Rahal, Wilson eager for Indy
Newman/Haas/Lanigan standout Graham Rahal was candid about the upcoming month at Indy.
|Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson|
"I'm really looking forward to coming here for the month of May," he said. "We're really looking forward to coming here to run on the oval. To say I'm nervous is an understatement.
Rahal, 19, now is competing against the Rahal Letterman Racing team co-owned by his father, 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal.
"The relationship with my dad hasn't changed," Graham Rahal said. "I've always been his son. As a kid growing up, we were always together, whether it was testing at Sebring or at the races."
Rahal and his teammate, Justin Wilson, are getting along well in their first season as teammates. Wilson replaced four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais, who moved to Formula One.
"We hang out together," Wilson said. "It's hard to think he's my younger teammate."
Englishman Wilson, 29, started following the Indianapolis 500 during the early 1990s, and he's also eager for his first start in "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing." He raced in the United States Grand Prix in 2003 for Jaguar Racing and can become only the fourth driver to race in the Indianapolis 500 and USGP.
"It all started for me when Nigel Mansell came over here," Wilson said. "It was on TV in the UK, and you could stay up and watch it. It produced some great racing. That captured my imagination.
"The first time I was here was 2003 for the Grand Prix. I was amazed how long the straightaways were. I can't imagine what they'll be like at 225 miles an hour. I imagine it can be quite intimidating on Race Day."
Rahal and Wilson will be trying to give Newman/Haas/Lanigan its first Indianapolis 500 victory after a long and storied career at Indy.
"These guys have been so close so many times to win this thing," Rahal said. "The amount of preparation these guys put in is more than any other team. That gives you great confidence."
PAT SULLIVAN: Well, certainly two gentlemen who we believe are going to be part of a very special 92nd running of the Indianapolis 500. It is always a pleasure to welcome and welcome some familiar faces and names, a first-rate team in Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. It's a delight to have these two gentlemen with us, both who have had success here at Indianapolis, although on the road course.
Justin Wilson, of course, scored points here at the U.S. Grand Prix in his Formula One days and Graham Rahal here with the Firestone Indy Lights. I tell you, this is kind of a -- how about a round of applause for Graham winning his first race. That was very exciting. (Applause)
Justin, first of all, it's a delight to have you with us in the series. You led some laps at St. Petersburg. Talk about your thoughts coming to Indianapolis and this time on the oval.
JUSTIN WILSON: Yeah, obviously it was an interesting weekend. I really enjoyed getting to drive the Dallara around the street circuit. Everything went well all weekend. And extremely happy for Graham to get his first win on his first start. So I think he did a great job. You know, I watched the replay last night and watched those final few laps where he just pulled away from everyone. I think he did a great job and really lifted everyone's morale inside the Newman/Haas/Lanigan race team. So we're looking forward to moving on. I'm looking forward to coming here to race here, go the proper way around the circuit and get to experience all four corners. So it is obviously a tremendous privilege to come and race at this track. It's something I've wanted to do for quite a while.
SULLIVAN: Graham, for some reason I have a fairly vivid memory where I was when I watched your father win his first race in IndyCar competition. I know it's exciting for him, and, of course, ultimately he parlayed that into a victory here at Indianapolis. I know you're excited to come here. But obviously when you're the son of a winner, there has to be a little bit of pressure.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Yeah, there's always that pressure. I think fortunately for me after last week and finally getting my first win, I think it certainly takes a bit off. Yeah, I mean really looking forward to coming here in the month of May. For both Justin and I, it's going to be a pretty tough month. It's a long month as you guys well know. We're really looking forward to come here and run on the oval. I think I've been here a couple times on the road course, really enjoyed that. But as Justin said it's a whole different thing when you're here for the 500.
To say I'm nervous is an understatement. I'm certainly looking forward to being part of it. I've been coming here a lot of years with Dad and in the past cheered for Rahal Letterman Racing, but this year the tables have turned slightly, obviously, and I'm looking forward to going out there and doing our best.
For me, I'll only have one oval under my belt by that time but, as Dad said, Indy is a whole different deal. The whole month, if we can keep working on the cars, we ought to be one of the teams up front, and we're really looking forward to that.
SULLIVAN: Let's open it up for questions.
Q: Question, two questions, one for Justin and one for Graham. Justin, as long as you are in American open-wheel racing, you were with Champ Cars, is there any big difference with the Dallara compared to the Panoz? Second question for Graham, preparation for the Indy 500, will you get some advice from your father with setup-wise with his experience and with the IRL chassis?
WILSON: Well, it's been interesting driving the Dallara. It reminds me a lot of the Lola chassis we used to have in Champ Car. So I found it quite easy to get along with. It also helps when the team put a great setup on off the truck. Straight away we were on the pace and felt comfortable, very much at home. It all worked well. The paddle shift works exactly the same way it did in Champ Car, so I found the transition much more straightforward than I expected. I think that showed in the results were the first time we actually ran this car for real in anger was at St. Petersburg in the first session. We finished at the top of the time sheet with the McDonald's car.
RAHAL: I think on the preparation for the "500," I mean, you know, for all the Champ Car teams that are transitioning over, we've all received a lot of help and great support from the teams. Especially on our side from Rahal Letterman Racing, it's not a team nearly as big as say the Ganassi, the Penskes, the AGRs of the world. But the help we've received from them is tremendous. Coming into the "500," they've obviously been very competitive here in the past and I think that any setup help that we can get or information we can get would be quite an advantage for us. I think that certainly we -- I don't know if they've given us a setup for the "500," but I think every team has received a basic setup from every other IRL team just to give you an idea.
But even at the IRL Homestead test, the car was, I mean it was really good. We don't have the ultimate qualifying pace but I think our guys, you know, they've got a good handle on this thing, although it's so new to us. These guys are professionals at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, and hopefully we can come out of the box and be competitive.
Q: This is for both of you guys. Obviously, Indianapolis is a place that you look forward to running, but are there other venues after Indianapolis on the IRL schedule that neither of you have run that you're looking forward to and then some that you might not be looking forward to?
WILSON: The one that really springs to mind for myself is Watkins Glen. It looks such a great road circuit, and obviously that's where most of my background has been, so I'm really looking forward to that, the fast, flowing corners there. But you said apart from the "500," so this is No. 1, and this is where if you are going to choose which race you're going to win each year, this would be it. I've seen fellow drivers, Dan Wheldon and Dario Franchitti, do well in the last couple years, so it would feel very good to follow in their footsteps.
RAHAL: Of course, for me, you know, if there's got to be one other than the "500," I think it's -- I've raced there in the past but of course not in IndyCars but that would be Mid-Ohio, the reason being its in my backyard. I think being an Ohio boy, if I have memories of racing, you know, when I was a kid with Dad, it was always Mid-Ohio or Cleveland. So really looking forward to going there and hope to have a lot of fan support. That's a great circuit that they've just redone. They had a great crowd there last year, so obviously I'm really looking forward to going there. That's just going to be a lot of fun for all of us.
Q: Graham, in all the years I've covered racing, I've never seen a losing car owner rush over and hug the winning driver before. (Laughter)
How is the relationship going to go now with you with one team and your dad running another team?
RAHAL: Well, I mean, I think you know, you're looking at a special scenario there. But, you know, I think for Dad anytime that I win, he's going to be happy. That's just the way it is. I think, you know, for myself, if I can't be out there winning, obviously I would love to see his team do well. I think it's just, you know, the family ties, obviously. You always want to see one another succeed. I think the relationship hasn't really changed even though I am racing against him. I mean I'm still his son. We've always been very, very close. So I think that no matter what, you know, and I got the question actually earlier today, if you ever drove for him, would it be a business relationship? I don't see us ever being that way. As a kid growing up, we were always together, whether he was going testing in Sebring or wherever it may be, I was always with Dad. So the relationship is so close that in a situation like that the other day, I think he was just so proud of me and so happy that it I finally got a win that it just, I think it was just natural that a situation like that occurred.
SULLIVAN: If I could interject, I saw a message board comment that said, "How do you think Rahal Letterman felt about Bobby being in Victory Lane," and the next person responded, "Do you have a son?" I thought that was very good.
Q: For both of you. Graham, like you said, you pretty much grew up here and at Mid-Ohio. And Justin has just come over to this country to drive, have you shown him where the bathrooms are here and everything?
RAHAL: This has changed quite a bit since the first time I was here. No, I'm sure he can find them on his own. You know, there's got to be a lot of them around. This is a big place.
RAHAL: Well, I think that, you know, growing up, growing up here being around oval racing, it's just a completely different form of racing than what a lot of the European drivers have seen. Trust me, I know there are a lot of them that come over that think this is just a simple, easy thing to do. When they get out there for the first time, I think it opens their eyes quite a bit, just being around it and getting used to the strategy. For myself, as I said, I was always very involved, and I've just, I loved watching Dad and the team and just seeing how everything worked. So as a kid, I think, you know, coming into it like last year into my first season in Champ Car, even the way the yellows come out and the strategy that you play then, that's completely different than Europe because in Europe don't really have safety cars unless it's something really big. So it's a completely different mindset. I think it does give you an advantage, but at the same time, a guy like Justin, he's been around here long enough, and I can guarantee you he's not going to have an issue with it.
Q: Guys, when I saw you at Homestead a couple of weeks ago, it's like we saw both of you together almost the entire weekend. So my first question is about the chemistry the two of you guys coming together and getting along so well so quickly. Secondly, with the most combined height for a team, you guys are locked for the sand volleyball championship this year?
WILSON: Well, yeah, as you pointed out, we hang out together. So we obviously get on very well. It's great having Graham as a teammate. He sits up here and talks away about his experience, and it's hard to think he's my younger teammate. He doesn't seem like it. He's very mature and does a great job in the car and outside the car. It's quite amazing to see how well he can do under the pressure and the scenarios that we've been in. So I've got a lot of admiration for him and for the job he's doing. He's real easy to get along with as a teammate. That makes our life easier; we can go concentrate on racing and the performance of the car rather than trying to beat each other.
RAHAL: Yeah, I think much the same. Trust me, it's a lot easier when you've got a teammate that you easily get along with. I mean, the chemistry in the team is definitely strong this year, maybe even stronger than it's been in the past. I think that anytime, especially for us, you touched on the height, and I think the biggest thing about that is that we're both kind of in the same boat here. You know, both big guys, there's nothing we can do about it. But in the past the engineers sit there and say Sebastien (Bourdais) is 5-3 and weighs 130 pounds, when are you going to weigh that much? So with Justin it's a lot easier to get together and build a base setup for the cars that will be the same. Because in the past, you know, it was one of those things where there were just weight distributions, little things that I couldn't get to that maybe other drivers could, whether it was in Atlantic or other things. But here we're sitting and working together. The chemistry in the team is really good, and it's just working out really well. I think it certainly, I think it's showing with the results. I know it's very early in the season but even when I was in Champ Car testing earlier in the year at Sebring, we were right up front. I think overall it's just a really good relationship.
Q: Graham, you grew up in the open-wheel split and watched it. I can remember your dad being a very strong proponent of CART and Champ Car and then, of course, became an IRL owner. How did all that affect your career choices and then how bizarre is it now to be sitting here today in a unified series?
RAHAL: Well, I mean it affects you quite a lot because, you know, growing up, always being around CART or Champ Car, I think, you know, for myself I was always a road racer and that's really the reason why I went the Champ Car route, went through Atlantic and all the formulas, you know. I didn't feel like it was -- you know, when you're one series, it's fine to be on ovals and it's fine to be in the situation we're in and that's something we needed so badly. But at the point in my career, which is not very long ago, obviously, it was one of those things where the opportunity came with a team that everybody knows is one of the best, if not the best. So you want to, you know, grasp an opportunity like that at any time in your career. I was fortunate it came so early. So to be in Champ Car was the logical choice. Really, that's where I was. And growing up and being around circuits like Cleveland and Mid-Ohio and all these places, you really, you want to be part of it some day.
To be where we are now obviously where we can have all these races, the Long Beach, I mean St. Pete was a great event, Indy, all of these types events are things we need in a unified series. I feel so fortunate that it is that way so early in my career. Because trust me, if you had asked me at the end of last year, I really didn't know when it was going to end but really glad it did so soon.
Q: Question to either Justin or Graham, whoever you want to answer. What is the situation with Long Beach, are you going to Motegi or are you racing in Long Beach?
WILSON: We actually go to Long Beach as part of the deal that the Champ Car teams transitioned, would go to Long Beach. I've heard the entries are up to 20 now. So it's going to be an interesting race, a lot of fun and we're going to hopefully be at the sharp end of the grid and stay out of trouble because there's lots of guys out there that don't have any championship or anything to lose and, you know, if they win the race, they look like heroes. If they don't win the race, nobody will know. So we've got to stay out of trouble, and we're still going for championship points.
Q: With both of you drivers having driven on the Champ Car schedule, you know, not going one by one but when the '09 schedule is drawn up next year, what would be the additions that you would like to see added to the IndyCar schedule?
WILSON: I think there's a couple really great circuits out there that could be added. I'll let Graham add a few, but there's two that spring to my mind -- I know which one Graham is going to say, so I'll leave that one out. But the other two is Road America, which is a fantastic road circuit, and Toronto. Toronto is a special place for myself, that's where I got my first Champ Car race win. So I'd love to see us go back there. I don't know if there's a chance of that but that would be a great track.
RAHAL: Yeah, I mean those are certainly two that would be great to have back. And the one obviously that I'd love to have back is Cleveland because, you know, again when you go back to growing up around circuits, for me it was always Cleveland and Mid-Ohio, like I touched on. I know it's hard to have two races in the same market but I think it's always been pretty strong in Ohio and in the past it was always successful. But Cleveland is such a great circuit, so wide open, so quick. For the fans you can see everything. From a driving standpoint for me, it's just a lot of fun because I like really fast corners. Cleveland, I mean you've got the hairpin obviously to start the lap but everything else is flowing and fast, and it's just awesome.
Q: Just to follow up on that, though, you talk about having two races in the state of Ohio, do you think the state of Wisconsin would be able to justify two races there?
RAHAL: I think it's, you know, it's been successful in the past. I mean, of course, when you go to Road America it's a different deal because Road America is a circuit that -- I mean, if you ask any driver what the best circuit is, I guarantee you 90 percent of them, 99 percent of them are going to say Road America because the speed is so cool. And to go there, it's just an awesome circuit. There are a lot of fans up there who realize the history of that event and just love going there. It's always produced great races. So I mean I think they can do it, as well. It comes down to, you know, whoever decides on the markets they want to pick and obviously these days, street circuits like St. Pete have been successful. And that's a formula that Champ Car was based on a lot, and I can assure you that Long Beach has been getting stronger and stronger. St. Pete was obviously a great event, Toronto has always been strong, Edmonton, so it depends whether they want to go in the countryside or be right in the cities.
SULLIVAN: Other questions?
Q: Graham, this is for you and it's more of a family-type deal. But being the youngest winner in major Indy Racing, have you had that conversation with your dad with like, "Dad, when did you first win in this big series?"
RAHAL: Like when did he first win? I can tell you when he won because I was just told; he was 29. And I know where he won: It was Cleveland, which was also an airport circuit. I mean, we talked about it a little bit. But to be honest, this day and age it's completely different than when Dad started because when he started you couldn't even drive unless you were 21 or something. He started way later. That's why I always feel lucky because, you know, I'm sitting here at such a young age, and I've always tried to just tell myself I have to kind of envision where I will be at their age, you know, whether it's -- whoever it may be. And there are a lot of drivers, obviously, that I admire and respect a lot and certainly, you know, you look at the many years of experience they've had, I mean it's a -- I'm trying to sit back and just try to build up as much knowledge and everything as I can. As I said, it's just different now. You get guys that are starting at 5 years old, and, I mean, it's just a different time.
SULLIVAN: Dick and Rich both with questions.
Q: Justin, you sit there and listen to all the history he relates to and yourself growing up elsewhere, what was your earliest thoughts about Indianapolis and American racing?
WILSON: Well, it all started for me when Nigel Mansell came over here. That's when it started getting televised in the UK, and you could stay up and watch the races. You know, that was the big eye-opening for the UK fans, you know, that this racing was very cool. Everyone was in similar types of cars; it wasn't like Formula One where you had one manufacturer building a car that was a second a lap faster than anyone else. Everybody here has a chance of winning, and, you know, it produced some great racing. That's what captured my imagination was just the racing that's going on. I grew up in karting, I started racing go-karts when I was 8 years old, and I always loved the racing. You know, qualifying is great fun, but it's all about overtaking people and moving to the front and getting those race wins. So that is my earliest memory.
Q: This is for Graham and Justin. Were you both surprised by the overall immediate success at St. Petersburg of the Champ Car transition teams and drivers?
WILSON: I think so. Before the weekend happened, I would have said we'd be happy if we scored a top 10. But straightaway, the car was on the pace, and it seems like our setups have transferred across. After all, the cars aren't vastly different and they did all the calculations and the math that went with that to get the setups to work. So it seems like our guys did their homework and we were able to compete. By the end of the weekend, you know, wasn't expecting or looking for a top-10 finish, was now thinking about podiums, and obviously Graham went one better.
SULLIVAN: Final question.
Q: Actually I'm going to break it up into a two-part question. Do you think that the first two races really kind of showed that in the respective racing disciplines of the two series how, you know, the regular IndyCar guys were on the ovals, that's what they do mostly, the Champ Car guys all excelled on the street courses because that's what they do mostly? And then I have a follow-up after that.
RAHAL: I think it's slightly different because, I mean, of course, the Champ Car guys would succeed on a road course because that's what we do. But I think the reason the ovals is a little bit different because I do think Champ Car teams and drivers can succeed on ovals. We have not had these cars nearly as long. So the biggest difference is we've had no time to develop them. Because I can assure you, Justin can say because in the race there were a lot of times where his pace was just as good as the leader's. But the thing is our cars were very good at the test. We could run around the bottom flat. But when you're running around the bottom flat like they do in qualifying and you're only going 209, flat is flat. Unless you get drag off of it, it's not going to go 213. So the biggest thing is we need time to develop these cars. Before Homestead, I think we only had them three weeks. So you're looking at a different, you know, time scale there from three weeks to five years. So it's -- I mean, I think by the end of this year, if we get more time to develop in the wind tunnel and keep working. Like I said, our setups are already good, our cars felt good and solid and stable, but it's a different deal.
WILSON: The one thing I've learned over my years of racing is a good team is a good team no matter what series they're in. It's about the way they work and the way they apply themselves. So, you know, just the same as if Penske went to Formula One or whatever, whichever way you wanted to look at it, a good team will always move toward the front of the grid.
Q: And also follow-up was your Newman/Haas/Lanigan, the whole crew hadn't been back to the shop since March 23rd, what were they able to do to kind of celebrate the victory? Were they able to finally relax a little bit or did they just have to start thrashing, get back here and bring the Champ Car out for next week?
RAHAL: Well, I'm sure that as much as the guys would like to celebrate, I'm sure they appreciate the sleep even more than they did any celebration because I know they had to get up early the next day to catch a flight. Because I was leaving, I drove home yesterday, I was leaving St. Petersburg about 6 a.m. and I passed them on the freeway, so I know they were up early. I doubt there was any sleep then. I was talking to them today, and they were already at the shop working away. So there's not much celebration right now; it's a lot of hard work.
Fortunately for us, the Champ Cars were built before we left and they were sitting there, all four of them, ready to go. There are obviously little tweaks and you have to start them up and make sure everything is fine. But hopefully they can get at least a weekend off.
SULLIVAN: Well, I'll tell you, Justin made the comment good teams are good teams, and we're delighted to have your team here for the 92nd running of the Indianapolis 500. It's a delight to have both of these gentlemen, Justin and Graham. Thank you very much. (Applause)
A quick reminder, tonight at fast times, the Firestone Indy Lights drivers will be there. The bus leaves from Brickyard Crossing. So if you want to be a hero, get right on that bus and head over there. Thanks a lot.