An interview with Scott Dixon and James Hinchcliffe
James recently signed to drive the No. 7 Sam Schmidt Motorsports entry for 2009 after competing three seasons in Atlantics where he won a couple races, and he also drove for Team Canada in A1GP. James, tell us a little bit about the deal with Sam. Obviously it came together relatively late. Tell us a little bit about how you spent the offseason and how the deal came together.
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Well, like you say, it did sort of come together a little bit late. I guess that's sort of a trend this year with the way everything is and the economy and just the world in general. Everything sort of took a little bit longer to come together. I spent my offseason with a lot of sleepless nights and making a lot of phone calls and sending a lot of emails trying to make a deal happen.
We actually got in touch with Sam quite early on and have been speaking to him since about last October, so you can just sort of see how much effort and work had to go into this. He got me into the car, we did a couple tests together and everything just clicked really well. So we managed to make everything line up and get the deal done, and so for me to be joining a team of this caliber in my rookie season I think is such a great thing for me. To be in the 7 car that's been running up front the last couple seasons, it's always been a competitive car, and to find myself in it for this first year is something that I'm pretty excited about.
MODERATOR: You hit upon it, you've had a chance to test a couple times and the team has been very successful. But as a rookie what kind of goals do you set for yourself for the season and maybe even especially just the first couple races to try to get off to a strong start?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: I think that's just it. I think a strong start is going to be important. I'm going to try and not make too many predictions or set too many goals. I'm very comfortable in this team, and I'm very confident in their abilities, and so I know for me, especially on the ovals, I have a lot to learn. I've had a chance to do some testing, but it's a completely different beast and requires a completely different skill set from driving on the road courses.
I know it's going to be a pretty steep learning curve, and I'm lucky that I'm with an organization such as Sam Schmidt Motorsports to really help me with that education and get me up to speed as quickly as possible. We're just going to sort of take it one race at a time at the beginning of the season.
The first three races for us are road courses, and I've been to Long Beach, haven't been to St. Pete, but I'll hopefully have a little bit of advantage on the track knowledge on that one. So we're just hoping to come out of those first three races in a strong position and just sort of be consistent and as quick as possible.
MODERATOR: Later in the summer, the series makes two stops in your home country of Canada. I'm sure you're excited about going to Toronto and Edmonton.
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Absolutely. The Toronto race, I've raced in both venues before, and the Toronto race was dropped from everything last year. There was no race in Toronto last year unfortunately, so for me living in Toronto it's going to be a huge joy to go back there and race in front of the home crowd. And Edmonton, as well. That event is so well run and so well attended. The Canadian fans just love motorsports and especially open wheel, so the support that we get as a series when we go down there and then a little bit extra for me as a local driver, it makes a difference. It's a cool atmosphere, and I think everybody in the series is really looking forward to hitting those two venues.
MODERATOR: Tell us a little bit about your teammates. You're paired up with Ana Beatriz, who won a race last year after a strong campaign, and Gustavo Yacaman. How well do you know those two already and how well do you expect to work together throughout the season?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It's been really good so far. We've done a lot of testing together. Obviously Gustavo had a little bit of a handicap because he wasn't allowed to test until he turned 18. So he was present but not maybe driving at some of the tests. And Ana I've gotten to spend a bunch of time with and it's great. It's a really good mix of personalities, a little bit of a United Nations of a race team with everybody on board, and then kind of the crew, my engineer is Australian and there's a couple other Canadians on the crew. So it's a very diverse team.
Obviously Gus and I are going to be relying on Ana a little bit on the ovals. She's got that year of experience and it's going to be a first for us, and we all come from a road racing background, so I think we're all able to help each other a little bit here and there on the road courses.
But, so far really good. Gus is young and eager and aggressive and Ana has had a year of experience now, so I think it's a really good mix. I think we'll work well together.
Q. Don't need the long version, maybe just a couple of seconds here. Compare this car to the Atlantic machinery that you have been racing and familiar with. Is it a vast amount of difference? Do they handle a lot different? Is the power different and how do you drive them differently?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: The cars are very different, the driving skills are very different. The Indy Lights car is quite a bit heavier but also has quite a lot more horsepower, but it's a little bit less in the downforce on the road courses. So as a result the Atlantic is a lot about high minimums and big momentum whereas the Indy Lights car is more sort of big in, slower minimums and big power out, so it's more of a point and squirt sort of car. So the driving style is actually a lot different. So it was a tough thing for me to learn, but I think we've got a grasp on it.
Q. Got to be amazing to get the race back in Toronto and race in front of your home crowd.
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: There's nothing like it. It's such a high racing in front of your home crowd, and like I said earlier the fans there are so supportive. It's such a cool atmosphere and such a cool event, and on Sunday night we're going to be hosting such a cool after‑party so I hope everybody sticks around for that.
Q. Sam Schmidt Motorsports has always been up there pretty top‑notch. Are you with them for the whole year this year?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Yeah, they have signed me on for the whole season, until they fire me, which hopefully doesn't happen. No, it's a full year deal for us, and like you said, they're a front-running team and have been for the past couple years. I'm very confident in the team and the ability that they have and the cars that they're going to provide me week in and week out. Now it's just sort of up to me to adapt to this new series, this new car as quickly as possible and get my head down and go for those wins.
Q. Have you been able to do any racing off‑season?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: No, sadly the last couple years I've been very lucky to be involved with A1GP, but Team Canada this year didn't exist. We ran out of funds, which never happens in motorsports, so it was a bit of a shock. So unfortunately my ride there sort of disappeared, so I have not been able to do any driving really.
But luckily Sam has had me in the car a decent amount testing, so I feel like I've got a lot of winter miles under my belt and really looking forward to racing.
Q. Two questions: One, you mentioned Sam. How inspiring is it to be driving for him? Just what kind of inspiration is he to you?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Sam is a pretty remarkable individual. Not only what he accomplished as a driver, but then dealing with the situation that he was dealt and the way he's handled that and embraced that and worked to try and help other people in a similar situation, all while simultaneously running an incredibly competitive racing team, which is something most people can't do alone, never mind all the extra stuff he does. He's an incredible businessman, he's a great team owner and quite a philanthropist, as well, so just as an individual with all he's accomplished and all he continues to do, it's pretty remarkable.
Q. Second thing is you're going to have the two street races and then Kansas is your first oval before you go to Indy. Just how important is that Kansas race to kind of get your circle bearings going again?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: I think Kansas is going to be pretty critical. Everybody is really looking forward to getting there. I've been studying race tapes from the last couple years of the races there. It looks like a great track. I have not had a chance to test there yet. But like you say, it's the first oval of the season and the first one before Indianapolis, so obviously it's going to be a good opportunity for me to get my feet wet.
But you also have to remember that there's going to be a bunch of rookies in the series this year. I'm thinking 12 to 14 rookies. So there's going to be a lot of guys who at Kansas are going to be experiencing these big car drafts for the first time, big numbers, five, six cars in a draft, and it's going to be ‑‑ I think it's going to be a bit of a nail biter. That's probably going to be one more of the more entertaining races of the year.
Q. Why so many rookies, so many guys who have moved up?
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: I think that's part of it. You're seeing a bunch of guys who are coming over from Europe. Opportunities over there are very expensive, and these days if you're not backed by a manufacturer at the age of 12, you're pretty much out the door. So luckily the Indy Racing League and Indy Lights championship offer a very competitive racing series, and I think also with Champ Car no longer being around, it sort of makes this the go‑to junior formula car series in the country.
I think there's a bunch of factors going in, and given the economic situation I'm absolutely thrilled to think that we're going to have above 20 cars come St. Pete.
MODERATOR: Thanks for joining us. We appreciate your time and wish you the best of luck this season.
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: Thanks very much.
Scott, obviously that's an incredible run that you've been on for the last year and a half. Can you guys keep it going in 2009?
SCOTT DIXON: I'd like to think that we can definitely keep the momentum rolling. The way we started last season and the way we ended it we were still very competitive, and with the addition of Dario (Franchitti), I think to have the last two series champions and the last two 500 champions could definitely ‑‑ we've got the target on our back as such, and people are going to have to chase us.
But I think the team hasn't got too complacent by the looks of things over the season they've been developing the cars more so maybe than other years as I know the competition is going to be very tough this year with the transition teams having a complete season in it. I'd like to say we look good as a team, and hopefully we can come away with the two big trophies by the end of this year.
MODERATOR: You touched on it there, but obviously one of the big news in the offseason is adding Dario as a teammate for 2009. From the outside looking in, it looks like you guys have bonded well starting back with the race in Australia, a couple Open Tests. Obviously even events like Daytona and Sebring where you weren't necessarily teammates, yet at those events you were still both there. Talk a little bit more about adding Dario as a teammate and the component that that brings to the team.
SCOTT DIXON: It's been excellent, just from having a new teammate, I think for me I thrive on that. I've been lucky enough to stay with Ganassi. I think it's my eighth season with the team, as you said, seven in IndyCar and then I had a season before that in Champ Car. I've seen and been through a lot of teammates, and every time you get a new teammate you learn a lot of stuff, and Dario I think is very technical, very, very good on road courses and street courses, and he brings a lot to the team.
Having I think the 24‑hour (at Daytona) together I think was great, but also, as you added, to have Australia to work together as a first race or a preseason race for the season was fantastic, and I think that was similar for Dan (Wheldon), who moved on to Panther. It was good to sort of get your feet a little wet and work with the new team and things like that.
Surprisingly we've been very close in driver styles and feel of the car. We're talking maybe 50 pounds to 100 pounds of spring difference is about the only thing that we kind of have. That's been pretty good for me because I've typically been a lot different from a lot of the other teammates.
As far as relationship goes, we've been great friends for many years. He was a guy I definitely looked up to when I came into the Champ Car series in 2001 and 2002, and I'd like to say we've definitely grown on that and I'm looking forward to a whole season with him.
MODERATOR: Let's take a quick look at the first two races of the year. St. Pete is a place you finished second twice, although last year in your championship campaign it was actually one of the places where you didn't finish the race and had some problems. I'm sure you'd like to come back there and get a strong start to the season.
SCOTT DIXON: Yeah, St. Pete actually was ‑‑ we started off great with the win at Homestead and then we had a problem in the first qualifying knockout. We had a lap taken off us, and then we were sort of knocked out of that, which was nothing that we ever thought we'd be a part of, not to even make it into the top 12.
That was frustrating. We had a great race. I think we were running about second, and actually coming out, I'm not sure if many people remember, but it was a bit of a wet start to the race and then it kind of dried up. When I went out on the dry tires, made contact with the wall in Turn 4 but then carried on for about another 25 laps until the suspension finally failed.
I think we were on for a good finish there, as well, definitely in the top three, which definitely bodes well. I think each year that we've been there we've done pretty well. I'd like to think we've learned a fair bit in the season, especially at Detroit with the street course car, and to put it on the pole there was definitely a lot of fun. I'd like to hope that we can have a consistently good car there and try and finish out front.
MODERATOR: And then two weeks later we go to Long Beach. What do you remember about Long Beach and what kind of show do you think the IndyCar Series will put on there?
SCOTT DIXON: Looking forward to Long Beach. It's a fantastic race. I think the last time I was there was maybe 2004 or 2005 as a spectator, and it's a fantastic race. It's a race with a lot of history, and I think for myself I've been there maybe four times 1999-2000 ‑‑ I won a race there in 2000 in Indy Lights, and then I think I had engine failures or something along those lines in the Champ Car days. But definitely a fantastic circuit.
I think as far as the IndyCar Series going there, it will almost be a better show than Champ Car because the cars are a lot closer and the power is maybe not as much as the turbo cars down the straights, but I think we'll have a great possibility to pass there, so I'm looking forward to I think a very good race.
Q. Let's go one more week and talk about Kansas a little bit. Being that that's the first oval and it's also the last race before Indy, can you talk about the importance of that as far as getting your setup and everything going to go in circles after two weeks of streets?
SCOTT DIXON: Definitely looking forward to it. I think Kansas as a circuit for the Target cars has been fantastic. We've always had very good races there. I think Dan won there last year. In the last two years I kind of missed out, some fuel problems or something like that. It's been frustrating on my end. But we still ended up with a top three.
As a track and finishing‑wise, I can't wait to get there. I think it's going to be a fantastic place for us, for Dario and myself. But as you said, the first oval, I think it's going to be an eye‑opener. We have a fair share of rookies this year, so it'll be a good place to work at, see who you can race with at this point and who you can't and who you want to give a bit more room coming into the month of May. As far as the month of May and that being the prep, you get so much time at the Speedway, a good eight days with testing and things like that. It will be good to get a lot of people up to speed, but it's far different from Indy. But every race this year definitely counts. With what the competition level is going to be, you need to be finishing and finishing very well.
Q. Scott, you've got to be looking forward to getting back to Toronto. I know that you had some fairly good runs there if my memory serves correct with the old Champ Car series. The race was dark last year, but the race on that street course very tight, very narrow on the lake, is always a good contest and you've got to be looking forward to getting back there.
SCOTT DIXON: For sure. The Canadian races, even last year when we got to go to Edmonton, the fan base in Canada is fantastic. One, being just great fans but also very knowledgeable, which is a breath of fresh air in some places. It's been a place that I've enjoyed going to in the past. It's a great city to go to, and I'm definitely looking forward to it. Probably not as much as my teammate because I think he's had many a great races over the years, but for me just the street courses that their adding, and then when it's high caliber like Toronto as far as the race course goes, it's definitely huge on my tick list.
Q. Going into new seasons for other racing series, and I'm thinking of Formula One, there's all kinds of rule changes, check changes, they're going back to slick tires. The IRL I don't think there are any huge rule changes or check changes if there are any at all. That's got to be an advantage for you as a defending champion knowing you're going into the season with pretty much the same roller skate that you won the title with the year before.
SCOTT DIXON: Yeah, you definitely said it. That's even in addition with the lack of offseason testing, too, so that's definitely in our favor, as well.
There has been some changes, but I think on most of them it's been for safety reasons and things like that where the Indy Racing League have definitely tried to keep that going. But you know, in the economic times it's very tough to make updates to cars and engine programs and things like that. I think they've done the right thing in maintaining the current package that we have. And it also gives those transition teams a little time in the winter to try and catch up with development and pieces and stuff that they need to redefine on the car.
As you said, it is definitely good for us. It's very hard for rookies. I keep stressing that to a lot of people at the moment. When I was a rookie, I think I came in with 25 or 30 test days going into my first Champ Car race, and now you can't really do much at all. It's great for us veterans and especially when you come off a great year, but very tough on these rookies.
Q. When you're doing post‑race debrief, for the fans who probably don't know and most of us don't get into that inner sanctum, when you're done qualifying or testing or practice or whatever it is, do you debrief with Dario together with the engineers and then do you break off and do individual debriefing, or how does it work? Or is that stuff we need to know?
SCOTT DIXON: It's definitely a very open book at Ganassi. The information goes from car to car, from engineer to engineer and driver to driver. Definitely through the years there's been some friction and maybe some false stuff traded from driver to driver from time to time and maybe not wanting to give up some stuff. Dario is very open, Dan was very open, even (Ryan) Briscoe and (Darren) Manning at their points.
After the race I think the first thing on your mind is if it's a good one, obviously celebration comes first, then to try and get off the track and go home, and you talk to the engineer the following week. But both the drivers always go through the debrief after qualifying, especially the practices. That's the time when you can make most of the changes is between the practices and leading up to qualifying. So that is a big time to try to talk to the other guys, see where maybe they're a little better in some areas and try and work as one.
Q. After winning the Indy 500 and championship last year, is it almost good to have a teammate, a new teammate, the caliber of Dario from a motivational standpoint, or is the fact that you drive for Chip Ganassi enough motivation to go into 2009?
SCOTT DIXON: It definitely makes sure you're motivated. It does help, and especially luckily for me as I go back to ‑‑ I've been lucky enough to stay with the team, but I've had ‑‑ if you want to call it fresh blood, quite often. So it's been great for me to learn different areas. Every day you're in the car, especially with the lack of testing, you're learning something and learning a lot. And for me it's a great time to try and soak some information up, especially a new teammate, maybe a few different styles, different areas where he does things differently is big for me.
I was still learning off Dan, especially on the ovals throughout the years I was with him, and it was tough to see him go, but definitely to have Dario ‑‑ I think he's extremely motivated too, just sort of the fact of what happened to him when he tried to go to NASCAR, the sponsorship on the team side didn't really follow him through. So that was a tough deal for him, and I think he's coming back to definitely prove a point, and I'm going to try and drag myself on some of that motivation, as well.
Q. You and your wife are expecting your first child in July. Congratulations. I saw a quote from your dad that you're doing very well for a guy who never planned to get married and never planned to have children. When did you make that declaration?
SCOTT DIXON: Well, I think that he's going back to days when I was maybe 16 or 17, and to be honest even probably until I was 23, 24, 25 there was never anything even on the radar. So I think a young guy, especially in a racing sort of atmosphere, you have fun where you can, and as you mature and stuff and grow, those things change, and I guess your mindset changes. And for me for the last couple years I've definitely been in the mindset of starting a family, and it's just lucky that everything seemed to fit together at the right point with Emma, an amazing wife and a huge addition for me, and it changed me in many ways, too.
Q. With the restrictions on testing that you guys have had this year as a driver, how do you handle this without the seat time? And the second question was how does that bother your equipment testing?
SCOTT DIXON: For me ‑‑ well, and probably Dario, as well, and some of the other guys, you can see that we've been trying to do as much as we can outside of the cars, outside of the IndyCar Series at least. The practice at the 24‑Hours (of Daytona) and then the race at the 24‑Hour and then the preseason testing for the LMP1, that's been getting us seat time. I think I probably did six, seven or eight days in the ALMS car, and that's probably more than I'll do all season in IndyCars.
For me the offseason was a slow offseason, which is kind of good, because I could soak in the results that we had from last year, and maybe carry those for a little longer. But I think all of us have been trying to get into a bit of other classes that don't really conflict with the IndyCar Series because that's for sure the main goal, and the majority that we're paid for during the season is for all that stuff.
I think for me doing that is to keep you in a car more and maybe a little more active. It's definitely a good thing and a positive for Chip in IndyCar.
As far as the cars go, somebody mentioned just earlier that the cars have definitely not changed that much, so as far as the reliability and areas of testing on an IndyCar it's not so much a big deal.
Q. There wasn't a major change in equipment this year I assume?
SCOTT DIXON: No, I think it's mostly stuff with brakes and some of the safety things and our electronic changes to the engine and things. Most of those are in the reliability areas, as well, so not too much.
Q. All of your results in the last couple of seasons and even before that, I don't think the wins and getting a championship ever get routine, but does your fire in the belly to win, does that burn constantly still, or do you have to feed that fire with other motivation?
SCOTT DIXON: No, I think for me at least at this point, I'm still only 28, but that fire is still burning and burning strong, and all I want to do at any point in time is be in a car and try and go fast for any series that I'm involved in, and more so for the IndyCar stuff.
I think things help that obviously the new people coming in the series, I think the competition this year is going to be probably at its highest ever, and a new teammate for sure, wanting to do well is motivation, as well. I'm just thinking as strong and wanting to perform better than I did starting last year.
Q. Additionally, having the two champions on board on the same team, do you expect they're looking at your team members, do you expect any changes in their attitude, or are they just going to do the work as usual?
SCOTT DIXON: I think they're going to go to work as usual. The team for sure try their hardest every day. Luckily enough we're definitely in a great team. And in addition to what keeps people motivated, I think that's just how the times are, and jobs are pretty scarce and things like that. But I think having two champions on the team probably gives them extra motivation and extra drive. You've definitely got to strike while the iron is hot. Those guys are definitely going to be pushing as hard as they can.
MODERATOR: Scott, thanks again for joining us. We appreciate you taking the time to do that, and best of luck.
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