questions here. You've been busy this off-season. I know everybody stays busy in the off-season, but you've had the opportunity to do at least probably more racing than anyone else has, competing in A. 1 GP. How much does that help as you come back into the season and especially the fact that we start the season with two road and street events?
MARCO ANDRETTI: I think it's been huge, you know, because the main thing that I always stress is that it's not just testing race cars, it keeps you race savvy, as well, because I think a small mistake is definitely magnified in a race, so it keeps you really on your toes, and it's a form of training for what we're doing. You know, these cars are pretty physical, and the road courses, as well. It's definitely the most physical of all.
Also the competition over there is pretty tough, too. We're just now getting the hang of this car, unfortunately just towards the end of that season. But we've got a couple more chances at it, I think. Hopefully we have a couple more races over there. I have Portugal in between St. Pete and Long Beach, so I'm definitely going to carry on being pretty busy, but it's definitely the way to go. If you're going to stay busy, you might as well stay in a car.
TIM HARMS: Talk about the IndyCar Series in 2009. Last year you certainly had some great moments like a second place finish at Indy, a few finishes that I'm sure you wish could have been better. Looking ahead, what are your goals and expectations for 2009?
MARCO ANDRETTI: Yeah, I definitely echo Tony. It hasn't changed since I've stepped in, as well. Indy, it's the biggest race in the world. Indianapolis, as a team we've been super competitive there every year, and then the championship, I definitely think we're going to have a shot. I think the word for me this year is definitely consistency because we've led at a lot of different types of racetracks in different years but were unable to capitalize. So this year is going to be -- I'm going to be looking to capitalize at a lot of races. I don't see a weak spot in the championship for our whole team, really, so I think that definitely -- I can't wait to get going.
TIM HARMS: Michael, quickly more on the promoter side, take a look at St. Petersburg. Obviously Andretti Green has been the promoter for that event since day one as it relates to the IndyCar Series. Tell us a little bit about how the event has grown obviously into one of the marquee events on the schedule and now for the first time ever it's going to be the season opener.
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: Yeah, I think we're really excited about that. It's a positive for the event. It's always nice to be the opener, and I can't think of a better place to open the season than down there. I think the setting is just perfect for an auto race and a street race, and we're excited about the progress that's been made there. I think there's going to be a lot of new things that you'll see that are a little different and more things -- we're always trying to do more things to keep the fans busy during the weekend, which I think we're achieving with like the yacht club and things like that.
You know, the encouraging thing, in tough times that we're in right now, I'm happy to say that ticket sales are right there with last year, which we're quite excited about. We're looking for another great event down there, as well as Toronto is going quite well, as well, the ticket sales up there, and also the corporate involvements are quite high. So things are really chugging along up there, so we're excited about that, as well.
TIM HARMS: Let's go ahead and open up for some questions from the media.
Q. Michael, I kind of wanted to ask you a little bit of a question about expectation that you have for your team, and specifically with Marco. You've got Tony who's the veteran, and you've got Danica who last year won her first race. I know that Marco has always been on the cusp of winning more races and challenging for the championship. How much do you see his role improving entering this season?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: I feel real positive about this year for Marco. I think we made some really good changes within his team, and I know he's been working really, really hard, and I think getting him more experience with A. 1 GP stuff I think is going to be good. I think it's really tough right now to be an up-and-coming driver because it's hard to get racing miles or even testing miles anymore because of the rules and everything. Every mile that Marco does, he's just going to be that much better, and I feel that this could really be his breakout year. I feel good about that. And I think it's really important for our team to have him doing well, and hopefully working along with the other three, they all are hitting on all cylinders. This team can be unbeatable.
Q. This is also a question for Michael and for Tony Canaan: With the year's experience that the transition had after coming over from unification, do you see them basically on even par with you guys, and is this really going to create an even more wide-open battle for not only race victories but also for the championship?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: I think if you look at a good example is just the test down in Homestead. There was a lot of the -- I guess you want to call them transition teams were at the top of the scoreboard there. So yeah, I think it's going to be really, really tough because of that, and I think they've had a year and they know what they needed. Coming into this year they knew what they needed to work on over the winter. I would say, yeah, they're going to be right there. I see Newman/Haas and KB especially have definitely improved you can see, so I think they're going to be a real pain in the butt.
TONY KANAAN: I think it's the same thing. I think they have a year under their belt. They're good teams. They're very capable of catching up. Last year they already gave us a little bit of a hard time, so I would say, I mean, right now for sure it's going to be tougher. Newman/Haas, it's always going to be Newman/Haas and KB now with Marco, it's going to be tight. It's going to be tighter than ever. I know every year we say the same thing, but for sure after the transition, this year is going to be tough.
Q. I had a question for Michael and for Marco: Michael, I think you commented about your races, the ticket sales and corporate, but we're in really a tough financial time, I don't have to tell you that. NASCAR has made some cost-cutting things. Is anything going on in your end of it or to consider what's going to happen if things continue along this way?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: I mean, are you talking promoter side or are you talking racing side?
Q. More as a team owner.
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: That's really tough. I think it's making us work extra hard, and we have to really, really give these sponsors a return on their investment. I have to say that almost all our sponsors are returning, so that's an exciting thing.
But yeah, it's a constant challenge, and we're always trying to be as creative as we can to get more business for our sponsors, to get more exposure for them. One thing really works, and that is winning. So if we can hopefully have a big year this year, that will hopefully help us rolling into 2010, which I think 2010 could very well be the toughest of all years
Q. Why is that?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: Well, I think because there's a lot of sponsors that have been on multi-year deals, and that whole challenge will be to be renewing them and things like that. And also I believe that the economy itself has not bottomed out yet. It will probably bottom out around the end of the year, which is when you're trying to get your sponsors in line for the following year. So it's going to be a real challenge.
I'm excited about the series. I think the series is going to be a part of it, and I'm really hoping that the VERSUS thing helps the exposure because that's what it's going to take. We're going to have to show the sponsors that we're going to get a return. We're cautiously optimistic with all the changes that have been going on
Q. And Marco, you talked about that consistency is something you're looking for this year. Could you analyze in a little more detail the parts of your game that have to improve this year to move up the notches?
MARCO ANDRETTI: I just think -- I don't know, I think across the border we're going to be strong on the 26 side because you need it from everybody. When I talk consistency I mean the whole team, but also in my driving, because there's been -- just my whole part, my whole role. I play a big role in trying to make good race cars because that's what lets us do the job.
You know, in the past I've had cars that were just absolutely diabolical and then cars that could win the races, and we were unable to capitalize. So we need to capitalize on days that we have the car to win the race, and on days that we don't, it's going to be the toughest, but that's going to be where I think you make the difference. When the car is not working, that's where it's more into my hands in the race where you just need to bring it home as best the car can do.
Q. Can you talk a little bit about Peter Gibbons? He was with your dad and he's like an icon, and how you get along with him and how that will work out?
MARCO ANDRETTI: Yeah, I've definitely been fortunate enough to kind of get a little bit of a head start in working with him in the A1 stuff. Mechanically the cars are pretty different, but he stepped in late in the season and just kind of got the hang of it straightaway and got me pretty good race cars over there already. And then in the little bit of IndyCar testing we've done so far, it's been almost as good as it could have been.
You know, I love the confidence in him, and does the whole team this year. I'm lucky enough to have a great assistant engineer, and I think the three of us work great together in the room. And then we have Kyle and we have the best mechanics in the business, as well. So I'm looking forward to it from all aspects this year
Q. What about your dad not in your ear this time? You're not going to be hearing your dad and that voice will be different?
MARCO ANDRETTI: Yeah, it's the first time he actually is going to speak on the radio, so it's big for him. I think it's good for Danica, as well, because there's been times where dad sees the race unfolding and just doesn't have the final -- well, he has the final call, but sometimes you have to make the decision too quick and it's already too late. So I think it's going to be great for him.
Q. This is a question for Michael: The rumors on Danica won't go away. We've got NASCAR, now we've got F1. It brings some publicity but can also be a distraction. Can you say what, if any, effect it has on the team?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: I would say none, really. This team is used to that sort of thing. We've always gone through -- it seems like every year we go through something, and that's not a problem. I think we all know what we need to do with Danica, she knows what she needs to do, and we're hoping that she's going to be here for a long time. She hasn't expressed anything to us that would lead us to believe that she doesn't want to be here. So I don't know. It's just that time of the year when people find out that someone is in their final year of their contract, they're just going to latch onto that and come up with all kinds of rumors and all that. We are going to have that, but I think we're close enough with her and everything that that shouldn't be a distraction.
Q. Tony, can you talk a little bit about what you expect this year? We're going to probably see fewer cars I would think, but we'll have some more veteran drivers. How is that going to change things?
TONY KANAAN: I think it's like we just said before, it's going to be the toughest year. We're still going to have, I think, 22 to 23 cars. It's still quite a bit. But the quality is definitely higher and the teams are a step up now that they've made the transition. It's going to be definitely a lot more exciting year, especially some of the drivers switched seats and are going to other teams, and I think that could raise the bar even higher.
You know, it's going to be definitely, I think, a great championship.
Q. The fact that you have that kind of consistency with your team compared to the musical chairs on the other side, how much of an advantage does that give you?
TONY KANAAN: I would say maybe just in the beginning, if we can get a head start, then it's going to be hard to catch. But to be honest, you saw -- we spoke before and we made several changes in the team, too. Although it's still the people that used to work in the team, but we moved some chairs. We also are taking a little bit of time to adjust. The only advantage will be how consistent and strong we can be at the beginning of the year because that's what's going to really dictate who's going to win this championship.
Q. And Michael, F1 is going to the total wins format. What are your thoughts on that? Is that something the IRL would look at?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: The what?
Q. The total wins, F1 is talking about going to total wins now.
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: What do you mean total wins?
Q. Unless I misread what I saw, what they were going to go for --
TONY KANAAN: Mike, whoever wins most races is going to be the champion, it's not going to be by points.
Q. What do you think of that and is that something the IRL would look at?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: To me I don't think that's a champion. I wish it would have been like that certain years for me. I think I would have won a lot of championships. But honestly a champion is the guy that's been the most consistent throughout the year. I think that's how you should be rewarded. I'm not sure if I totally agree with that.
Q. Michael, I wanted to ask you about one of your younger drivers, J.R. Hildebrand, and what you're seeing from him.
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: We've been really impressed with J.R. We liked him so much right away that we actually had him go over -- he's been running the rookie sessions in the A. 1 with Marco and doing a really good job, as well as really being quite quick in the Indy Lights. I think the kid, he's been around a while. He's only 20, but he's done a lot of races and won a lot of races. I actually think he's the favorite guy for the championship, I really do. I think he's got a heck of a shot at it.
Q. Marco, you've had a chance to interact with J.R. what do you think of having him as a teammate down the road?
MARCO ANDRETTI: Yeah, I mean, you know, definitely consider it. Like dad said, we've been working together overseas and stuff like that, and to be honest I've been super impressed with the limited amount of driving that he's had because obviously he flies a long way and just does one session, and he's straight up to speed and he's already given us great feedback, like we're able to actually go on and start the test plan with him, you know what I mean? We've gotten to the point where I don't have to do it again. I don't have to test the items again. We just take his word, and I think he's got a great feel. He already did a great job, he ran Sebring for us, as well, in IndyCar. We're already learning from him a lot. He has the speed, as well. So it's been pretty impressive.
Q. Marco, just lastly, your thoughts on coming back to Sonoma this year?
MARCO ANDRETTI: I can't wait. That place has always been pretty good to me. And especially because I think in the off-season we've been really working on our road course game, in particular just staying in the seat helps, driving go-karts, driving the A1, and setup-wise, as well, we've really been working on our road course cars because I think the four of us, the four AGR drivers, should always be in the top five on the road courses. That's going to be the goal this year. I think that's going to pay big dividends in the championship for us.
Q. Mike, earlier you were talking about -- it almost sounded like you had to be talked into being on a radio this year on Danica's not so much because it was hers but in general like you had to be talked into it. Is that the case?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: Yeah, I caved to peer pressure. I never did in high school, and now I do it now (laughing). I always said I didn't want to do it because just I liked being able to watch for all four cars, but we felt with the moves that we were making that started the, whatever you want to call it, that we had one empty area that we needed to fix, and who suggested it? I don't remember if it was -- it may have been Kyle that did, and so after talking it out and everything, you know, I couldn't argue with the logic of the reasons why to do it, and I really do believe that I can help her.
I think one thing about Danica is she's always really responded to, whenever I've said you should try this, try that, she's gone out and done it and was able to do it. If I'm in it more, just every session, just focused on her, I think that maybe I can help her that much more.
So that's what happened. Yeah, did I really want another job? Not really, but I'm always here. I want to do whatever is best for the team, and so I'm doing it.
You know, I'm a little excited about doing it. I think it's going to be something new and exciting, but it is going to be another job.
Q. Do you think you're going to catch yourself looking at the 26 car occasionally?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: Well, not just the 26 car, all of them. I did that at the test. I was looking up and I started looking at what the other guys were running, and it's like, oh, shit, I've got to watch Danica, she just went by.
Yeah, it's a little bit of adjustment. But it'll be fine. I think once I'm really focused and we're just in the race and we're all about the strategy and what's going on, I think it'll be no problem.
Q. Marco, you've done a lot of racing this season, off-season, I guess. I'm sure that's going to help you on your road courses, but how will that help you on the ovals?
MARCO ANDRETTI: I think any driving is good driving, but I think the oval, like I was really thinking about the Homestead test, like now I've got to think about going left and everything. But we seem to bounce right back into the oval mode, so to speak. I think there it really just -- I think it really puts a demand on like car setup and stuff like that and just having a feel for what you need, and I think if you're able to do that and find the comfort, I think you're able to get the job done, because on the ovals you can only do what the car is going to allow you to do.
Really I think, like I said, any driving is good driving. I've had some -- we've had some good oval cars in the past, so hopefully that will be a good starting point for this year, and hopefully we can just improve on that.
Q. How much input as a driver do you have to your engineer on how to set up your car?
MARCO ANDRETTI: Well, I mean, I would say it's about half and half. I mean, really you've got to tell him exactly what the thing is doing. I think that's what's good about this year. I think my engineer is really going to push me to a new level and really help me think outside the box, you know what I mean? A lot of times I would find myself suggesting something and a lot of times we might go with it when I might not be right. I think this year a lot of times he'll agree with me if the test is going smooth and stuff like that, but a lot of times he'll put his foot down and we'll try something else and it'll turn out to be right. I think it's going to be good. I look forward to working with Pete this year.
Q. Michael, you've got quite a bit on your plate, a four-car team, we've got an expanding season, and you've got the two races that you promote. Is there room for more? And if there is, are you going to be able to deal with additional races or are you just going to look for expanding promoting opportunities?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: Right now we're pretty happy with the way things are. As a racing business you're always looking at different opportunities, and so we're always going to keep our mind open, and then if an opportunity comes up, then you assess it and say, okay, can we or can't we do it, and we'll take it from there. Right now we're very focused on the programs we have going, but that's not to say that there could never be another one that could catch our interest. I hope that answers your question.
TIM HARMS: Thank you for taking some time with us today. We appreciate that. Best of luck obviously on the track and off the track, as well, with the events at St. Petersburg and Toronto.
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