Indy Racing League Media Conference
Topics: Indy Racing League
TIM HARMS: Welcome, everyone, to this week's Indy Racing League teleconference. We've got three guests joining us on today's call. In a few minutes we'll be joined by IndyCar Series drivers Jeff Bucknum and Roger Yasukawa. Right now we're joined by Menards Infiniti Pro Series driver Jon Herb.
JON HERB: Thanks for the introduction, Tim.
TIM HARMS: Jon has made 13 career starts in the IndyCar Series from 2000 through 2002. The last seven of those came with his own team, Racing Professionals. The team competed in three Menards Infiniti Pro Series races last year with a best finish of sixth at California. This season Jon obviously is off to a great start. He finished third at Miami and then earned his first career win at Phoenix. He currently sits in third place in the series point standings. Jon, you told me before the season that the three races last year that you guys competed in were kind of a tune-up, just a feeling-out process, and that you really expected to come in and be real competitive this season. You've got to be pleased with how you've gotten things started off so far.
JON HERB: Yeah. It's nice when the (plane?) comes together, as they say. We wanted to get the three races in last year. We kind of did it just by getting the necessary things together and going to do it, seeing what it was all about. Thought it was pretty competitive up front. You really got to be serious about it and come at it with the right people, the right attitude, a whole lot of hard work and determination. We decided to make that commitment coming into this year and got a good time to ramp up the program, which has been an unusual thing for us, for me especially. I usually don't have that much time to prepare for the season as we did this year. So it worked out a lot better for us. We were more prepared. We finished third with a strong run at Homestead, but it was a little disappointing we weren't able to run a little stronger at that one. Schmidt cars were a little too fast for us there. Then we went to Phoenix, where the Schmidt guys again were able to sit on the pole, but we had them covered in the race and race trim. That was certainly a good feeling out there. We want to continue it from here on out. We went to St. Pete and struggled a little bit there. We had some issues, a mechanical issue, that caused a problem, imbalance in the car, led to some other problems which led to me having problems. Didn't have the greatest finish there. It was my first street race in six years. I got a limited background of road racing before I went to ovals. Looking forward to doing some more road racing at Indy, Infineon and Watkins Glen. Really looking forward to Indy, obviously.
TIM HARMS: You kind of mentioned a plan coming together. Obviously right before the season you moved the Racing Professionals team into the same shop as Vision Racing. Both of the teams are using Larry Curry as team manager. Can you tell us about how that relationship came about and the benefits you've seen from that so far.
JON HERB: Well, I had hired Larry I think sometime in January. We began to make our preparations and our plans. We were aware of what was happening with the Kelly team there. As that came about with Tony purchasing those assets, Larry was approached by Tony to handle that operation. Larry was gracious enough to mind his commitment to me and explained to Tony that he had a commitment to me, but he'd love to take that on. In the process of those discussions, we agreed that what would be best was to merge the operations, since we were always looking to run a second car from Racing Professionals aspect of it, merge my one-car Racing Professionals operation in with a Vision Infiniti Pro Series car and Ed Carpenter's IndyCar effort. That, of course, made it a lot easier if we were trying to run Larry across town for two different shops, for one thing. There's obviously a savings there, economy of scale that you save when you can put two cars into a trailer rather than having each car take its own trailer for the Infiniti Pro races. A lot of things like that we were able to save on the shop cost and transport costs. It really makes it a much more viable way of going racing obviously. That's really where the benefit has been to me. Then, of course, Larry learns a little bit more sometimes from Jay and sometimes from me. We're both figuring things out sometimes that help each other out. There's a benefit to having a teammate on that whole front.
TIM HARMS: I want to talk a little about your background. You have a very diverse background. You won a state wrestling championship in Connecticut in high school, then went on to play some college football at Southern Methodist. What position were you playing in college football?
JON HERB: I played defensive back. I was part of the post death penalty team. Forest Greg was the head coach. Dale Lindsey was my defensive back coach. All these great Green Bay former pro Hall of Fame type players that came out and coached the squad for us. It was a real interesting thing to do for a couple years, I'll tell you. It's something I'm glad I did. I did it for a little bit, but moved on from that. Like everything else in your life, there's a time and place for it. The commitment at that level, it was really a full-time commitment. When you're spending six or seven hours a day because you have to go over, get taped up, stretch out, go watch films, you have to go to defensive meetings, then you have to go out and go through calisthenics, so on and so forth, go through drills, by the time you get done, it's 7:00 at night and you've been over there since noon. It was a little bit of a heavy schedule for me so I stopped doing that. I enjoyed doing it for the time that I did it. Wrestling was something I got into in high school. I really enjoyed that. Was the Western New England state champion of some kind of another for the 167-pound weight class up in Connecticut where I was going to school. Got second in the Big Five state tournament as well, the all New England tournament I guess it was. That was something that I did. Playing football was something I did. I went to college based on where I wanted to go to college. Happened to want to play football there, too, so that worked out pretty well. Now it's all about racing.
TIM HARMS: Tell us about that. Obviously compared to a lot of drivers who maybe started karting or doing whatever as young kids, looked like you got a late start. How did you get started?
JON HERB: I had always been to the 500 as a kid, was a big fan of that, always something I wanted to do desperately. I always wanted to play football, I always wanted to fly planes, do some of these other things, act in movies. I was kind of working through my list. I had two things on my list, that was bartending and acting in Chicago. I had those marked off my list. Two other things on my list were learning to fly, getting my pilot's license, and racing cars. I knew for certain that I didn't want to fly for a living. I knew if I got a pilot's license, it would be to fly for myself and for the love of doing that. It wouldn't be to fly commercially. I also thought if I could make a living and devote myself to racing on a full-time basis, that's something I'd probably like to do. So I went to Skip Barber Racing School. Went out and did a couple weekends with them. Then I went to join the SECA and purchased a '96 Van Diemen Formula Continental car from Dave Conti, as a matter of fact. Never forget that. Went out and started racing SECA. Ran 30 some races my first year out. The last four races I -- I worked part-time. Last four or five races -- I think the last four races of the USF 2000 Pro Series. That's where my road course background comes from. In '98 I ran the full USF 2000 series. That, by the way, it was the last time I ran for a full championship up till this year. From there I went into midgets and Silver Crowns, ARCA stock cars, then IndyCars.
TIM HARMS: Let's talk about Indianapolis. Pro Series race is there May 27th on the oval. It's your third time to race there. You did it once in the IndyCar Series, last year in the Pro Series. What are your thoughts as you head into the month of May?
JON HERB: Well, I'm just really looking forward to being competitive there. That's really -- I know it will be good there. We were good in Phoenix. Phoenix seems to be a good tune-up for Indy. I have all the faith and confidence in Larry Curry and the cars he gives me. They've been always good cars, have always been good setups. The motor program is nothing that Larry is in charge of. The Infiniti motors are really good, give good horsepower. They're on an even keel. I know those will be reliable now. We'll be real happy to go there I think and roll it out. I know I'll be happy with the setup. Really looking forward to going there and doing that. It's really kind of the focus of Larry's and mine obviously to win that race there on the oval especially.
TIM HARMS: Let's take some questions for Jon.
Q. After going to Phoenix and winning, how does that do for your confidence level?
JON HERB: It's great for my confidence level. I think the races I've won, it's amazing, I've had people come up to me and say, "Man, I've seen you, you're driving better than I've ever seen you drive before. Your focus is there, you're doing great," so on and so forth. I kind of sit back and almost got in an argument with a couple of these people. I kind of said -- I learned to my hold tongue now. First couple times I said, "What do you mean, I'm kind of driving the way I've always driven." They say, "How can you say that? You're blowing by this guy, doing that." I say, "Wait a minute." It's always harder to drive a bad car. When you have a really good car and you've got a car that should win the race, it's really easy. You get up there, you drive around, you look around, say, "Where the heck is everybody?" It does a lot for my confidence. It does a lot for I guess validating where I'm at and what I'm doing. Winning races is what it's all about. If you can't win races, you're not succeeding at this level in this business. You really need to do that. That's what we're all about doing. It's been great for my confidence. It's been great for the team. Definitely it's what we're capable of doing and we're showing that. I think that's great. But I've always known I've been capable of driving cars competitively at this level. When we get the right one, we'll win races. I think we've hit in stride now with this team - not on the road courses. Obviously, we need to work on that a little bit. I'll take my share of that responsibility, I'm quite rusty at the road courses, so I'll work hard on that. I think on the ovals we sure have the experience, with my background, with Larry's background, to go out there and be competitive and finish on the podium the rest of the season on all the oval races.
Q. I take it your ultimate goal is the Indy 500 and the IRL championship. I hope we won't see you going down south like everybody else.
JON HERB: Absolutely. I do have a background, I ran ARCA stock cars for a while. Not something I'd like to do full-time. Something I wouldn't mind doing some of. But, no, my goal is to stay in the IndyCar Series and drive IndyCars as a full-time driver, focus on that. It's nice to see that IROC championship, it would be a great thrill for me to be able to do obviously. But the Indy 500 is where I want to be. Hopefully may have an opportunity to do that this year as well. Maybe make another race before the season is over in the IRL as well.
TIM HARMS: You said one time you had a list of checking things off that you wanted to do. Now that you've raced and talked about other things, anything else added to the list out there for you?
JON HERB: No. I mean, really I still got to get my pilot's license, that's something I plan on doing at some point. Other than that, I'm pretty happy where I'm at in life, some of the things I've accomplished. Focusing a bit more on things I want to maintain and stay involved in on a longer-term basis. Racing is definitely one of them. I've certainly moved in that direction with my involvement with Playa del Racing, the wonderful people that are setting up that organization, as well as with Racing Professionals that I've had for a while with my own deal. I want to be in this sport for a long time to come. The way to ensure that obviously is in ownership as an owner. That's kind of where I'm at.
TIM HARMS: Thanks for taking the time to join us today. Good luck the rest of the way.
JON HERB: Thank you all very much. Appreciate it, Tim.
TIM HARMS: You bet. We're joined now by Jeff Bucknum and Roger Yasukawa, IndyCar Series drivers for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. Good afternoon, gentlemen. Jeff will be making his IndyCar Series debut at Twin Ring Motegi on April 30th, then will compete in the Indianapolis 500 in May. He's the son of former Formula 1 driver Ronnie Bucknum. Jeff started racing in 1992 and most recently has been competing in the American LeMans series. Roger is in his third season in the IndyCar Series. As a rookie in 2003, he recorded eight top 10 finishes and was second in the Rookie-of-the-Year standings. Last year he competed in two races, Motegi and Indianapolis, and finished 11th and 10th respectively. Roger, I believe you're calling us from Japan this morning, aren't you?
ROGER YASUKAWA: That's right. It's 3:20 in the morning actually (laughter).
TIM HARMS: We certainly appreciate you joining us and getting up early to do that. How long have you been over in Japan already?
ROGER YASUKAWA: I've been here actually for three or four days. I was back here doing a couple of PR things for Twin Ring Motegi, getting all the excitement up for the Indy Japan race.
TIM HARMS: Honda has you doing some promotional events. What types of things have you been doing and will you be doing in the next 10 days as they promote that race?
ROGER YASUKAWA: We kind of kicked off, they actually have an Indy cafe about half an hour away from Twin Ring Motegi. Basically it's like a cafe with all the IndyCar stuff, all the graphics of the races, trying to get all the people out to the race. I was there actually last Saturday and did a talk show. Next week it's going to start to get hectic with a press conference, doing some sponsor visits. But I'm really surprised because first year when I came here, nobody really knew anything - I wouldn't say anything - but much about Indy racing in general. Now you talk about IndyCars and a lot of people know what Indy racing is. The good thing is they actually start to know my name and other drivers, as well. I'm really excited for the race this year.
TIM HARMS: That's good to hear. You've raced obviously at Motegi twice in the IndyCar Series. Last year you finished 11th. What kind of expectations do you have for the race itself?
ROGER YASUKAWA: Well, I mean, I think the first two years that I raced at Motegi, I don't think my results were what I expected and what my fans have expected. I think I certainly need to hope for a better finish this year. But the race here in Japan is always exciting. It's certainly one of my busiest races. I definitely have to keep my focus up. But otherwise, you know, the team's working hard to get the car. I think we'll have a very good race car. I'm really excited to work with Jeff. It's going to be the first time for us to be a two-car team. I think he would struggled a little bit the first couple of races just because of being a one-car team. Obviously having two cars is going to be great with all the information.
TIM HARMS: Speaking of your teammate, Jeff, first of all, welcome to the IndyCar Series.
JEFF BUCKNUM: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be getting this opportunity.
TIM HARMS: Share your thoughts with us here as you anticipate your first race in the series.
JEFF BUCKNUM: I'd be lying if I didn't say I was a little nervous going into it because any time you're doing something for the first time, there's things that you know that you're going to expect. But there's just some things that until I get in there and start driving around, like some of the turbulence behind three or four cars at a time, are things that I just haven't had the experience of, to be honest with you. I'm anticipating some of that stuff, just how it's going to go. I'm going to try to really focus during the practice sessions to get in and mix it up with cars more than trying to just run by myself. The excitement of just going to Japan, which I've never been there, is going to be exciting. Fortunately having Roger as a teammate, he's been there, plus just knowing Japan like he does, that's going to be a pleasure. Springboarding from there to the Indy 500 is basically a dream and a pinnacle point of my racing career that I feel I'm getting an opportunity to do.
TIM HARMS: You passed your rookie test at Phoenix on March 24th. Since then, have you had any other opportunities to drive the IndyCar Series car?
JEFF BUCKNUM: Yeah, I haven't. I haven't had any other oval experience, although fortunately Roger was able to get the car squared away on Sunday morning, the day after the race. I mean, literally it was such a perfectly set up, balanced car, it was actually one of the easier things I was able to do, not so much because of me, just because -- I actually knew Phoenix pretty well. The car was so well set up, it just responded perfectly, so that went great. I got to go to Sebring I think it was a week or two after that to share the car with Roger because I had just actually driven the 12 Hours of Sebring, not 12 hours straight, but had a lot of laps and miles at Sebring. I went there with the team to get the road course setup going for St. Pete. Then we also last week on Tuesday, of the Tuesday and Wednesday test of Sears Point, I got in the car on Tuesday as well. The positive side of getting in the car at all is, again, getting comfortable in the surroundings as a driver in the cockpit, whether you're on a road course or oval, just things like even taking off from a dead stop in an IndyCar is much different than in a sports car that I'm so familiar with. I'm feeling very comfortable doing that now. All the controls that you have at your fingertips in the IRL car are much different than what I have in the sports car. All of that has been such great experience to have. I'm already feeling real comfortable in the car. I feel good going into the race at Motegi.
TIM HARMS: Going into the ovals, too, you've primarily been a road racer, do you expect a large learning curve as you go into the ovals?
JEFF BUCKNUM: Yeah. Back to kind of what I was saying, mainly the turbulence I think of being with the cars. I have driven many races on ovals in open-wheel cars, which is good, through my Barber Dodge Pro Series, Formula Mazda racing. I've actually done a dozen different races on ovals. Driving the car on the oval I feel real comfortable with. Mixing it up with four or five cars all in a pack or six or seven or eight or ten, who knows, however big the pack is going to be. Being directly behind a couple of cars, I'm just trying to anticipate understanding when you don't have downforce versus when you're going to get it if you pop out and things like that. That's the main focus, I think.
TIM HARMS: Let's take a quick look ahead at Indianapolis. Jeff, you already kind of mentioned it's kind of a dream come true for you to race there. Anything else you want to say about Indianapolis, the opportunity to race there?
JEFF BUCKNUM: Yeah, I mean, to me it's still one of if not the biggest race in the world to be a part of. For a racing car driver, to get an opportunity to race there, I think no matter where your focus is in racing, where you've -- what ladder you've tried to climb, if you're getting the opportunity, especially with a great team like Dreyer & Reinbold, then to have a teammate that's gone there now and proved his worthiness at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, is great. Then just the heritage and history. My father ran there three years in '68, '69 and '70. That's just been a part of literally my family. You grow up with that sort of thing, with AJ Foyt calling your house when you are a little kid, you're jumping up and down because he's calling your house. That's kind of fun stuff. I'm really looking forward to this opportunity.
TIM HARMS: Roger, you're been to Indianapolis a couple of times. Very respectable 10th place finishes both times. Talk a little bit about the magic of Indianapolis from your perspective.
ROGER YASUKAWA: Well, I wish if I knew everything. But Indy's a different place. It's a lot different than everywhere we go to. The race is one of the biggest races in the world. You can never underestimate Indy. I think the biggest challenge there is just the condition changes. The races are long, and you have to stay focused not only the time you're in the car, but just every day you're at the track. There's a lot of magic to it. You can't just set this really one way of doing things; you have to be prepared and you have to know the place well. Certainly experience does help. It's not obviously easy to win that. As a matter of fact, it certainly is my ultimate dream really, to win the Indy 500. I'm thinking that, okay, Motegi is one of the races that I certainly want to win, but, again, Indy 500 is my ultimate goal. I'm looking forward to it this year, again working with the team and Jeff. It's going to be a challenge this year because of the new qualifying format, et cetera. But I think it should be exciting.
TIM HARMS: Let's take some questions for both Roger and Jeff.
Q. Jeff, you had a tough weekend last week at Road Atlanta in your regular sports car ride. How do you get back up after something like that?
JEFF BUCKNUM: Yeah, that was pretty tough actually. That was yesterday or two days ago. Feels like yesterday. I don't know if everybody saw that, but we had at the end of the back straightaway there at Road Atlanta, the rear engine cover came off and took the rear wing with it while I was still flat out in sixth gear just before the brake zone. As soon as that happened, we lost rear downforce. The car went into violent spins. I have to say, right when it did that, that was one of the most scariest moments in my racing career at that point. Fortunately it came out where I just glanced off the inside wall. It hurt the car a bit, but for me, I wasn't hurt at all. It was actually fairly light impact. So to come back from that, I'm still sort of doing it. Again, I'm a pretty straight shooter, trying to figure out exactly what happened. I had made a -- I got touched by a Porsche about five laps before that. We think it unbuckled one of the latches on the rear cover. That just allowed wind to get underneath the engine cowling and start flapping at high speeds. Eventually, about the fifth or sixth lap, after it had contact, I have to say they definitely hit me, I know they didn't mean to, it just happened that way, it caused the engine cover to come off. I keep reassuring myself there's nothing I would have done differently. There just isn't. I'm trying to put that past myself.
Q. Did you learn anything that you can bring to the IndyCars?
JEFF BUCKNUM: Yeah, I mean, there's no point in time when you're sitting in the race car on a racetrack, whether you're in a practice session or a race or qualifying or what have you, that you get to relax at all. You have to stay focused. To be really good at what you do, I have to remind myself that even though I got touched by another car on the track, that's just part of racing. Would I have done anything differently? I would have to say no, because my focus was really good during the race. We had just about put the car in front of us a lap down to have not only the lead but a lap up on the whole field in our class.
Q. Roger, did you learn anything from Jeff's test last Tuesday at Infineon?
ROGER YASUKAWA: Yes, absolutely. We had Jeff in the car and also his engineer to help us out on the road courses. Obviously, Jeff has quite a bit of experience around Sears Point and also his engineer. Myself, I did grow up as a road racer, but I never raced anything with as much horsepower and weight. I'm still learning the car, together with the team, my engineer Len Paskus, doesn't have a lot of road racing background, so we're trying to figure out how much will it change depending on the certain amount we change on the car. If it was that easy, I think everybody could do it. You have teams like AGR, Penske, all other teams that have a lot of road racing experience.
Q. So do you.
ROGER YASUKAWA: Right, right. I think I'll admit that I'm still getting used to the car in terms of taking it to different tracks and challenging the track and the car. I think I'm not a hundred percent yet. I think I'm still leaving something on the table. At the same time I don't really want to risk every time I go out, I think we just have to take everything conservatively until we know we can challenge everywhere a hundred percent. We're working on that. Having Jeff there last week certainly helped. I think we did get to improve the car. Unfortunately, on the second day we changed, we made too much of a drastic change and made the car worse. We kind of wasted an afternoon session. I think it's a learning step. We have a limited amount of road racing test time. We kind of have to maximize every minute we go out. The change we made was big, but it was something that we couldn't do during the race weekend. It was an experiment. We did come home with a lot of information, which is very important. But I'm certainly looking forward to go back to road racing again.
Q. How similar are your styles?
ROGER YASUKAWA: That's hard to say. I mean, I don't know. Road racing, I grew up with it. Oval racing has been just my two years in IRL really. I've done a couple of races in Barber Dodge and Atlantic Series. I think oval racing maybe suits my style in general just because I'm more of a thinker driver rather than just go out and throw everything at the table. I think oval racing has been good to myself, but again we're going back to road racing. I think I need to get my road racing skill back a little bit.
Q. Jeff, is the year plan just two races?
JEFF BUCKNUM: At this point that's what we have in our agreements, in what's lined up to move forward with Dreyer & Reinbold and myself and Roger. Obviously, Roger has the full season. As a two-car team, that's what we have lined up right now. Just to answer probably the next question, if there will be anything more later for myself, absolutely would love to be a full-time driver in the IRL. As far as Dreyer & Reinbold, if I could do that with them, that would be great as well. We are having talks about that. With no secrets, we just don't have anything lined up right now to go any farther than the 500 at the moment.
Q. How did your association come with Dreyer & Reinbold?
JEFF BUCKNUM: It started -- the focus to race in the IndyCar Series started with doing something with Honda first. Looked at the teams that had Hondas. Basically started negotiation with all of them that would even consider having sort of a one-off or a two-off race situation. They were one of the teams that were open to that. It just developed from there. We had talked to actually a handful of different teams. For other reasons, other teams didn't line up. Again, that's just the business side of it. It wasn't bad or good, I just didn't line up. With Dreyer & Reinbold, we had things in common fortunately that lined up, so here we are.
Q. Roger, sounds like you got a little bit of a cold from the travel. How do you handle all this extra duty by having to work so closely with Honda in the promotions and all that?
ROGER YASUKAWA: Well, I mean, I think it certainly is a lot of travel. From the Homestead opening race, I've only had one weekend at home. Otherwise, whenever we had a week off, I was back to Japan doing some PR stuff. It certainly keeps me busy. In general, I'm used to flying around. My home is based in LA, so it's not really too bad from the West Coast to come to Japan. It's great to work with Honda. The PR stuff in Japan, I think it helps me every time I come here and do a lot of work for them. It certainly is a buildup for this Indy Japan race and also the Indy 500. I think it certainly is part of my job, and that's what I love doing. I'm really excited about this Indy Japan race. Hopefully more people will come this year. I think it's going to be a better weekend because this year it's sort of like they call it the golden week, which is a week holiday, early part of May and end of April. They're expecting more people. The weather should be nicer. It should be good.
TIM HARMS: Thank you so much for joining us, again, Roger, especially calling so early in the morning from Japan. Best of luck to both of you guys both at Motegi and Indianapolis.
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