Q&A with Battistini, Bailey and Rahal
THE MODERATOR: 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 driver Dillon Battistini and the executive director for Firestone Indy Lights, Mr. Roger Bailey. Joining us in a few minutes will be IndyCar Series driver Graham Rahal. Good afternoon, gentlemen.
Dillon is a rookie in Firestone Indy Lights, driving for Panther Racing. He leads the series with four victories, including leading 66 of 67 laps at Kentucky last weekend, and he ranks third in points with three races remaining.
Dillon, congratulations on the win. Tell us a little bit about the season, especially the fact, kind of wondered, did you think coming in that you would be able to get four wins this season, especially four wins on ovals?
DILLON BATTISTINI : Well, I came into the season with an open mind really. I wasn't really too sure what to expect. I knew it was very competitive. A lot of great drivers driving in the series this year. So I knew it was going to be difficult. And the way that my deal came together, it was signed before the first week at Homestead, I didn't do any preseason testing.
So I didn't expect to do quite so well so soon, although I was hopeful that I would win a few races this year, yeah.
THE MODERATOR: One of your teammates, your only teammate I guess on the Indy Lights side is Brent Sherman, a guy with more of an oval background than you. How well have the two of you worked together this year? Has it helped to have a guy like him around to learn the ovals?
DILLON BATTISTINI : Well, Brent and I get on great, which helps. We don't hide anything from each other. We work together, and I think we do quite well at giving feedback to our engineers and helping to make the car good on the oval tracks. That's definitely worked well so far. And he's been helpful to me, and I've been helpful to him I think. So we are a good pair.
THE MODERATOR: Coming out of Indy, you were the points leader, and then had a little bit of a rough stretch from Watkins Glen to Nashville and Mid‑Ohio. Can you talk a little bit about that? Was there any particular reason for some of the struggle, and was there ever a sense of panic on the team?
DILLON BATTISTINI : Well, sure, we had a bit of a downturn in fortune, definitely. The results make it look worse than it really worse I think.
Our road courses this year have been weaker than the oval performances, for sure. But if you look at the facts; that I had an engine blow up in the first race at St. Petersburg and I had to start in the back in the second one and I finished fourth; and then in Watkins Glen, we missed the test beforehand, and I didn't even get to learn the track until qualifying. We didn't have a very good setup, so we were on the back foot the whole weekend there.
And then in Ohio I struggled in the first race with a problem, but in the second race I went from 18th to fifth before a spinning car took me out of the race. So the results make it look worse than it really is, and I'm hopeful when we go to Sonoma next week we are going to be quite strong.
THE MODERATOR: The win in Kentucky put you back into third place in the championship with three races to go; Infineon being the next one with the doubleheader coming up next weekend. But obviously the guys that you're chasing in the championship, Richard Antinucci and Raphael Matos, they have been very strong on the road courses. Talk about the battle for the championship. And what will it take here in these next three races to close the gap?
DILLON BATTISTINI : Well, they have just over a 50‑point lead over myself, so it's not too close of a gap but it's not that big, either. I mean, it only takes them to crash into each other once, and I could be right back in the hunt. They have already done it in practice once, so it would not surprise me if it happens again.
So that's really what I need to hope for. And also just focus on making sure that our road course performance at Sonoma is as good as what I've shown that I can do on the ovals. Neither of the two championship leaders have won on an oval yet, and I've shown I'm the guy to beat on the ovals this year.
THE MODERATOR: Roger, let me ask a question or two of you. The 2009 schedule came out with 15 races and three new venues. Tell us about some of the changes for next year.
ROGER BAILEY : First of all, let me say how delighted I am with the 2009 schedule, and there are a lot of people that put a lot of effort into making this a reality. This is going to be our eighth season, and it is by far the best schedule that we have seen. It's out earlier than we have ever managed to get the schedule out in previous years.
We have three new venues joining our returning tracks, and I think it's where we need to be. I think we have a good mix of ovals and road courses. And when I say "road courses," I include street courses, because to me any time you turn left and right, it's all the same thing; it's just that the walls are a bit closer on one than the other, and it's the same for the rest.
I'm delighted. It will be nice going back up to Canada for a couple of trips. That is clearly an incentive for some of our friends from north of the border to come and join us; people from years gone by, and a name that comes to mind immediately is Paul Tracy, who had a good run a week or two ago at Edmonton.
But the biggest thing of all is to return to Long Beach after all these years. Long Beach has always been to me the No. 1 street circuit in the country, and there are some that are very close now I think. But in the past, Long Beach has set the standard. It's the one where everyone wanted to be and everyone wanted to win, and I'm just delighted and proud to say that that's part of our schedule.
THE MODERATOR: One of the things that stood out to me when I saw the schedule was the fact that the past three or four years, we've had three or four doubleheader race weekends, and that's going down to one. I guess maybe can you talk a little bit about the balance between the economic benefits of doing doubleheaders with the benefits of going to new markets and expanding the number of trips you take going to new markets.
ROGER BAILEY : Well, the balance is very similar. If we had 16 races this year, dropped to 15; but if we had 16, the next one would probably be another road circuit, which would swing the balance even further. But as it is right now, we have seven ovals and eight road courses; to me, that's the perfect combination.
Certainly going to the new venues, Edmonton is up there in the frozen north, and is most of the year; but during the summer, I understand it's very warm up there, but it's 1,800, 2,000 miles away. Long Beach is a considerable distance, probably similar distance.
So, yeah, it's going to cost the teams a little more not having the doubleheaders, but we have compensated for this in the league by having reduced the number of test days available to the teams, both private and Open Tests. So at the end of the day, the incremental costs will be more than offset by the reduction in test days that we've done.
The way the schedule has been set up, and as I said before, I think it's probably the best schedule we've ever had, there's a nice balance of two weeks on, one week off. But frankly that doesn't give the teams time to test and get to the next race.
So I don't think reducing the testing is going to hurt. And I think at the end of the day, the dollar amounts, which is what we have all got to be very, very cognizant of, because at the end of the day, that's what drives it, no matter where we are. We can have double‑ or single‑headers, but if you don't have the money to do it, it doesn't matter.
By reducing some of the test days, we have managed to keep that balance and keep the dollar amount similar to the numbers this year. Certainly adding a couple in Canada is going to add a new interest to our friends north of the border and hopefully will result in a few Canadians coming this way.
THE MODERATOR: Dillon, you had a chance to look at the schedule next year; what are your thoughts from a driver's perspective?
DILLON BATTISTINI : Well, it's really exciting. I get to learn a few more new tracks, and they are quite prestigious ones, as well. The Long Beach Grand Prix is going to be a great event to go to; that is fantastic news. And going to Canada twice is really exciting, too. I've never been there before, and it is just going to be great experience.
Q. Well, I just wanted to get your thoughts on Sonoma, not sure if you had a chance to go out there this season, but what are your thoughts on that course?
DILLON BATTISTINI: I haven't seen the place yet, I've just seen the maps. But each track I've been to this year has been new. It's my first year in America, so there's nothing new there. I'm good at learning tracks quickly, and so I should get a decent amount of track time before we start qualifying and enough time to get a good setup on the car and be ready to go out and fight for the front.
Q. What are the European impressions of the Indy Racing League? How is it viewed over there?
DILLON BATTISTINI: I really like the atmosphere and the feeling in the paddock over here. I've been racing in Asia for the last two years, and so I didn't race cars in Europe much. I did some racing in England in Catherons and Formula 600 which is the equivalent, or cheaper equivalent of Formula Ford back in the U.K. I really haven't experienced the level of pressure that you get in top‑line European car racing, but I know by all accounts, it's not as much fun as racing over here.
Q. Your team has shown it can win, and this goes back to the seeming dichotomy to your experience on road courses and the lack of results. Is there anything other than bad luck to explain why the results have not shown up for you?
DILLON BATTISTINI: We've had our fair share of bad luck on the road courses, that's for sure. We didn't have any preseason testing. As I said my deal was signed so late. I've been unlucky being out in the last race in the wet, when I was ahead of the eventual race winner going forward, so that was a bit of a blow on a chance to set the record straight.
Q. These two race weekends, what have been the challenges for those, and do you try to do anything different when you go to Sonoma?
DILLON BATTISTINI: What do you mean different?
Q. Not so much road courses versus ovals, but doing two races that count in one week versus, you know, just the one race. Are there special challenges built into that?
DILLON BATTISTINI: There are. It helps a lot if you do well in the first race, and that puts you in good stead to get points in the second race, too. There is more pressure on the doubleheader weekends, because you stand to lose a lot more if you're on the back foot. So there is more pressure, and you just have to be careful to get it right really.
Q. Any changes in terms of your approach this week, since things haven't gone particularly well previously in this scenario?
DILLON BATTISTINI: Well, we've got some ideas of what we want to do on making the car suite me well, and we'll have more time going into the event this time around and that's really key really.
Watkins Glen, like I said, I was learning the track in qualifying and didn't really get any time to set the car up. We'll just have to see. The approach is going to be pretty much the same. We just had a bit of bad luck.
Q. In terms of wanting to progress your career, do you think it's better to win races or a championship, and do you have anything brewing for next year?
DILLON BATTISTINI: I think it's crucial to win races definitely. It does help a lot and it shows that you're capable of getting out there and getting a few wins, it means a lot. If you become a champion without winning any of the races, I don't think it's the same.
What as the other thing?
Q. I was just wondering if you knew where or for whom you would be driving next year.
DILLON BATTISTINI: Well, I'm hoping to get an IndyCar ride with Panther, but we'll have to see how things work out. I think I've put on a good enough performance this year to put me in a car next year, but it comes down to finances, and it's too early to say at the moment. I don't know what will happen.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, and wish you luck the rest of the season. We are joined by Graham Rahal. Good afternoon, Graham.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Good afternoon, thanks for having me.
THE MODERATOR: Absolutely. I understand you're up in Chicago today enjoying the day off.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Yeah, I'm actually just driving back to Columbus, just leaving Chicago now.
THE MODERATOR: We are appreciate it. Graham, of course, in his first season in the Indy Car Series, driving for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, won his debut race in St. Petersburg in April, and recorded Top‑10 finishes in Iowa and Richmond.
With the win aside and the great start, there have been some challenges this season for not only yourself, but also really all the teams that joined the series at the last minute. Tell us about some of the high points of the season for you so far.
GRAHAM RAHAL: It was great to do well at St. Pete, and we knew it was going to be challenging, and it certainly has been. We've worked hard as a team, and I think that we saw we were getting closer, and I think we are.
It's just it takes quite a lot of time and effort to get to the top. And obviously as you mentioned, being that we came in so late in the year; that the merger was announced so late, it didn't give us any time to really prepare. So the first opportunity we are going to have is obviously this upcoming off‑season.
We are extremely looking forward to that. It's been obviously busy not only for us, but everybody, and to keep this thing going has been quite the challenge.
THE MODERATOR: With three races left, what are some of the things you'd like to accomplish at Infineon, Belle Isle and Chicago?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, obviously with two road courses, we hope to do well there. I don't think our results on road courses have been as good as they should have been so far. Obviously we are hoping to change our luck there.
And obviously with Chicago, it's a hometown for both our team and the team sponsor, McDonald's. We would love to do well there for all of the employees, and we have gotten closer on these mile‑and‑a‑halves.
So at Kentucky we were going to be extremely competitive, going from 20th up to 11th or 12th within the first 10 laps was a good sign. And I felt like we had a good car there. Unfortunately we had some gear box glitches and that kind of took us out of it.
Like I said, we are going to keep working, and certainly I think if we can get some good results in these coming races, that's going to be a good sign for us in the years to come.
THE MODERATOR: That's kind of my next question. As you look ahead to next year, how important is it to finish the season strong? Is it possible to really carry momentum over through the winter into the start of the next season?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I think it is. I think that's what we are hoping for. Obviously we need to ‑‑ we all realize that we need to get some good results here at the end, and of course, that gives us more of a knowledge base. And if we are winning or doing well on road courses, that gives us something and that gives us confidence going into next season knowing we've figured things out so we'll just keep moving forward like that.
THE MODERATOR: A lot of teams are out at Infineon testing this week. How much of an advantage is it? I know you were in Chicago yesterday, but how much of an advantage is it to get a dew days at a track in advance of a race?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Oh, I think it's huge. It's something that we could use lots more of, trust me. We're obviously still way behind when it comes to really knowing what these cars need on the ovals, and as I said, it's still going to take some time for us to figure it out.
When you do get time to go out and test, I think that's hugely important, and obviously having Justin Wilson) out there yesterday, we really do hope that that's going to help us in the near future.
Q. The popularity of the IRL ‑‑ in terms of the rivalries, what's it been like coming on to the scene this year and being one of the young drivers in IRL, and also having some other big names from recent past like Marco Andretti; have you guys always had a rivalry, and can you share with us any of those anecdotes about your past history with Marco?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, I think first of all, it's great for the series to have a lot of young names. I think as we go forward and as we go on, I think it's important for us that there are names that people recognize, obviously coming from the Champ Car side last year, something that we really struggled with was the fact that every year you had a new name coming into the series.
I think that it is important that we have some good names here, and I think that's really going to help us in the future.
As far as Marco goes, naturally being for him, an Andretti, and even Rahal, there's naturally a competitive spirit against one another that we want to go and beat each other. But at the end of the day we are both out there trying to do well. As I've said, if there was one guy I could beat every week, it would be Marco, but unfortunately this year, things haven't gone that way too often. But we're going to keep working on this, as I said, and it's all part of learning.
Q. As far as your last two series winners have gone to NASCAR, but the last couple weeks, some of the top drivers have signed on with their teams; do you think that trend might end because some of those drivers are not having great success in NASCAR, and also because of the unification? What are your thoughts on that, and down the road, losing some of these young drivers to NASCAR?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I'm absolutely with you. I think that trend will stop, and, a lot of the reason for that is that this unification should help us in the long run, No. 1.
And No. 2, there have been some guys that have gone over to NASCAR thinking that they are going to immediately be competitive. As we can all see, it's no easy task over there. And I'm not going to say that that's going to turn anybody away from us, but if you're having good success here and the series continues to grow and get stronger and stronger, that's certainly no reason to leave.
Q. As a new guy to the series this year, what are your observations of Scott Dixon and what he's been able to accomplish this year? How has he been able to pull off this type of season in your mind?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, it's been impressive. Obviously he's extremely good and we've all seen it and we'll continue to ‑‑ I think we'll continue to see it.
Scott is incredibly talented. I think we all know that. I've been surprised to see him kind of beat Da Wheldon) on a consistent basis, but it's one of those things, as they always say, if it's your time, it's your time.
And with Scott this year, it doesn't seem like they can do anything wrong. I mean, you look at Nashville and he missed his pit call and he ends up winning the race. You know, nothing has gone wrong. They have had some mistakes, I'm trying to think of exactly ‑‑ Watkins Glen obviously, but in the big picture, it's just his year; that's the way I kind of look at it.
As I said, he's extremely talented and I look up to him, and it would be great to ‑‑ if there's any guy that's a deserving champion, I think it's him. He certainly seems to be pretty humble, and you hate to see guys do well that are arrogant, in my mind.
Q. I wanted to ask you about the days after St. Pete, how crazy was that for you?
GRAHAM RAHAL: It was obviously incredibly busy, but at the end of the day ‑‑ and I tell Kathi Lauterbach), our PR lady, this all the time: If I'm winning, I have no problem doing stuff like that. And unfortunately, I haven't been doing enough of it.
But to be as busy as we were obviously with Long Beach a week later, and kind of going back and forth to the Letterman Show, and then flying overnight to Long Beach, I mean, it does wear you out. But at the end of the day, it is the best feeling to know that you've accomplished something like that. And for me, to accomplish it so early was a dream come true for me, and now we just need to make that happen just a little more often.
Q. With yourself, Danica Patrick) and Ryan Briscoe) all winning races this year, is it important for American drivers to do well and win races and compete for the championship in order for the series to grow?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Yeah, I do think so, because the American fans ultimately ‑‑ and we are seeing it right now obviously with the Olympics. I think naturally American fans want to see American drivers do really well. And since I think it's the old patriotism thing and a sense of pride; it's one of those things, and it is an American‑oval based series. I think it is important for there to be a lot of American drivers, No. 1; and No. 2, for them to be doing well.
Q. Do you see a lot of young drivers, say, 14, 15, 16, seems like they all want to gear towards stock cars. With the unification, and as prize money gets a little better, do you think that will change a little bit, some young drivers may start thinking about going to open‑wheel?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Yeah, I think that naturally a lot of drivers would rather go open‑wheel to be honest.
I remember when I was in go‑karts, it seems like everybody wanted to go open‑wheel. But a lot of them just faced the fact that, you know, their parents didn't have deep wallets. And to get into open‑wheel racing, because of the split at the time, NASCAR was kind of an easier route.
But as you say, as prize money gets stronger, and if we can get some big sponsors into the series, yeah, I do think there will be a lot more kids that will want to come this way, and at the end of the day it comes down to the strength of the team. We don't need drivers that are bringing sponsors. We need teams with sponsors that are hiring the best drivers, in my opinion, and I think that again, with the strength of the series, that's going to come.
Q. Is there a difference in atmosphere at these races, at these IndyCar races, than there was in Champ Car from week‑to‑week? What's the atmosphere like from week‑to‑week? Is it any different than it was last year?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Yeah, there's definitely a lot more enthusiasm going on in the paddock.
With the schedule as tight as it's been, everybody gets pretty worn out pretty quickly. But, it's great to see the fans, the crowds that we have had in a lot of these places. And it's one of those things that we are certainly looking forward to seeing what the future may hold for us or have in store for us.
I think in my position, it's exciting for me looking forward to see what may come, and I think the enthusiasm in the paddock is certainly what proves that.
THE MODERATOR: Graham, thanks again for joining us. We certainly appreciate it and good luck as we finish out the season.
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