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Champ Car Media Conference

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Open Wheel Racing Topics:  Champ Car

Champ Car Media Conference

Cristiano da Matta
Jim McGee
Dan Pettit
June 21, 2005

ERIC MAUK: Thank you to all the media gathered today on today's Champ Car media teleconference. We're going to talk a little bit today about the GI Joe's presents the Champ Car Grand Prix of Portland which just took place this past Sunday as well as look ahead a little bit to this weekend's Champ Car Grand Prix of Cleveland presented by US Bank. Today we're joined by three of the members of PKV Racing who took their very first Champ Car win this past weekend in Portland. We are pleased to be joined by team co-owner Dan Pettit, team general manager Jim McGee and the driver of the No. 21 driver of the #21 Bell Micro Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone for PKV Racing, Cristiano da Matta. Thank you very much for joining us today. First of all, for Mr. Pettit, this has been three years in coming for you guys. You have made great strides in the last couple years. To finally get to the top of that hill, get that first W, now that you've had a couple days to look back on it, how does it feel?

DAN PETTIT: It feels great, just wonderful. To get the first one under your belt is a big thing. We've been working very, very hard, as you know. In the off-season, we made a huge change in the team itself, bringing in Jim McGee. Jim McGee brought in just a vast amount of experience and brought the credibility to the team. With him we were allowed to bring in the great driver Cristiano da Matta that we were able to bring in. We're just excited for everything that's happening. We've got a long way to go, but it's a good start.

ERIC MAUK: I guess the question that everybody wants to know, how do you celebrate a first win? What did you do Sunday night?

DAN PETTIT: A long dinner and a couple of glasses of champagne.

ERIC MAUK: Congratulations. Very well-deserved. Mr. McGee, obviously let's first talk about the pit strategy and the call to get Cristiano out of the pack of traffic and get him out in some clean air where he could turn some quick laps. How did that come about and how tough a sell was it?

JIM McGEE: Well, I think it's really great what Champ Car has been able to do, you know, with the new pit rules. It allows you that if you have a fast car now, and you have a bad start, it gives you an option. I mean, if you want to take a chance and you have a fast enough car, it gives you an option to get to the front. You know, it's a risk and it's a gamble, but it's a calculated one. Again, as in the past, if you don't have a fast car, it's not going to benefit you. So, you know, from the standpoint of, as we were over the weekend, we had a car that was really capable of running in the top five all weekend, but we just did not have a good qualifying session mainly because of traffic and things that happened. Now you can still have that happen. The way the rules are, if you can take advantage of them, like I say, the car has to be fast enough, as Cristiano showed, once he was able to get to the front he was able to pull away. I think it's great for the fans and I think it puts more interest into the series so that it gets some of the cars that are fast enough, it gives them the ability to get to the front.

ERIC MAUK: Jim, you've been in this game a long time, seen a lot of teams win championships, been more a part of wins than any manager in Champ Car history. Tell us from your standpoint about what a first win can mean, what you expect it to mean for PKV Racing?

JIM McGEE: Well, it always gives you that momentum that you need, and the fact that you can win. A lot of the fellows on our team, you know, they are winners, they've won championships, but a certain amount haven't. You know, that first win, at least it gives them the confidence that, hey, we can do it. I've always said in all my years of racing, you know, that if you can lead 'em, you can win 'em. As Jimmy Vasser showed us at Milwaukee the previous race, he sat on the pole, he was able to lead the race. I think that just -- when it starts coming to you, you know it's there, and you just have to get the right pieces at the right time. With drivers like we have with Cristiano and Jimmy now working together, these guys, they're doing a great job. Vasser, really his setup was what we used on the car for the race. It really was a benefit. That's part of the teamwork.

ERIC MAUK: You definitely put together a talented squad there that we expect to see challenge for more wins and podiums as we go along this year. Cristiano da Matta wins the first race in the three-year career of PKV Racing. His first since returning from Formula One after the last two years, and the 12th win of his storied Champ Car career, which of course includes the 2002 Champ Car title. Cristiano, now that you've had a couple days to sit back and think about it, how does it feel getting back in Victory Lane?

CRISTIANO da MATTA: It feels great. Obviously if you spend too much time without winning a race, it's just not good for you as a driver. Even though you want to keep your confidence up and everything, I think you end up losing maybe a tiny little bit that at the end of the day might be counting. So just to get back to it and know that we can do it together as a team and I can do it as a driver, the team knows they can do it, too, the engineers know that the work they are doing is right, is leading us in the right direction. It's just a boost of confidence for everyone including myself and all the mechanics, everyone in the team really. I don't even know how to explain how good it feels. It's just I feel like all of a sudden I feel like 10 kilos lighter compared to the way it was like, let's say, on Saturday.

ERIC MAUK: You don't have 10 kilos to give away, do you?

CRISTIANO da MATTA: No, I don't. But it's the way it feels, I tell you.

ERIC MAUK: All reports were you knew you had a fast race car Sunday as we were gridding the cars. At what point did you know you had a chance to take the win?

CRISTIANO da MATTA: Well, I knew I had the chance to take the win when I saw that yellow flag, which was on lap what, lap 47. When I saw that yellow flag, I thought that could have been very beneficial for us. Before that, I was thinking we should have been able -- the very first round of stops, we were already running sixth when everyone had one pit stop done, so I was pretty sure we were going to be able to make it for sure into the top five by the end of the race and maybe to the podium, if we carried on just running by ourselves, doing quick lap after quick lap. I wasn't that sure if we were going to be able to win the race. When I saw that yellow, I knew everyone else was going to have to stop, and we were going to be able to stay out. Then I knew I was going to be from that point on a direct battle with the other guys that were leading the race by the time, which I think was Tracy and Bourdais, they were like first and second after Wilson pulled off. It was a direct battle after that. It was good that the team gave me a quick enough car that I was able to pull away, build up a gap, and after the pit stop I was pretty much able to control the gap to the other guys.

ERIC MAUK: We'll go ahead and take questions from the media now.

Q. I'd like to ask Cristiano, you have a pretty good handle on the politics inside Formula One. I was curious your reaction to what happened here on Sunday and then if you see the power struggle going on inside of Formula One, if you see any parallels to what happened between CART and the IRL?

CRISTIANO da MATTA: Well, obviously I know what happened there on Sunday, but I don't know as much as you probably think I know because I was racing obviously on Sunday and then yesterday spend the whole day traveling. So I don't know that much about what happened. But I think if they had a safety issue, they were stuck like in a situation that they had no way out, I think. And obviously they had to run the race. Run the race with six cars obviously is the wrong thing to do. But I think should let the race happen with the tires the way they were, putting the spectators in risk and putting the drivers in risk I think wasn't going to be the solution either. I think it's just too bad they let it get to that point. I think they should have anticipated that before. But I don't know how -- what else to say.

Q. What happened here is sort of part of a bigger issue, ongoing struggle inside the sport. Looking ahead, what kind of things do you see happening in F1 over the next few years?

CRISTIANO da MATTA: Again, I'm not the kind of guy that is following F1 day after day. But they have a very strong following in Europe. Obviously this race is not going to help them at all. I think definitely that's going to do -- I think that's going to hurt them for the next -- at least for the next couple of months. But they had a very strong following, especially in Europe. They probably should be able to bring it back over there to what they had before. But I think what's going to be more difficult for them is to bring it back here in the United States.

Q. Cristiano, going into Cleveland, what does this win do for you?

CRISTIANO da MATTA: Well, for me and for the team, is what I was saying before, is just so good when you know that the work you have been doing, you're working towards the right direction, you're working towards something that is going to lead you to race wins. So before we were kind of maybe experienced a little bit towards this direction, we experienced a little bit towards the other direction, now we know exactly the way we have to follow and we know that what is going to give us the right car. We just going to be more confident about what to do, I mean, before and during a race weekend. You know, it may sound not a lot, but at the end of the day, plays a big part of the result.

Q. Cleveland is such a different racetrack than anything else that the Champ Car series runs on. Talk a moment about things that you think you may have to overcome there.

CRISTIANO da MATTA: Well, Cleveland, always it's a very particular track, very different than the other ones because -- obviously because how wide it is, how many line options you can have as a driver. It's a tough place to drive. It's a difficult track. Also a tough place to set up the car because it's quite bumpy and -- because most of the places we go to, street courses, are bumpy, but usually slow corners. Cleveland you have the combination of a bumpy circuit with fast corners. It's pretty much the only time of the year we have to run the car in these conditions. So the way to set up the car for Cleveland is usually quite different than what you do for the road courses and the normal street courses, too. It's kind of a big challenge. Obviously, I expect to do well there, especially knowing how much progress we have been making, and after obviously this result. But it's a very different racetrack. It's like different preparation than the other places.

Q. Cristiano, I guess on your second pit stop, it's my understanding that the original plan was to go on the standard Bridgestone tires, and you instead sort of said that you wanted the option tires. Is that correct? Can you explain what your thinking was in that?

CRISTIANO da MATTA: No, on the -- that was on the second pit stop, we had -- actually, we preplanned that on the strategy meeting before the race. We were starting with the red tires, with the red compound, then we were going to the normal tires on the second stint. Then we had a good idea, whatever was better, whatever was going to be more consistent, of what was going to be quicker. As we figured we were going to have a clear track on the third stint, regardless of the yellow flag and everything, we most likely were going to have a clear track. So I had to make the option for whatever tire I thought was going to be quicker. On the strategy meeting, we decided we would be able to have a good read on the black tire, on the red tire, on the first few stints, then we decide whatever we're going to use for the third stint, and that was the story. Then was quite clear for me that the red for my car, those conditions, was a better tire.

Q. For any of the three, can you sort of talk about the progress the team has made this year, if you're kind of pretty much on track to where you thought you would be. I think you were all realistic to know that you weren't going to come in and be on the front row every weekend and win every race. Particularly the last two weekends are signs of clear progress. If you could sort of match that against your expectations.

JIM McGEE: Maybe I could bring you up a little bit on that. One of the big things that we've been trying to build here is build a database and a starting point, so to speak, you know, at these different tracks. It seems like, you know, early on, the first couple of races, sometimes you're a weekend behind. You know, you don't really come out of the race with a real good understanding of what you really needed to start the weekend with. As we progressed, with the group we got with Tom Brown, Yves, our engineering group, we've gradually been able to get a better handle on where we start. Even at Portland, we were a day behind because we really didn't come up with the best solution for the car until the morning warm-up on Sunday. You know, we were able to come up with a solution on Sunday that really made the car for the race. Going into Cleveland, we really don't have the data and the experience that the Newman/Haas and Forsythe and RuSPORT cars have. We're relying a lot on our simulations and our rig testing, wind tunnel stuff, that we have a good starting point for a race like Cleveland. As the year goes on, we expect we're going to improve on that factor, and hopefully when we go to some of the tracks later in the season, we'll have a setup at the start of the weekend. The series now is so competitive, and if you don't start up front, you've got a big problem because everybody's so close, people don't make mistakes, the cars are very reliable now. It's tough to get past these guys. We're hoping to really improve our qualifying positions over the next few events, and that's what we feel we really need to win more races.

Q. Jim, have you seen any difference or improvement in Cristiano's driving from this year to back in 2002 when he was last in Champ Cars?

JIM McGEE: Well, I wasn't associated with him in those years. I was just envious of the way he seemed to be able to win consistently. Cristiano has a knack for being at the right place at the right time. That doesn't come by luck; that comes by having the experience that he has and putting himself in the right situation. But certainly this year we all talked about -- you know, he was not real positive, and we all talked that it's going to take time. He's been in Formula One. It's a different car situation. The cars have changed from when he was here last time, too. We don't have traction control, we don't have all of the different things that we had back in the years when he was here in 2002. It's been a transition for him. I know that as the season goes on, like he says, he gets more confidence in what he needs, what he wants, so therefore it's a learning curve here, but we're trying to catch up as quick as we can, and he's doing a great job.

Q. How important is it to have only one tire manufacturer in terms of safety? When there's kind of a tire war, sometimes you try to do a little bit more performance, might take away from some of the safety factors.

JIM McGEE: We'll let Dan answer that one.

DAN PETTIT: Gee, thanks (laughter). I think everything comes down to a cost issue. If you have more than one manufacturer trying to compete, they have to split the revenue with another manufacturer. So obviously they can't do the same job as one single supplier. I think in this particular case, it's working quite well. They've had a great tire that Bridgestone does, works great on the tracks and the cars that we have. I think it helps us. We're not a constructor series, the high amount of dollars out there. This is the best way to get the best tire.

Q. Cristiano, could you talk a little bit about what Jim McGee was talking about, your readaptation to the Champ Car World Series and how it may or may not have felt pretty awkward after two years of Formula One with an uncompetitive car? Talk about the adjustment you had to make.

CRISTIANO da MATTA: Well, it's something like, I would say, like on the first 97% of the adjustment happens pretty quick. You come back to the car, all this stuff you remember from the past, it comes back to you really quick. But the last 3%, that last little bit that really makes a difference in a competitive racing series, as the Champ Car is today, it takes a little while. As Jim said, the cars don't have traction control any more, so you have to get your perfect hand on that about how to drive the car without the traction control. The rules are a little bit different. Last time I drove here, we didn't have -- we had like a fixed window for the pit stops, had to do them up to a certain lap. Now sometimes we have to save fuel and go fast during the race, so we have to like relearn how to drive the car fast and saving fuel at the same time. The qualifying procedures are slightly different. We have this option tire and prime tire situation which I didn't have any experience with the red tires before. Until I get to learn -- Portland was really only the second time I ever used a set of the red tires, so until we understand a hundred percent how those tire works and how we get the maximum off them in qualifying, I think Jim said that about the traffic and qualifying, that's why I qualified so bad. But I think there is also a little bit of understanding on my part and obviously a little bit on how to set up the car for those tires. So all those little things, you put them all together, it makes a little bit of a difference. And that last little bit, I would say if I was a hundred percent used to everything, now I'm just getting back to the way it was before. But it's still a couple little things for me to learn again.

Q. Skipping ahead to the Molson Indy in Toronto. You won that race on the pole in 2002. Like Cleveland, it's a different animal to race in Toronto, isn't it?

CRISTIANO da MATTA: Yeah, Toronto is more -- I would say it's more like there's a little bit to do with Long Beach, but Toronto has something very particular, that is the asphalt to concrete back to asphalt changes through the same corner. Pretty much if you look at the Toronto race, all the corners, the change of surface right in the middle, so it's quite difficult to set up the car well for those transitions, and throughout the race the track changes quite a lot. That's what I remember from Toronto, that I didn't forget. Should be okay there.

Q. Jim McGee, just wondering about Jimmy Vasser, the Ironman that he is, the consecutive starts he's had, with Cristiano finally winning one there, do you think that may ease things up for Jim? I know there's wins left in him before he retires and I know you agree.

JIM McGEE: You know, Jimmy, he's the rock of this organization. Especially even at Portland, it was Jimmy's setup that we used for the race. But having two drivers like Cristiano and Vasser driving for you, I mean, it's a dream group because these guys, they're all working, they're not self-serving drivers. They are as self-serving as you can be, but as far as teammates go, there's tremendous cooperation. That filters down through the team, through the mechanics, through the engineers. We have one team here. It's not separated by egos or anything like that. Jimmy Vasser I think will win some races this year. He's had opportunities. At Milwaukee, we had a good car qualifying, but we missed a little bit on the race setup. But he still had a good strong sixth finish at Portland. If he had had a few breaks and things had worked out differently and if he could have got to the front... The biggest thing we need to do as a team now is we need to qualify up front. If we can qualify up front, we'll win more races. Like I say, the series is so tough that if you don't do that, you're kind of stuck unless you can come up with some kind of a strategy that works for you.

Q. Jim, about Toronto, if there's one thing in your mind that you need to do for your two cars to set up to have a good weekend in Toronto, you have to qualify near the front, pretty much the same for everywhere, in your mind, what's the one key thing you have to do to have a good weekend in Toronto?

JIM McGEE: Toronto, like Cristiano says, it's a different type of racetrack. You really have to follow the track there. That track changes so much from the first day to the second day to the race. You have to anticipate the track is going to have improved grip. You just kind of have to stay with the racetrack and anticipate it a little bit. We're getting a pretty good handle on how we can do that now. Hopefully by the time we get to Toronto, we've got a few new things we're going to have for up there. We're looking forward to it.

ERIC MAUK: Tell us what you think about the power to pass button and the new Cosworth engines?

CRISTIANO da MATTA: I think that's really great. There were many situations in the past that I remember from before that we were just not able to make it past a guy just by a little tiny lack of power, a little bit of lack of draft. Obviously, the higher the speed a race car goes, the more difficult it is to pass, the braking distances are shorter, so the braking distances being shorter is difficult to get a couple feet deeper in those cars, a big percentage of the braking zone. We needed a little bit of help. Obviously with open-wheel cars, having wings and downforce especially when running behind a car, you lose a little bit of that. So I think it's a great way that Champ Car came up with this 'push to pass' button because the extra little bit that many times we miss by not being able to make a pass and not being able to have a good fight with another opponent, now you see a lot more passing in the racetrack. Even for me in Portland on Sunday, I used my 'push to pass' button quite a lot at the beginning of the race. I only had like by lap 30 like 30 seconds left because I had to use it so much while I was in traffic at the beginning of the race and passing people. You can see also the fight between Bourdais and Tracy during the race was quite exciting, too. That was for sure due also to the 'push to pass' button. I think that's the type of thing Champ Car needed to -- I think we always had pretty good races, about you now even better.

Q. Talking about Cleveland, the big bumpy airport track, coming in after being away for two years, what is going to be the biggest difference for you coming back to Cleveland this time?

CRISTIANO da MATTA: Well, I don't expect to find anything too different on the way of driving on the racetrack. I think what's going to be the biggest challenge for me, I think it goes a little bit to the team. Like what McGee was saying earlier, we struggle a little bit sometimes by not having such a big database from the tracks we race at like some of these other teams have. I think probably Cleveland is one of the things we're going to be fighting against, is this lack of information before we get to the event. Sometimes we're running a session behind or maybe even a day behind. As McGee mentioned, sometimes earlier on, too, maybe a weekend behind. Only in Sunday he mentioned in Portland we were able to get our cars really hooked up for the race. I think in Cleveland we're going to have to be chasing the same kind of thing. I think as far as driving goes and everything, I always really, really like the Cleveland track. I don't really expect to find any difficulty there. I'm sure I'm going to be having good fun on the racetrack. We're just going to have to be on the case if the catching up we have to do.

Q. For Dan, you've been in this game only a short period of time by comparison to Jim McGee, how do you like working with Champ Car?

DAN PETTIT: I do very little experience with racing. Every race I go to, I gain so much, I learn so much, sitting next to these guys that have been around a long time, I'm gaining a great appreciation for how difficult it is to put these cars in top condition for each race. In my mind, when I started, I thought they were very similar, but as I get into it, I find out the engineers have a tremendous job trying to work with the drivers and the manager to get this car set up to its peak performance. I have to say I'm just thrilled being in it, but I never knew it was going to be quite this much work.

Q. Did you think you would be winning at this point or has it come sooner than you thought?

DAN PETTIT: Well, as an owner, I wanted to win from the very beginning. As time goes along, I now understand how difficult it is to actually get to the very top. I knew this year with Jim and Cristiano and the rest of the team, and of course Jimmy Vasser, we certainly had the knowledge and the experience to get there. I can see each week we gain a lot and we're doing a lot and we've got a great program now that we have Tom Brown on board, our technical expertise has gained tremendously. I think we're going to get there in a real solid program. I know we're going to get there. It's just a lot of work. But I think the team is gaining very, very quickly. I'm hoping we'll be on the top of the program very soon. I know we have a lot of work to do right now. It was great to get a win in here just to show the work we're putting in and the effort we're putting in can pay off.

Q. Dan, we had Mario Andretti across Canada last weekend. Of course I addressed with him the discussions he may or at this point may not be having with Tony George and those other guys on the other side in continued attempts to reamalgamate both sides trying to get it back into one strong series, with the 500 in the middle of it. Dan, is there any more dialogue, update, as far as you guys are concerned? Are we just going to forget about this whole thing and carry on with the business plan that Kevin and Paul have had to just do our own thing?

DAN PETTIT: Well, as you can imagine, it's a very sensitive subject. I did spend some time with Mario this weekend. First of all, we have to have our own plan. We have to run forward. We have to build this series and make this open-wheel racing the best we can make it. There is a lot going on behind the scenes. Champ Car -- there's a lot going on behind the scenes, but I think in the end it's going to take some of the big gorillas like Mario and Dan and Robert Clark, maybe Al to grab both sides by the collar and say Let's put this together, guys. I think it will be some time, but it's going to take a lot of effort. All I can say is a lot of work going on from all the team owners on both sides, I've talked to a number of them, that everybody has the same idea that we've got to get this thing put together and let the best drivers and the best engineers go at it. I know from the Champ Car side, we definitely are very open to it under the right conditions, and hope we can do it.

ERIC MAUK: That will bring our Champ Car media teleconference to a close. Again, thank you very much and congratulations on the victory to Dan Pettit, Jim McGee and Cristiano da Matta of PKV Racing. We look forward to seeing you guys this weekend up in Cleveland.

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