Champ Car Media Conference
Topics: Champ Car
ERIC MAUK: Thank you, everyone, for joining us today in a very exciting teleconference announcement for the Champ Car World Series as today RuSPORT will announce they will be competing in the 2005 Champ Car World Series, a two-car effort, featuring AJ Allmendinger and Justin Wilson. Allmendinger and Wilson both completed their rookie campaigns in the Champ Car World Series last year. They finished the season 1-2 in the Roshfrans Rookie-of-the-Year standings. We are joined today by the owner of RuSPORT, Carl Russo, as well as both drivers, AJ Allmendinger and Justin Wilson. Right off the top, Mr. Russo, first of all, congratulations. There has been lots of speculation out there that you have been looking at running even a three-car team possibly with Michel Jourdain who had driven for you last year. If we could address those off the top.
CARL RUSSO: Thanks for the easy question first, Eric. There had been speculation on us running anywhere from one to three cars. We had eliminated the one-car option pretty early on. Up until very recently we were still evaluating a three-car option. We made the decision to go back and stand by our original founding principles of being a symmetrical two-car team. So we're going to stay with a two-car effort and that's what we're going forward with in 2005. As for evaluating all of our options, we came to the conclusion that the best chance for us to get to the front was to go ahead and go with AJ in the 10 car, and Justin in the 9 car. Part of that really comes down to a whole set of factors. But if you go back in time, in all of the turmoil that was going on in March and April, as we made the team go from a one-car effort to a two-car effort virtually overnight, it's really hard to get the chemistry right in a thrash, and we just never got it quite right. As for Michel, Michel is a proven race winner in the series, and he's going to be a race winner in the future. Obviously, he's done a great job for us and we wish him the best going forward.
ERIC MAUK: As you said, first year in Champ Car World Series last year, you came on line real quick with a two-car team, took a little time to get up to speed, but not much. You had a pair of top fives in Milwaukee, which would be the first race of the year. Both drivers ended up on the podium at different times in the year, including both drivers on the same podium at Molson Indy Vancouver. Tell us what you learned from last year.
CARL RUSSO: It's very simple. What we learned last year is that one of our core principles is that it's about people, culture and process. In fact, we reinforce that it's about people, culture and process. So that's the first thing we learned. The second thing we learned is that this is a tough series. These teams have been doing it for a while. They're very switched on. And the driver cadre only continues to get better and better. I would say those are the two things that we've learned.
ERIC MAUK: Congratulations again. We look forward for more success not only next year but in the many years to come in the Champ Car World Series. AJ Allmendinger heads into his second year of competition in the Champ Car World Series. Last year driver of the #10 Western Union Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone, AJ Allmendinger, the raining Roshfrans Rookie-of-the-Year winner. AJ, a big year last year for you. Qualified in the top seven in four of the last five races, really came on strong at the end of the year. Tell us a little bit, now that you've had time to think about it, how you feel about the way things went your first year in Champ Car.
AJ ALLMENDINGER: I thought overall, you know, it went fairly well. The team did an absolutely fantastic job, especially the crew themselves because, you know, essentially at the beginning of the season, we're planning on being a one-car team, then we added Michel, and it put a lot of stress on the crew to get a second car ready. We had to add certain people. And all year, especially on my car, they really made no mistakes, got all the laps possible. You know, to their credit, that's the reason we finished so high in the points because of how well they worked together and what a great job they did. On my part, I thought there's a lot I could improve. I made a lot of mistakes during the year. There were a couple big mistakes that probably cost us at least top five if not podium finishes. So, you know, I was a little about it disappointed in actually how I drove. Late in the year I got going. But, you know, there's still a couple mistakes there that I made. So I think heading into next year, we're just going to be a stronger team, and I just got to fix the mistakes that I made. If we're able to do that, I think we have a good chance of contending for a championship.
ERIC MAUK: Tell us a little bit about your thoughts about teaming up with Justin, a guy you obviously raced a number of times, you have a great deal of respect for, you had a series battle over last year.
AJ ALLMENDINGER: I just think overall it going to be a huge benefit and help to the team. You know, as you said, Eric, I gained a lot of respect for Justin throughout the season. I had a lot of respect going into the season, watching him in Formula 1 and stuff like that, and knowing the capabilities that he had and the speed that he had. But just, you know, each race, we seemed to pretty much find each other on the racetrack and race together. You know, I just gained a lot of respect. The guy's got, you know, so much speed. And I think it's only going to help me push myself to become better. You know, the key is hopefully I can give a little bit back to him. Once we start pushing each other throughout the year, we're battling for first and second, and that's really the main goal of RuSPORT and the whole team, for us two drivers to be battling for the win.
ERIC MAUK: Congratulations on a great year in 2004, and best of luck in the year to come.
AJ ALLMENDINGER: Thank you.
ERIC MAUK: Justin Wilson comes off his rookie year, he ran with Mi-Jack Conquest Racing a year ago, qualified in the front row at Cleveland, had a strong rookie year. Justin, you spent the whole year with Mi-Jack, you find your way around the circuit, now you're joining the RuSPORT team. Tell us a little bit about how you feel about today's developments.
JUSTIN WILSON: Obviously, I'm very excited. I'm looking forward to starting the new season. I've had a great first year in Champ Cars. But, you know, ultimately I want to be in an environment that has the opportunity to win. You know, for me that's what I see in RuSPORT, is it's very professional, very serious. It's a good atmosphere, which is also important to have a good team. I'm looking forward to the new season, looking forward to working with AJ. I think the respect is mutual. You know, I know he can drive, he can go very quick, and we can push each other quite well.
ERIC MAUK: Tell us a little about your impressions of the Champ Car World Series after spending a year here, getting totally immersed in it running a season. Did it meet with your expectations?
JUSTIN WILSON: Oh, yeah, definitely. There was obviously a lot of talk at the start of the year, how the championship is going to work, how the season going to unfold. There was talk of, will it last? Is it more than one race? There's all that kicking off the start of the year. And I think the new owners have worked on things. They've done things at the right time, in the right order. You know, it's been fantastic. I think Champ Car has a lot to offer to drivers, teams and sponsors. It's all a matter of building on what they've done and keep working away at it. We believe that it's the place to be.
ERIC MAUK: Congratulations on this announcement, Justin. Look forward to seeing you on track in just a couple of months.
JUSTIN WILSON: Thank you.
ERIC MAUK: We'll open it up to questions from the media.
Q. Carl, congratulations. That's a nice duo you got there. AJ, first of all, your rookie year, lots to learn, you talked about mistakes. So much water under the bridge. Can you put your finger on maybe the biggest thing that you learned in 2004 as a freshman in the series? You have all kinds of expectations what it's going to be like, you do lots of pre-season testing. When you got immersed in the series, what's the biggest thing you learned in 2004?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: I think overall it's just to pace myself in a two-hour race. Essentially the longest race I ever did in my life was 45 minutes in the Toyota Atlantic Series. But the stuff that I had to learn, especially at the beginning of the year, was that no matter, you know, if your car wasn't exactly right, the race was long. If you weren't in the right spot right away, you didn't have to push to force yourself to get around the guys. Pit, you know, a lot of things can happen in the race. Whereas, Atlantics, once the green flag dropped, you were just hammer down, just never lift, because that's what you had, and you weren't going to make a pit stop to fix it. A lot of times, the races weren't long enough for guys to make a lot of mistakes to move up. The big deal was just pacing myself. There were times I got myself in trouble, like at Toronto where I got spun out under yellow, then I forced myself into a mistake trying to get around everybody, when we actually had a pretty good car. The way the race worked out, I probably could have been on the podium. Just certain things like that. I think Mexico was probably my best race of the year, Mexico City, because, you know, we didn't qualify as well as we thought we should have. We were seventh right away. But I knew I had a race car. I just paced myself, saved fuel. You know, the pit stops worked out to where I came out third. Then we had the speed to go after the Newman/Haas guys. Just things like that throughout the year was probably the biggest thing that I learned.
Q. Justin, with your Formula 1 experience, you certainly have teammates over there, but in a lot of ways you're very much separate entities as a clear-cut number one and number two driver. While you're called teammates, it can't be what "teammate" means in the Champ Car World Series because there's play between you and AJ Allmendinger, there will be, there's sharing of information, debriefing together. You've got to be looking forward to that. You've got yourself a real teammate now.
JUSTIN WILSON: Yeah, it's great. This is more like Formula 3000, which is what I did before Formula 1. Everyone was in the same car, the same engine, the same tires. It really makes a difference when you have a good teammate, you can work well with, you push each other along, and the whole team advances. That's really what we're looking to do, is go out there working with each other. We both want to win, but you've got to work with each other and push each other. Sometimes you think "There's no way I can go quicker through that corner." You come back in, you check, and, "Oh, yes, there is." You go out and try again. I think that's what's going to be so important. We can get the absolute maximum out of what we have.
Q. Justin, we talked a little before the race in Mexico City, but when you (inaudible) test driver, all the uncertainty in the Formula 1 and politics. You kind of indicated maybe someday down the line if you won a championship, you would be willing to go back there. Just seems like you've decided, "I'm going to make my lot over here."
JUSTIN WILSON: I can't say anything is definite because I can't predict the future. But at the minute I'm very happy over here. I think I've got myself into a good situation. I'm looking forward to being part of RuSPORT for a while. I can't say how long, but my job is to go out there and do the best job I can on track. I'm looking forward to doing that.
Q. For both drivers, you two guys' reaction after the first couple practice sessions in Milwaukee would have been worth a thousand pictures, but you ended up maintaining your composure and doing a good job in the races. Was oval track racing the toughest thing to come to grips with for you guys?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: For me, I don't think I've actually come to grips with it. Let's be honest now. I'm not saying I'm going to go back to Milwaukee next year and just, you know, easy flat or whatever. I'm going to be scared as hell next year there, too. But, you know, I would say it's the toughest thing to come to grips with. But those two races, especially Milwaukee, because anybody's that's driven Milwaukee in a Champ Car knows that, compared to somewhere like Vegas where you're easy flat, it's a lot more scary and it's a lot more commitment that you have to do. You know, it's one of the many things in Champ Car that I've had to come to grips with. You know, I've always made the statement, and I will always make the statement, oval racing is not my favorite thing in the world, but it's part of Champ Car, add that's what makes Champ Car exciting, is the diversity you have to be as a driver. I look forward to those challenges.
JUSTIN WILSON: I think AJ said it all. You know, the first time you go around Milwaukee, it's pretty exciting. Especially I did an oval test once. That was my full extent of experience on an oval track. It's so different, you might as well be racing bikes really. It's a big challenge at first, but once you get used to it, you start to feel comfortable. You know, if the car's good, you have a good night. If it's bad, it's a very long night.
Q. Carl, could you maybe identify a couple things you thought your team did well and maybe what you're targeting for improvement?
CARL RUSSO: Well, I think one of the things the team did well was keep me off the timing stand. That was the first piece.
AJ ALLMENDINGER: That was keep you out of the car, Carl (laughter).
CARL RUSSO: Thank you (laughter). What it does well is not any given thing. I think what the team has proven since its inception two years ago is that this is a group of people that function in their roles and learns week in and week out. And as long as we can keep improving week in and week out, we're going to get to the front. You could go pick things that we've learned, but fundamentally it's a set of folks that just simply work together extremely well and know that wherever we are, as long as we keep moving forward, we're going to get to where we want to go. So That is the one thing I would tell you is by far the most exciting about this group of folks.
Q. I know there were a couple other teams interested in Justin. Can you maybe talk about how long the deal is for and what attracted you to sign him?
CARL RUSSO: Well, there's a couple things. First of all, I wouldn't talk about how long the deal is for. But I would echo Justin's sentiments on we are looking forward to this being a long-term relationship, for sure. As far as a couple things that attracted us to him, I could say that we wanted the first letter in the alphabet and the last letter in the alphabet for drivers, that we wanted the tallest and the shortest. But I'll tell you exactly what attracted us to him more than anything else. Both of these gentlemen know how to get in the car and go. They have good reads on the car, they have very good feedback. At the end of the day, they fit our mentality, which is they are racers and they want to get to the front. So it's a combination of all of those factors that at the end of the day I think helped us make the day. Last but not least, and probably the most important thing, is we do believe they will, in fact, raise each other's game because they're both very secure in who they are and they're both formidable competitors, and I think they're perfectly willing to share everything in the hopes that they can learn things themselves.
Q. Carl, will both of these drivers be equal number one's? Would you be making any swapping of the crews for next year? Are you going to keep things as they were this year?
CARL RUSSO: Our approach, as I mentioned early on, is we've always tried to pursue a symmetrical two-car team. So we don't believe in a 1 or a 2. We believe in a 1 and a 1. That's exactly how we will approach it. That's a good question. As far as mix and match on the crews, that's up to David Brown, who heads up the technical staff, and to Steve Wulff, who heads up operations, and Jeremy Dale, who heads up the team, as to obviously how they will go about things. But there's certainly nothing of any major deliberation here. We're going to do the best we can to put the best two cars on the racetrack we can.
Q. When do you anticipate getting these drivers out together for testing?
CARL RUSSO: Well, I think they were playing video games today. So I think that was one form of testing. I don't know when our first test is scheduled because I think there's some downtime here. It won't be in the next few weeks. I think it's after the start of the year.
Q. Here in Mexico Mr. Russo said he wanted a long relationship with Michel, maybe a six-year relationship with him. What happened that all of a sudden it all ended?
CARL RUSSO: We always look to have long relationships. It's the right question. As I mentioned early on, one of the challenges that we had in late March and early April when we put the team together is trying to get the right people together and the right chemistry. And, unfortunately, when you do something that late in the year, getting to perhaps the engineer that you would like or other things is very, very difficult because they're contracted. So we did not do the best job that we could have because we were so crunched for time to get to the right chemistry, and I don't think that we ever got it right. I'm not about to tell you it was way off. But little things in this business make a big difference. And so we felt for the good of Michel and the good of the team that both parties would be better if we headed down this path, and that's what we're doing.
Q. Maybe was it also that Michel didn't have any sponsor because of the exit of Gigante?
CARL RUSSO: No. As a matter of fact, in the case of RuSPORT, nothing could be further from the truth. Gigante, I mean, we have active conversations with them. But we would never make a driver decision based upon sponsorship. We made the decision with Michel. Michel is a proven race winner. He was a veteran. We thought he could bring a great deal to the team, and he did. It was irrespective of Gigante. Gigante chose to join us after Michel joined us. It just would not make any difference.
Q. Mr. Russo, you said it's not a decision with a sponsor. Why leave Michel out? You don't like his driving or what happened?
CARL RUSSO: No, again, the best word I can use is the chemistry and making sure -- listen, different drivers need different things. Again, because of the late start that we had, we never got Michel, in my opinion, what we needed to get Michel for him to perform at the level he's capable of. At this point, in looking at our options, and one of those options was to run three cars, we decided that our best opportunity to get to the front was to run a two-car team with AJ and Justin and move forward. It's most definitely not a statement of Michel's abilities. We believe that Michel is going to go win races again in Champ Car. But there are some times where the chemistry just isn't quite right and you make a different decision.
Q. AJ, are you going to miss Michel?
AJ ALLMENDINGER: Oh, yeah, of course. I mean, Michel was a big help in my year, all year. And I stated that in every interview that I did about Michel. He's a great driver on the racetrack, and he's probably even better of a guy off the racetrack in the fact of a friend, a teammate. And, you know, I hope to see Michel next year. And hopefully, if everything works out, Michel is one of the guys we have to beat for the championship. If he's in the series, I would expect that. I'm going to completely miss Michel. You know, I wish him and his wife all the best wishes, Nora. We'll see him at the racetrack. It's going to be a fun year next year.
Q. Justin, I know that AJ moved from California to Colorado. Are you going to do the same thing?
JUSTIN WILSON: That's something I'm looking at, yeah. I have to take things one step at a time. But I would like to be close to the team.
Q. Carl, last year you had some partnerships with Western Union and BG Products and with Red Bull. Do you have any commercial partnerships lined up at this time?
CARL RUSSO: All sorts of discussion is going on. I guess the best way for me to answer that is when there's news, as we've proven today, we'll go ahead and announce it.
Q. Can you share with us about sponsors for the future? We know you have Western Union, but would that be the sponsor or you have some other companies lined up?
CARL RUSSO: Yeah, I apologize. As soon as we have news where we can announce things, we'll get everybody together and we'll announce them. But right now I would tell you that we would have no comment on your question, unfortunately.
Q. You mentioned several times about chemistry being so important. Whenever you get a group of demanding people together, it is extremely important. Where does it fit in your list of choosing one driver or another in deciding to put drivers together as a team?
CARL RUSSO: Great question. It's way up there on the list. It may arguably be one of the top three. Let me just say the following. When you get into the Champ Car paddock, all these drivers are quick, they're all talented, they're all experienced. I think there's probably three or four or five, I don't remember the number, of Formula 3000 champions in paddock, there's Toyota Atlantic champions in the paddock. There are a lot of winners in this paddock. They're all quick, they're all proven. You start to then look at the more subtle things about technical feedback, how they fit in with the culture of the team, and to your point, that word "chemistry". It's extremely important. A lot of things can make it go wrong and it takes a lot of attention to make it go right. So we rate it very highly and we work very hard at it. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it less than right.
Q. Do you ever bring the two together and give them a chance to interact and then observe? Have you ever dismissed someone after watching the two of them come together and interact at whatever level they interact at?
CARL RUSSO: You know, as you get to know people, you can start to observe them and see what you think might be a good fit for the team. So even before anything starts, you can go down that path. And, by the way, the inverse to that is there's also people that you can sort of say, "They're not going to be a good fit for the team." Even though they may be great performers, they may not fit the team. So I think you're doing that all the time. We've certainly observed -- I mean, one of the things that I observed, which was a lot of fun, unfortunately at the time it didn't end up the way we wanted to, Justin ended up finishing ahead of AJ, was the race in Portland where these two young men went at it the whole race, a number of times side by side, and I think neither gentlemen put a wheel wrong, at least not that I saw, and they had a heck of a fight. It's that kind of fighting, sporting spirit that for us is almost all important.
Q. Did Justin become a gleam in Carl Russo's eye at that point or at some point later in the season?
CARL RUSSO: Hell, no. I hated him at that point (laughter). He was in the way of what we were trying to achieve. I don't know if it's a gleam. To your point, I think you're always observing talent and you're always looking for what are the right pieces that are going to fit our culture and allow us to get to the front. We are very, very eager to get at the top step of the podium and to compete for the championship. You should know that 97% of the team is together and back again next year, and we're making some very small percentage changes, but we hope they'll have large effect.
Q. Carl, you've mentioned a couple times about a team personality, I forget the exact words you used, but is that personality derived from who Carl Russo is, you put your imprint on that team, and it becomes an extension of your personality?
CARL RUSSO: I think that the leadership of any business certainly sets a tone, and to the extent that I'm one of the leaders in the team, I'll certainly help set that tone, and what we believe in as a culture. But to your question, Jeremy Dale, Steve Wulff, David Brown, AJ Allmendinger, and how Justin Wilson, along with other leaders in the team, all either believe in it or not and make it our own. So, yes, I think leadership's important, but it's certainly broader than just one person, that being me.
Q. Carl, you talked a lot about chemistry. That is one of the characteristics of the most successful racing partnerships. I wondered what qualities in Justin, other than his speed obviously, that you thought stood out to you and said he's going to be a good fit in this team?
CARL RUSSO: There's a number. As you get to know Justin, the first thing that strikes you is there's a very quiet confidence about loving the act of driving the race car, and perhaps one of the ways that I express myself is through driving the race car. The second thing that you notice straightaway is his honesty. And when I say "honesty," I don't mean to say that he's honest with me. What you sense is that he's honest with himself and how he's doing versus how the race car is doing and other things. When you're competing in a series that is so closely competitive as this series, that honest understanding of yourself versus the car and yourself and the car is what enables you to be able to compete at the highest levels and tune these cars. So if I were to pick two things, those are two things straightaway. The third is watching him interact with fans. Away from the race car, we believe that you make fans one at a time. And I think both AJ and Justin are superlative with the fans.
Q. Justin, now in the off-season when you get together with your friends back home over a pint, what do you say? How do you describe your North American open-wheel experience to your friends and former colleagues?
JUSTIN WILSON: I'm going to tell them exactly what I think, and that is it's a great place for a driver to be. It's fun, it's competitive. The racing's very serious. But, you know, the people don't take themselves too seriously. It's a good environment in the paddock. I've enjoyed my season. I'm looking forward to competing in it for a number of years.
Q. Carl, can you comment in general on the direction that the series is going and how you feel about that, the moves with Mr. Kalkhoven purchasing Cosworth?
CARL RUSSO: I'd love to. For me, Champ Car and the business model you're seeing evolve represents the future of high-tech motorsport. You know, the Cosworth engines, I think everybody looked at Cosworth, I was asked the question: Does that cement the future of Champ Car? And my answer was: Actually, no. What cements the future of Champ Car are the leaders of Champ Car. And with Kevin and Gerry and Paul, these folks have expressed the past, they're pursuing the past, they're investing in the series. That kind of sound, solid leadership is what secures Champ Car. Cosworth is merely one piece of it. So for me I guess the way I'd put it is simply this: before I was an owner, I was a fan. And what I want to see are people competing with people. And I think the series gives a platform where you can see great drivers competing with each other. You can see in the cars and watch them dealing with the cars and the competition. You can see the engineers that are trying to tune the cars and work on those cars. And what you don't see are 800 software engineers that are writing code to make sure when you step on the throttle, the tires don't slip. For me, an open-wheel standpoint, I can't think of a more defining challenge for a great race car driver than an open-wheel series where I've got roughly the same equipment as everyone else, where I have to drive the car and command the car, and I have to do so over streets, road courses, airports and ovals. I think it's outstanding.
Q. Justin Wilson, when you look back at Formula 1 and see the confusion that's growing there, are you happy to be here in Champ Car?
JUSTIN WILSON: I'm very happy to be with Champ Car. I mean, Formula 1 is still great. That's what it is. But for me at the minute, my future is here. You know, I'm very pleased to be in a good environment. That's really what I like about Champ Car and about RuSPORT, it's a good environment where I can do what I want to do, which is to (inaudible) out and win races.
Q. Even though your dream at the beginning of your career was to be in F1, maybe not Champ Car, you're still happy to be here and make this as a destination for your career and not as maybe a steppingstone to go back to F1?
JUSTIN WILSON: Yes, yes, definitely. I mean, as a child growing up, you see F1, especially from Europe, it's what drivers want to do. But I've followed CART and then Champ Car for a number of years. My following started back when Nigel moved across. It's always something that fascinated me: quick cars that can race. They're a bit heavier than a Formula 1 car so the braking distance is long farther. Guys can actually race. That's what I see Champ Car as all about. It's something that I've wanted to be a part of. I mean, ultimately, you're looking at Formula 1. But the racing side I wanted to be a part of. Now I'm here, I enjoy it. This is where my future's going to be for a few years.
Q. Justin Wilson, in the quiet moments when you're with AJ and a playing video game, having a brew, when he asks you about F1, what do you tell him?
JUSTIN WILSON: Usually a comment about green grass and a fence comes to mind. You know, this is not a bad place to be, and enjoy it while we can.
Q. Do you know anything about Michel's future? He has no sponsor, no team. Are you going to call your Hispanic affairs office?
CARL RUSSO: I guess that question is for me. I don't know anything about Michel's future. But I do have a belief. You have a proven race winner that's an outstanding individual and human being. I believe Michel is going to be in this paddock and be in a competitive situation. As far as what we are doing in Mexico, we have yet to determine that. But our office has done an outstanding job there, and that will be reviewed over the next coming months.
ERIC MAUK: That will wrap-up our teleconference today. I appreciate everybody coming on. Justin, AJ, Carl, again, thank you for sharing this news with us in such a timely fashion. Best of luck in the 2005 season and beyond.
CARL RUSSO: Thank you.
AJ ALLMENDINGER: Thank you.
JUSTIN WILSON: Thank you.
ERIC MAUK: Thank you for participating.
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