Champ Car Media Conference
Topics: Champ Car
Cristiano da Matta
June 9, 2006
ERIC MAUK: Thank you very much. I'd like to welcome everyone to today's Champ Car media teleconference.
As the majority of you know already from the release that was put out by RuSPORT this morning, we are here to discuss the driver situation at RuSPORT. They have announced today that 2002 Champ Car World Series Champion Cristiano da Matta is taking over the #10 RuSPORT Ford/Cosworth/Bridgestone effective immediately, which will begin with the GI Joe's Presents The Champ Car Grand Prix of Portland, where Cristiano is the champion, taking his 12th career win there one year ago.
We are joined today by the owner of RuSPORT, Carl Russo, as well as Cristiano da Matta. Thank you for joining us today.
First question for Mr. Russo. Tell us a little bit about the developments surrounding this announcement.
CARL RUSSO: Well, I guess the question that's on everybody's mind is what happened with AJ. If I can just sort of take everybody back there, I think as everybody's aware, we formed the team at the end of 2002 to go compete in the 2003 Atlantic season. We did a driver runoff and chose AJ. AJ has been with us ever since.
With the state of open-wheel motorsport at the time, I guess it's possible that if not for RuSPORT, AJ might not be where he is today. But I can tell you for certain that if not for AJ, we wouldn't be where we are today.
His talent, his efforts, his drive has certainly helped the team get to this point, and I consider him to be and still consider him to be amongst the most talented racers I have ever seen.
Having said that, there are times as you grow a business and grow a team where perhaps the growth curves of both the driver and team might be better suited to a change in environment. We came to that decision basically a couple of days ago and decided to move forward.
Obviously, I'm looking forward to AJ getting into an environment that enables him to continue to grow. We will do the same here at RuSPORT.
ERIC MAUK: Cristiano has made the first four starts of the Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford season with Dale Coyne Racing, earned a top five right out of the box at Long Beach, is ninth in the championship points, but just 14 points out of the top five.
Cristiano, tell us a little about your feelings on today's announcement. Obviously, a big step for you.
CRISTIANO da MATTA: Yeah, it's obviously a big step for me. Was actually a big surprise, too. Everything happened so quickly. It was just a great opportunity. You know, I'm on my sixth year on Champ Car racing, and I've only really had a chance to win and to go after the championship in two of my years. I feel like with RuSPORT now, I'm going to be able to go on and be a contender for the race win every weekend. I think it's just a great opportunity for me.
ERIC MAUK: Congratulations to both of you. We look forward to seeing you on the racetrack at Portland International Raceway next weekend.
We'll go ahead and open it up for questions.
Q. Obviously nothing against Cristiano's talent. AJ was the only American in the series. Those of us who write for primarily American publications can rely on him for some kind of perspective there. Certainly that had to be part of your decision, they were going to lose that.
CARL RUSSO: Well, there's no question that that's the case. When we founded the Atlantic team, we started with two American drivers, Aaron (indiscernible) and AJ Allmendinger. We are an American team. Our goal is to be the best open-wheel motorsport team in North America.
Having said that, I believe you're going to find AJ is going to probably be in the paddock. He's far too great a talent to not be in the paddock. I suspect he's going to be in a competitive ride. I don't know that, but I suspect that will be the case.
Part of this decision was do we think we lose AJ to the paddock. I think the answer there is no.
By the way, you could always rely on AJ for a perspective, because that's AJ. I think he's going to continue to do that.
You know, let me state clearly, AJ has been a winner in every series he's ever been in. He's going to win in this one, too. I have no doubt.
Q. You're confident he'll stay in Champ Car?
CARL RUSSO: Am I confident? I would be surprised if he does not, so I would certainly give odds on that he will.
Q. Carl, again going back to the theme here about focusing somewhat on AJ's departure, we are to understand that this was a decision that was made by the team, not by AJ?
CARL RUSSO: This was a decision that was made by the leadership cadre of the team. We are going to do what we think is in the best interest to move to the front of the field, try to go and compete with Sebastien, because it's getting annoying.
Q. If you could just talk about some of the things obviously that Cristiano brings to the team. Again, if we can all put aside the circumstances surrounding AJ, obviously, you're bringing a former champion and a guy who has a lot of experience and talent to the team. If you could talk about what he brings to the team.
CARL RUSSO: Well, I think you framed it correctly. Both AJ and Cristiano are multiple champions at multiple levels. The difference is at the margins. Cristiano, as you know, is a former champion. He's both a great person in and out of the car.
But one of the things that we think we're going to benefit from is the wealth of technical expertise, the background, the Formula One experience, et cetera, to help us continue to drive the technical side of the equation forward.
We have we think a very strong technical staff. We're looking forward to benefitting from Cristiano's experience there.
Having said that, you know, make no mistake about it, we think Cristiano is a great racer, a great qualifier, and somebody that's great speed, and showed a lot fighting his way back into the paddock at the beginning of this year. So we're looking forward to him to go to the front immediately.
Q. If last year is any indication, what happened with Oriol Servia going from Dale Coyne Racing, this means you'll finish no worse than second in the championship this year, correct?
CRISTIANO da MATTA: Okay, I'll be on the case.
Q. Carl, a lot of times RuSPORT talks about trying to develop a culture around the team. Would you say at this point that AJ was no longer fitting into the culture or vision that you had for the team?
CARL RUSSO: So the answer is no, I don't think it was a cultural statement. By the way, we appreciate your pointing that out. It is very much a focus of what we're trying to do. It really came down to our perception of the growth rate of the team, the growth rate that AJ was on. There are times in any cultural dynamic when a change in the scenery will allow someone to break out and continue to grow at a fast rate. We felt that growth rate was slowing down, and we wanted to give both the team and AJ an opportunity to do it.
It was not a cultural mismatch. I mean, it would be hard for that to happen, AJ having been here since the founding of the team. But very good question.
Q. Cristiano, I know we talked earlier this year and you said you went to drive for Dale because you wanted to stay in the Champ Car series and keep your face out there. I'm sure you couldn't have imagined an opportunity like this would have come along so quickly. Can you talk about your hopes of working with RuSPORT and Justin Wilson?
CRISTIANO da MATTA: In all my years, I only had really a chance to fight for a race win every weekend the two years I was in Newman/Haas before. I mean, all the other years I was running in teams that were not as competitive that would maybe give me a chance to win a race here and there, but not be a consistent race winner. Having a chance to win every weekend, I think it's just a great opportunity. I think RuSPORT is the team to be in at this moment in Champ Car.
I really -- what I really appreciate on them looking at the outside is the fire, how hard they try just going after, you know, Newman/Haas and Sebastien.
I like this. We'll do whatever it takes to go after these guys and maybe, you know, one day we're going to obviously eventually beat them.
I think that's the type of mentality I have, too, so I think we'll fit very well together.
With Justin, I know Justin -- I don't know Justin extremely well, but I know him a bit. We've been always good friends. We've been always very respectful in the racetrack, out of the racetrack. I'm sure from what I know from his personality and I know from my personality, we're going to have a very good time working together.
CARL RUSSO: I think we have now found the tallest and shortest driver in the paddock. I don't know how you market it, but there you have it.
Q. Carl, when this team made the decision, and it was presented to AJ, you said this was a move that was good for both the team and AJ, did AJ think it was a good move for him? The second question is, AJ is outspoken, always has been. Was that part of the reasoning for parting of the ways?
CARL RUSSO: On the first one, obviously, I can't tell you what AJ thinks. But, you know, in my conversations with AJ, look, AJ is a professional. He understands what we're doing and why. I think he's going to go about a deliberate process of making his decision for his next career move. I think he'll make a very good decision.
As far as being outspoken, you know, AJ has been outspoken since the first minute we tested him. If that was going to be an issue, it would have been an issue from that day. I don't think I'm known for being particularly shy either.
Absolutely not. We expect all the members of the team to express themselves in ways that they're comfortable with. AJ does that, as does Justin. They're two different styles, but absolutely not, we want them to be complete people.
Q. Was there an issue that brought this to a head? I'm also curious about AJ's reaction to the news.
CARL RUSSO: There was no incident, any instance. It was a team that was, again, a unanimous decision by the leadership team of the team. It was made some 48 hours, 72 hours ago. So, no, there's no one thing that I would point to and say, Look, there it is.
Your second question was?
Q. How did AJ react to this?
CARL RUSSO: As a professional athlete. Understood, disappointed. But, you know, on a personal note, I have a lot of mixed emotions about this. You know, he and I started something way back when together at some level. I obviously only wish him well and very much want him to succeed.
I think he probably feels the same way, but you'll have to ask him.
Q. Carl, I know you've answered this question already kind of, but was it entirely a results-driven decision? Were there any other factors involved in this at all?
CARL RUSSO: Yeah, it's a great question. Most of our decisions are rarely results based. They're more looking at how the person is developing in the role. If you want to look at results, AJ is either I think tied for fourth or fifth in the points, I don't remember which. One could argue that he's on the points and coming up.
It's not a results issue. It's a growth curve issue. We want AJ to grow as fast as he can. We want the team to grow as fast as we can. It's a whole set of little subtle points.
Q. Cristiano, this is the second year in a row that Dale Coyne has lost a big-name driver during the season. What was his reaction when all this started to come about?
CRISTIANO da MATTA: Well, Dayle obviously wasn't excited about it. It's a difficult situation for him, too. But I think he understands my situation and he knows very well where his team is at, you know, in the paddock and where RuSPORT is at in the paddock. He's been a driver before. He recognizes that it's just a hell of an opportunity for me and I just couldn't let it slip.
Obviously, he wasn't happy by the time it happened. But I'm sure when he puts his head on the pillow at night, he understand my side, too.
Q. Carl, if a driver of Cristiano's caliber and perhaps even Cristiano specifically not been available, would a change have happened?
CARL RUSSO: Well, that's a great question. I don't even know how to answer it. I don't know. Great question. I guess my answer for you is I actually don't know.
Q. Is there any other driver you considered?
CARL RUSSO: Oh, we considered many, sure. We always keep an eye on drivers all the time, just as we always keep our eyes on mechanics and engineers and talent. We're trying to build a performance business. I think the leadership of any business like that has the responsibility to constantly be looked at people, talent, cultural fits, et cetera. That's an ongoing process, much like you may remember, we had an eye on Justin last year, the previous year, when he was at Mi-Jack. We would often tune into his radio, listen to what he was doing.
It's just what you do automatically. But we obviously rate Cristiano highly. I mean, to be clear, he was the unanimous choice on each of the leadership members of the team's list. There was never a question of who was first. He was available, and so we went forward.
But I don't know how to answer your question. I really don't know.
Q. I think you made a hell of a choice. If anybody had any doubts, it shows you are thoroughly serious about this business.
CARL RUSSO: We're thoroughly serious and we're certainly looking forward to Cristiano getting accustomed to the team and going and performing. We wanted to try and maybe right a wrong because we thought that Justin should have won at Portland -- never mind, I shouldn't say that (laughter).
Q. Carl, was this decision maybe sped along by the fact that it has become obvious with Paul Tracy's faltering here with Forsythe, that now Justin and the RuSPORT team has become the lead attack unit to try to stop that hamburger car?
CARL RUSSO: Well, we don't refer to it as 'the hamburger car'. We have other invectives that we use. Look, at the end of the day, let's put a frame around this. Sebastien is driving extraordinarily well. As we have said, Newman/Haas is the standard bearer for the series. That's not to discount Forsythe, Mi-Jack, HVM, PKV, Team Australia. All the other teams in the paddock, every team is trying to get to the front.
Having said that, it's very clear that Sebastien has come back over the winter, he got married, and he's making it clear that he's not giving it up. What does that require us to do? I mean, believe me, down to every person that's a member of RuSPORT, we are working night oil to go figure out a way to get in front of them and compete in this championship.
Justin sits second. We believe that Cristiano, with his background, his talent, anybody that knows Cristiano knows that he's a fair and upfront competitor, competes in everything he does, we think that's going to help continuous technically forward to do that.
Somebody's got to do it, so I'm getting tired of it, how about you?
Q. Cristiano, what do you think you and Justin have to do to stop that #1 car? They already talked to this guy about running the table. What do you think you and Wilson are going to have to do in your position to try and stop Sebastien?
CRISTIANO da MATTA: Well, I think what we have over there, Sebastien and Newman/Haas, they just have probably a little bit more continuity. They're older in the business than what we are right now. I think we have to do what I've seen so far from RuSPORT, which is I haven't had much time, but from what I've seen so far, what I can see from the outside, I think it's just a matter of we don't have to do anything, we just have to keep working the way we are working right now. I think the results will come. It's just a matter of a little bit of time.
I think it's more than fair to say that the gap has closed quite a bit from last year to this year. We'll try to keep on closing this gap more and more. We are aware of that in many types of racetracks, we are actually a little bit better than Newman/Haas are probably. I've seen Justin driving some really good races, mostly on the road courses. Looks like we are in very, very similar levels at Newman/Haas. Some of them we just need a little bit more consistency. That comes with time. We just have to keep on working. It's nothing different than what we're doing here. We just have to keep doing the same and be a little bit patient, of course, but it will come.
Q. Carl, you've been asked this a couple times. I guess I want to ask it again. AJ hasn't won. Did that have any bearing at all on you maybe looking into the horizon and saying that maybe I need him to win sooner than I think he's going to win?
CARL RUSSO: Zero. Not a bit.
Q. It was all a growth issue, where he stood in his driving career and his personal development?
CARL RUSSO: Yeah, it's just like anything else in life and business. If you start managing to results in a business, truthfully I think you're following a fool's folly. What you're trying to manage to are causes, not results. That's all about personal growth, the team growth.
You know, to Cristiano's point, we say the same thing. Our goal this year is to put both gentlemen in a position where they can qualify up front and be in a position to compete for the win. If we do that, we're going to get wins.
You don't go home and stomp your feet if you don't win. You go home and say, Okay, what happened? Let's postmortem this, figure out what we can improve and go forward. It's not just that way in the team.
Q. You have two drivers now with Formula One experience. Does that indicate where you'd like to build your team maybe with a kind of Formula One attitude maybe, maybe even a Formula One growth pattern out in the horizon somewhere?
CARL RUSSO: Actually, we'd rather go for a professional wrestling sort of approach. For those of you who remember Woody Hays going off the end zone and tackling, I'm going to go off the end zone and tackle Sebastien if this stuff keeps up.
No, I mean, all kidding aside, clearly we believe that Champ Car is amongst the most technical forms of motorsport in the world. What makes it more challenging is you can't go hire a rocket scientist car designer. You're all starting with the same material. It comes down to these very subtle things you're trying to sort through.
Very clearly we are rooted in being a technically oriented team. Having said that, we're not trying to emulate a Formula One team, per se. We're trying to build our own team.
Q. How much time you think is necessary to be accustomed with the new RuSPORT team?
CRISTIANO da MATTA: That's a difficult question. You know, changing teams, it's something that you can either quickly right away or sometimes it takes a little bit.
But the way I think I see everybody working here, how hard everybody's pushing, I'm obviously going to be pushing very hard myself to get used to everything as quick as I can.
I don't think it's going to take too long, you know. I even have a feeling that it's going to happen probably sooner than everybody expects.
CARL RUSSO: Next Friday afternoon (laughter).
Q. Can you predict the results of next race in Portland where you already won?
CRISTIANO da MATTA: Last two times I was there, I won. It's a pretty good place to start with a new team. I have very good memories from Portland. I know quite a bit about the track.
Obviously, starting from everything from not mid-season, but from not having tested in the off-season, it's a little bit more difficult. I'm going to have a little bit more homework to do throughout this week. During Portland, probably I'm going to have a little bit more work to do than the other guys.
I couldn't choose a better place to start for me. It's a track I really like. The team -- RuSPORT had a dominant performance there. Although I won the race, the team was running very good. Justin looked unbeatable in the race. I think everything's clicking for us to have a very good start.
Q. I hear you invited the whole press, Carl, to consume a dozen bottles of champagne?
CARL RUSSO: You know, you shouldn't believe everything you read on the Internet.
All kidding aside, to make sure I set all expectations, Cristiano -- I don't think the record and reputation needs to be discussed. We're going to go about doing what we do. We're going to go about being our own culture and processes. I would encourage Cristiano to go about working into the team at the rate he's comfortable, not overpush or under (indiscernible). I know if he does that, the speed will come and he'll be fine. Whatever rate he gets there, I'm certainly comfortable going forward.
Q. Carl, the team has gone forward. It's now clearly the No. 2 team in the Champ Car paddock. I want to get away from the track for a second. On the side of the car, sponsorship is an important factor in keeping these teams together. How is the future of sponsorship with the team now and going into the future with a possible merger of the IRL and Champ Car?
CARL RUSSO: Well, I can't speak to the latter. But I will tell you in the former, we started the team based on the following belief: don't try and sell a product until you have a product to sell. We focused on the performance of the team and tried to build it accordingly. We will continue to do that today and invest in the team to go build the very best product that we can market.
Having said that, we do find doors open to us today in a way unlike they were closed some two years ago. As you know, CDW is a major partner of the team. That relationship continues to grow and bear fruit both on and off the racetrack. We continue to find, frankly, great - how shall I say this - great interest in what's going on in Champ Car and what we're doing.
The merger discussions are whatever they are. They're somewhat distracting at times because just focused on the Champ Car business model, we find people are quite willing to engage and go forward. That's the best way I can answer your question.
Q. Two years ago you came into Toronto, there was a Canadian involvement in the sense that you had the money people.
CARL RUSSO: Western Union. Still a good partner of the team. Thank you for bringing that up.
Q. There's been some question about Canadian corporate support for Champ Car. Do you see opportunities in Canada for you as a businessman as well as a race team owner?
CARL RUSSO: Sure. I mean, you know, in my day job, we continue to find great opportunities in Canada as we've moved to market there. With RuSPORT, the same thing.
The whole notion of Mexican support or Canadian support or American support, to me it comes down to a very simple thing. Champ Car addresses basically the NAFTA marketplace for a set of very technically astute, high-tech oriented race fans. That's an audience that a whole set of folks would like to get at, whether they're based in Canada, the US, Mexico, frankly whether they're European or Asian. It's up to us to go market it. That's the best way I look at it. You go out and market it. I like to think we are as competitive off the racetrack as we're trying to be on the racetrack
Q. I may be asking a question I should know the answer to. Was there ever a thought given to a third car to make room for both AJ and Cristiano?
CARL RUSSO: That's a great question. As a matter of fact, we have each year looked at the notion of third and fourth cars just to test our own assumptions. Each time we do it, we come back to we feel most comfortable in a two-car symmetrical team with the two very best drivers and crews and equipment that we can to go after it.
We had looked at it in the past. We did not look at it in the middle of the season. We've been through the add a car thing on a late notice, and it's not a pretty thing. We'll not be doing that again.
Q. Is it possible that Cristiano could have brought some sponsorship to the team, and that made it easier to select him to replace AJ?
CARL RUSSO: So the answer is, it's possible, but I will tell you the ethic that is RuSPORT, the drivers -- we really don't look to the drivers to do that. We prefer that they don't. We would prefer our drivers to be focused on competing and getting to the front. The team has its own marketing organization that takes care of that. In this case, no.
Cristiano, are there any 10 or 15 million dollar sponsors you didn't tell me about?
CRISTIANO da MATTA: Not that I know.
CARL RUSSO: Apparently not. It's not an issue here.
Q. I was wondering if in this process, which looks to benefit all parties concerned, if there was an actual contract buyout from Dale Coyne?
CARL RUSSO: I'll be up front with you and say there is not a contract buyout in the way you are phrasing it.
Q. That leaves open the possibility of some remuneration for taking his driver away. Was that part of the program?
CARL RUSSO: So the answer is, no comment. Let me answer it as best I can. Let me put it to you this way: I appreciate what Dayle has done with Cristiano. Dayle and I are chatting about a whole set of things as we go forward.
Q. Carl, this contract that you did with Cristiano, is that just for the rest of this year or a possible multi-year contract?
CARL RUSSO: The answer is, Cristiano is here through the end of the year. We will look at follow-on years as appropriate.
Q. Cristiano, when you got the phone call, how long did it take you to say yes?
CRISTIANO da MATTA: It was funny, because first I only got a message on my phone because I was out. I was even wondering, Man, what does Carl Russo want with me? I thought of everything. Seriously, I never thought it was going to be something for Portland, you know. I thought maybe something for next year, it would be great. When he told me Portland, it was very exciting. Obviously, didn't take too long for me to say yes. I mean, it's the opportunity I was looking for basically. It's like if I had a plan at the beginning of this year when I was almost out of a ride, all of a sudden last-minute deal with Dayle, my plan was obviously to come back to a top team one day, charge for race wins and the championship hopefully again. I mean, my plan, without I know much about it, it just happened a lot quicker than I expected. It was great. I mean, I can't believe how fortunate I am to get an offer like that right at this point in the season.
ERIC MAUK: That will bring an end to today's Champ Car media teleconference. Again, congratulations to Carl Russo, the entire RuSPORT team, and Cristiano da Matta. We'll see you on track at Portland International Raceway from the 16th through the 18th of June.
Thank you for participating in today's call.
CARL RUSSO: Appreciate it.
CRISTIANO da MATTA: Thank you.
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