An Interview with J.R. Hildebrand, Tomas Scheckter MODERATOR: Thank you for joining us on today's Indy Racing League teleconference. We have three guests today. Joining us in a few minutes will be Steve Page, president of Infineon Raceway and IndyCar Series driver Tomas Scheckter.
To start off today, we'll have Firestone Indy Lights driver J.R. Hildebrand. J.R. is wrapping up his rookie season in the Firestone Indy Lights. He is the driver of the RLR Andersen Racing No. 25 Allied Building Products car. A native of Sausalito, California, this weekend's doubleheader at Infineon is basically a home game for him.
J.R. three races to go. Talk about the year so far and your goals for the last two race weekends.
J.R. HILDEBRAND: It's been sort of up and down for everybody. The title chase has been tough, I think probably from all aspects for a lot of different guys.
So from that perspective we've had just as much of that as anybody else. We started off this season really strong. Sort of culminating it at Indianapolis, leading the points going into that event with a win in Kansas.
We've had some great runs since then, but sort of some bad luck, some sort of bad sort of circumstantial stuff and some mistakes from me and from other people have put us a bit further back than we'd like to be right now.
But we've had really strong race cars all year long, and Chicago should be a good event for us from that perspective. We had good cars on the big tracks. And Infineon Raceway, being my home track, we'll look forward to having a really good event here.
Q. You mentioned it being your home track. You won a lot of races at Infineon, be it on the go‑kart track or road course. How special would it be to win this weekend in the Firestone Indy Lights, add that to your trophies?
J.R. HILDEBRAND: It would be big, man. I haven't actually gotten to race here that much over the last few years, just because the series hasn't come here. Obviously, I did the Infineon round last year at the Indy Light Series; that being my first experience in the car. But it would be big for us as a team to be able to pick up a road course. When we actually had a test day out at Putnam Park last week and made some big gains, the car really came to life.
So there were some things, for the way I want to drive the car, that I guess we'd been missing a little bit. And hopefully we'll have a better race car and my knowledge of the track will come in handy here and we'll have a good weekend.
Q. I saw a release that your team put out this week. You mentioned sleeping in your own bed, driving your own car to the track. I imagine you're going to have a lot of friends and family there, too. Is it that much more pressure knowing that mom and dad are going to be there and everyone else?
J.R. HILDEBRAND: No. You know, it's just that much more support that you get from everybody. We'll end up having a lot of people out here this weekend. A lot of my family is close by. I'm just really looking forward to it. The weather should be good. We're kind of back out on home turf, and I think it should be a really good weekend.
Q. This is a home race for you. What plans do you have outside the track this weekend?
J.R. HILDEBRAND: Oh, man, that's a tough one. We've got a pretty busy schedule. A lot of it will be just kind of making sure I get to bed on time and get back out to the track. But we've got a lot of sponsors coming in from Allied, for Andersen Racing here this weekend. I'll certainly be getting together with them.
Hopefully just spending some time at home being able to kick back with the family a little bit.
Q. You've kind of fallen a little bit in the point standings from earlier this season. At this point in the season have you moved more into a mode like preparing for next year, or do you think you can climb back into and perhaps even win the championship in the Indy Light Series this year?
J.R. HILDEBRAND: As anybody can look at the point standings can see, there's a little bit of a gap to those guys up front. But, certainly, the next couple of races, like I said before, we should be strong the rest of the tracks we go to here. I think third in the points is without a doubt within striking distance. And we've got a doubleheader here. If either of those guys up front end up having some issues in the first race, that will put you at the back for the second race, and there's a lot of points to be gained and lost there.
So we're certainly not counting anything out. And so right now I guess I'd say myself, and the team included, are very much focused on finishing this year out strong and then sort of seeing where our options end up being at the end of the year.
Q. Infineon is really kind of a one‑of‑a‑kind track. Tell me how you would prepare for a track like Infineon based on how physical it is and really how demanding it is on a driver.
J.R. HILDEBRAND: It's demanding on the driver and on the cars. With as much elevation changes there is, and particularly the layout of the track that we run, the configuration, the IndyCar Series and the Indy Light Series run, there's kind of a vast mixture of corners and different types of things that as a driver and as a team you have to be prepared for.
So luckily for us we've got a test day coming up tomorrow afternoon that we'll be able to kind of familiarize ourselves with what we need to be doing as a team and what I need to be doing as a driver to really prepare for what's going on.
But it's definitely sort of a mentally and physically challenging track from that perspective, that there's a lot of different things you're dealing with. So that's where I guess I'd say I hope that my track knowledge and my experience out on the track will play into my hand a little bit, that I've got that ‑‑ I've sort of got that bank of knowledge, having run the different kinds of corners and being able to know how to approach those and what to be ready for.
Q. I know last year you did the doubleheader weekend in the Indy Lights car, but you didn't really get much time in the race. Do you know what to expect from the car still, despite the limited number of laps?
J.R. HILDEBRAND: I think so. Last year, I think in both of the practice sessions last year, just the open practice, I don't think we were ever outside the top three. I think in the first one we third, maybe, and in the second one we were second.
So pretty much right away we were on pace, and then had some issues, some mechanical issues in qualifying that set us back for the first race and then got taken out in the first race to put me at the back for the second race. From that perspective, obviously, we had sort of an off weekend.
But the speed was there. And then I think just having driven the car all year long this year will have given me everything else I'm kind of going to need to know about what to expect from the car. It's definitely different. But the track knowledge plays a big part here.
So I'm just looking forward to it at this point. On the test day we can kind of wrap up any loose ends that we might have and then just get down to business on the weekend.
MODERATOR: I know your first season in the series is starting to wrap up here. Plans for '09 are starting to come into place. Do you have any idea of what the '09 plans are quite yet?
J.R. HILDEBRAND: You know, not really. Like I said, there's still a lot that can change by the end of this year just with the number of points that are still at stake and how close things are.
So at this point I think we're all just sort of focused on doing the best we can on sort of the task at hand right now. And then you've got a fairly long off season. I've certainly been talking to a lot of teams and getting a feel for what's going on up above and then also down here.
But I think there's a lot still to happen right now. And I guess I wouldn't expect anybody to be making any big moves until the season's actually over, because it's so close.
MODERATOR: J.R., thank you very much.
We're joined by Infineon Raceway President Steve Page and IndyCar Series driver Tomas Scheckter. The IndyCar series does return to Sonoma for its fourth appearance at Infineon Raceway, the Peak Antifreeze and Motor Oil Grand Prix of Sonoma County.
Tomas Scheckter is entered in the event after a brief layoff. He'll be driving for Luczo Dragon Racing's No. 12 Honda‑powered Dallara.
Steve, a question for you. The unification of open wheel racing under the IndyCar Series banner has brought a lot of new excitement this year. Are you seeing that same excitement evident on the West Coast?
STEVE PAGE: No question. The series has good momentum. Ticket sales are up. The fact we've got the stars from both series now and a much fuller grid. I think we've got 26 cars on the track this week. There's a lot of buzz in the marketplace right now.
Q. And I understand there's a slightly altered layout for the racetrack this weekend?
STEVE PAGE: Yeah, we have the advantage ‑‑ we have several different potential configurations of the racetrack that we can use for different series. And we also have a drag strip that runs right up the middle.
We've looked at the dynamics of the racing over the last couple of years and worked with Brian Barnhart on an idea and a little twist which is to take ‑‑ we have a small kink in the straightaway coming out of the carousel, coming out of Turn 6 going into Turn 7. We've taken that out.
And we'll have the Indy cars run all the way up to the end of the drag strip, which makes it a straighter, longer straightaway, a hard braking zone and a tighter corner going into Turn 7. And we think it might shake up the competition this weekend.
MODERATOR: Steve, I understand you may have a question for Tomas.
STEVE PAGE: Actually, that was my question. Tomas was one of the drivers that had a chance to come out and test last week. Tomas, you've had a lot of experience on this track in an Indy car. I'm curious to get your feedback on how different it was to use that new Turn 7 configuration.
TOMAS SCHECKTER: It was certainly different. Initially, it felt very tight. But I think exactly like you said, you guys have been thinking about the racing and how it's going to change. Certainly there's no room for error there, because your braking has to be perfect. And if it is a little bit late, you get lock‑up and you almost miss the corner completely.
And certainly when you come from a long straight into a type of braking area that allows for different cars that can brake a little bit later or a little bit earlier to get some passing going there, and hopefully increases some passing moves and causes a good race.
MODERATOR: Tomas, it has been a while since we've seen you in an Indy car. I think it was Texas the last time you raced with us, and now you're doing the last three races in the season. How have you been preparing yourself to get back into a car?
TOMAS SCHECKTER: Just working out. Just a lot of working out. It's been tough, especially with this coming together. But a great opportunity with a great team here and super sponsors.
We're down ‑‑ actually, after we did the test, we went to Symantec headquarters and spoke briefly with John Thompson and a lot of the employees had both cars out there. There's a lot of excitement there. And I think you'll see a lot of people from Symantec up here at the race.
Keeping my head up. I've got a great team and great sponsors. Working out and spending time with them and looking forward to the next time I'll be back in the car again.
Q. After running so many full‑time seasons doing a selected program, is it frustrating sometimes sitting there watching?
TOMAS SCHECKTER: Yeah, it is. And parts of it is being extremely frustrating and parts of it's been sort of good. I enjoyed the summer. But certainly my heart is wanting to be in the Indy car.
And it's certainly ‑‑ it's been tough when you switch on the TV and you see the cars going around. Like I said, it's been tough. I knew it was going to be tough before. And I made those sacrifices when I put my name on the contract to know there was going to be a good future with this team and certainly moving forward.
Again, we've added races to the schedule. We'll be doing the last three and hopefully we'll get a full program sorted out for next year.
Q. Tomas, my question is primarily about your time off in between the races. You said you're watching the races. Where do you watch them from? Are you in the States? The UK? South Africa?
TOMAS SCHECKTER: I suppose I'm a bit everywhere. I think the last race I was down in London, and I was in Monaco for a little bit and then back here. I've spent some time with the family.
My dad (former F1 champion Jody Scheckter) is actually on his way, I think today or tomorrow, back to South Africa. And it's just been a bit everywhere. And it's really me trying to train and make sure that I focus on the right things and not just be at home and thinking about that I should be there. So I've been a little bit everywhere.
Q. As far as your training goes, obviously you're doing a lot of time in the gym. I presume you're doing a lot of muscle work, neck work, that type of stuff. But as far as actual driving goes, do you have any simulator games or anything like that you can more or less keep yourself brushed up on with different tracks?
TOMAS SCHECKTER: Yes, we have some simulators I've got just at home that are computer systems that are actually very accurate and they're getting more and more accurate as time goes along.
But I do a lot of karting as well. I've got a garage at the kart track in Indianapolis. I was doing some races at the beginning of the year. And that seems to be very good. But there's no time. And we also have to understand that it's a brand new team. We did a great job in Indy. We ran pretty much up front the whole day until we had the drive shaft failure towards the end.
But to come to a road course, road courses, you know, I can suck it up on ovals and make sure it's good. But a road course, it's so different where we've got so many different corners, so many different braking zones and so many things to change in the car. It's going to take us time to get this car right.
We had a decent test. But realistic terms, if we can qualify somewhere in the top 15, we'll be extremely happy. I think it's work in progress. We're going to come away with learning a lot and moving on to the other road courses.
Q. I'm sure you're happy to roll with that considering your background that you have as far as road courses go and the experiences you have on those?
TOMAS SCHECKTER: Yes. It's different here. Again, what I've done in Europe, whether it was in Formula Three or Formula 3000, completely different tracks and different cars. It's been a long time ago. I've been doing a lot of ovals. But certainly I can bring back on a lot of that experience I've had and carry on working, working here with it. I appreciate some South African journalists calling. It's not often do I get to speak to South African journalists. And I appreciate you calling.
Q. As far as your dad goes, how much input does he give you into your driving as far as tips and that type of thing goes?
TOMAS SCHECKTER: You know, he managed me back when I was in England. And eventually we decided that I'll get different management. And from that day on it's been a lot better because otherwise everything we spoke about was racing. We didn't even say good morning to each other. We just said it was just racing, racing. And right now he's my dad and we speak about my well‑being or everything and it's not so much driving.
Certainly we do speak about stuff, but he's normally against speaking about racing, because I think when he was driving he didn't want someone to go and tell him how to drive. And so he doesn't really tell me how to drive. We more speak about the whole team and stuff that's going on with the team and engineering side of the car than just driving.
Q. Tomas, this adds on to the other question about your test at Infineon last week. How does it feel to get back into the car, and do you feel it will give you an advantage coming up on the race on Sunday?
TOMAS SCHECKTER: There were a lot of teams out here. It's been a struggle trying to get testing. We've just not been able to get it. And there's certainly rule changes. And we've been begging and begging the IRL to get as much testing as possible. And it's not been possible. So we got it one day but there were another 12 cars out there as well.
So certainly it will give us help, absolutely. Our first day, we did five laps. We had so many problems with everything and that's what we expected with a brand new car and a brand new team. And the second day for us we got some more laps in. It will still take us to get everything right on the car. But it's a step in the right direction, but we need another four or five of those days and I think we'll be a lot better.
MODERATOR: Thank you for joining us and best of luck this weekend.