Q&A with Dixon, Franchitti, Matos and Antinucci
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us for today's Indy Racing League teleconference. We have several guests joining us this afternoon. In a few minutes, we'll be joined by our Firestone Indy Lights championship contenders Raphael Matos and Richard Antinucci. Joining us to start the call is our IndyCar Series points leader Scott Dixon, as well as 2007 IndyCar Series champion, Dario Franchitti. Just an update, Helio Castroneves is unable to join us today. The entire No. 3 Penske team is focused on a run at the championship, and Helio will be available when he gets to the track at Chicagoland Speedway.
Scott, Dario, good afternoon. Thanks for joining us.
A little background on these gentlemen. Scott is in his seventh season in the IndyCar Series, driving for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. He enters the season finale at Chicagoland Speedway as the points leader. Scott has a record-tying six victories this season, six poles, and 13 top-five finishes in 16 starts. He's had a lot of success on the one-and-a-half-mile ovals this season, winning three of five races so far. And at Chicagoland Speedway, Scott's raced there five times in his career with three second-place finishes, including in each of the last two seasons.
Of course, Dario Franchitti, just about an hour ago, it was announced that he'll be returning to the IndyCar Series in 2009 with Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Dario won the championship last year and has eight career victories in 67 starts.
Dario, a quick question for you. Congratulations on today's announcement. Give us your perspective on returning to the IndyCar Series and doing it with Target Chip Ganassi Racing.
DARIO FRANCHITTI: I'm very excited to be coming back to the IndyCar Series. I think the unified series is excellent news. I think the schedule for next year was a big part of my decision, plus the chance to drive for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, which is a great team. I have competed against the team for I guess 10 or 11 years in open-wheel. I know how difficult they are to beat. I'm really looking forward to being a part of the team going forward and having Scott as a teammate.
THE MODERATOR: Scott, your reaction to today's news and being a teammate next year with Dario?
SCOTT DIXON: I think it's pretty cool. It's definitely pretty positive to have a teammate that's been very strong, very tough to beat, including last year where we came up just short. I think it's going to be a huge influx for the team. I can just imagine everybody will be really excited. It's come at a tough time for everyone I think with the team, especially coming down to the championship, but it bodes well and looks absolutely fantastic for next season.
I hope we can continue on with the success that the team's had. Definitely with a teammate like Dario, it's going to be all good things.
THE MODERATOR: Let's talk about that championship a little bit being decided once again at Chicagoland Speedway. We know what happened there last year. How much was last year's finish a motivating factor for you heading into this season?
SCOTT DIXON: I think it was the majority of it, to be honest. The bad thing we had in 2007 is that we didn't really start out the season as strong as we probably should have. From that point on, I was playing catch-up, especially with a guy, Dario, that did such a fantastic season from the early part to the middle part and definitely at the end as well. It was tough for us to close it down. But we definitely closed the gap.
I think it was more the fact in the way that we lost it. We had a fast car on the day and it came down to strategy a little bit, running out of fuel because we basically used too much. That was a tough way to deal with it after such a long season and the success that we had coming down and closing that gap, to have it sort of finish with having maybe a cupful of gas was pretty tough. It was a big motivational thing for everybody I think this year.
THE MODERATOR: You've had a lot of success on the mile-and-a-half ovals this season with three wins in five starts. Chicago is a place you haven't had a victory yet. Tell us a little bit about what you expect on the track this weekend as you go for the championship.
SCOTT DIXON: I think Chicago's going to be very tough. It's a tough circuit. It's one of those ones that provides great racing and definitely nail biting for a championship race, which is exactly what the fans want and everybody that's watching. I guess they'll definitely get that.
I think for me it's been a mixed bag in the way of how we've done there and things like that. To never have won there is definitely frustrating. We're hoping that we can definitely turn that around this weekend. But there's a lot of other people that are going to be trying to do the same thing.
The mile-and-a-half ovals I think throughout this year have been very tough. Almost 10 more cars on the track than we had last year. If you make any little mistake, it makes it that much worse. We still definitely have to finish extremely well. But I'm looking forward to it. I can't wait to get there.
Q. Dario, were you given a chance to return to the NASCAR side of the program in any form? Could we see you in a car in Australia?
DARIO FRANCHITTI: Chip (Ganassi) and I were talking about the 41 car as a possibility. That was something that was part of the discussion. As far as Australia, I don't know yet. I've got to sit with Chip and Mike Hull and see what the situation is. Right now not sure on Australia.
Q. Your decision on the 41 or just didn't seem like the best of the options? Can you elaborate a little bit more on that?
DARIO FRANCHITTI: Again, it didn't seem the best of the options. When Chip kind of laid this option in front of me and I could see the enthusiasm that he had, coupled with the enthusiasm I felt for the schedule going forward next year, I'd been at Detroit as well, and seeing the IndyCars run there, just being reminded of what the cars are capable of, those all went into that decision.
Q. You made the decision after Detroit?
DARIO FRANCHITTI: During Detroit.
Q. Scott, going into this last round with a 30-point lead, do you go in somewhat conservative wanting to finish and keep out of trouble?
SCOTT DIXON: For us, I think we've got to just keep doing what we've been doing all season, and that's trying to go out and win races. I think the only time that we haven't tried to do that, we sort of I think got ourselves out of whack a little bit, would have been Sonoma. That's definitely not the way we want to race.
I want to go out there. I want to try to qualify on pole, and I want to try to win the race. If you do that, you're definitely going to win the championship. So obviously we want to beat one person, that's Helio (Castroneves). We want to do it in style. If we're able to go for a record seven victories in a single season, that's definitely what we're going to try to do. It won't be anything conservative from us.
Q. You must be confident as far as any motor racing driver can be confident, I suppose?
SCOTT DIXON: Yeah, I still think we've got a sizable lead. It's definitely a lot better than last year's situation where we went in trailing by I think about three points. Having a 30-point lead, Helio has to win the race, get most laps led, we have to finish eighth or worse for him to win it. It's a lot for him to do. But I think we can quite easily see that situation has happened this season already when he did it at Sonoma. It's going to be hard for us to make sure we keep going on it.
Going to the circuit where I think we've fared well in the past, definitely done well on the mile-and-a-halfs this year with both myself and Dan (Wheldon), it's looking pretty good. You've got to go in confident, and you've got to go in trying to win it.
Q. Dario, how would you sum up the extent of your NASCAR experience? Are there any regrets coming out of this?
DARIO FRANCHITTI: Absolutely no regrets. I think the first part of the season was very, very tough. I was just starting to get the hang of it when I broke my ankle. I think we had some good performances, if not results, with the car at Pocono, Michigan and Loudon. We were running very well there. Then we had the news of the 41 car being shut down. Then subsequently our Nationwide program, I think we've done very well there.
Absolutely no regrets. A lot of it I've really enjoyed. It's something I might do again in the future. Who knows. But, again, like I said before, the opportunity to do this deal and to get to do the IndyCar Series again and race at Indianapolis, all the other places, it was too good to miss.
Q. I believe you had about a half-dozen Nationwide events still scheduled for the remainder of the year. Do you still plan to compete in those or not?
DARIO FRANCHITTI: I'm not sure right now. My personal opinion is I'll probably give Bryan Clauson a chance to get some more seat time because he's a rookie like I was this year. He needs every minute of seat time, as well. That might be the direction it goes in.
Q. The 41 option was in Nationwide or Cup?
DARIO FRANCHITTI: Cup.
Q. So you chose IndyCar over Sprint Cup racing?
DARIO FRANCHITTI: As I said, it was something Chip and I talked about. I'm not going to get into all the details. But it wasn't a straight one or the other. We definitely talked about a possibility of me being in the 41 car.
But there's not too many times you get that chance to come back. Like I say, I really got excited by the schedule of next year. To be in a team with Scott, I know how difficult the team has been to beat in the past, and it's going to be a lot of fun to be part of that going forward.
Q. Is any of this surreal at all? At this point last year your focus was on stock car racing. A year later you're back in IndyCar now.
DARIO FRANCHITTI: Completely surreal (laughter). It's a crazy situation right now. At this time last year, even before the NASCAR deal came up, I felt my head wouldn't be on the job in '08 in IndyCars. That's one of the reasons I didn't come back. Then I was lucky enough to get the opportunity with Chip in NASCAR. Do I feel I'm going to have my head in the game next year? Absolutely. Otherwise I wouldn't do it. I'm really looking forward to it.
Q. As far as the influx of road courses and street courses for next year, I'm assuming if it was more ovals than not, you may not have done this?
DARIO FRANCHITTI: Obviously the chance to come back to Indianapolis is huge. But, yes, definitely the road and street portion of the series being increased was definitely part of that excitement. I felt when I looked at the schedule, as I say, it looks like a pretty well-balanced schedule right now.
Q. Scott, obviously a bit of a shake-up for the team. Sounds like you're excited about it.
SCOTT DIXON: I think it's fantastic. I know some people have been talking about it for a little while, obviously with what Dario's options were going to be. There's been a lot of things floating around. Definitely the thing I was looking forward to was hearing about that. We've sort of seen each other over the weekend. I knew there must have been some rumblings going on over there.
To have a driver like Dario at our team is going to be spectacular. We're going to be definitely a force next year. I'm sure we'll definitely be very competitive. Hopefully we can win another championship and another (Indianapolis) 500 for Ganassi.
Q. Dario, did Wheldon decide to leave the team before you agreed to join it and that created the opening? Can you shed any light on the sequence there?
DARIO FRANCHITTI: I don't know what the chronology was about that. I'm not sure how that went down. As I say, I went to Detroit over the weekend, talked to Chip about different options. Also watched my brother in the ALMS race. He put the offer in front of me.
Q. Dario, what was it like for you on Race Day of the 500 this year? Must have been pretty emotional not being there.
DARIO FRANCHITTI: I kind of downplayed it. People asked me that question. I was like, 'No, no, it's no big deal.' I was fairly focused on trying to turn things around down in Sprint Cup. I was still recovering from a broken ankle.
When I watched the race, saw all the things that happened there, watched Scott just do that amazing job and win the thing, I definitely missed being there.
Q. Scott, did something go wrong with the team, the relationship with Dan and Chip or you and Dan? This has been brewing for a while, now the change is made. Was there a problem?
SCOTT DIXON: No, I don't think there was any problem. I don't know the ins-and-outs of what they were discussing because both of those guys definitely keep that stuff quiet. It's pretty much how you should do business.
They always seemed to be getting on very well whenever I've been around them. I didn't see anything coming, that's for sure.
Q. Does it hurt the driver in the relationship when the driver finds out that the owner has been talking to other people about replacing them? We had the Tony news several weeks ago.
SCOTT DIXON: I think it's tough if you haven't been kept in the loop. I'm always a certain believer the way it should be, the way you should do business, is you should be up front. If you're looking at other things or doing other things, you should maybe let the person you're working for, in that situation, probably know about it. That's just courtesy, I think.
Whether that happened or whether it didn't, you know, I have no idea. But I don't think that was part of it.
THE MODERATOR: Gentlemen, thank you so much again for taking the time to join us this afternoon. Again, congratulations on the announcement. Scott, good luck this weekend in your pursuit of the championship.
SCOTT DIXON: Awesome. Thank you very much. See you later, Dario.
DARIO FRANCHITTI: You, too, Scotty.
THE MODERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, we're joined now by Firestone Indy Lights championship contender Richard Antinucci. Richard is second in points, three behind Raphael Matos, as the series heads to Chicagoland for the series finale. Richard has victories at St. Petersburg and Watkins Glen as well as six other podium finishes. He leads the series with nine top five finishes in three races on one-and-a-half-mile ovals this year. He has a second at Homestead-Miami and a fourth at Kentucky.
Richard, this has been your first year racing on ovals. Obviously you've had some success there with the second and the fourth, but no victories yet. With the championship coming down to a mile-and-a-half oval, tell us a little bit about your approach to the weekend, what you expect in the race.
RICHARD ANTINUCCI: Well, I'm really looking forward to this last race because we've brought ourselves to this point and we have a chance, you know. We're almost going in even, as if the championship race started this race. It's almost a fair crack at it.
We've done pretty well on our last superspeedway, which is also very important. We're coming in there with momentum. We know we're very good at least in the race, which it counts. I think we can pull out a good result this weekend, hopefully good enough to put two cars between us and our main contender Matos.
THE MODERATOR: What would a championship mean to you career-wise?
RICHARD ANTINUCCI: Oh, I don't know. You know, you have to see how many rewards you reap in the winter. But I think as a result of a good year, hopefully we're going to get good attention and graduate to the IndyCars. That's what I want to do. That's my dream.
THE MODERATOR: Of course, you're the nephew to Eddie Cheever, a former competitor in the IndyCar Series, Formula One, and Indianapolis 500 winner. Has he given you much advice here down the stretch to approach the championship?
RICHARD ANTINUCCI: Well, you know, he's busy also doing his Grand-Am activities. I don't get to see him much. We've spoken. We actually got to say hi to each other at Infineon. He helped me out at Homestead and Indy. He's been good to me and always been someone that's watchful of my career and my whereabouts. He's definitely important to go and speak to. That's been going on this year, so that's been good.
THE MODERATOR: We'll take questions for Richard.
Q. Richard, question about your plans for next year. Do you anticipate your uncle might get back into the IndyCar game, you might have a ride with him? What other options would you consider as viable for continuing your career if something in the IndyCar Series didn't come open immediately?
RICHARD ANTINUCCI: That's a very difficult second part of the question. The first is I hope Eddie and the whole Team Cheever manage to pull something together to do part-time, full-time, or just Indy in the IndyCar Series, because that's where I really want to be. That's where I think his heart is, too, as well. Being an ex-driver, having won the 500, that is his favorite race, I can tell you that for sure. We'd both like to work together. We did really well last year in the few races we did. We ended on a very positive note. We've also done a Grand-Am race together and it went really well. The results were good, fastest lap, all that.
I think hopefully something with him would be nice. But there are a lot of professional teams that have really impressed me out there since I moved back to America last year. I think many things are viable. ALMS looks interesting. Grand-Am is very interesting. But for sure IndyCars is where I'd like to be.
Q. Has your performance on the ovals been kind of what you expected this year? Do you think you left something on the table that you'd like to have some races back? Are you satisfied with what you've been able to accomplish on the ovals?
RICHARD ANTINUCCI: Absolutely I'd love to go back and improve on some of the results. I've had some of the poorest results on my career, in contrast to the good ones, like the first one I almost won, got second place. Indy Freedom 100 was second. Then we got a 16th and a 13th. These are results that none of us on the team, nor myself, were expecting or working for. We've had good ones and we've had bad ones. We would rather be more consistent with top results all the time. So we're going to try to make this last one good as well.
THE MODERATOR: Looking back at this whole season going into the championship, whether you win it or not, what's been the highlight so far for you?
RICHARD ANTINUCCI: It's been a really emotional season. Really nice. Both contenders, Matos and I, expected to race against each other at the beginning of the year. We kept our heads down. 16 races later, we're almost scratch. So it's really exciting. It's been a fantastic year.
I've had some great moments. You know, I was really, really happy during the first race of the season. I was leading throughout. We looked like we were on course for the win. We still finished second, although it was a bitter taste. So I'd say that kind of took the big surprise out of the first win right away.
Indy Freedom 100, we caught up from seventh on the grid and had a great race. Finished second. I think that was almost worth a win in terms of the feeling because we ended on a positive note. It was a very, very important oval. Probably the coolest superspeedway you're ever going to race on. That was a big highlight. I wish I could have won that one.
Also winning at Watkins Glen would be up there, as well.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you for your time, Richard. We appreciate that. We wish you the best of luck this weekend.
RICHARD ANTINUCCI: Thank you very much.
THE MODERATOR: Raphael, appreciate you taking the time to join us. Raphael Matos is first in points with three wins this year on the road courses at St. Petersburg, Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio. Also four poles this season. On the mile-and-a-half ovals, he has a best finish of sixth at Kentucky Speedway.
You've had wins this year on the road courses. Of course, this is your first season really competing on ovals. The championship battle comes down to a race on a mile-and-a-half oval. Tell us a little bit about your approach to the weekend and having to win a championship on an oval.
RAPHAEL MATOS: Well, I think the approach will be pretty much the same as everywhere we've been. We show great speed pretty much everywhere we've been. Obviously we won three races in a road course, but we had two pole positions at the mile-and-a-half oval course. So we tested last week at Chicago and we showed great speed. We definitely have a great car for that track.
You know, I'm looking forward to it. I think it will be a tough weekend, will be hard racing, but I think we're ready for it. I think we'll have an extremely good package for that race.
THE MODERATOR: Chicago is really known, as far as the Firestone Indy Lights racing, for some very close finishes, a lot of side-by-side racing, six or seven lead cars often swapping positions. What is it like to race in a scenario like that?
RAPHAEL MATOS: Well, it's tough. You know, everybody's flat out all the time. You obviously have to trust the driver that you're running side by side. More than likely, you have someone in front of you and someone right behind you. Hopefully I will be up front so I won't have that problem.
But more than likely I will have someone side by side with me the whole race. You know, that's what I pretty much concentrated on last week at the test, obviously making sure we have a fast and good car trying to fight for the pole position, but also strong and consistent car, a car that makes me feel comfortable during the race. We concentrate very much on running side by side with my teammate, Arie Luyendyk, who is very experienced. He pushed really hard trying to get me that feeling that we should have at the race weekend. So I feel pretty good about that. I feel that I'm ready for that.
THE MODERATOR: Looking back at the season so far, what would some of the highlights be for you?
RAPHAEL MATOS: Well, the season obviously has been a little bit of ups and downs - obviously more ups than downs since of course we're leading the championship right now. I think the St. Petersburg victory was very important for us. We proved that we're definitely contenders. We almost won the second race. We've won every road course race, the first race, on the double weekends, but the last one in Infineon. I think every victory we've had this season was very important for us. I think every time we are on track, we show that we're able to perform well. I push myself a hundred percent of the time all the time I go to the track. I try to get the best feedback to the engineers and try to develop my car as much as I can.
THE MODERATOR: Tell us a little bit about what it's been like to be part of the Andretti Green Racing family and work with that team so far this year.
RAPHAEL MATOS: It's great. As you said, it's a big family. That's how Michael made me feel when I first talked to him before I signed with AGR. Obviously the involvement, Andretti Green and Gary Peterson, with the AFS company, AFS Racing, without his support, we wouldn't be able to where we at right now. So I got to thank Michael, Kim, Kevin and obviously Gary Peterson for their support.
On the technical side, I have to say that this year I learned the most in my career. I've been learning with all the IndyCar drivers. I've been learning a lot with Luyendyk, especially on the ovals. Obviously I've been learning a lot with all the engineering group. It's such a great group of people. I've been able to get all that information and keep in my brain. I've been improving a lot on the technical side and as a driver as well.
THE MODERATOR: We'll take questions for Raphael Matos.
Q. Where do you see yourself six, seven months from now as the racing season opens for the '09 season? Where do you think you're going to be?
RAPHAEL MATOS: Well, I hope I will be in an IndyCar. There's a lot of things going on right now. That's my ultimate goal, is to be in IndyCar. That's what I'm working hard for.
I don't really know anything else, anything more than that. I mean, it's difficult to say. Obviously to be in IndyCar you have to have a lot of things on your side. You have to have the sponsorship side sorted out. Obviously I have a great team that could easily support a car for me in the IndyCar Series. So let's hope.
I'm a hundred percent focused on the Indy Lights championship right now. I truly believe having that championship on the table, it's going to help me somehow negotiating for next year.
Q. You come from a country where people are avid fans about racing. I think they could be considered bonkers about racing. What would it mean to your friends back in Brazil to wrap up this championship?
RAPHAEL MATOS: It means a lot. IndyCar in Brazil and Indy Lights, it's definitely a very, very prestigious series in Brazil. As a matter of fact, 10 years ago Cristiano da Matta was winning his Indy Lights championship. Hopefully I will this year and we'll celebrate together.
There's a lot of people with positive vibrations. Everybody's wishing me good luck from Brazil. Hopefully I will bring this title for them, to all my family, friends, and obviously my team.
THE MODERATOR: That's all the questions we have for you this afternoon. Thanks for joining us and good luck this weekend.
RAPHAEL MATOS: Thanks.
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