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Indy Racing League Media Conference

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Open Wheel Racing Topics:  Indy Racing League

Indy Racing League Media Conference

Dan Wheldon
November 25, 2003

KENT JOHNSON: Welcome to the Indy Racing teleconference for this week, Tuesday, November 25th. Today we visit with IRL IndyCar Series driver Dan Wheldon Don. Wheldon was the 2003 IRL IndyCar Series Bombardier Rookie-of-the-Year and will again drive the Klein Tools Jim Beam Dallara/Honda/Firestone for Andretti Green Racing during the 2004 IndyCar Series season. Most recently Dan participated in a test session this past week at the reconfigured Homestead-Miami Speedway. Thanks for joining us today.

DAN WHELDON: I'm just glad I'm not in an air part this time.

KENT JOHNSON: Dan, let's start by looking back at your inaugural season in the IndyCar Series, very solid season. You recorded five Top 5 finishes, including each of your final three events, and capped it off with a third place finish at Texas to earn Bombardier Rookie-of-the-Year honors. Heading into the year, was this what you envisioned your season being?

DAN WHELDON: To tell you the truth, with the team that I was going into the championship with, I was expecting strong results from the get-go. I think I've explained earlier on in the year that I kind of underestimated how important experience was in this series, especially when you're up against such good quality drivers. But as far as the season went, I think we were very quick from the get-go. I think the Indianapolis 500, the lead into the race, really showed that. But I also think you could see some of my inexperience. Once it all kind of came together at the end, we were able to put together some really strong results. I'm looking forward to next year. It's going to be my first season where I've stayed on with a team for a second year, so I'm really excited about that. But, you know, I had a very, very enjoyable time. I learned an amazing amount. Actually, we were at Homestead just last week. I was with Kim Green at dinner. I said to him, "I'm not sure you understand how much I took in this year." We kind of had a chuckle about that. It was a fantastic season. I can't wait till we start for next year.

KENT JOHNSON: Looking ahead to next year, it was just a matter of weeks after our most recent season ended that Andretti Green Racing extended your contract, then your sponsors Klein Tools and Jim Beam both reupped for next season as well. Looks like the pieces are in place for you to have another solid year.

DAN WHELDON: It's great to have Klein Tools and Jim Beam on board for next year. They're both fabulous companies. They really do treat me -- it's kind of like one big family. I think that the team does an excellent job in giving the sponsors what they want out of motorsport. No, it's a good relationship all round. I think the car looks really good on the track, too. So everything works very, very well. Yeah, it's probably the earliest I've been signed for a season leading into 2004. Excited about that. You know, it's going to be very, very competitive next year. It's good to be signed early. But the work has already started for 2004. That's what I certainly want to focus on.

KENT JOHNSON: Having things in place this early lets you enjoy the holidays coming up.

DAN WHELDON: I get bored. We seem to have been having a little bit more time off this winter than last winter. I'm always itching to get back in the car. It's going to get harder, so I've got to make sure that I'm doing everything I possibly can do to make sure I can start next season how I ended this season.

KENT JOHNSON: Last week you participated in the IndyCar Series test down at Homestead-Miami Speedway. What can you tell bus the revisions they've made to that circuit?

DAN WHELDON: I think it's certainly a big change. The corners they've got between 18 -- the low line range is 18 degrees of banking. The middle is 19. The high line is 20 degrees. So it changes the way the -- it changes the strategy for the race. It was comfortably flat out when we were there. I wouldn't say it's quite as easy as a superspeedway in terms of how easy it is to be flat out. I certainly think when we race there that the car definitely has to be very, very good in traffic. I think that window is going to be slightly smaller than, say, a Chicago, than a Michigan, than a Fontana. But, you know, I think they've done well. They have soft walls up right the way through one and two, three and four, so that's excellent. I think Brian Barnhart has done a good job of working with the track to make sure that it's safe for us.

KENT JOHNSON: At this time I'd like to open it up for the media for questions.

Q. The track at Homestead, how you does it compare to any other tracks on the schedule?

DAN WHELDON: Well, as far as Homestead is concerned, I would say it's actually different. It's not similar. I mean, I would say Chicago and Kansas are pretty similar, as far as a Superspeedway type track, how we would classify a Superspeedway type track. This is basically just a little bit tighter. The corners do feel tighter. Normally where you can kind of open up the wheel towards the exit of, say, a Chicago, Kansas, Michigan or Fontana, you actually still have some turning to do. I think just the corners are that little bit tighter. That's why I talked about the setup window being that much narrower as far as the race is concerned. But, you know, I think certainly the Andretti Green Racing cars work really well on the high-bank tracks. The test went well for us. It's going to be competitive. The times at the test were very, very close. Certainly when we go back there and test again, we've got to keep working on perfecting the setup.

Q. Stock cars didn't seem to have much trouble getting the setup right. Indy cars are much lighter. Will they have a problem dealing with the variable banking?

DAN WHELDON: No, I don't think so. I think the track has done a very good job as far as that is concerned. I think you're certainly going to see much closer racing. But, no, these are very good teams in the IRL. I just can't stress how competitive they all are and how close it's going to be. But, no, I don't think there will be any kind of problem as far as setting up to be competitive, but you've got to get it right if you want to be the first one across the line

Q. I'm always fascinated with drivers when they say that something happened, halfway through the season things got better or improved for them or they learned a lot. Is it like a football quarterback who says that after a year or two, things start to slow down? Did that happen to you? If so, what was the trigger?

DAN WHELDON: I think at the beginning of the season, I just got caught out in a few situations. I went to Indy, and the whole month had gone very, very strongly. I had that little incident in the race. I mean, it's never good when you're just starting off your campaign to have that. Then, unfortunately, we had a very, very loose car at Pikes Peak. You know, it just kind of kept happening to me. It just didn't pan out for us. Then as everything, like I say, things started to come together, when things started to go our way, that's when you results started to come. I was no different driver. I was certainly learning every time I went in the car. Things didn't fall our way. As soon as they did, I think that's when you started to see me like, for example, third at Texas, then we were in the Top 5 a lot of races prior to that. I would say I was kind of in some unlucky situations. At the end things started to go my way. I think I made the most of what we had.

Q. Going back to Indy, which was your first really big race in America, the rookie group there, three of them are in the top 11, including yourself, you could have been very close to seventh or something. What were the little things you learned? You talked about inexperience early. What were the things that developed that you learned that you were able to turn it around?

DAN WHELDON: I think for me, obviously I did the Indy Lights Series, the Toyota Atlantic series and US F-2000 series. They're much shorter races. The key to it is to get in the lead as quick as you possibly can. You don't have to save fuel. You don't have to look after the tires. The car really doesn't change that much over the duration of a race in comparison to an IndyCar. But I think once I realized that you kind of -- if your car is good, which I think certainly Andretti Green Racing have a very good engineering staff to help you have a good car, and if you have that, you can just take your time. The races are very long. You can let them come to yourself. You just have to make sure that you position yourself for the last 20 laps. I think as the season went on, it was actually probably the last five or ten. But positioning yourself, and by doing that you'd have to save fuel. You'd have to make sure after your last pit stop the car was at its best. Things like that. I mean, it just takes a little bit of time. It was interesting, at the start of the season, they would say, "What do you need for the car to feel good for you in the race?" It was very hard for me to answer because I hadn't done a long race before at that particular track. I did two the prior seasons. Once I started to get a feel for that, was able to relate to the engineer, that is what I needed, then that's when things started to be turned around. That can't be learned straightaway. That definitely takes time.

Q. At Indy last May, there was a rookie with Michael Andretti, your boss, his last race, there was so much attention directed toward that team, did that have any effect on you, how you performed? Looking ahead to next year, it will be a different situation.

DAN WHELDON: Well, I think certainly the team orchestrated the four cars very well during that month. I hadn't done the Indy 500 before, and I know it had been tough for the team the year before, certainly leading into the race. During the race they performed excellently. No, it really didn't, because Michael, Tony, Kim Green and, Barry Green, who was on my car, really kind of kept me out of the limelight, so to speak, really just made me feel very relaxed. We were obviously performing very well, which makes it easier for the whole team in general. But with those guys around you explaining situations that they'd been in before, how they handled them, that this wasn't a big deal, that wasn't a big deal, just perhaps do this in a certain situation, everything just went well. Because of that, like I say, it was relaxed. The people around me had seen it all before. It was no big deal to them. When that's no big deal to them, it doesn't feel like a big deal to you. I think certainly that race is an awesome experience. I can't wait to go back. I've been there before and watched, but it's not like driving it. I just can't wait. It's difficult to explain to somebody, the feelings that you have during that whole month. I certainly loved it.

Q. Is there anything you'll do differently this next May with the year's experience behind you?

DAN WHELDON: Yeah. I probably will try and keep it on all four wheels about 15 laps to go. I think that's what I'll do different. No, I mean, I think everything went very well up until I crashed obviously. It's just experience. That was a mistake. People are going to make mistakes. As long as I've learned from that and I don't do it again, I'll be fine. I'll perhaps do everything the same except come off about 15 to go

Q. You alluded to things that Brian Barnhart was looking at in Homestead. Can you be a little bit more explicit about that?

DAN WHELDON: I think Brian just does an excellent job. Obviously the track has changed. He just wants to make sure that it's exactly how he wants it. He asks all the drivers' opinions on what they feel about the track. He just makes it right. It's not just Homestead, he does it at every single track that we race at. When you've got that guy in charge of the day-to-day operations, I mean, he's just a professional. Very nice guy to relate to on a personal level, with experiences. Yeah, like I say, just does a very good job. But, you know, he just has to -- when things have changed so much, he just has to make sure that everything is up to scratch. That's what he did.

Q. What about tires? NASCAR guys had some wicked problems with tires at Homestead. Do you think we're going to be going that much quicker, tire problems could come into play?

DAN WHELDON: No. We didn't really have any problems. I think Firestone do a good job. Obviously, it was a new kind of layout for those guys, too. They tried some different tires. I think they've got data now they can go back and look at before the race. I think they have a very good idea what they're going to use. There were no issues whatsoever. You watch the history of Firestone being involved with the IRL, they've had nothing but good experiences.

Q. How much quicker do you think you'll be going at Homestead this year?

DAN WHELDON: I think the pole was by Tony last year, and it was at 203.9. I think you're going to see us perhaps see us doing between 216 and 218, 219. Please don't quote me on that because I can't be definite. I think it will be pretty close to that.

Q. Did you have any goals at the beginning of the year, Rookie-of-the-Year, or just to finish the season as high as you could?

DAN WHELDON: I really didn't set myself any goals. I just wanted to do the best job I possibly could at every single race. By saying that, I meant I just wanted to make the least mistakes possible. I knew it was going to be my rookie season. I knew it was going to be tough. I tested a lot at the end of the season prior to going into this season. I didn't actually do many of the official tests leading into the start of the 2003 season. I was kind of thrusted in at Japan. So I just really wanted to make as few mistakes as possible. You know, I think at the beginning, I obviously made a couple. But towards the end, it was to the point where I actually extracted the most from what I had. I would say, yeah, I always did have my eye on Rookie-of-the-Year. I was very determined to win a race before going into next season. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. But, like I said, I'll focus on that for next year.

Q. Speeds are an underlying issue in Indy cars this off-season. Do you have any feeling, do you think the cars should be slowed down?

DAN WHELDON: You know, with my experience level, it's tough to comment. But I'm sure the IRL will make sure that they have the cars as safe as possible. And I think they do an excellent job. I'll kind of leave it in their hands. I love the racing in the IRL. I think if you ask every one of the drivers, they'd say the same thing. They're very confident. I think that doesn't just go for me. Everybody's confident in Brian Barnhart. We'll kind of leave it to him. When he asks us a question, we'll certainly give our opinions and feel on what we think.

Q. When did the precision of oval track racing, when did you become comfortable with that, or have you yet?

DAN WHELDON: You know, I started in '99 in the US F-2000 series. Fortunately, I've always been in very good teams that have given me very good cars on ovals. I think certainly the more I do, the more experience I learn from. That goes for a lot. I mean, you really do race against great drivers in the series. Obviously, there was Helio, Gil, Tony, Scott Dixon, Hornish. You're racing against good guys. They have certainly a couple years more experience than me. I've got to learn from those guys. That's what I'm doing. Like I say, as the season went on, I think you could see that happening. I think that's going to keep happening. I don't think you ever stop learning on these things. But, you know, I really enjoy it. I definitely think it's a great style of racing. It's very competitive. It's difficult. I mean, to get your car right during the whole weekend, in qualifying, making sure that it's good right way through the race, it's not easy. No, it's certainly very enjoyable.

Q. Do your off-season plans involve motorsport? Are you just going to get away from it altogether and enjoy life for a while?

DAN WHELDON: Actually, the team probably get really mad at me because I get bored. I'm in the shop winding the guys up constantly. But, no, we have two more test days left before Christmas. We're going to do them at Phoenix. That will be on the 3rd and 4th of December. I look forward to that. That track's obviously changed. It will be interesting to get a feel for what that is like before we go back there next year. Actually, I'm going to go back to England, just relax a little bit. I haven't seen my family all year. I'll go and see them. Then January we'll be back to start testing. It's going to get pretty serious from then on out for the rest of the season. Looking forward to it. It will be certainly nice to get that Klein Tools Jim Beam car back in the circle and get on that winning list for Andretti Green Racing in the campaign.

Q. You and I had quite a long talk back in 2002 at Kentucky before you had gotten in a car. You were to test the next day for Panther. There was quite a bit of talking about your history. From that point to today, is the IRL, IndyCar Series racing what you thought it would be or more?

DAN WHELDON: It's more, and it's certainly more difficult. I can't stress how much I enjoy it. I think that is because of the competitiveness. I think that is because of the teams and manufacturers involved. But, yeah, I mean, if you'd have asked me a few years ago would I have been racing on all ovals, I mean, I wouldn't have been able to say, "Well, yeah, I think I'll be doing that." That wasn't the way -- I'm obviously European, and typically from a road racing background. I certainly have been in very good teams, like I say, on ovals. That has made my transition easier than perhaps some. But I've also had good people around me, and that makes a difference in how you react to them. But, yeah, I certainly enjoy them. The racing is definitely tough. It's a slightly different style that takes time to get used to. I think the more I do, the better I get at it. That's how I would say. But, yeah, it's certainly more than what I thought.

Q. Who is your biggest mentor this 2003 season, helped you along, found your way to the car, restrooms, whatever?

DAN WHELDON: I wouldn't say there's one specific. I think Michael obviously is a big help. He had so much media attention at Indy, he just kind of breezed through it. Nothing fazed him. Because you're around somebody like that, that doesn't get fazed, you're like that yourself. So he's been a big help. I think Tony Kanaan has been excellent. He is a great teammate because he's a great benchmark. I would say there's nobody that can go quicker in the car that he's driving. I mean, if you're matching him and going quicker, you're doing a very good job. He's been a very, very big help. I think certainly Kim Green and Kevin, they've been very kind of influential. I think they've matured me a lot as a person in general. I think the whole organization I'm in make you feel very relaxed, very at home. When you're in a situation like that where you enjoy it so much, everything kind of just comes more natural. I wouldn't say there's one specific person, but I would say the whole entire group surrounding me have done a very, very good job.

Q. Last May when you were introduced to the media, you joked what your mother might do to you if she knew what you were doing. How has your family accepted you've become an oval track driver? What is Christmas like in England with your family?

DAN WHELDON: It's cold. We're all a very close family. I have three brothers and a sister. It's one time that we're able to be at home together as a complete family during the year. It's traditional, a traditional English Christmas, I should say. It's very nice. But, you know, their reaction to me I think doing the IRL is excellent. It gets superb TV coverage in England. It's on at great times. Normally the races are just being shown at around 7:00 Sunday evening. They haven't been able to make it to many. My father has been very busy with his company. But I certainly know they're watching every race. Actually, if I check my messages at the end of each day, my dad is always there saying, "Hey, how have you done? How is the car for the race?" You know, they're very, very supportive of what I do. But I've just kind of been living away from home for a long time that we kind of treasurer your Christmases together. I'm used to them just being on the other end of the phone rather than perhaps being with me at the races. But it's certainly very special when they come to the races. They loved Indy. They had a bit of a scare there. But they'll certainly be back for a few next year if dad can fit it in with his schedule.

Q. What would it be like to be another British driver to win the Indy 500?

DAN WHELDON: I think England would go crazy, especially with the amount of English drivers they have in the series next year. But I don't care which country you're in, the Indy 500 is absolutely massive. Like I said, when you go and watch the race, when you read about the race in magazines, when you're young, when you watch it on TV, it's certainly big. It's certainly like a cool race to watch. But when you race in it, it is unbelievable, just the whole month. I mean, this whole month there was a grin on my face ear to ear. It would be very special for the country in general and certainly to be on the same list as Graham Hill as a winner would be excellent. But for me, that's the one that I care about most. It would just be such a feeling of completion, of just making that whole month go right and be able to win the race. I'd never forget that feeling, that's for sure, ever. You could never take that away from history. I would be on there as a winner. That's what I would -- that's what I'm intending to do certainly before my career ends.

Q. How much of your team is going to be he to remain intact in terms of the engineering group?

DAN WHELDON: That wouldn't be something that I know. But I'm assuming pretty much all of them. I don't think there's any changes. I think they all work very well together. I think everybody has a very good relationship, open relationship, hard-working work ethic. I'm assuming everybody will stay.

Q. You're assuming, but you're not exactly certain?


Q. How much of a comfort factor did you get working with Eddie and the balance of the crew toward the end of the season? Did that help you with your results?

DAN WHELDON: I think for a while it took Eddie and I to gel. He's obviously used to Michael. Michael has such kind of an experience bank that he knows exactly what he wants from the car. I really didn't. He's obviously worked with Michael, had a very good relationship with Michael prior to myself for a few years. We had to build up that together, as well. Like I say, it took a little bit of time. But I think really the last five races we were working very well together. He's very open and honest. We're both English, so we both kind of react to everything the same. The Homestead test, we were working as if it was an official test for next year, really making sure we were improving on everything we possibly could. I was making sure I was getting into the pits as hard as I could every time and leaving the pits. Yeah, I certainly think it took us a little bit of time, but I think we're a very good combination right now.

KENT JOHNSON: The upcoming 2004 IndyCar Series will have a British look to it with yourself and Dario at the Andretti Green Racing. Mark Taylor moves up to take a full-time seat at Panther Racing. Now we have Darren Manning joining the Ganassi team. The IndyCar Series has become popular with the drivers. From your perspective, how is it catching on with the motorsports fan over in Great Britain?

DAN WHELDON: Like I say, the television coverage that it has over there is excellent. I think not only with like the younger drivers now, but the fan, they just take to it. It's what they want to see. They want to see it. Formula 1 and perhaps Formula 3 series are going to get mad at me. When you watch a Formula 1 race, there's rarely overtaking. If you qualify on pole, you have a good car, you don't make mistakes, you're going to win. The difference with the IRL is that you see a lot of overtaking, you see close racing. It's really taken off. Now with more English drivers, it's going to get bigger and bigger. You have to remember we class Dario, too. He's from England, he's just from a different part, like Scotland. There's him, as well you can add to that list. He's very popular in England also, and Scotland.

KENT JOHNSON: Sorry I didn't make that clear. I thought I mentioned him along with you. That will do it for today. I appreciate you taking time to join us. Have a great weekend. The best of luck in the 2004 season.

DAN WHELDON: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me on today.

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