Indy Racing League Media Conference
Topics: Indy Racing League
May 21, 2008
TIM HARMS: Good afternoon. Thank you for joining us for today's Indy Racing League teleconference. We have several guests joining us today.
Starting the call with us is Firestone Indy Lights points leader J.R. Hildebrand. In a few minutes we'll be joined by IndyCar Series drivers Marco Andretti, A.J. Foyt, IV, and Graham Rahal.
J.R. is the rookie in Firestone Indy Lights driving for Andersen Racing I should say RLR Anderson Racing. Earned his first career victory at Kansas at the end of April, comes into the Firestone Freedom 100 as the series point leader. Congratulations on a strong run so far this season, especially getting the win in the last race at Kansas.
Being the points leader as we head into Indianapolis, does that add any pressure to what you feel? Do you feel kind of like a marked man from other competitors?
J.R. HILDEBRAND: Yes and no. I think that we've been a little bit of a dark horse, just as a team this year so far. I signed up so late. And they had some mixed results last year that I think that on the whole like I said, say, from the perspective of the other teams and drivers, the public as well, that there were probably a lot -- and from internally at the same time I think there was a lot of question marks coming into the season where we would really stack up.
We've been able to show over the course of the first four races that we'll be right in the hunt. Now we're leading the points.
So certainly I'm glad to be able to be the one to do that and show everybody where we stand. But it's not really any added pressure. It's a big race for us in the Firestone Indy Light Series, being out here in Indianapolis. So there's definitely some pressure just given the prestige of the race.
But being a points leader coming in, you're able to come in with some confidence. The team is able to come in with some confidence. We had a really good test here back in March, I guess. So I'm really looking forward to it.
TIM HARMS: Good. Tell us a little bit about what does it mean to you to be able to come in and race at Indianapolis?
J.R. HILDEBRAND: It's huge. Growing up in California, I wasn't one of these guys that raced, came out to the race at Indy every year or anything like that.
But over the years I've been able to make the trip out here. And I've been living here for the last couple of them. And just walking into the place, I mean it hits you like a ton of bricks. No pun intended, but there's so much history here. And this is where our sport started, effectively.
It's a place like no other. And just being able to get out on track and in the practice session that we had here a little over a month ago, that really hit in a big way, I think, to all the competitors, particularly the ones that hadn't been here before. Myself included. And so it's going to be a big race and a big weekend for us.
TIM HARMS: I think we saw last year, I don't remember if you were here for the Freedom last year, but we had some surprising qualifiers, even with guys lilke Ken Losch and a start-up team able to start on the pole. So anything is possible.
Tell us more about the team you're with. Anderson is only in its second season in Firestone Indy Lights, but obviously very successful in other ranks of racing. Tell us a little bit about the team and having Andrew Prendeville, a guy around the series all last year and had success as a teammate.
J.R. HILDEBRAND: There's definitely some things behind the scene of RLR Andersen Racing, some people behind the scenes especially that I think probably don't get their due credit.
But we've got the engineers, Dominic and Nicholas Cape, have been long-standing Formula 2000 team owners and operators. I actually won the 2006 Formula 4 2000 championship with them in fairly dominant fashion. I mean myself, me and my teammates, my teammates and I that year, we were at the top of the charts every session. So I came into the team knowing that we've got the potential to, maybe we might not have the best cars right out of the gates but we've got the potential to make them what they need to be, because we've got some really good people aboard.
The Andersens are great team owners. With a pair of brothers there up at the top of the food chain, so to speak, they're easy to deal with. They're really good guys. They're straight shooters, and they're in it to win.
They don't rely on auto racing to make their living. They just do it because they love it. And they're really great guys to work for. Andrew Prendeville as a teammate he's been awesome. He's always been fast. And they had some rough times last year, just being his first year back in a car in a little while. And being their first year as a team in the series, that I think that he showed quite well in terms of where they were at and what they can do.
He's just had some bad luck this year. He's been equally as fast as I've been pretty much everywhere we go. So he's really helpful. He knows the car. He's had certainly a lot more oval experience than I do coming into the season because he was a rookie last year.
And so the team chemistry is really quite good. So that helps us along just as much as anything else does.
TIM HARMS: Questions for J.R.?
Q. Do you think racing in the shadows of IndyCar helps you a great deal with any learning curves you face?
J.R. HILDEBRAND: Yeah, I think that racing, that's why we race in the Indy Light Series, the Firestone Indy Light Series, because we can be out in front of the IndyCar crowd every time we race. Those are where all of us, certainly, that's certainly where I'm aspiring to get to. I think that's pretty much where everybody else in the series is aspiring to get to.
So to be able to be at the track, to get the inside scoop of what's going on, to be able to show what we can do in front of the team owners and managers and whatnot of the IndyCar Series is exactly where, it's exactly where I want to be and that's why Firestone Indy Lights became the clear choice for a series to be in this year.
Q. Do you feel you adjust fast to the challenges that you face? And do you think that's a trait that good race car drivers have to have?
J.R. HILDEBRAND: It definitely is. I'm sort of adapting to a different environment is always something that I felt is a strong point of mine.
Obviously the biggest part of that this year is getting used to oval racing, and there's lots of things that go into obviously being fast on an oval and a lot of that is down to being with the right team and having the right engineers and having a great car.
But we've definitely been able to make it work in a short amount of time this year. And we've improved a lot from the beginning of the season. So I definitely say that that's a critical aspect of it.
TIM HARMS: Thank you, J.R.
We're happy now to be joined by IndyCar Series Marco Andretti and Graham and anticipating that A.J. Foyt, IV will be with us in a second.
Good afternoon, guys. These guys need no introduction as their families have been involved with open wheel racing for many, many years. All three of these guys represent the next generation of American open wheel racing. Marco is only 21 years old. A.J. will turn 24 on Sunday and Graham's 19.
Guys, I'm sure each of you always gets a lot of questions about your family's history, especially this time of the year at the Indianapolis 500. I won't try to dwell on that too much. But, of course, we have to ask that a little bit. Graham, I want to start with you. This is your first Indianapolis 500. It's a place where your father won, but he did that before you were born. What kind of memories do you have of Indianapolis what does it mean to you to get your first opportunity to race here on the oval?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, first of all, it's been obviously many years, with the merger, it's pretty nice to be back. It's something that I didn't expect to happen so soon. The question was always asked when I would be at Indy. Really didn't have any clue. Obviously I'm glad to be here.
As far as memories go, you know I think my earliest memory has to be 1994. I think my dad finished second or third that year, so that would obviously be a reason to remember it.
Other than that, you know, the last couple of years with Buddy Rice winning for my dad, and 2005 with Danika and everything else spent a lot of time on the track it's a whole different level of commitment driving for yourself.
You have to show up every day and perform every day and it's certainly something that in the past I never had to do.
TIM HARMS: Marco, you debuted in the IndyCar Series in 2006, that season you were runner up here at Indianapolis got a win at Infineon Raceway, won rookie honors. You're back at Indy for the third time. What does it mean to you to continue your family's legacy here at Indy and what would it mean for you to be able to win here?
MARCO ANDRETTI: It's a great opportunity. Andretti Green gives me great cars every year and for me to have a chance at my ultimate goal.
And it's great. There's a lot of history here with the family, like you said. Obviously, that's special as well. But obviously my approach to the race, I don't want to win it because they won it or because of their history here. I want to win it for myself.
And I think we have a great chance.
TIM HARMS: This has been a great year so far for the IndyCar Series. We've had big news items like unification. We had a couple of your fellow drivers enjoying success with Helio, with Dancing with Stars, Danika winning recently. Can each of you maybe comment on how important you think it is to also have a group of young American drivers in the series with names that people recognize, names like Andretti, Foyt and Rahal?
Marco, want to take it first?
MARCO ANDRETTI: I think it's great. Especially with the continuing from the family and everything like that. I think having the names come back and perform I think is awesome. I think it's real big. I mean obviously I don't feel like everything's in my lap or Graham's lap or everything like that.
I think as long as we can help, I think it's just great. And I think Danika's win was huge as well. So it's all heading in the right direction, for sure.
TIM HARMS: Graham, your thoughts on that?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Yeah, I completely agree with Marco. I don't think the pressure is on us completely. I mean obviously to have names back, and, of course, the old rivalries. I don't know if Marco and I look at it the same way as our dads did, but, of course, to have us and obviously A.J., and there are a lot of names that are back in the cities that for a long time, for a long time, especially on my side on the Champ Car part, there were a lot of drivers that were coming and going on a yearly basis.
And fans really didn't know who to cheer for. But having the names back, I think it certainly will bring crowds back to a race or whether it be Indy or any race week that maybe hadn't been there in the past.
TIM HARMS: Questions.
Q. Over the last 10 years or so, I think that the perception of many is that the stock car race at Indy has overshadowed the Indy 500. I wondered about your perception and if you feel that way, could this year be sort of a turning point?
MARCO ANDRETTI: Just to answer it, I don't think it's overshadowed it by any means. I think maybe, okay, did it take a little away, I don't know. But I think all Indy fans are going to support whichever race comes out. I think they're both huge races but I wouldn't say overshadowed it.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Yeah. I completely agree. I certainly haven't seen that it's taken -- I mean, of course, with the split and everything it hurt it in the past, the 500. But I must say I think there's a lot of momentum on our side. And I think that things are looking pretty good. I mean I was here last year for pole day. Obviously not driving myself.
Then being here this year on pole day the increase in crowd seemed to be huge. I think there's certainly a lot more interest and enthusiasm about IndyCar racing than what we've seen in the past few years.
Q. To piggyback off those last two questions, it seems like the IndyCar is having a perfect storm. Graham, you won. Danika won earlier in the year. There's enthusiasm in the series. Does it feel like IndyCar is getting back to, getting what they lost the last 12 years?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Yeah, I think it's getting, like I said, I think it's getting back there. It's not going to happen overnight. We can't expect it to happen by tomorrow or anything. But it's going to take a couple of years.
But as we touched on earlier, with Marco, A.J., myself, obviously Danika and Helio's success off the track, I think there's a lot of reasons for IndyCar fans to be enthusiastic about where this is heading.
MARCO ANDRETTI: Same thing, I definitely I know myself I definitely felt the buzz and I'm kind of getting a sense of that old feeling back as far as crowds go and just the feel for things.
I think it has changed already. And like Graham says it's not going to happen right away. But I don't see why not in three years we can get back to where we had it in the heyday, if not better.
So much is happening. Even with Graham's win, it was huge. A lot of cool stuff is happening.
Q. As a quick follow-up how is the Indy 500 keeping everybody enthusiastic?
MARCO ANDRETTI: I can't hear you.
GRAHAM RAHAL: I can't hear you either.
Q. I was saying how important is the Indianapolis 500 to getting the enthusiasm back into the sport?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, I think it's -- of course, to have a good race here and to have a new winner, it would be quite exciting, especially if it's someone like Marco or myself. Obviously Danika, it would be huge.
A.J. FOYT: Don't forget about me.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Yeah, exactly. Didn't know you were on yet.
I think it would be huge for the sport. It's something that obviously for myself, the transitioning team, it's going to be very difficult. But as Marco touched on, I think it's going to take a couple of years. And having one good Indy isn't going to change it all.
TIM HARMS: A.J., welcome to the call. We'll get back to the Q&A in a second. Let me ask you one question, A.J., before we continue the Q&A. We've got this new generation of drivers with you and Marco and Graham. Of those guys, of the three of you, you were the first one on the scene in the IndyCar Series when you debuted back in 2003. Can you tell us a little bit, what was the pressure like for you when you came in in 2003 and has that changed at all now that you're also having Andretti and a Rahal on the track with you?
A.J. FOYT: No, I don't think it changes. I think we all kind of feel the same amount of pressure. We all have a lot to live up to. I think it's a little bit less pressure now that I'm driving for another team. Now he can just be my grandfather now instead of my owner now, too, makes it a lot easier.
TIM HARMS: Let's continue with the Q&A.
Q. Graham, since you're the one driver, your dad, his history, his IRL team, you and Champ Car, do you kind of feel like the poster boy for unification?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I don't think so. Once again, I think that obviously my win in St. Pete really helps that. I think it's all of us. It's everybody as a group here is what's going to make a difference. I don't think, as Marco touched on earlier, I don't think it's going to be any one of us specifically. I think it's got to be everybody.
And obviously it's got to be continuity with drivers in the series for people to cheer for.
Q. Extension to that, can you talk about just how difficult and how much of a gap there may be still between the Champ Car guys especially the guys with zero oval racing experience getting up to speed as it were on the ovals, how far away are you and they?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, I think it's been quite tough. Especially, Indy has been different, obviously, because we have the whole month. I think realistically we're still a couple of miles an hour behind. And I think my team, Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, I think we've done a great job this month. I think ultimately there's still probably about two and a half, three miles an hour on the big oval here. And maybe a little less -- I'm sorry, a little more than that on the short ovals.
They're a little ways for us to go. It will be interesting to see what happens in this race this weekend, because I think for us to compete with Ganassi and Penske, seems like we have to run a lot less downforce than they just to do the same pace. It will be interesting to see what happens.
Q. This whole field will be going to Edmonton, which will be the first non-IRL stop in the series. How much having raced there the last two years, how much are you looking forward to getting all those guys on that track and back on a road race course?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I'm thrilled to go back. Edmonton, I think it's definitely the most physical of all circuits that we're going to go to this year. It's always very difficult. But I'm really looking forward to going there. Obviously the best thing about Edmonton is the 100,000 people, crowds that we get on Sunday. I think that's great. I think these guys are really going to enjoy it. I think the people have a lot to look forward to.
Q. Graham, your team and Dale Coyne were kind of like polar opposites in Champ Car, and yet it looks like you've qualified about the same place. I just wonder, is that merely the product of everybody learning at the same pace here?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I think it is. But I also want to say, you know there are a lot of smart guys over there. And even more so than that. Bruno is a hell of a driver. And especially here. I mean you've seen Bruno in the past obviously after his big incident, it hurt him quite a lot.
But the guy's very good. And he can trust on his experience, and I think that team has done a really good job. Obviously we are kind of polar opposites. We're obviously a very big team. I think they only have something like 10 full-time employees.
So it's a little bit different when you look at it from that perspective. But, no, I think they're doing a great job.
Q. Do you think by the end of this year, what are the chances that we see a couple of former Champ Car teams, their drivers in the top 10, because there are more road races towards the end of it?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I don't see why there's any reason they can't be in the top 10. I don't know if any of them are going to win in oval this year. I think there's still quite a lot for us to learn there. But when it comes to road racing I think we ought to be very competitive.
A lot of really good drivers that have come over, a lot of good road racers, it will be very interesting to see what happens.
Q. You're in very different qualifying situations. I wondered how much of a difference does where you qualified make? We saw Scott Goodyear back third and second in '92, but that was 16 years ago. How much does qualifying make it?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Can you repeat? I only heard like the last half of the question.
Q. I'm wondering how much does qualifying --
GRAHAM RAHAL: I think I know where you're going with it. I think qualifying is very important. I think just from the standpoint that if you're starting towards the back, a lot of people say well it's not that big of a deal because we'll let it settle out and we'll be okay.
But the problem is if you're too far back, the leaders, especially for some of the transitioning teams, I don't like to call them Champ Car teams. But for some of the transitioning teams, you know by how much quicker it takes those guys, by the time things settle out, they're going to be on your tail and you're going to be a lap down. So that's what I kept telling my team. That's why we really pushed to qualify amongst the quickest of that second weekend.
I mean that was just -- it was a way for us to try to hang with that lead pack.
TIM HARMS: Thanks for joining us this afternoon.
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