Indy Racing League Media Conference
Topics: Indy Racing League
September 8, 2011
THE MODERATOR: Welcome to today's IndyCar conference call. We're joined by two drivers from Panther Racing: Sunoco Rookie of the Year Point Leader J.R. Hildebrand and Buddy Rice, who rejoined the team for races at Kentucky Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Buddy, let's start with you. News yesterday about you and Panther Racing, you're rejoining the team for Kentucky and Vegas with Fuzzy's Ultimate Premium Vodka. How excited are you to get back to racing with Panther and Fuzzy's on the car?
BUDDY RICE: I'm really excited to be back. I mean, Indy was a lot of fun. I hadn't been there in a couple of years. And it was great to have Fuzzy's come onboard. And we were able to put a couple more races together. I'm looking forward to it. I want to get back in there, run these last couple of rounds on end of the year, see what happens from there.
THE MODERATOR: Panther had some good results at Kentucky. I know last year was on the pole with Ed Carpenter. And Vegas is the closest to your home in Phoenix. Was it the sponsorship, or were those two races ones you were targeting to come back for the end of the year?
BUDDY RICE: I think a lot of people were targeting the Vegas race for the season finale and stuff. But I think most of that was just decided by Fuzzy's and what they want to do.
There was talk that we were going to run some other races. But I think at the end of the day everybody thought that the last two rounds were the best two to pick, to go out and not only showcase Fuzzy's Vodka on the side of the car but with Panther Racing, kind of bringing me back just to see how things work out and what we can do for the future.
THE MODERATOR: You and J.R. were a pretty formidable combination at Indy. I know you qualified 7th had a pretty strong month. Everybody knows about J.R.'s 500, so I won't bring that up. But what's it like working with J.R.? Can you help him as he's pursuing this rookie title?
BUDDY RICE: I mean, I think there's a way of helping by bringing a second car in. I think there's more information that way. I think that that will also help everybody get up to speed a little bit faster and keep up with the track.
Obviously with going to Kentucky, it's got a new surface, a lot of people haven't been there, so I think that will be important to make sure we have as much information as we can, to make the two cars as good as we can get them.
And obviously going to Vegas, the cars haven't raced there. There have been some cars that did tests and things like that. But I think having both cars run there and having them both up front, I think it's definitely going to be a help for J.R. for Rookie of the Year, and for us having the National Guard and the Fuzzy's car up front, that's what we're trying to do.
THE MODERATOR: J.R., Buddy talked about running with you as a teammate. You've been a single car guy for most of the year. How much does having a teammate, especially one like Buddy Rice, help you in the No. 4 car?
J.R. HILDEBRAND: I mean, it's a huge help. And it really goes back to a lot of the things that Buddy said, just having that extra information, being able to -- you know, for me as the driver being able to sort of bounce things off of him and knowing that he knows what he's talking about and he's got his act together, and that he's going to be real with me as a teammate.
So that was a big part of, I think, how smoothly the month, the whole month went, at Indy. And I've definitely been pushing to try to continue that relationship going forward. And Buddy and I talk a lot of times after the races and all that kind of stuff that he hasn't been there for. So I'm looking forward to having him back there in the Fuzzy's car to run along with us in the Guard car for the last two races.
THE MODERATOR: Seems that James Hinchcliffe has been coming on pretty strong at the end here for the Rookie of the Year title. So in addition to the race going on you also have the race against "Hinch". Does the rookie prize at the end of the year affect the way you approach each race?
J.R. HILDEBRAND: For me, not really. And I think -- I would think the same thing, you hear the same thing from "Hinch" that as kind of younger guys as our first year in the series, we're just trying to make an impact on what's going on every race.
I certainly don't look at it as I'm really racing against him, necessarily. I mean, you could make a strong case over the last kind of three or four races that we've been trying to lose it to each other, to be honest with you.
But for me it's much more about just getting out there and improving on the previous weekend and having strong performances. And where we sort of end up in the points relative to everybody else and relative to the other rookie is sort of secondary at the end of the year.
THE MODERATOR: Obviously before Buddy comes back on as your teammate, there's a race in Japan next week. It's another new venue for the IZod IndyCar Series as we move from the oval to the road course at Motegi. What do you know about the road course at Motegi, and what do you expect from the race?
J.R. HILDEBRAND: I've seen a lot of, some in-car footage and seen the track map and all that kind of stuff. I think it looks like kind of a cool track. Definitely a long lap, has a little bit of a variety of corners. From what we understand, it's quite smooth.
So I'm really looking forward to getting over there and seeing it for myself in person. And I know we've made -- we've made some changes and made some strides over the last few months in our road course program. We were really strong at Mid-Ohio, some places like that.
So we're looking forward to getting on track and hopefully having a good result over there.
THE MODERATOR: Questions?
Buddy, a question for you: As a guy who has been sitting on the sidelines, how long does it take to shake the rust off when you get back in the car? You get to test before you come out for Kentucky?
BUDDY RICE: No, there will be no test. But also I think with the oval program that Panther has, it allows me to get up to speed that much quicker and get comfortable with the car just like we did at the Speedway.
It was good that I did the runs there and we were able to run as much as we could. I mean, obviously weather was a major factor. But really that will be a big boost for me heading into both Kentucky and Vegas. And I think the Vegas track is very similar from what I understand to Chicago. So that's not going to be a big issue.
The biggest thing for me will be making sure I work on my in-and-out laps and really is going to be positioning and running in traffic, which running in traffic at Indy is completely different than running at traffic in Kentucky and Vegas. But once we get out there, get running, people will be geared up for their race setups, I'll get out there, take my time, just like I did at the Speedway.
THE MODERATOR: J.R., you mentioned some of the changes to the road course programs. One of those was the team added Michael Canon to the engineering staff just before Baltimore. How much have you worked with Michael, along with your engineer David Cripps, and how has that addition helped the team?
J.R. HILDEBRAND: I literally didn't -- I've known Michael from the past. I've met him before. But I didn't meet him as a part of Panther Racing, until we showed up at the track at Baltimore, literally.
It was a little bit sort of thrown together before that last weekend. But definitely you could see -- as Buddy alluded to by having a teammate -- just having a little bit extra information, having a little bit different perspective on things, always helps the program.
And so we've definitely seen that with Mike, and we all are getting along well and just talking through things as they go forward.
So I think it's definitely a strong addition to our team at Panther Racing. And I think we're all really looking forward to making the most of that or making even more of that, I guess I should say, as we go forward.
Q. Buddy, your assessment, please, of J.R. and his rookie season and how you remember back to your rookie season in IndyCar; and these final two events, if there's anything you can offer him off the track or on as he goes for the Rookie of the Year award?
BUDDY RICE: I think the biggest thing, obviously no matter what, your rookie year is always challenging. Obviously he's had a couple of extra hurdles to get over with with what happened to his knee and things and being a one-car team.
I think the biggest thing right now is as the whole team, even with me coming in, the main focus is to make sure that we put really good cars on the track and they finish off strong to go into the 2012 year, but also the chase to the Rookie of the Year points is something that's still coveted.
I actually missed out on rookie of the year in Atlantics due to an appendicitis in the final round and obviously the way I was brought in in 2002, there was no Rookie of the Year for me to chase when I came in after that.
So I think it's still something that's coveted. We'll have to see. The main thing will just be consistent and see how good we can get our cars, and use the extra information with my car being there and some of my knowledge to try to make sure that the cars are better and they have solid race cars at the end, and I think it will all come out in the wash at the end of the year.
THE MODERATOR: J.R., while we're waiting for another question, Buddy mentioned how coveted the Rookie of the Year award is. You probably talked about it saying that you and "Hinch" are trying to lose it to each other. But is that one of the goals you had for the year, to be the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, Indy IZod Rookie of the Year?
J.R. HILDEBRAND: Yeah, to me I think being the Rookie of the Year at Indy was probably a little more meaningful to me than the whole season Rookie of the Year. But it's definitely something you think about.
I guess I could backtrack a little bit and say it's not something that's like totally I never consider or never think about or that we don't ever talk about or whatever.
But it's definitely something that it's -- at the same time it's not going to be like a Prost/Senna thing that me and "Hinch" are trying to take each other out to figure out who is going to win the Rookie of the Year at the end of the year.
It's definitely something that you look at as something you want to be able to accomplish at the end of the season. But you also know that the only way you do that is by having good races and being consistently quick and all that kind of stuff.
So with "Hinch" and him driving for Newman Haas, and even Charlie driving for the Ganassi guys and all that kind of stuff, anything can sort of happen.
We're all driving for teams that are capable of putting cars up at the front. And so that's -- it's definitely a big part of just how things go. And I'd say certainly this year, with the strength of the field, you know, it's been tough. It's tough for all of us to really have those consistent good, strong runs. And so that I think more than anything is what we're all -- certainly what I'm focusing on for the last, particularly the last couple of races.
But even going to Motegi here, it's an opportunity to make an impact and have a good, strong, finally really have a good, strong weekend on a road course for us. That sort of eluded us this year. We had a couple of good weekends going in that direction and they don't always pan out. So it's definitely something that I'm looking forward to.
THE MODERATOR: Just a little bit about the race in Motegi. I know you did some races overseas in A1GP, but did you talk to anyone about the whole experience of going to Japan and the jetlag and the travel and everything? Is there anyone that you talked to to get that information?
J.R. HILDEBRAND: A little bit. Everyone has their own kind of crazy story of going to Japan, I think, whether it's guys falling down the stairs and breaking ribs the night before the race and then stuffing it into the fence on qualifying. Or going to karaoke bars or whatever it is, everybody's got their own kind of tidbit about the goings-on over the years.
I think for us, particularly, especially being that it's the road course race, there's not going to be any rainouts. You gotta be ready to rock and roll whenever the track is green.
And it's obviously a little bit of a different animal because of that. But I'm definitely looking forward to the experience. And I think it just sounds like kind of a neat opportunity to be able to head over there and try something different.
I think we were talking about it the other day that we figured out that our garage selection is that we're in the same garage as we're right next to Takuma Sata. So I'm sure we'll be able to witness the fandom in full force it will be a good trip and good time on track for us as well.
Q. Buddy, your assessment of this Dallara car, over the years, since you came in when it was relatively new or when it was just starting out. It wasn't built for road courses, but just, as the series goes to the next generation car, for a universal chassis for next year, just your assessment of how this car's been for you as a driver on different circuits?
BUDDY RICE: I mean, obviously it was built for the oval. That was the reason for the design on the front end. And when I -- I go to the Dallaras, I switch to the G force, and didn't drive one of the new Dallaras until later on when I was driving for Rahal. It took a little bit of getting used to for the setups and stuff because the way the geometry was.
But at the end of the day, it's another car. And I think for it to run as long as it has and for everybody being in the cars as long as they have, it was obviously a solid built piece and it was quite durable and it's been pretty safe.
So I think looking at it as a whole, it's been running a long time. There have been a lot of cars since the beginning they're patched up and they're still running and they do good.
So I think there's a lot to be said for Dallara and how they build their cars and we'll see what happens for the future and next year, but I'd like to get into one of the new cars and see what it's like.
I've developed a lot of different cars over my career and stuff. So I think coming into that it will be interesting to see how this shakes out with everybody starting on the same playing field and being not a whole lot of data behind it. So it's going to be interesting to see how the teams progress and who can do what with it in the short amount of time that we'll have for next year.
Q. J.R., obviously your popularity has grown considerably since the Indy 500. How has that kind of changed your life since then? And what are you expecting your popularity to be in Japan?
J.R. HILDEBRAND: Well, starting with the latter part of the question, I don't have the vaguest idea what it's going to be like in Japan, to be totally honest with you, but it hasn't changed everything that tremendously. I guess we definitely get a little more, sort of, media attention. We go -- I think for me a big thing was going back home for these last two races ago now to Sonoma, my sort of hometown, I grew up in the Bay Area, hometown area, I guess, having grown up in the Bay Area.
And going back there, all of a sudden it's like all of the TV stations and stuff want to get their little piece of your story. But it's definitely, I guess the biggest thing for me and for us and the National Guard is that it's so positive.
There's definitely situations like that in sports that end up just being a disaster. And for us it's I guess, because of how we all kind of dealt with everything that went on and all that kind of stuff that turned into a really cool thing for us to be able to get that extra attention. Because in the end that's what we're trying to do for our sponsors and especially for the Guard is to sort of get the message out there a little bit. And for us to be seen as good representatives for them really is meaningful to us.
Q. How rewarding has that partnership with the National Guard been?
J.R. HILDEBRAND: It's huge. I didn't even realize that, having obviously run Indy Lights and that kind of stuff, been around it for a long time, you see the National Guard car out there on the racetrack, walk by their hospitality when they're doing the satellite feed, the guys over in Afghanistan, all that kind of stuff.
So you see all this from the outside but until really getting involved, you don't really realize to what extent all that goes. And this year it's been really an education for me seeing what a tremendous part of the active duty military component that the National Guard really is these days, and being able to be a small piece of telling that story a little bit.
We get involved with an employer support organization for Guard and Reserve soldiers, get involved with the National Guard Youth Challenge, helping kids that dropped out of high school get a second chance, all this stuff. You see how committed both John Barnes and Panther Racing but also the National Guard is to all these programs.
And that's been really rewarding for us. And I think it really does have an impact on how we all look at not only our kind of day-to-day lives but what we do on the racetrack.
It definitely keeps us humbled and grounded in terms of what we're doing, and that's been an interesting transformation.
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