Indy Racing League Media Conference
Topics: Indy Racing League
TOM SAVAGE: Good afternoon, everyone. We'd like to thank you for joining us today. This week marks the 100th race in IndyCar Series history when the league makes its way to Nazareth Speedway in Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. The first IndyCar Series race was held on Saturday, January 27th, 1996, at Walt Disneyworld Speedway in Orlando. Joining us today are two gentlemen who have been around the league for all 100 of those events, Eddie Cheever, now owner Red Bull Cheever Racing, finished 10th in the first race at Orlando and has driven in 70 of the league's first 100 races. Jack Arute, a broadcaster on ABC and ESPN for all IndyCar Series races, hasn't missed a call for any of the previous 99 events, and interviewed inaugural race winners Buzz Calkins in Victory Lane in Orlando. Jack, thanks for joining us today. We'll be joined by Eddie in just a minute. You're one of the few people that have seen all 99 races in league history. Your most memorable moment?
JACK ARUTE: I think you've got to go back to that first race because it was a bold experiment on Tony George's part. There were more than an ample number of people that were predicting doom and gloom. When they got to a brand-new racetrack, surprisingly everybody adapted to the track. It was a great feeling because everybody, whether you were on the broadcast team or you were a crew member or driver, car owner, you knew that you were making an historic move forward for IndyCar racing. And to see how well the guys did and to see that first race and the camaraderie that I think became the benchmark of the IndyCar Series right to this day. They would race hard out on the racetrack, but they also looked out for each other's welfare and they also were celebrating the fact that everybody made it to that first green flag.
TOM SAVAGE: Obviously that Victory Lane, that first race was memorable. Is there a Victory Lane that sticks out?
JACK ARUTE: Oh, boy. You know, there are so many wonderful stories. But I think that what you've got to do is you've got to look at probably two that stick out in my mind. One was when Helio Castroneves won his first Indianapolis 500, only because he redefined the protocol that goes with winning at Indy. Long before he took the sip of the traditional milk, he wanted to pay tribute to the fans that he carried over from CART his traditional salute by climbing the fence. Then I think probably that first Victory Lane because when Buzz Calkins won that race, there was a sense of relief. One of the stories that nobody knows is just a while before that Disney had completed their purchase of ABC and ESPN. Bob Goodrich was our coordinating producer and our line producer at the time. As is the way that Disney likes to do things, here is Mickey Mouse in Victory Lane. And all of a sudden, as is the old-fashioned way in racing, you know, crop to the winner only. Goodrich is in my ear saying, "Get the mouse out of the picture, get the mouse out of the picture." Finally somebody said over the IFB, "Bob, that mouse is your boss now." A pause, and then "Widen out, widen out. Get the mouse in the picture. Get the mouse in the picture." I got a chuckle out of that.
TOM SAVAGE: Can you talk about that first race back in Orlando again, maybe even Indianapolis in '96, I'll ask Eddie this as well as a driver, but was there a feeling of maybe car reliability for a 500-mile event, especially in '97 when it went to the IRL package? The first few years, a bit of tiptoeing into this thing?
JACK ARUTE: It was not just the mechanical reliability. I mean, certainly '96, the '96 season, was using -- I hate to use the term "used." I would say more so it was proven, a proven package. But what was on the horizon was a new package that was going to be built specifically for oval track racing. There were an awful lot of people when we got to '97 that really the jury was out. Was it going to work? Was it going to produce what I thought was Tony George's vision, and that was to create the best oval track racing in the world, not just in the United States. It probably took a while. In fact, in my mind, probably the jury remained out until all of a sudden we ended up at Texas Motor Speedway, and we were treated when we went there the first time to what heretofore wasn't seen in IndyCar racing, and that was side by side by side by side racing. All of a sudden those of us that were covering it, those hundred thousand plus people that were in the stands that day, they looked and they saw a redefinition of what American oval track IndyCar racing was going to be all about. I think it also was the final affirmation, as you would say, the package and the design of the package was going to bode well and be very, very good for the sport.
TOM SAVAGE: Jack, what do you think has changed the most over nine years?
JACK ARUTE: Oh, I think the pressure. I think the business side of it. I think when the IRL and the IndyCar Series first started, it was a wonderful opportunity for a lot of people that jumped on and thought this was going to be their one best chance to make the jump up from whether it was regional touring series events or Sprint cars or Formula Fords. Now what's happened is because of the racing package and because of the depth of competition, now what we see when we get to Nazareth is going to be a compilation of the 22 absolutely best oval track open-wheel IndyCar drivers that are in the world. I honestly don't think you could say that back in 1996. I think in '96, the Indy Racing League was more about opportunity and it was more of an untested product. Like everything else in sport, it's evolved to a lofty position now where I think it goes without debate that it is the leader in what I would call IndyCar motorsports, open-wheel motorsports entertainment in the United States if not globally.
TOM SAVAGE: Eddie Cheever has joined us now. Eddie, thanks for calling in. I know you're out of the country now.
EDDIE CHEEVER, JR.: I'm in France.
TOM SAVAGE: Thank you so much for calling in. Eddie, we were talking with Jack Arute about some of his memories over the first nine years, 100 races. That first race in Orlando, you started 20th and finished 10th. Give us your thoughts over the first 100 races and as this league tiptoed into.
EDDIE CHEEVER, JR.: It's been exciting. It was a new concept. It was about opportunity. It was about getting all the drivers at the starting line with similar cars and similar chances. A lot of it went down to the crews and the drivers. I think the whole concept has evolved now to where I always think the last race I see in the IRL is going to be the most competitive one possible. But then again they better themselves the next race. They're all very talented, very brave. It's a very aggressive series. Again, it has evolved a lot. Technology has gotten better. But the concept has remained consistent.
TOM SAVAGE: Eddie, what do you think the biggest change has been over the first 100 races?
EDDIE CHEEVER, JR.: Well, I think the biggest one really has been the arrival of Honda and Toyota to join GM in the IRL. We evolved. Nissan stopped probably a little bit early. But it's now the engine manufacturers are playing a very important role in it. I think the safety of the cars has evolved dramatically. I think the whole concept of developing a series around oval racing in the States has proved to be correct. Just everything has gotten better. I mean, the drivers are more prepared. The engineers are more prepared. The circuits are more prepared. We've had the SAFER barriers that started at the Indy 500 now being a part of a lot of series. We've made gains in a lot of sectors.
TOM SAVAGE: As a driver and owner, is there a fondest moment you can pick out over the last 100 races?
EDDIE CHEEVER, JR.: You're kidding, aren't you? In the last hundred races.
TOM SAVAGE: How about one as a driver?
EDDIE CHEEVER, JR.: I think there were so many battles that we had in the IRL throughout the whole period of its growth, it's very difficult for me to pick out one or another. I think the first race we had down to the last race I came from right now as an owner, they've all been very exciting. It's very hard for me to pick a moment. There were a lot of victories along the way. They were not just victories on the racetrack.
TOM SAVAGE: We have a lot of media on the line, so we'll open it up for questions.
Q. Jack, I was there at that first race, too. A lot of camaraderie. What do you see for the future of the IRL?
JACK ARUTE: More of what we saw in that first race. I have not seen any substantial diminishment of the camaraderie. In fact, I've seen an increase in the excitement. We talk about chases for championships, we talk about the increased safety as Eddie referred to. As I said before, I think what's happened with the IndyCar Series is that it now has become the leader in open-wheel IndyCar motorsports entertainment. Entertainment involves the product on the racetrack and what I call the fan experience that takes place for people that come to the grandstands and watch the races. Look at the races that we've had this season. Look at the excitement and the pressure that the front-runners are feeling right now in the chase for this championship.
Q. Eddie, any comments on that?
EDDIE CHEEVER, JR.: I agree wholeheartedly. It is continuing to get better and better as we run. Everything changes. Nothing every stays consistent in life. I believe you'd be very hard put to find any more competitive racing. You know, maybe there's been a little bit of an advantage from the engine manufacturers this year, but the races have been great. We've had American winners. We've had winners from other countries. You know, it's just continuing to grow.
Q. Eddie, you talked about the changes in the engines. We only have to look at this year to see I think one of the major changes, and that is the announcement of going to road courses and a possible street course for 2005. When you look back over the hundred races, did you think the series would ever experience this big a change?
EDDIE CHEEVER, JR.: I did not think we'd be going to road courses as early as we have done. I think we have to remain true to the philosophy that we are in America to an oval racing series, although we do have one race in Japan every year. I think it's good. I think it's great. The battle with the other open-wheel series in the States is won. I think picking these road races carefully like we're doing now will only enhance our championship, and it will give the drivers a wider experience.
TOM SAVAGE: Jack, is the league right now where you thought it might be nine years ago? Is it where you thought it would be?
JACK ARUTE: Honestly, no. I thought the growth was going to be a little bit slower. It was going to take a little bit more time. One of the reasons was because of a short track experience that I've had with my family when we introduced a different formula for what's up here in the northeast called modified racing. It in essence took us 10 years before we realized what we had and had the product where you could look straight in the eye with anybody and say it was a quality product. I think the fact that it's been accelerated by the Indy Racing League in their growth is a tribute not only to the owners and drivers that make up the series, but I also think to Brian Barnhart and his staff, because every move they've made in terms of rules and the racing package has always turned out to be a positive move forward. You know, most of the time when you're evolving something, it's going to be maybe four steps forward and one step backward. But the net gain was going to be there. But that hasn't been the case. I mean, every move they've made has been very positive and has accelerated the growth.
TOM SAVAGE: Over 100 races, nine years, most colorful personality you've had in nine years?
JACK ARUTE: I think you've got to look at what Eddie Cheever said. When he stood there in Victory Lane, said, "My dad told me if I was only going to win one race, make sure it was the big one."
Q. What do you feel is the correct split between road races and oval races in a season? 60/40, 70/30? Given where ESPN and ABC is, which do they prefer to televise?
JACK ARUTE: You've posed two questions that are really basically well above my pay scale. One, because I can't do math. I will tell you what I do think the measuring stick as far as the mix needs to be. I think Eddie alluded to it just a little while ago. We need to make sure that during the course of this expansion that as attractive as some road course racing venues may be, that we don't lose sight of the fact that this is an American oval heritage that you're building upon. I think you see the same thing being done with the controlled growth to road courses that series within the NASCAR community have done. As far as ABC and ESPN is concerned, I learned a long time ago that the suits that live on the higher floors, they like to make those speculations. I'm just happy to get the call every Monday and tell me where the next race is, then I just show up and go to work.
Q. 16-race schedule. Do you feel that four would be too many road races?
JACK ARUTE: I don't know. That's why I say, I think what it's got to be is the growth has got to be with an eye towards maintaining that oval racing heritage, but you've got to take a look at it and measure each opportunity for its merits. What will it do to further? If you go into that geographic area, does that then open up another geographic area where there may be an oval race facility that would be then wanting an IRL race? I don't think it's really fair to get in a position of saying it's a 25%, 15%, 10%. I think you've got to look at it case by case. I think that's one of the great things the IRL has done, every move they've done is by measuring it against the growth scenarios.
Q. Could you talk about the emergence of new teams, Rahal Letterman has come in, been competitive, and of course Andretti Green? Sam Hornish thought he was joining the New York Yankees of motorsports, and you figured that Marlboro Team Penske was ready to steamroll, but they must be desperate to win this in their backyard?
JACK ARUTE: I don't know if "desperate" is the word. But what we saw last week at Pikes Peak is what is going to happen on a short track like Nazareth oval, where it's not a case of raw horsepower. I think we saw some muscle flexed by Chevrolet, we saw some muscle flexed by Team Penske and Toyota. Darren Manning had a great run with a Toyota powerplant, because unlike some of the mile and a half superspeedways where you've got your right foot just buried, that's why they put the left foot pedal called the brake in these race cars. When you get to these short tracks, it's more about handling, it's more about a driver being up on the wheel from the drop of the green flag. I think it goes without question that you know that Penske is going to be loaded for bear because it's in their backyard. Let's not count out Chevrolet either. I think whether it's Eddie's team or Pennzoil Panther, Chevrolet has made some good inroads. On the short tracks, that's where you're going to be able to show not necessarily your horsepower muscle but your total package muscle.
Q. How about Chevrolet? Performance gotten better? More confidence at Red Bull Cheever Racing?
TOM SAVAGE: We lost Eddie. He's over in France. We lost his cell phone.
JACK ARUTE: Do you want me to speak for Eddie?
Q. Do your Eddie impression.
JACK ARUTE: I mean absolutely (using very deep voice).
Q. Buddy Rice wins. He's parking his car on the south portico of the White House. What did that do for the series, to have an American driver in Victory Lane at the Brickyard?
JACK ARUTE: It was nice to see some Americans kicking some Brazilian butt. But I think in all honesty, and my opinion has changed, when Buddy Rice won the Indy 500, we all made a big deal about it. It was an American finally getting back into Victory Lane. I started to seesaw and lean towards, "We need more Americans in this series." All of a sudden I came to realize, and it really became validated as I watched the Olympics over the last nine or 10 days, it's no fun if you're an American and you're at the top of your sport just to beat other Americans. What you want to do is you want to be measured against the best I think it goes without question, I think right now in this day and time, in terms of IndyCar racing, open cockpit, open-wheel racing, the IRL has the best drivers. So if you're an American, you want to beat all the best. You don't want to beat just four or five fellow Americans. I think that's what's evolved since Buddy came on the scene. Now we have more than a third of the field are Americans. When you mix in the Brazilians, add some of the Europeans, when you go out there and beat them, it's like winning an Olympic gold medal. You've proven you're the best globally, not just within the confines of the United States.
TOM SAVAGE: We really appreciate you taking the time out calling us today.
JACK ARUTE: All right.
TOM SAVAGE: Thank so much, everyone.
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