Q & A with John Barnes and Dan Wheldon IndyCar Series driver Dan Wheldon and Panther Racing co-owner John Barnes were guests on today’s Indy Racing League teleconference. Dan Wheldon is in his sixth full season in the IndyCar Series, driving for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. In 2009, he will return to Panther Racing where he debuted in 2002.
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us for today's Indy Racing League teleconference. Our guests today are Dan Wheldon and John Barnes. Good afternoon, gentlemen.
DAN WHELDON: Afternoon.
JOHN BARNES: Hey, guys.
THE MODERATOR: John is the co‑ owner of Panther Racing, and yesterday the team announced that Dan Wheldon will be returning to the team for 2009. Dan started his career with Panther with two races in 2002 before moving on to Andretti Green Racing where he won the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series Championship in 2005. Dan has been with Target Chip Ganassi racing the last two seasons.
Dan, there have been some rumors swirling around you and your future for a while now this season. Tell us about how things have gone for you this season, and how it eventually now has worked into a deal with Panther for next year?
DAN WHELDON (1:15): Well, as far as the season has gone so far it's perhaps not been the season that I would have liked. I'm always one that's aiming to win the Indianapolis 500. That is a race that's very kind of near and dear to my heart. I didn't achieve that.
As far as the other races, we've been competitive at all of them, but just perhaps haven't had the result that we've wanted.
In terms of the news that just brought yesterday I'm incredibly excited to be joining Panther Racing for next season, and possibly a little bit sooner. You know, can't wait to get started.
It's an organization I'm very familiar with. I started my IndyCar Series career there back in 2002. The team has always been a contender for victories. Like I said, I'm just very, very excited.
It's great to be working with J.B. again. He's a guy that's near and dear to my heart and one that's very honest. There's no kind of ‑‑ there is nothing that really surrounds him. He just tells you how it is and gives you the best possible equipment to win races, and that's all I want to do. So I'm really excited and raring to go.
THE MODERATOR: John, Panther obviously a very successful history in the IndyCar Series that includes two championships. Tell us about the opportunity to get a guy like Dan to come back to the team and drive for you?
JOHN BARNES (3:00): Well, as Dan said, we're just over the moon about this. Between us now we've got 30 IndyCar wins, three championships and an Indy 500 win.
Dan has equaled everything we've done and surpassed it by being an Indy 500 winner. Growing up here in Indianapolis there is nothing more important to me than winning at Indy, and surrounding ourselves with people like Dan puts us in a position to do that.
So I can tell you everybody here gets up every morning thinking about one place, and that is 16th and Georgetown. To have Dan here with us, and helping us guide that ship, we're stoked.
THE MODERATOR: Dan, maybe a little bit of a transition for you in the fact that as it stands now, Panther is a one‑car team this year. You've always had run with teammates in the past. What are your thoughts whether or not they're a two‑car team next year? How important is it do you think to be a part of a two‑car program maybe versus just a single‑car program?
DAN WHELDON (4:00): I think actually right now it's a one‑car team, and that's something I'm very excited about. To have the whole team working in one direction, I think can be very, very positive.
There is advantages to a two‑car team. But I think if you've got the ingredients which, when I say that you've got the equipment and you've got the personnel, there is no reason. We've seen it many times with Panther Racing that they've won with a one‑car team.
There is an added dimension to a challenge with that where I'll have to be very disciplined on the race weekends to make sure that I don't lead the team down the wrong set‑up path, and that is a challenge that I'm really looking forward to.
But I think for the most part John definitely leads the team in the right manner. I don't know the personnel very, very well. But from what I understand and what John tells me, they're very, very talented individuals, and so I don't see it as being a problem.
THE MODERATOR: What are your thoughts on that? You've been a successful one‑car team. But I know there is always talk in the paddock about you guys looking to expand to a two‑car team. What are your thoughts on that for next year?
JOHN BARNES (5:15): We always look at opportunities. But the thing is we surround ourselves with really good people, and it's not like we need a seeing-eye dog here to find out where the pit gate is at these racetracks.
So I think with Dan leading the charge and our group that we have here presently, I think we feel it's an advantage to be able to focus on one guy. We would only add another program if it actually brought someone of equal talent or, you know, necessary talent to be a partner in this.
So everything we do is focused on one thing, and that is winning with the 4 car.
THE MODERATOR: Let's take a look real quick at this season. Fourth in points heading into Chicago, 17 points behind Tony Kanaan, and really behind that there's a lot of people battling for positions this weekend beyond yourself and beyond the championship. What do you expect out there at Chicagoland this weekend?
DAN WHELDON (6:30): It's a track that I always go very well at, a track that I enjoy racing a lot. I think with the championship at stake and being part of that, being on the same team as Scott Dixon, I'm obviously going to do everything in a professional manner to help him be able to win the championship. Not that he seems to need much help this year.
But, by the same token, if he's in a comfortable position with that, I would love to go out and finish the season off with a victory. We've performed very well there before.
We recently did a tire test there, and the car seemed to be very fast. So it certainly would be great for me to end the season with a win then move on to Panther Racing and knuckle down to preparing for 2009.
Q. How fast did this deal come together, and when did you realize that you weren't going to be back with Chip (Ganassi)?
DAN WHELDON (8:00): I believe, and maybe, John, you can fill me in with this one as well. My management got in touch with John shortly after the Kentucky race. From that point on the talk sped up and we got the deal done very, very quickly.
Like I've said, John is somebody that's very easy to work with, because if he says it's a go, it's a go.
In terms of the situation with Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Chip made me an offer shortly after Kentucky. It was, you know, I got the exciting news I'd be able to rejoin Panther Racing and I decided that's where I wanted to go.
So with respect, I declined his offer, and I moved to J.B.'s team.
Q. When you were with Panther in 2002 with Sam Hornish, Jr. as the driver, they were undeniably the king of the hill of IRL back then. How far away do you feel they are returning to the spot as king of the hill with you leading them?
DAN WHELDON (9:15): Judging by their race car lately, I don't think they've really come down from that hill. The car certainly has been very, very competitive all season.
I think the biggest thing is all of the ingredients are there to win. We've just got to make sure that we prepare in this off‑season and really knuckle down and make sure when we come back out for 2009 we score very strongly in those first five races.
I think that the first five races can really define a championship. So we need to be featuring at the high end there. So I'd say as long as we are disciplined in our approach, there is no reason we can't start winning right off the bat.
Q. Seems like it's going to be a great reunion.
DAN WHELDON (10:15): Yeah, I'm incredibly excited. The No. 4 car I know is very, very special to John. To have the opportunity to drive that is something that I'm very proud of.
Like I've said, I'm incredibly excited and raring to get going. I have some obligations that I need to fulfill for Chip Ganassi Racing, and I will definitely do them in a very professional manner. Then I can get ready to start working on 2009.
Q. I guess sort of the conventional wisdom and even just looking at the points tally this year is that you've had your best races on the ovals and the results just haven't quite been there on the road courses and street circuits. I wondered as a guy who grew up racing on road and street circuits and came to ovals relatively late in your career, I wonder just how you explain that? Just what's going on there?
DAN WHELDON (11:15): I don't see it as much of an issue as everybody else does. Certainly within the team this year it's an area that we've really worked on. And if you look deeper into it, we've been very, very quick at some of the road course races this year. For whatever reason, perhaps not quite as consistent as the oval performance.
That's something that I will continue to work on. But it's just trying to get the car right for me. Like I said, consistent consistently we haven't been able to do that.
But if you look at all the different road courses this year, the only one we really struggled at a little bit was Detroit. I think the others, for whatever reason, it didn't just kind of pan out the way we wanted. But that is something we'll definitely address in the off‑season. From a results standpoint, it probably looks worse than it really is.
Q. To some degree is that a situation, too where doing at least at this point a one‑car program will perhaps enable you and everybody to focus 100% of their resources on you and vice versa, and not have any more Detroits?
DAN WHELDON: Yeah, absolutely. I think when you have that situation that's certainly going to be the case.
When you look at somewhere like Indianapolis, Indianapolis is a place where if you're very, very confident in the car, everything happens so much slower. When I say slower, you just feel at ease with the car and stuff like that.
With that focus and attention behind you, you can really create some momentum. Although things are, perhaps, going slower because everything is right. The speed is just there.
I think like you say that the instance you used for the road courses being in a one‑car team will certainly help that. And I think the attention and the work that we'll need to put in for Indianapolis, I think it's going to be an advantage there. I really do.
If you look at the way the Panther car performed with J.B. and everybody that was working on the 4 car this year, it was incredibly quick. So I'm excited to get in the car in that place, too.
Q. I hope you don't mind me saying this, but if you weren't talking Motorsports and football, I could have sworn I was talking to David Beckham. I'm sure you've heard that before. You do sound a lot like him, don't you?
DAN WHELDON: My voice isn't quite as high as his, I don't think.
Q. Well, a lot of people wouldn't pick that up. But pardon me for digressing. Ultimately, I have to say a lot of us in the UK are slightly disappointed in the fact that Panther's only going to be running a single‑car program. Because we were hoping to have seen Anthony Davidson in a sister car with you. I believe he was going to be doing a test, we don't know for sure. I'm sure John could answer that question before he hurt his shoulder. How would you have felt having a second Englishman as a teammate?
DAN WHELDON (15:15): Actually, Anthony is someone that I grew up with. We were racing go‑karts together when we were 8 years old. So he's somebody that I'm very familiar with.
In terms of teammates I think it doesn't matter who it is. In this series, you've got to make it a benefit for the team.
So if you look at my working relationship with Scott Dixon this year, we've worked incredibly close and incredibly hard together. And I think we've been a big benefit to the team. In terms of Panther running two cars, I think that they haven't closed the door on that, and that is perhaps something that J.B. will touch on with you.
But right now the focus is on the one car. But if he was to come along and be a teammate, you'd definitely, definitely like to work him into the team. He's a great guy and obviously a very accomplished racing driver and somebody that I know very well.
Q. Fantastic to hear that, we would have liked to see him getting back into Formula 1. Can you shed any light on the subject as far as was Anthony going to do a test with you a week ago and it was cancelled because of his shoulder?
JOHN BARNES (16:45): Yeah, we did a test at Sonoma, and he was scheduled to do the test for us. He fell, I think, mountain biking and separated his shoulder and couldn't make it. He actually put us in touch with Mike Conway who actually did the test and was the fastest car there, obviously, with our car.
It was good. We really look forward to ‑‑ actually Anthony this weekend was our guest at Detroit. We talked a lot about getting him in the car sometime and doing a test on the oval, and seeing what his thoughts were and going from there.
Q. The fact that he drove for Honda, would that have any difference on him being somebody you offered the test to?
JOHN BARNES (17:30): We hire drivers because they're good, not from where they're from or anything else. That really wouldn't have any impact on it.
Q. The rumors were going around the UK that it was his Honda connection that got him in.
JOHN BARNES: I actually spent quite a bit of time with he and his parents at that Formula 1 race last year, got to know them because we have an association with Aguri. Just thought he was a great guy.
So we were looking for someone to test our car at Sonoma. Reached out to our engineering staff and said, hey, give Anthony a call because I think he could give us some help and guidance and would not be ‑‑ would definitely bring some experience to the test. So that's why we reached out to him.
Anthony and the sporting director at Honda Formula 1 mentioned that we should talk to Mike Conway afterwards, and that's what we did.
Q. Speaking of Mike Conway, there have been a lot of IndyCar drivers and Champ Car drivers that have gone from Formula and GP2 across to the American stateside and Formula 1. Do you think you could get Mike Conway across to the IndyCar Series as well?
JOHN BARNES (19:00): When he left after Sonoma I think we've gotten about 25 emails and texts saying ‑ keep in touch, keep in touch, keep in touch, keep in touch. So he did a great job for us, and what a great young man.
He actually came to the race at Kentucky when we finished fourth and was blown away by the ovals. He couldn't wait to get a test and see how that came out.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you again for joining us, and good luck as we close out 2008 this weekend and looking ahead to next season in '09.
JOHN BARNES: We're excited at Panther, I tell you. To have Dan join us and be part of our program and lead our program, we couldn't be more excited. Just can't wait for the season's start.
DAN WHELDON: I think like J.B. said, it's an incredibly exciting opportunity, not only for myself and Panther Racing, but for the IndyCar Series.
I think 2009 is looking like an incredible season. Whoever wins the championship in 2009 is going to be rewarded well because it's going to be very, very difficult. So I think we're certainly up for the challenge, and can't wait to get started.