IndyCar interview with Angstadt, Bachelart and Rahal
MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us for today's Indy Racing League teleconference. Our guests today are joining us to talk about the one-year anniversary of the unification of open-wheel racing under the IndyCar Series banner. On February 22nd of last year, the unification agreement was signed, and five days later a press conference was held at Homestead-Miami Speedway in conjunction with the first Open Test of the season.
Now one year later, the IndyCar Series is preparing to head back to Homestead for testing next week. There will be nearly a dozen Firestone Indy Lights rookies on track Monday, followed by the full field on Tuesday. The IndyCar Series will be on track under the lights on Tuesday and Wednesday, with the rookies getting some time on track on Monday night.
Also on Monday, the IndyCar Series will stage a major photo op at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami. Past champions Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon and Tony Kanaan will pose with a giant sand sculpture of the IndyCar Series trophy, and that is scheduled for 3 o'clock.
Joining us now this afternoon are Terry Angstadt, the president of the commercial division of the Indy Racing League, Eric Bachelart, owner of Conquest Racing, and Graham Rahal, driver for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing.
Terry, let me ask a question of you first to get us started. Obviously it's been an eventful year for the IndyCar Series with the unification, all that brought about. Can you take a quick look back for us and also a look ahead to 2009, what we can expect.
TERRY ANGSTADT: I think the look back is really an easy one. That was the pride I think everybody felt when we had the number of cars, 26 cars or so, on track at our opening race. You really can't appreciate the work done to first complete the merger and then the work accomplished by the transition teams, in particular with the cooperation of existing teams, to get all those cars ready, built and pretty competitive race one. So that was an incredible accomplishment, I think.
Then shortly following that, Graham's win was unbelievable to our business and to our series and to me personally. That was shortly followed by Danica (Patrick) winning. And then Justin (Wilson) to win at Detroit, when (team co-owner) Paul (Newman) was still with us, I think was so memorable and so good for our business.
Again, from a memorable standpoint of last year and a bit of a look back those kind of highlights I think are pretty hard to top.
But I think looking forward, to me, I really think that the organization we have, and that includes drivers, teams, venues and our staff, I think look forward to taking on the challenge of really not kind of sustaining or maintaining our business in the most challenging economic times any of us have ever seen in our lifetimes, but really growing our business during this period. And I think we're really well-positioned and ready to take on that challenge.
So as a look forward, I think we're going to grow the business and have a fantastic 2009.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you.
Eric, Terry mentioned there briefly it was a scramble last year, indeed, for you and the other teams, especially that were coming over, and even the existing teams that were trying to share parts and help out in any way they could. Is it kind of fair to say that this year, you guys with a year under your belts, maybe we can call this the first true year of unification?
ERIC BACHELART: Yeah, absolutely. I think it's a good statement. If you remember about a year ago there were the transition teams and there were established IndyCar Series teams. When we showed up at the first race in Homestead, basically the transition teams were looking to be the best out of these transition teams, you know. And from there, first of all there was incredible solidarity between everybody and the league. I mean, we really did a fantastic job to accommodate everybody within three weeks. That was a very high spirit at the time. Everybody jumped on board and everybody was quite excited about this new opportunity.
From there, there was a lot of hard work just to keep up with the heavy schedule. Over the winter we kept working hard. I think that the transition teams managed to catch up quite a bit and understand the cars better, understand what it takes better.
So now we're going to go into 2009 with, I guess, a better understanding and probably even closer competition. I don't think that we're going to talk about transition teams anymore, just IndyCar teams. It will make things simpler for everybody. We won't have to explain what it was about before.
Open-wheel racing becomes quite simple now. This is just one IndyCar Series and everybody understands that. So it's much more simple and I think it's important for the sport to grow, simplicity and efficiency. I think that's what we're doing. Looking forward to it. I think it's going to be quite exciting just to have a good amount of teams and very close competition.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you.
Graham, a couple questions for you. I know when we talked earlier in January, you mentioned that this is going to be the first time in your career you've run a series in consecutive seasons. Tell us a little bit about that, how that adds to your confidence level from the experience you gained last year, to be able to come back now and do the same series for a second year.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, I think it's definitely one of those things, as I went on through my career, we always planned to have two years in pretty well every series. Obviously being with Eric's team in Atlantics only a couple years ago, having such a great season there, we moved on to Champ Car, and it never really made sense to kind of stay back.
So this will be the first year, even through the years that I was really in karting, that I will have driven the same thing for two consecutive years. And I think as far as the confidence that it gives you, it's one of those things that once you have an understanding of the tracks, understanding of the cars, and you can focus on what it takes and what you need to be more successful and more competitive the next season, it allows you to kind of put your head down and move forward and basically just highlight those things that you need.
In the past, every year - and it continues to be this way - every time you get in the car, every race, it's a learning experience. At the same time in the past for me, it wasn't just a learning experience. You're trying to figure something out that's completely new to you and yet be competitive at the same time.
So finally to understand what it takes and to be able to move forward as a team with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, again, I'm really looking forward to it. I think in my mind, I've definitely taken this off-season more serious than ever before and certainly focused on my fitness and everything else to make sure that, as a whole, we have a chance to go out there and win and hopefully fight for the championship this year.
THE MODERATOR: Last year you came into the series obviously off a very strong rookie season on the Champ Car side. You made a very quick first impression with the win at St. Petersburg. I know you talked about that win a lot before, but give us a little history there. What did that mean to you, especially to make your debut in a new series and to get that win with the unified series?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, it's obviously always a special time when you win any race. But for me, especially winning that, becoming the youngest winner, all of the records, all that type of stuff, certainly it didn't even hit my mind. To be honest, I hadn't even remembered that that was on the line.
So really just to win, it felt so good, after having a year in Champ Car where we had some success, finished on the podium quite a bit, but never really winning, it was a great feeling to do it.
I think it's one of those things that if I had won in Champ Car, it certainly wouldn't have gotten the same credibility if you win in IndyCar, the unified series. No matter what anybody says, a lot of people probably looked down upon some of the Champ Car guys and vice versa, as far as how good they are. Then once you put them together, it obviously showed that some of the best drivers in the world were out there competing against one another. It gives you more credibility.
So the win came at really a perfect time. As Terry touched on, you had (Scott) Dixon that won the first race. He's the deserving champion, obviously did a great job last year. Then me, and Danica shortly after. You had some exciting times there, really a storybook start to the unified series. That's what's just great. It's an honor for me to be a part of it. That's why I'm looking forward to this season so much.
Q. Graham, can you talk a bit from the team standpoint, the team last year had six weeks to bolt a car together, it was a miracle to get cars running at the first few races, just what it means from the team standpoint now to have had a winter off and start doing a little bit of work to close the knowledge and development gap that you faced last year.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, I think, from the team's point of view, everybody is excited to be a part of this. Everybody realized the unification was needed. We all knew it was going to be tough at the end of last year to make it happen. It wasn't going to be an easy task. Certainly with my crash at Homestead in the first test last year, I didn't make it any easier.
As far as this year goes, it's been nice. I've spent a fair bit of time up at the shop with the guys. It's been nice to see that everybody can take their time, we're bolting these things together properly, covering all the bases needed to make sure we can go out and compete with the big teams in this series.
We'd like to be one of those teams that can go out there and win on any given weekend. That's what we've done. That's what we've taken our time to do.
Obviously when you have several months to sit there and to kind of rub on the thing for a while, make sure that everything is fitting properly, all that stuff, it's obviously a nice thing, especially when last year, as you said, we pretty much bolted a car together in only a couple of weeks. Not only that, you didn't really have time to catch up the whole season because of how tight the schedule is.
Now when you start at a point where we hope to go out next week and be competitive in the Open Test, obviously looking forward to some of the road course tests, then back to St. Pete to start the season, I think we definitely feel like we're much further ahead than we were last year. Having some positive tests at the end of last season, you can probably tell, I definitely feel a helluva lot more confident going into this season, the 2009 season. I think we should have some great performances. For the team it should be an exciting time.
Q. Eric, could you perhaps add your two cents to that.
ERIC BACHELART: Absolutely. I remember when we went to Homestead last year, we were just happy to have a car on the track. We just built the car with the parts we could get, not the parts we wanted to put on the car. So that's how we started.
From there we had just to keep up for the whole year, sometimes just present the car. Didn't have much time at all to do anything. So, I mean, the IndyCar is quite a bit different than the Champ Car Series because of the nature of the racetrack that we were driving on, that we were racing on, and altogether the attention to details to this car has been quite incredible.
As Graham said, we've been rubbing the car quite a bit over the winter, really looking forward to go to these tests now and see how much improvement we managed to do over the winter.
Again, I think that everybody's been doing that, trying to catch up, understand better and analyze all the details from last year, do some more testing, I mean, on seven poles or whatever, and see what we get.
The challenge for us is really to do well on the ovals. When it comes to the road courses, that was obviously our fortÃ©. We showed that last year on the road courses - all the ex-Champ Car teams were competitive.
So again, it was good to have all these months, and we took advantage of it. Basically, again, see what we get in Homestead and that's going to be our goal, just to feel as competitive as we can be now.
Q. Eric, how has the economy affected this off-season, your trying to find sponsors and drivers? Where are you with that now? Will you have one car or two cars?
ERIC BACHELART: Obviously it's been a challenge. We were all excited about the unification. Of course, we don't want to be hit by the economy. That's something we are facing. We have to have the best reaction with it.
And altogether I think we have to change our approach of sponsorship. In today's economy, I think that people are looking for a short-term impact on their business. If we can provide a solution just on short-term impact to the business, then I think we can find sponsorship.
It takes more time, that's for sure. People are careful. As a matter of fact, we're still negotiating right now as we speak. So I'm quite confident that we're going to be there with the car for the whole season. We might have to piece it a bit together. From there, we'll see if we can do more.
We were a two-car team last year. It's our ambition to stay a two-car team. We have to be realistic. It's very possible that we might have to share the car between two drivers for the season.
I think sometimes it's important just to last and go through some difficult times, looking for better times. It's certainly not the series' fault or whatever. You see it everywhere, in Formula One, in NASCAR, in IRL. So this is the fact.
I think that when you look at it we haven't lost any teams, and everybody is working hard, being positive about it. I think that we have some very good things ahead of us: a new television package, and a very strong schedule with some new venues such as Long Beach and Toronto. All these things are very positive.
So it's certainly a good help. Within a few weeks we should know a bit more where we stand.
Q. Terry, could you get into a little bit more the how and why you think the IRL might be in the position to expand and grow from last year? If there is a car count and a sponsorship issue with some of the teams this year, would the league consider subsidizing them as a bridge to get you to better times in a year or so?
TERRY ANGSTADT: On the how and why, I really think that, as Eric touched on, everyone has challenges. I think motorsports is certainly one that might even be, you could argue, a bit more impacted than others because of some of the connections to the OEMs. The automotive industry, we are not as dependent as others, but at the same time there is an effect.
At the same time, we really feel that the value proposition within the IndyCar Series versus some of the other choices is quite strong. Translation being if you had a couple of million bucks to spend, we think we may be able to deliver not only some compelling results against that, but you would get more for that same amount of money. Position-as-to-value proposition, we think we will do better in a challenged economic environment.
That's kind of one of the whys.
On the how, I think we have a pretty strong organization. We did some reorganizing over the last couple of years and have a pretty seasoned team in place. People kind of know where the restrooms are and know how to go about our business. I think we've got a very motivated and experienced team taking on this challenge. That's why I think we're going to win more than we lose.
In terms of the car count, again, as Eric touched on, it's challenging out there, and that's one of the challenging parts of this - not only league sponsorship but team sponsorship.
You ask the question, I think we're looking at I would say a low of 22 cars - and it could be 24, 26. We've got to have a couple things happen certainly to hit the high number. I think the low number's relatively secure. So we feel real good about that during this particular time.
In terms of subsidy, that's always challenging for any business. Ours is not unlike others in that we have our own challenges in terms of making our series financially viable. As we know last year, to assist, we had the engine-based lease and chassis. This year it is just the chassis. It really is up to the talent of those teams to close the lease of the engine value gap.
This is no news to anyone, certainly, that we're in close touch with. We're not in a position to subsidize teams. It will be what you see is what you get. We are working real hard to help secure sponsorship for teams with a dedicated sales team, doing presentations, doing research, trying to do all the things to assist. But writing checks we just can't do.
But we feel good about the number of cars that are going to show up and the competitive nature of those cars and teams. Again, in a pretty tough time, I again could not be more proud - to the drivers, to the teams, to the organization going forward.
Q. Terry, it seems you've hit some bad luck. Kind of the story of the IRL: there's momentum, bad luck hits, the economy, Helio's situation. Does it almost feel like you got hit with another dose of bad luck, given all the things that have happened, on the heels of what was a good start to unification?
TERRY ANGSTADT: I appreciate that question.
You really can't control those developments. We really don't focus on those. Again, you deal with them. As I said, I think the good organizations answer the call as strongly and as aggressively as they can. That is our approach. That's why I do think we're going to grow this year.
Yeah, we've been tossed a couple of curve balls. You have to know how to hit those on occasion. Again, I'm not trying to sugarcoat anything. We've got some challenges out there. At the same time I think we're going to have 18, 18 plus, at the test next week. I think that's a pretty good sign. And by the time we get to Homestead, we're going to be very proud of the guys that answer the bell down there and get ready to race for '09.
Q. Graham, I know you don't make the decisions at the team. If you were guessing how many cars ended up from Newman/Haas at Homestead, one, two or three?
GRAHAM RAHAL: You know, to be honest, it's one of those things that I don't know exactly where everything stands at this time with the team. That's a question that's better posed to Carl (Haas) than me.
As I said, to be quite honest, for me this off-season obviously being that I'm not necessarily in Chicago all the time, I don't hear all the stuff that's going on. I just honestly have focused on what I have to do to be successful this year.
Obviously there's a lot of reports that there's a lot of things happening up at NHL. I can't confirm anything. I'm quite honest. I'm focused on being there next week. I know my car's ready to go. I'm just looking forward to getting the season started.
Q. Your father's team, if it doesn't participate, what kind of message does that send for you personally?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, I think obviously for dad - and I can't exactly speak for him - but if it's not a viable thing to do as far as the business goes, then it doesn't make sense for him to put a car out there. Knowing him, if it can't compete, if it can't win, he doesn't want to take part in it.
I don't know exactly what happened with the sponsorship situation at the end of last season for them, but it just came down to it and it wasn't happening for them at this point.
I know I can guarantee you they're still working very hard over there to get something put together. Everybody knows that certainly dad's heart is in open-wheel racing and he definitely wants to have a team here. Unification is something he obviously pushed hard for many years. For it to finally be there, I'm sure he wants nothing more than to be a part of it.
Q. Graham, it was great with you and Justin being able to win for Newman/Haas/Lanigan. There were a couple difficult things as the year progressed. What can you say are official reasonable expectations now that you've had a full off-season of preparation as opposed to just a few weeks, with teammates sharing information? Since it's been so long since off-season tests, how do you stay focused on the task at hand when you've been out of the car for so long?
GRAHAM RAHAL: To touch on last year, obviously with my victory, then Justin in Detroit, we certainly had a lot of ups and downs. Everybody knows that certainly I didn't personally make that any easier on the team. I had several incidents that I'm not exactly proud of or anything like that.
But, as we go forward this year, we talked about the time that we've had to basically improve the cars in the off-season. Having the positive test we did at the end of last season, I think as a whole, we don't want to set the expectations too, too high, but at the same time I see the effort that's being put in up there at the shop in Chicago, and I know that the guys certainly want to win.
As it's been for everybody, it's been a tough off-season for them. They want nothing more than to go out there and to do well. That's what we're aiming to do.
The way I look at it, if we can get some victories this year, if we can fight and be in the top five on the ovals, do the same on the road courses, we can finish I'd like to say in the top five in the championship at the end of the year, that's certainly doable. It's going to take a lot of consistency and a fast car, and I think we can achieve that.
As far as keeping sharp for me, it's gonna be interesting because I don't think I've ever spent as much time as I have this year outside of a racecar. In years past I've done Daytona, Sebring, things like that. This year it's obviously different with the Barber test being right after Sebring, I'm not going to be able to do them both. Unfortunately it throws a bit of a different mix in it.
As I said, I'm just looking forward to getting out there next week and getting back in the car and seeing what we can do. I think that it's gonna be interesting to go back to Homestead, knowing the last lap I did there I put it in the fence. Certainly we're looking to move on. As I said, I think we've done a lot, made a lot of improvements in the car.
As far as my off-season effort, it's never been the same. I'm looking forward to it.
Q. Terry, how big a blow would it be to the IRL if Castroneves can't drive this year? There's no question he's one of the two drivers you have promoted the most for your races. There's a good chance he won't be able to drive. If that happens, how big a blow to the IRL?
TERRY ANGSTADT: Helio is a fantastic competitor, arguably one of our well-known, if not the most highly recognized drivers we have. So that's never good.
I kind of go back to you really try to focus on the things you can improve and control, not the ones you can't. Unfortunately, we're not in control of Helio's situation.
You could also look at it that as one door may partially close at this stage for Helio, we hope that goes well, one opens for Will Power. Will is a fantastic talent that has been given an opportunity to step in, a great seat from one of our premiere teams. Again, I think that's what we'll stay focused on, and that is a strong entry for Will.
We wish Helio the best. I thought, as one would expect out of the Penske organization, when Tim (Cindric) was up here to announce that, they did it in a first-class way and made it very clear that that's Helio's seat whenever he gets beyond his particular issue.
That's our approach. We would love to not have had that happen. But we're going to focus on the things we can control and improve and look forward to hopefully Will having a good experience for however long that exists for him.
Q. Terry, can you talk about the status of finding a series sponsor. Obviously with this economy, what's been said today, I'd like your comments on that.
TERRY ANGSTADT: Absolutely. And that's one that I think I tend to be an optimistic guy, and I think you need to be in this business, I would have bet a large amount of money we would have had one by now. I would have lost that, so I'm glad I didn't (laughter).
But we have active conversations going at present, not only for the title, but in hotel, travel, quick serve, insurance, spirits and beer, just to name a few, some pretty good possibilities.
We would even - I'll certainly say to this group anyway - you like to start a season with a title sponsor. We're prepared to do anything we can to lure one in as quickly as possible, transition to those marks and opportunities for that sponsor if we secure it and really hit the ground running for next year.
So still like our prospects. Wish it would have happened by now. We are hard at a few key categories to try to make that happen.
THE MODERATOR: All right, gentlemen. Thanks again for the time, sharing your insights with us about 2009, the one-year anniversary of unification. We wish everybody the best of luck throughout the season.
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