Champ Car Media Conference
Topics: Champ Car
ERIC MAUK: Welcome, everyone, to today's Champ Car/Atlantic media teleconference where we have a very exciting announcement as we continue to build on the future of the Champ Car Atlantic Series, what we believe is the top driver developmental system in all of open-wheel racing.
Today we are joined by the co owner of Mi-Jack Conquest Racing team both in the Champ Car World Series and now in the Champ Car Atlantic Series, Mr. Eric Bachelart. We are also joined by the president of the Champ Car World Series, Mr. Steve Johnson. We are also joined by the newest member of the Champ Car Atlantic driver roster, 16-year-old Graham Rahal.
Gentlemen, thank you for joining us today. Obviously, the reason we are here is to announce that Eric Bachelart and his new Mi-Jack Conquest Racing Atlantics team has signed 16-year-old Graham Rahal as one of the drivers on his new squad. Congratulations, first of all, to both of you gentlemen.
For Eric Bachelart, a big undertaking. This will be your fourth year as a Champ Car team, but undertaking a new Atlantic outfit. Tell us a little bit about what drew you to build an Atlantic team and what attracted you to sign the young Mr. Rahal?
ERIC BACHELART: Thank you, Eric. Well, first of all, when the new package of the Atlantic has been announced, we felt it would be very interesting for us to join the new Champ Car Atlantic Series and considered it as a natural development of our team.
Basically I think it gave us the opportunity of extending a resource that will be beneficial to Champ Car, and also I believe the Champ Car would be beneficial to the Atlantic team. I think all together it just made some good sense for us to do that.
I mean, of course, we will have the opportunity to work with Don Halliday on this program. He's an extremely respected engineer. He'll be joined with Mike Zimicki on the coaching part. Really, the addition of these two gentlemen also gives us the best chance of being competitive to fight for the championship.
As far as Graham, he has been very successful at a young age. He's showed the kind of talent we would like to be associated with our team. We've been working with young talented drivers since the time we joined the Champ Car series two years ago. That made it a bit special and different from other teams. We're going to keep on doing that.
ERIC MAUK: Eric obviously has some background with young talent. His driver lineup with Nelson Philippe and Andrew Ranger, both of which are under 20 years old, the youngest two-car driver lineup in Champ Car World Series history.
Graham Rahal, son of three-time Champ Car World Series champion and open-wheel legend Bobby Rahal. Graham, the winner of the SCCA Formula Atlantic Championship at the runoffs this year. Also the winner of the Star Mazda race, the youngest man ever to win a Star Mazda race this year. One of the real up-and-comers among open-wheel drivers in North America.
Graham, congratulations first of all. Test us a little about your feelings about this announcement today.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Thank you. Obviously it's very exciting for me. For a long time I've been coming up through go-karts and stuff, Atlantic has been one of the series I've always aimed for. With the new package coming out, it definitely caught our eye. That's why we're here today really.
The opportunity to work with Eric and everybody there at Mi-Jack Conquest, it's going to be a great season for us. It's a good opportunity to move forward with my career. Obviously, I'm very excited about what we have in our hands to move forward.
The past season, winning the runoffs was very good for me. As I was saying earlier, not that the competition wasn't tough, but we definitely had the best car that weekend. I'm looking forward to a good, competitive season this year and hopefully grabbing a championship.
ERIC MAUK: As mentioned, you've driven a number of active open-wheel cars. Those of you that don't know, Graham is down at Homestead-Miami Speedway testing in preparation for the Rolex and the Grand-Am race down there in January.
You've been behind the wheel of a number of different cars. Looking ahead to the Atlantic cars, tell us what you think might be the toughest thing to get yourself acclimated into the Atlantic Championship.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Obviously, it's a bonus to be able to drive as many cars as possible. That's always what makes the best drivers really, is when they cannot only just drive an open-wheel car, but can drive everything.
To move on to the Atlantics, I'm looking for the car to be quite a bit like last year's. Obviously, I'd like it to be a little bit quicker. I think it's going to be a good combination. I guess the most difficult thing for me is going to be getting used to the tire package yet again. The past year I've been driving a bias ply tire in Star Mazda. That car likes to be driven on edge at all times. Sometimes you've got to slide it around to be quick. Obviously, the Atlantic car is nothing like that, which in my mind is better. That's going to be the biggest obstacle we have to get through.
But really, you know, it's just going to be seat time for me. Compared to most of the drivers that will be in the series, as of right now that I've heard of, really it's going to be seat time and experience. But I think we did a good job this year. I don't think it's going to be too difficult for us to get up to speed really.
ERIC MAUK: Congratulations. We're all very excited for you. Looking forward to seeing you as you get behind the wheel of the car in pre-season testing.
I'd like to throw things over to Champ Car president Steve Johnson.
STEVE JOHNSON: Thank you, Eric.
This is definitely another in what is a series of great announcements for the Champ Car Atlantic Championship as we get ready to head into our 2006 season.
Champ Car is committed to building the strongest driver development system in open-wheel racing, and we feel that the improvements in this year's Atlantic Championship helps achieve that goal. A new engine, a new chassis, and a $2 million prize for the champion has really sparked great interest in the Atlantic Series for 2006.
We're excited to welcome Graham Rahal into the Champ Car Atlantic Series. Not only is he the son of one of Champ Car's legendary drivers, he's one of the most impressive young road racing talents in the world. His performance at the SEC Runoffs, winning the championship at just 16 years of age, shows that he's ready to make the step to Atlantic.
We're also pleased to see Eric Bachelart's Mi-Jack Conquest team expanding its operation to include Champ Car Atlantics in 2006. Champ Car team's strengthen their entire organization when they can develop drivers there their own Atlantic programs, and we expect to see more of our teams following suit.
Again, the Champ Car Atlantics program is at an all-time high in both popularity and participation. We welcome Graham Rahal to our family as he ascends to greatness in open-wheel racing.
ERIC MAUK: Thank you, Steve. We'll go ahead and turn it over to questions from the media.
Q. Graham, your dad thought a few years ago, when you were really starting to show some promise, he said, "Yeah, the problem is he's going to be too big, probably going to have to run sports cars, probably going to outgrow open-wheel." Doesn't look like that's what happened at all. Talk about what you thought a couple years ago, if you would be down this road or it would be more sports cars. Are you surprised that open-wheel has become kind of your path?
GRAHAM RAHAL: No, I'm not surprised at all. You know, growing up around the Champ Cars, it's always what I wanted to drive. Obviously, it's well-known that I have an interest in sports cars. But really at some point, height can stop you. But I don't think I'm there yet.
As you heard, I was down in Homestead this week. Justin Wilson was down there. He's a lot bigger than me. I have some room to grow still. I sit in the old Atlantic car, it's pretty tight for me, I'll be honest. The reason we couldn't do some Atlantic races this year was just because we had to cut the surround of the helmet. That was an issue I guess with the rules. Otherwise, I'm looking for the new car to be a little bit bigger. It should be perfectly fine for me really.
Q. Graham, when you talk about the new package, what is it that you're talking about that's the big allure besides more room in the seat? What else do you like about this package?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, obviously for me, the more power is going to be better this year. I hope that the car will still have towards the same amount of downforce. But really, like you said, it's going to be for me being able to fit in the car.
No matter what, I'm just looking forward to moving up to the series with the competition that we're going to have this year. Obviously, we feel like we've got a really good chance to win. With Eric's experience, I don't think we'll have any issues getting the car up to speed as far as engineering with the work the guys are going to be doing.
For me, it's just looking forward to the whole package of the car really, the motor, the new chassis, being able to get a little more room inside there.
Q. I saw where Don Halliday is going to be part of your deal. The crew you're going to have around you, it's sort of like a rookie going in with one of the great managerial staffs in baseball or something. How would you describe the people who are around you?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, obviously they're the best really. All the way from Eric to Don, my driver coach Mike Zimicki, who worked with Danica for a long time. They're the best. That's what it takes to advance someone like me, advance our careers really. If you have a totally inexperienced engineer, really to bring two beginners in at the same time, you're not learning anything.
Bringing Don along is going to help. Obviously with Eric's experience, driving himself and everything, we definitely have the best package, like I said, as a team. I think that's going to help a lot towards our success this year.
Q. You talked earlier about obviously this is going to be a step up. You also talk openly about going for a championship that first year. Do you feel 16? A lot of people would say this would be a learning year, and maybe two years down the road you might go for a championship. What gives you that confidence that you're going to step in and maybe make that big step?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Like we just said really, it's the people that are around me. I've gotten quite a bit of time in an Atlantic car overall. I guess I thought the same thing this year, going into the Mazda. I figured this was going to be a total learning season. I didn't think that the championship was in reach. But in the end, after the first few races, we were second in points and right there.
Really, in the big picture, we've got to go in with confidence. We've got to know that we can do the job. If we're going to sit back and say, "We just want to learn this year," which we always do, but if we just sit back and expect that we're not going to be winning, then it's not going to happen. We just need to aim for the highest. I think we can achieve it for sure.
Q. Are you a quick learner? Last year in Star Mazda, did you find you pick up on things pretty quickly?
GRAHAM RAHAL: With Mike Zimicki, like I said earlier, my driver coach, there's a lot of things that he brings towards this that can really help advance me once I step into the car for the first time. But I guess as far as just becoming quick right away in a new car, that's probably just experience really. Being able to drive so many different cars is what gives you the ability to do that.
I wouldn't necessarily say that I'm the quickest learner because I don't know how quick everybody else. I think we've usually gotten up to speed pretty quickly. Obviously driving an Atlantic car this year for quite a bit of time is going to help for next year, because I wouldn't expect it to be too much different.
Q. How tall are you now?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I'm 6'2".
Q. Still growing?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I hope not (laughter).
Q. Steve, what is the current status of a sponsor for Atlantics? Do you expect to have one for this season?
STEVE JOHNSON: Actually, we had meetings this week on that. I know if I say yes, I'll end up jinxing it. But we're working closely with a sponsor to replace Toyota, and feel good about the progress that we've made.
Q. Graham, growing up around road racing, as did your dad, is your preference to stay in road racing in the future?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Yes. I've never really been interested in the ovals. Obviously, I drove once this year at Pikes Peak. I will say that I had a great time, led most of the race. It was an exciting experience.
When it comes down to it, road racing is more fun in the end. It's safer, number one, but it's just better overall. It's more fun as a driver to be able to turn both ways instead of just one. In the big picture, I think the better drivers are road racers really. In ovals, like we saw at Pikes Peak this year, a lot of guys that were never fast on a road course all of a sudden were fast because it is easier to just get a car around the oval, especially in like a lower series like we're in now, because it's just flat out all the way around. A road course is definitely what I prefer, what I plan to stay on for the rest of my life.
Q. In some of the prior Champ Car regimes, we've let some pretty decent talent go. What is it going to keep you in road racing?
GRAHAM RAHAL: My love for racing really. I don't ask too much. I don't think there's going to be any issue staying in it really.
STEVE JOHNSON: Graham, if you need something, just give me a call. We'll keep you in here (laughter).
Q. Graham, how do you get the level of confidence and maturity that you have at your age, especially in racing, and still combine that with your education? You'll be going into your senior year next year. How difficult will that be?
GRAHAM RAHAL: It is tough. My deal with my dad and I is that if I don't get the grades, then I can't race. Luckily this year, I've had an over 4.0 average, which is all A's. I'm keeping up to my end of the deal, and obviously dad is keeping up to his.
I've been racing for six years, since I was 10. I've kind of gotten used to having the extra work load all the time, which isn't necessarily a good thing. But with the help of my principal at school and everything, we get all the work done and certainly we still have time to race.
It is harder than just being a student all the time. In the end, I think it makes you stronger as a person because really you know what you've got to get done. It's definitely made me become more mature in the past couple years because it keeps you in check at all times. You know that you can't just slide by with the lower grades and everything else. I've got to keep up with my deal with my dad.
STEVE JOHNSON: Graham, also, so you know, we did contact your school. They are going to have the senior prom at Long Beach. We won't let you miss that.
ERIC MAUK: Graham is attending New Albany High School, home of the Golden Eagles, in New Albany, Ohio. A, it's a heck of a school. B, they don't give anything away out there. Your grade point average is quite a testament to your ability both on and off the racetrack.
Q. Eric, do you intend to campaign two cars next year? If so, when do you expect to announce the second driver?
ERIC BACHELART: Yes, we do expect to run a second car. We're working on the second driver. We have done a test last week in California, evaluating one driver over there. We are in contact with quite a few. We want to have a second driver that is going to be hopefully the same talent as Graham so we can have a good stimulation between both drivers, keep on building a very strong team. It would be good if, again, we can have two drivers of similar talent. I think it's going to be a good help.
Q. Do you have a time frame that you expect to announce a second one?
ERIC BACHELART: No, but we have a test program now. Talking about the school, we've been working this afternoon, just trying to find some test dates with Graham's off-school days. We're going to do some more testing in mid January. Hopefully by that time we might test other drivers as well. We still have a bit of time ahead of us, but would like to finalize that fairly quickly, and I think we will.
Q. Steve Johnson, do you project a size of the Atlantic field for next year, the number of entries?
STEVE JOHNSON: Upper 30s.
Q. Upper 30s?
STEVE JOHNSON: Yes. That's anything 35 and above. There's been like 40 plus chassis sold. It depends. You could have anywhere from 30 to that many. That's a good number to shoot for.
Q. Graham, from what you're hearing, I hear you say that you want to fight for the title next year, about driver announcements, who do you think will be your rivals next year?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Anybody is really. I mean, anybody can do it. If James Hinchcliffe and Rafael Matos, if they come in, obviously I raced against them this year, they're definitely the most talented. Actually, my teammate this year was Robbie Pecorari. He's probably one of the best drivers I've seen in a long time. Obviously, I don't know any of the Atlantic field really. Those are the guys I do know. I know they'll be tough to beat.
Q. Graham, you're a multi-tasking generation. Will you be doing any other racing besides the Atlantics and the occasional foray into sports cars?
GRAHAM RAHAL: We hope so. We hope to journey to Europe, if possible. Really Atlantic is our main focus. That's what our 2006 year is aimed towards.
Obviously, sports cars, just to be able to drive something else. Obviously, to run Daytona is going to be a lot of fun. It's a good opportunity for me. We'll see what happens. We're always open to everything. If we can test more cars, we will. Right now, Atlantic is our main focus.
Q. Graham, did you come to Long Beach as a child to watch your dad at all or were you too young to remember that?
GRAHAM RAHAL: No, I remember everything. Standing on top of the hotel, watching. I was there a lot. The years I remember most is when he and Brian were on the front row together. I was there quite a bit as a kid. I always loved going there because I had friends out there.
I really couldn't put a memory to a year. I remember going out there.
Q. What is it going to be like competing on the same tracks that your dad did?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, it's exciting. Obviously they're the best tracks around. I've driven at some of them, namely Road America, which is probably one of my favorites. I'm excited just to get out. Street courses have always been some of my favorites, like Formula BMW, when we raced at Denver, places like that. I'm excited for next year because a big chunk of the season next year is on the temporary circuits. To get out and drive at Long Beach, it's going to be exciting for me. It's going to be a lot of fun.
Q. You mentioned Europe. What are you talking about going to Europe?
GRAHAM RAHAL: My manager Rick Goran and I have been talking. There's some options available to go over and do some World Series Renault races. At the moment nothing's happening. It's just an option. Like I said, Atlantic's No. 1. We're just getting to the amount of money we need to be able to do the Atlantic season. If we can find sponsors that are interested to do a couple races in Europe, then we'll look at it. As of right now, there's nothing there. Just kind of peeking around.
Q. The Grand-Am thing you're doing at Daytona, who are you with there?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I'm driving for (inaudible) Racing. Named drivers you've heard of Robin Liddell, Wolf Henzler. Unfortunately I'm not in their car. They're along with the team. It's in a Porsche, one of the new 997s. It's exciting. We're down there this week driving it. It was good fun. It's different from an open-wheel car, especially formula car. It always keeps you busy because the thing's on edge at all times. Doesn't handle real well, but it's exciting.
Q. The two guys you named, I'm not knocking them, but when you roll onto the track at Daytona, you're going to be Bobby Rahal's kid. People are going to be watching. How have you learned to deal with that aspect of the great expectations?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Really, there is expectations. But the people inside the racing world know that everybody's got to learn. As much expectations as people outside can put on me, just from knowing my dad and everything else, there is a lot of weight on my shoulders, but we just put that aside. We've done that so far.
It's been all right for me actually. Marco Andretti has gotten a lot of press. Speaking with him, he and I are pretty good friends, we both go at it the same way really. You got to put it behind you. We want to make names for ourselves. We don't always want to be known as Bobby Rahal's son. Really we just put that behind us. Like I said, the people who actually know understand that we have all got to make steps forward. That's why we're in Atlantic next year, is to just move on.
Q. Your dad said he'd be known as your dad after you won the SCCA runoffs. That has to make you feel good, that he does kind of see something there?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, he and I are pretty close. He's helped a lot. I think he understands how hard we all have to work. Obviously, he's helped a lot with the opportunities I've gotten so far, especially to go to Atlantic and to be able to do this drive at Daytona, which are all things he's done. That's really why we did the runoffs. Number one, we wanted to get time in an Atlantic car. Number two, he had already won it and he wanted me to win it. Luckily we pulled it off. He's very supportive. I guess when we go to the track, it's always father-son time. We have a good time together.
Q. Graham, all the releases from Grand-Am have talked about you there testing. Are you definitely going to race? What has your experience been like in the sports car with the kind of drivers they've got in that class?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I am definitely racing. We were down there this week. They had guys like Jan Magnussen, all the best that are there. It's pretty cool to actually sit there. Paul Tracy, all those guys were down there. To be able to drive on the same track at the same time as them, it's a lot of fun.
Obviously, in the Porsche, we were pretty quick this week. We look forward to carrying that on to Daytona. Like I told someone else earlier this week, I don't really think too much about what drivers are out there driving against me. I just want to do the best that I can do really. Whether I'm racing against Sebastien Bourdais or whoever it is, that doesn't bother me. I just got to do what I can. It goes back to putting in your 110% all the time. That's what satisfies you at the end of the day.
ERIC MAUK: That will bring an end to our Champ Car/Atlantic media teleconference. Congratulations to Eric Bachelart and Graham Rahal.
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