Indy Racing League Media Conference
Topics: Indy Racing League
November 18, 2003
KENT JOHNSON: We again welcome everyone to the Indy Racing League teleconference for this week, Tuesday, November 18. Today we will visit with IRL IndyCar Series driver Scott Sharp. Sharp, of course, was the 1996 IRL IndyCar Series co-champion, and he will return to Kelley Racing to drive the Delphi/Dallara/Toyota/Firestone in the 2004 IndyCar Series season. This past week, he became the first IndyCar Series driver to test at the reconfigured Phoenix International Raceway. Scott, good afternoon, thanks for joining us today.
SCOTT SHARP: Thanks for having me. How is everybody doing today?
KENT JOHNSON: We're doing well in Indianapolis. Let's begin with your impressions of the newly configured track at PIR. Previously, that was a very unique layout with the sharp turn in two, then the dogleg on the backstretch. What can you tell us about what the configuration is now and what, from a driver standpoint, it's like to drive?
SCOTT SHARP: I think, you know, the track really has kept its character. And a lot of the situations the teams and drivers have dealt with in the past are going to remain the same. The big thing, of course, is just what everyone's talked about, you know, the wall that used to be, you know, very tight at the exit of turn two has been moved out just about a car width, maybe a tick more than a car width. And they've also had that wall now be symmetrical all along the back straightaway. Used to be that wall would come an end, then there was an opening where you cross the track, and another wall would start, which was curved toward the outside. It always seemed a bit dangerous. I think continuing the wall all the way along the back straightaway, basically all the way around the track now, is much safer, and certainly I think will afford us the opportunity -- you always get side by side at Phoenix, whether it's sometimes a couple guys battling, I know Helio and Tony last year were up front side by side a little bit, as well as certainly when you're dealing with traffic. No doubt it gets tight in turn two. Obviously, there's been crashes because everyone's going for the same pavement down there. And I think pulling that wall out is going to really help us be able to get through there easier and faster side by side.
KENT JOHNSON: But we still have the dogleg and we still really have two distinct corners in one, two, then turns three and four, correct?
SCOTT SHARP: You're right, yeah. I think everyone is going to be pleased. They built a really nice tunnel right off of turn four there. At least at this stage, the repaving job is almost unnoticeable, it's so smooth, over turn four. It's a small section. I think that's welcomed by everybody. Doesn't really change the track at all. One of the most interesting things, it feels like turn three and four are so much wider because the bridge, the old bridge, is now gone. So it gives the perception that, you know, they've maybe widened the track down there but in reality nothing has been changed other than the slight paving job where the tunnel went. So that end of the track is the same. As usual, as you said, really we debated, John Dick, who is the engineer for the Fernandez team, he was there, they were running a young Japanese driver who did quite well, we talked a little bit. I don't really know -- we both didn't necessarily really think the track was going to be much faster. You know, you're real close to flat out in qualifying. Maybe the first couple cars last year were flat out. So in that vicinity, if you're now a little bit easier flat out, it's probably not going to be much faster for the guys that already were. Maybe you don't have to pinch the car quite as much at the exit of turn two, yet you're still driving into turn one and through the middle of turn one the same way. And that's always been, I think, the real toss-up at Phoenix, is having a car that can have the grip it needs, have the rotation in a comfortable manner that it needs down in the middle of one and two, and yet still be, you know, comfortable wide open through the easier and gentler turn three and four, which on a more consistent basis is flat out. I think you're still going to be dealing with those two factors. It's going to make the racing a little bit better.
KENT JOHNSON: I understand that your test at Phoenix was also your first opportunity to work with the new engineer on your Delphi crew.
SCOTT SHARP: Yes. I'm real excited about the changes that Tom made. He went out and I think really felt like he needed to try to get somebody that was very experienced, had had a fair amount of success in the past, and a lot of people said a lot of very good things about Andy Borme. It was the first time I'd ever had the chance to work with him. First time I ever met him was when he showed up at the racetrack last week in Phoenix. And we got on really well. For those who don't know, he's had a long IndyCar career. He's only 38. The most notoriety I think he's gotten certainly has been winning Indy two years in a row with Helio, a tremendous accomplishment, 2001, 2002. So to get someone like that is a real coup for our team, certainly something we needed. And it was great for us just to get the chance to get out there. I think that's what Tom's original purpose of the test was for us, to get down there, have a chance to work with each other. Sort of different group of people that are sort of together right now on my car. Just give everybody the chance to sort of be in a comfortable, relaxed setting, get to know each other a little bit.
KENT JOHNSON: Let's look back on your recently completed 2003 season. You won the IndyCar Series inaugural race at Motegi, Japan, and in doing so ran your string to seven consecutive seasons with at least one win. And by the end of the year you completed the most laps of any competitor over the course of the season. You completed all but 76 out of a possible of 3,251. All told, how do you rate your 2003 season?
SCOTT SHARP: You know, I'm a tremendously competitive and driven person. I guess we all knew going into the season it was going to be easily the most competitive year we'd ever seen in the IRL. We knew the presence of the big teams, certainly the big four teams of, you know, Penske, Ganassi, Green, even Mo Nunn's team, even a few others that were really strong, were really going to raise the bar, and indeed it did for us. You can go into that questioning really where we were going to sit. But to have a real promising, I'd say, start to the season, first four or five races, winning Motegi, running strong at Homestead, running strong at Texas before getting knocked out, we led the points there for a little while, maybe gave us a little more optimism than we should have had. Yet to be at that sort of pinnacle and end up eighth in points is, you know, it's pretty depressing really. Maybe got teased a little bit, but certainly felt we should have been higher than that. And, you know, it's sort of surprising. When I heard we were -- Bill LaFontaine, the director of marketing from Delphi, he was the first one that told me that we completed the most laps, I was pretty astonished with that. I figured some of the guys that had vyed for the championship up front there would have taken that honor. But that says a lot about our guys. You know, even at some times, I mentioned this in the awards banquet speech, there's some times it's pretty tough. At the end of Saturday when you've qualified, especially on some of the big tracks, you're wide open all the way around, really doesn't seem to be anything you can do to get any more speed out of the car, you're sitting on the ninth or 10th row, but the guys never gave up. They really gave great preparation and we were able to take the Delphi car that qualified back there somewhere and bring it into the Top 10, sometimes the Top 5. So that was a great effort, great pit stops by everybody. We tried to do the best we could with what we had. At this stage I'm really pleased that Tom says we have to do whatever it takes to move ourselves up that grid. Knowing as competitive as it is, and knowing how hard those teams work, we've got a lot of work ahead of us over the winter to not only remain where we were, but take some big strides forward.
KENT JOHNSON: At this time I'd like to go ahead and open the forum to the media
Q. I was sitting here listening to you talk about last season. It's a lot like finding out the high school football queen wants to take you to the prom only to meet your brother.
SCOTT SHARP: A little bit, yeah. You know, I mean, it was tough for everybody, I think. We're all competitively driven people or else you wouldn't be in motor racing. And certainly to have a taste -- we really came out of the of the box strong, you know, late stages of Homestead had ourselves in a position to take a shot at winning the race, I think we were running second or third, came in for a last stop, didn't have a great stop, ended up putting on a set of tires that tightened the car up for the end, finished fifth. It was a good finish. Certainly finished seventh at Phoenix. Went to Motegi had had a strong weekend all weekend, won the race. While the race at Indy, I guess when the results mattered at Indy last year, it didn't pan out well for us. Yet we showed a lot of speed, were very competitive all month. And, of course, in Texas, our cars were running first and third, felt I was in a good position before I got knocked out. So really we had a lot of, you know, good, strong runs, a lot of reason to believe we'd have more optimism for the rest of the season. You know, for varieties of reasons on the team, I think some budgetary, at about that time, we really curtailed almost all the testing for the rest of the season, and I think that was a time surprising to our team, the big front-running teams really stepped it up. You know, it was pretty impressive, to be honest, to sit there and see our car, relatively remain the same from then on through the rest of the season, and to just see those guys dig deeper and find more speed and be more committed by the week. Quite frankly, almost see the spread between our car and theirs continue to glow. It was pretty sad for a while. Like I said, you got to take the cards you're dealt and you got to make the best out of it. I think the guys on the team did that. No one ever gave up. When you start 18th, 19th, 20th, you end upcoming through for a fifth or sixth place finish, that's a pretty -- I've never been one to get too excited about those kind of finishes, but after what you've gone through, they're fairly rewarding.
Q. Is it frustrating to be in that kind of a situation, knowing that you've got a good team, knowing that the car has run strong, but all of a sudden you see teams with bigger budgeting being able to do more because they're able to do more?
SCOTT SHARP: Absolutely, no doubt. It's like that I'm sure in any form of our sport. You know, I think I've proven what I can do on the track. As a team, we've won at all kinds of different tracks before, so we've proven when we've got it all right what we can do as a team. Switching over to Toyota has been wonderful. I think we brought in a lot of -- maybe our early season optimism was because of that move to them, and it was rightfully so for the first part of the season. To be quite frank about it, when everyone was on fairly equal equipment at the beginning of the season, since it was the first year of the chassis, you know, no one really had, especially the bigger teams, the chance to unroll all of the development programs and really have extra testing pay dividends. We were right there week in and week out. To see that slowly fade certainly is frustrating for everybody, not just for me. I mean, like I said, we're all graded on one thing typically, and that's the result column. It feels that way for everybody, but it's the nature of our sport, the nature of sports in general. Everyone's always trying to find ways to get advantages and step forward. I'm sure there's football teams in the NFL that feel the same way.
Q. Some of the tracks you race on, you talked about different corners at Phoenix where you were going flat out, there are a number of tracks where basically you're flat out all the way around the racetrack. Considering some of the accidents that we've had here of late, do you think there needs to be either an aerodynamic change or something with the engine to where it is more in driver control to throttle-out and throttle-in in the turns instead of going flat out everywhere? Would that make things safer?
SCOTT SHARP: Well, I don't know. You know, and I say this not to like toe the line at all, but I really do feel that, you know, I've been here since the beginning, and to see the state of where our cars were from a safety perspective back in '96, '97, and where they are now, I don't think there's any organization in racing that's worked harder to make our cars safer. So I really do feel comfortable with the decisions that the IRL and Brian and Dr. Bock, the whole group makes. You know, you really got to leave it to them to decide those factors because there's a lot that goes into it. It's not just, "Hey, let's slow these things down and make them safer." I think when you go through the bigger accidents of this season, they were contact, most of them, contact crashes. I think when you have open-wheel cars, I think as a whole, I believe we all do to some degree hold more respect for each other because you don't have that fender there to bang on. You know that wheel-to-wheel contacts are going to be a higher likelihood of something significant. You knock 20 miles an hour off the cars, certainly there's probably inherently something safer about that, yet two tires, you know, open-wheel tires at 200 miles an hour versus 220, are still probably going to have some pretty good implications about them.
Q. Could I get your opinion on this. Dixon and Gil and Hornish all had three wins this year. Of course, Scott won the title, had a lot of poles. Sam ran really well in the Chevy when so many didn't. Which of those three drivers impressed you more this year?
SCOTT SHARP: I really probably have to say, for different reasons, I guess you got to look at it for the entire year. Week in and week out, I look at it as a package, certainly the driver and the team, because that's what you're competing against. No one is out there in a hundred percent equal cars. You have to look at them as a unit together. I think, you know, we all felt, and even though it got so close it probably could have gone easily differently as far as who the champion was going to be. I know a lot of us were saying when it was four races to go, three races to go, two races to go, we really felt the odds had to go towards Scott and the team that Ganassi had put together. I mean, they consistently found speed. They consistently were the fastest, especially on the big tracks. You know, Penske really seemed to pick it up as the season went on, getting towards the end of the year. Helio was on the pole at Fontana, which I think was possibly one of their first big track, high-bank poles, and certainly a big win for them for Gil to win down in Texas there at the end. But typically more than not, that would be the kind of track that they've struggled a little bit on, whereas Ganassi seemed pretty strong on those big tracks. Certainly, obviously, it goes without saying that Panther and Sam in that combination, once the Chevy came out, was pretty unstoppable. But you have to think as a whole from start to finish, Chip and Scott were really impressive.
Q. Is one of the primary movements of the team to work on the qualifying package this year, really want to make it much better than it was?
SCOTT SHARP: Yeah, you got to get better (laughter). It couldn't get much worse from a qualifying perspective. I mean, we were tail end, towards the back at least, a few different times. But, you know, ultimately I still think, you know, we got in tough position because we didn't test at many of those tracks. You go to a two-day show, you know, Friday, Saturday, some of the races when they trimmed off one of the days, Saturday, Sunday, if you didn't test there, and you don't roll out right on, which there's a fairly high likelihood you're not going to if you didn't test, sometimes you have only one, sometimes two very quick practice questions and, boom, you're right into qualifying. One more practice session, it's time to race. It would have been sort of foolish for us to come out, this is what we all sort of decided, and work on qualifying because in two half-hour sessions, you're not going to like make this quantum leap up to the top six, seven or eight probably anyway, and yet you're not going to have done anything to help yourself for the race. By the time you're done scuffing some tires, mixing it up in traffic a little bit, the final practice session, it's over with in half an hour, you got to go race for guys. We all said, "Hey, even though it doesn't look so good, the smartest thing for us to do is work on the race car, forsake qualifying a little bit." With maybe three or four positions farther back maybe than we would have been, I don't think we had outrightly the kind of pace we needed for qualifying, but at least we had a better race car come race time. I think that showed. When you can get a 19th place car up to I think we were ninth at Fontana, when you take 20th place race car in Texas, up to sixth in Texas, you you've done a good job of making the car draft really well. Our strategy was good, pit stops were good, all that, that came in sync with each other. Given what we had, I think we made the right decisions. To answer your question more directly, though, I think we need overall competitiveness to be raised. We need more speed, period. That speed that comes in a race setup, that speed that comes in qualifying. I think you go there for race weekend, maybe your race weekend approach doesn't really change overall. You work towards a race setup. You're hopefully unloading off the truck two or three miles an hour faster than we were last year.
Q. Besides Andy, have you added any new crew members?
SCOTT SHARP: There hasn't really been any announcements on the team at this stage. I don't feel right in going forward and making any of those announcements. You know, it's still hard to tell exactly. I don't even a hundred percent know what's happening in our second car. So there's a lot of guys that are very good on our team, and I think if we don't have two full-time, two-car teams, the team has a lot of great people to pick from to round out, you know, my team on a full-time basis, certainly leaving some guys to help whenever we can run the second car. With that sort of being up in the air at this stage, it's hard to really tell what's going to happen. Paul, Ziggy as everyone knows him, was with our team last year, has been around Indy cars a long time. He's been pretty much running the team since the end of the season. As far as I know, he's going to do that next year as our team manager. Then I think all the other slots are going to pretty much fill. You know, the one thing that's been pretty good the last couple years, the team has gotten more and more towards one two-car team. I went testing sometimes with Al's guys last year. Al had my guys helping him sometimes. We seem to work better and sort of rooted for each other. It's not as big a stark difference as if some of Al's guys work on my car, it's going to make a huge chemistry difference. I think the guys are pretty much used to working with each other. The team is going to end up picking the best group of guys.
KENT JOHNSON: Your sponsor Delphi is extremely proactive in the area of electronics, but also safety. As we all know, safety is a hot buzz word any time you talk about motorsports. Give us your thoughts about some of the innovations that they've brought out this year or in the past years in terms of driver safety, your thoughts about it.
SCOTT SHARP: I mean, a lot of sponsors, team relationships, driver relationships throughout the world in racing I think try to tout the line so often that what their sponsor does actually is incorporated into their actual cars, their on-track performance. We're I feel in an incredibly unique position, that really does happen with Delphi. You know, for them being such a leader in the automotive engineering and electronics field, we use so much of what they produce. As far as our chassis goes exclusively. They've designed some suspension pieces that we use, and then also they've done, as you alluded to, they've done a tremendous amount from an electronic and safety aspect. I don't feel they've really gotten the credit they probably deserve. I think people fail -- if you look at the map of changes that's happened since, let's say, 1996, 1997, in the IRL from the safety perspective, Delphi has been very involved, whether it's cooperating with the IRL in the crash testing, whether it's the formation way back when, the whole crash data logger, that was the -- the ECM was the first step of what kind of Gs were these cars seeing, what sort of angles were they going in. It migrated to the track condition radio, which has been a huge saver for everybody, that's the yellow light on the dash that really goes off before any other light warning systems, and it's also a warning system you can't miss. Sometimes you don't quite see the track lights or maybe you aren't looking at the flag or whatever, but, man, you can't miss the track condition radio. Sometimes if it's even half a second difference of just seeing that before you're staying on the power can make a big savings in avoiding a crash. Now they've gone into the ear piece accelerometers which all drivers wore this year. As the years go, I think that's going to pay big dividends. The IRL, Dr. Bock, has been able through these pieces that Delphi developed basically be able to have a logbook, see what drivers are experiencing for the types of G forces with their heads in relation to what the cars see, and how they deal with that, what's too high a limit, what kind of impact gives the concussion. I think actually, without speaking out of school, I think everyone has been surprised at the kind of G Forces our heads can see without being concussed. You know, a lot of that intuitive information helps make better safety on the cars. When Dr. Bock can see the kind of changes they maybe want to do to the headrests, that kind of thing, they can compare it to what kind of Gs the helmets saw versus what kind of Gs the car saw. All kinds of tools that Delphi is always working with the IRL to implement them. Right now there's several programs that are maybe stuff that won't come to fruition for a couple years, but they're constantly moving ahead in trying to make the cars safer.
Q. If you are going to be a single-car team this year, what does that do in terms of development of your vehicle? Do you think even if you are a single-car team, that Andy can make a difference?
SCOTT SHARP: Well, certainly Andy is going to make a difference. Right out of the box, just having a sort of relaxed sort of day, me getting comfortable with him, him getting comfortable with me, everybody working as a team, we're already faster than we qualified last year by a fair bit down in Phoenix. That's with one day of running. It's pretty obvious he's going to pay some big dividends. I think a lot of the programs that Andy really wants to see the seem partake in from a development perspective are going to tie into his whole strategy and really help. I think we're all expecting -- it's not just one guy. Certainly, Andy is going to make a big difference, but I think with a lot of his experience and his knowledge, he's going to help, you know, make sure that the team does the best they can with whatever resources we have, to spend our money wisely and invest in the right technologies to hopefully make the most speed gains. Really, as far as the team goes, that's really hard for me. I'm not really privy to a lot of those conversations. I'm not sure what the team honestly at this stage is looking at from a game plan. I know they're always working on different sponsorship deals. There's really a lot in the loop right now. Whether some of those can come together in short order, whether it's enough to be a full second car, whether that's just Indy as a second car, or something in between, I don't really know. I think -- I haven't heard what the final version is of the sort of little bit tighter testing restrictions for next year. What I have heard is basically requiring teams to participate more on the open tests, which I think is pretty fair for everybody. Whether you're a multi-car team or single-car team, it isn't going to affect that too much because you're all going to be there. Where I think it starts the added team's help is when they restrict your private testing. Let's say they limit it to five or six or seven days of testing, obviously if you have a three-car team, that's 21 days versus if you're a one-car team, that's seven. Certainly you can see the opportunity for a team like that, where we might have to choose our different tracks, a team with three cars might be the ability to go to every track.
Q. That creates the same kind of problem you had this year. That's what I'm worried about for you.
SCOTT SHARP: Well, I appreciate your concern. Thank you. But, you know, you got to run with what you're dealt. I think, no matter what, we're going to be stronger next year. I think the tighter testing will help. And there's not many teams with three cars, luckily.
Q. One that I can think of.
SCOTT SHARP: There's only one that I think would have a distinct advantage on us. I think enough other good things are going on with the team that we're going to be a lot stronger. You know, we got to start probably by utilizing all the available test days we have to begin with.
Q. At what point during the off-season do you start getting itchy to get back in the fight?
SCOTT SHARP: You know, it's funny, the off-season goes by quite fast for me. This year it hasn't really slowed down a lot yet. Delphi and our whole group of sponsors are real generous during the season. They know with the typical testing you do, the travel for all the races, they don't ask all that much of me during the season. We try to do some more things, more in the off-season. And so between that and once testing starts kicking up, it stays real busy. From a personal perspective, now is the time you really want to be getting yourself in the best shape possible. You don't quite have the obvious time during the season on a week-to-week basis to do quite all the work you'd like to do in the gym. So my days go by really fast. We just went to a trade show for Delphi. We're going to Mexico to visit some of their factories. They have 40,000 workers in Mexico that are all very enthused about IndyCar racing. We're going there the second week of December. Got some other appearances for some of the other sponsors, for Tobb. We stay real busy with that. We're going to test at Homestead tomorrow and Thursday. So that stays pretty busy as well. I think after Thursday, we're down from running until early to mid January. And I imagine in that time frame, as you cross into the new year, you start to think about it, you smell the season sort of coming, you get hyped for the new season coming, and you're not running, that little window there that comes up to when the testing season with the '04 spec really kicks off, that's when you start getting really anxious and really pumped about getting on the track and making good gains and getting the team as ready as possible for next year.
Q. You can smell the season coming?
SCOTT SHARP: Oh, yeah. Everything dies down for that little while. With NASCAR ending, there's not as much racing on TV now for the next couple months. It's that sort of a little bit of a lull. You get caught up in a lot of other things. I never stop thinking about being on the racetrack. After thinking about it for a month maybe and not doing it, you're like a horse in the gate a little bit.
Q. You talked about going to Homestead. The speed jumps tremendously when NASCAR was there, 25 mile-an-hour increase. What do you think it will mean for your cars when you guys go there, it could really be a jump?
SCOTT SHARP: I don't think it's going to be that big a jump. We'll know more tomorrow. But, you know, certainly I've heard the new paving has a lot of grip, so that could be as big of a jump as anything else. On qualifying, you're pretty much running, for our cars, running wide open around there, whereas the NASCAR cars on the old track, they were on the brakes. There was a pretty huge speed disparity between the two. So now for us, you know, from what I can see, I think where it's going to help us the most is in the race. You get into Homestead, maybe on your own, you can almost be flat out, in traffic. In traffic, in turbulent air, if the car is just off a little bit, you're off the throttle a bit. I really liked it that way because I think the driver contributed more. But now, especially when an increasing embankment, certainly the second and third grooves are going to be huge for race-ability. No doubt if your car is anywhere close you should probably be, based on where our other tracks with similar bankings are, you should be more flat out. I think you'll see us more flat out more often, probably most of the time, but certainly be able to be two and three abreast.
Q.Would you say a 25 mile-an-hour increase would be a no brainer there for your cars?
SCOTT SHARP: I don't think there will be that kind of an increase. We're already flat. We'll wait and see, but I can't imagine more than like six or seven miles an hour personally.
Q. Should be very interesting two days for you. Be careful out there
SCOTT SHARP: Appreciate it.
KENT JOHNSON: Scott, we don't have any more callers with questions for you. With that, we'll let you go. Again, we appreciate you joining us today, wish you the best of luck in your test at Homestead later this week and an enjoyable off-season.
SCOTT SHARP: Appreciate it. Thank you very much.
KENT JOHNSON: That concludes today's teleconference, Ladies and Gentlemen. Our next teleconference will be next week at the same time, noon eastern standard time on Tuesday, November 25th. Again, we thank you for joining us today and we appreciate your coverage. Indy Racing League.
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