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Latest IRL News and Commentary

Interview with Team Penske on chassis choice

May 9, 2003

MODERATOR: Welcome back to the MCI Media Center. Team Penske is here with us. Kind of interesting, Roger Penske has won the Indianapolis 500 12 times, going for the baker's dozen, 12 times. He has two drivers responsible for half that total here: Rick Mears, obviously, who is a consultant with the team, now also with the Infiniti Pro Series. Helio Castroneves, the two-time defending champion, and joining those three, Gil de Ferran, great gentleman and driver in his own right, and president of Penske Racing, Tim Cindric. Great to have you with us. Roger, a comment from you about the month of May up to this point. Both of your drivers have been very fast. I don't think we've seen them out of the top five all month long.

ROGER PENSKE: I think this has certainly been a different month for us, if you compare to it 2001 and 2002. Certainly 2001, we were coming here, you know, with the shadow overhanging us of not qualifying in 1995. We got in the race, obviously had a great finish, 1-2. Last year, you know, as we saw the Infinitis, saw the power of some of the engines, we were a little concerned. Were we going to get in the first day? Obviously we did. We didn't qualify up front where we would have liked to. I think this year with our Toyota motor program, the consistency of that product and our ability to work with them right from the beginning has really worked. We're building our own engines this year, so this is the first time in a number of years since prior to going to Honda that we've built our own engines here at the Speedway. The last time really was in '94 when we won. We know the consistency of the motors. Our guys back at the shop have done just an outstanding job in execution, knock on wood, our reliability has been good. The power looks, you know, very favorable based on what we know. I think that the competition for qualifying, you know, we weren't a competitor for qualifying on the pole the last two years. We have been, obviously, in previous years, and I think we're back in the hunt. I would not say here today that the two drivers here are assured the front row. I think we have a great chance for it. As you can see from the times, I think I looked yesterday, 21 cars were within one second. That's a very, very tight field on a two-and-a-half-mile racetrack. So the competition is going to be tough. It's going to mean what's the weather, what's the draw, and do you have your car set up based on those conditions? To me, there's probably eight or nine people that can be on the pole. So that's a different scenario for us. Good news is, you know, we've had the opportunity to run, had some good weather here the last several days. We didn't quite have that last year, so we've had a chance to evaluate the chassis. We've made the decision, Helio will stick with the Dallara, which he's run in all the races so far this year, and Gil will run the (Panoz) G Force. So I guess we're kind of splitting the deck. There wasn't any clear distinction that would have made both drivers go in the same direction. That probably is a pretty good validation that you have two solid car manufacturers supplying vehicles to the teams that are very, very competitive. I can assure you one thing: If we thought one was a lot better than the other, you know, we would have gone ahead and kept the drivers in the same vehicle. Also, you know, the reason we did that back in early testing at California, it looked like the G Force was much faster on the big ovals. As it turned out, it wasn't. There's a much closer tolerance between the two vehicles. So we have the opportunity to evaluate that. We had a good session. You might want to talk to the drivers about that. But, you know, month to date has been favorable for the team. It's great to be back here. It's great to see guys like Andretti and that team back. You can see how strong they were. Certainly Kanaan and Dixon, people that kind of have been under the weather, along with Gil back here, are 100 percent, so we're going to see a terrific race.

MODERATOR: Quick comment from Rick and Tim before we talk to Gil and Helio. Rick, from your perspective as a former driver, observing what you've seen, both of your team and the rest of the teams out there, your impressions so far the month of May.

RICK MEARS: I think Roger hit it pretty close. It's going to be very competitive. Twenty-one cars within a second shows that. It's going to be very critical as far as qualifying goes, especially like Roger said, what the conditions are, reading what those conditions are and making the last final little small subtle changes to get the car exactly where you need it, to get the most out of it for four laps. That's what's going to be the key. You know, they're all very close, but then also in the times you aren't sure who has how much of a draft from other cars. You know, until actual qualifying time comes, it's hard to know exactly where you stand. So it's going to be very interesting.

MODERATOR: Tim, you've had a busy six or seven weeks at the shop and on the road in Japan, back here, rebuilding cars from the team aspect. How is the month of May going?

TIM CINDRIC: Really, everything considered, obviously the weather has helped us out in terms of our evaluation process. We hoped to be a lot further along than what we were at this point in time. With Gil's accident in Phoenix, it put us back a bit in terms of what our initial plan was. Alex (Barron) did a great job of filling in. I can't say enough about our team in terms of what they've done over the last two or three months. From my perspective, it's certainly a matter of trying to keep it all straight, where these guys are really the ones doing the work. So hats off to those guys, as usual. To be part of a team, you know, we'll do whatever it takes to win this event. It tells you how special it is to Roger and this organization as well as our sponsors. From our perspective right now, we've gone through a week. I know Gil has been through a lot between getting back in the seat and running a car he hasn't run before. As far as our decisions and that type of thing, obviously as Roger said, they're very close. Helio has won this race twice in a Dallara. He's going to try it three times in a Dallara. They've been a great organization for us, as has G Force in a short period of time. We really have two great manufacturers in the series. We just need to go execute on Race Day.

MODERATOR: Gil, you've been amazingly consistent so far through the first five days of practice. Is that the key this to place, coming here and getting fast quickly and remaining there?

GIL de FERRAN: Well, I think so. Certainly like Tim alluded to, I mean, for me I had two processes to go through. First of all, you know, I need to get myself back up to speed. I have to admit to you that after that first day on opening practice, you know, I didn't feel like I was driving particularly well. But then on the second day, everything clicked. You know, I had a good feeling for the car again. You know, it all felt normal, and I was quickly back up to speed again. You know, then it was a method of really evaluating both cars in all sorts of different conditions, you know, both track conditions and also qualifying trim and race trim. Really, like everybody said, there was very, very little to choose from. I was fast in the Dallara, and I was also fast in the G Force. You know, I ended up choosing the G Force because, you know, we were a little bit faster on that car. But, you know, I've been very, very pleased with the way the month has been going up to date, you know. So I realize there's still a lot of work to do, both today, tomorrow and next week, hopefully preparing for the race, and we just got to keep our heads down here and keep ourselves, you know, right on target.

MODERATOR: Helio, in the weeks leading up to the month of May you talked about the chance-of-a-lifetime opportunity to make motorsports history, how you were looking forward to the month. How is it going so far and is it so far everything that you were hoping for?

HELIO CASTRONEVES: As I keep saying, I'm going to enjoy this moment because motor racing, you never know what's going to happen. And, for sure, it's been very fortunate to come over here in Indianapolis and be very successful. And right now I'm doing exactly what I did the last two years, you know. So obviously it's a lot of hard work for everyone, as everybody is saying here about our team. But that's why it's fun about. You know, we are coming here, we know we have good equipment. Everybody's really committed to do our best. And, again, it's been wonderful so far. It's obvious the field is very competitive, very tight. As Roger said, we do have a chance, we have two fast cars, and we just have to keep focused on our job. Whatever happens hopefully happens in a good way.

MODERATOR: Marlboro Team Penske with us this morning. We also want to welcome all of you joining us on the teleconference. We'll open it up for questions.

Q: Roger, because of what happened to you in '95, do you go into qualifying now maybe more nervous than you did in, say, the '80s, early '90s? Do you come in maybe with your guns blazing a little more be you did back then on qualifying? Second part is, how do you see the state of IndyCar racing today? Is it going to take some time, considering all this NASCAR deluge, or is NASCAR something that this might balance out over a period of years?

PENSKE: I think any time I've been trying to qualify at Indy, I'm on pins and needles because it's not if you're going to get qualified, it's just sitting in that car with the driver for four laps, being sure he executes and doesn't make a mistake. You can get yourself to the top of the hill; you can certainly fall off really quickly on qualifying day. I think all of us on the team always are on edge. I don't think that we have any different offense. We did not count on a pole position in 2001 or 2002. I think that we're one of the cars or two cars that have a chance this year, but I certainly know that we've got some very, very tough competition. So, you know, we're going to address qualifying as we always have: carefully, confident that we have the right combination. I think the process this past week has been excellent. Our guys sit down, they talk, they look at information. In fact, we have someone from NASA with us here this week that's gathering all the data, just looking at consistencies of different situations that they're seeing on the racetrack. In fact, you know, we looked at data yesterday of all the cars that ran fast, how many of them where we had at least six seconds behind the car in front of them. It's one thing to look at cars when you're drafting, and another thing to look at cars six seconds behind. That's typically a straightaway. A lot of things we're starting to see the differences. We're getting down to the fine line. On the NASCAR-IndyCar side, open-wheel side, I think that we really have to look at this thing as an evolution and a longer-term process. The amount of money that's been invested in tracks across the country has been tremendous. As we started at California Speedway, Chicago, Kansas City, on and on and on, the money that's been spent, the money invested here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, you cannot afford to run tracks with just one event or maybe two NASCAR races, you've got to have other events. I think that's been the success here at the Speedway, with the Brickyard, the Formula One race, it's made it really a racing complex well known around the world. And I think that what's happening now. Obviously you have a number of the teams that have moved over to IRL. I think, you know, having the Speedway as the anchor to the series, obviously, is a plus, like having the Masters or the Super Bowl. I think it's a very, very important link to open-wheel motorsports. And with that the teams will start to see the discipline here. The racing has never been closer, the by-product or the product is what you're seeing today, 20 cars within a second. It's like a NASCAR qualifying. You'll see that tomorrow. And what we need to do from a team perspective, from a sponsor perspective, is some way communicate this to this fan base, that this thing is coming together. Obviously CART has a mission. They're more international. They're sticking to road racing; it's really their mission. That's OK, too. But I think at the end of the day, if it was my choice, I'd like to see one series. And I made my call, I mean, I was involved with CART for a long time, but I made my call to come back to the IRL, Indy, open-wheel racing. That's where I saw races at Phoenix as a young guy, saw Mario (Andretti) run, Bobby Unser, on ovals. That's what prepared people to win Indianapolis. I see it coming together. The economy today, obviously people talk about sponsors, it's tough out there. You know, we've gone through the last three years with really very little growth. In fact, they're talking about deflation right now. So it's hard to get sponsors to step up. The technology has gone up. One of the things we'll say here, we have these cars, this is the first year of a three-year program. We'll run these same cars for three years. There will be enhancements, but one you can buy for $30,000 or $40,000. The engine manufacturers are in here now. Those are the things we'll start to build a more solid foundation for the future. I think you're going to see this thing move on. I can assure you that Bill France and ISC, they made their decision to go with IRL because they knew that they needed to have other events at those racetracks other than one NASCAR race. I'm confident that we're going to see progress here. We need the support of the media, the teams and the sponsors. I'd say right now, you know, the plane is up, we're in the air, we're gaining altitude; we just need to gain some speed.

Q: Gil and Helio, what decisions did you use in deciding to go with a particular chassis you chose? What did you use to evaluate that? What pushed you in either the G Force or Dallara direction? Helio, specifically, you won twice with that, so you stick with what works?

CASTRONEVES: Well, I feel more comfortable with the Dallara. I mean, obviously we're trying to bring it up to G Force with speed. We try everything. I've been here before actually this month start doing exactly the same tests, and basically we just trying just back and forth. Seems that for me, something, the car was going more comfortable. I was able to feel much better during all four corners, able to translate better for the engineers. And I guess that's why I made the call, you know. Also we're not looking only for a fast car, but a car stable in the race, which that's what really is more important, you know. So basically all these things. We had great engineers looking back and forth to see what would be the best option. And, for sure, the Dallara in my case came to be the best option. And, as well, I mean, I did won two Indianapolis with the chassis. So the team that's winning, why you going to change?

MODERATOR: Gil.

DE FERRAN: For me, let's put it this way, if I had another month to think about it, I'll probably take the extra month (laughter). You know, I mean, with the limited time I had, we really tried to analyze both cars from all sorts of different perspectives and qualifying trim and race trim and everything else. Like Tim and Roger said earlier, the reality is they came extremely close, you know, I mean very, very close indeed. I mean, I was fast in qualifying trim and in race trim on both cars. I was surprised by how quickly I was able to get up to speed in the G Force, and ultimately that ended up being our choice. I think it will give us an opportunity to evaluate the car further. I don't think that choice will make us win or lose the race, to be quite honest. I think it's a matter of preparation and execution. So it was important actually that we didn't delay the decision any further. We were able to concentrate on one product only because that was really going to make more of a difference than which product we ended up choosing. I have to say my decision is actually much closer I think than Helio, because we were very, very close on either car.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Despite the fact they're on different chassis, they ran identical laps yesterday.

Q: Roger, you say you have NASA, whatever. What kind of four-lap reading were you getting off of some of your reports? Helio and Gil, how much over the course of four laps does your car - do you feel your car comes to you or goes away from you during the course of qualifying?

PENSKE: Let me answer the first question. What we did see, we saw we were able to maybe pick up time based on what we saw from the splits on other cars. You know, that information we're going to try to utilize today and work to get a little more speed out of the car. We saw where we were faster, and we saw where we were slower. You have a lot of split times. The nice thing here today, you get all the data for all the cars going through certain segments of the track. You can determine were you faster in the straightaways or the corners. What we were trying to do with this data is link all that up based on, again, taking it where someone is running lap times without a draft. I think it's been quite helpful and we're going to deal with that today.

CASTRONEVES: Certainly, Firestone did a great job coming with different compound or construction. At least the tire is really able to hold him up a little bit more. I've been able to do pretty good runs, you know, consistent with more laps than it used to, but especially more laps than last year. Last year it was tough to keep speed up after two or three outings. For sure, right now it's been very tough. The weather sometimes is kind of hot and then comes a little bit cooler. And that basically, believe it or not, change the balance sometimes of the car. But the good news is I've been able to keep in a good pace. We just hope not happen last year that we are right up there on top of the charge, all of a sudden we disappear (laughter). So hopefully we're going to be in a good shape for tomorrow.

DE FERRAN: I think Helio really hit the nail on the head there when he mentioned the tires. Really, Firestone came with a very good tire this year, much more durable than last year, and that really has allowed us to work more on the car, how can I say, do a more methodical work on setting the car. Your question really is the key to the whole qualifying process. You know, you can actually make a car that is faster over one lap, but to keep the car under you for four laps is really the biggest challenge about Indianapolis qualifying procedures. So, you know, we've been working on that. Like Helio, I've been very happy, been doing very fast time with 30-lap tires. You know, when we go out with new rubber, we've been able to maintain great consistency. So far that's what I mean, the month has been going OK. So we've been keenly aware of that requirement and been working toward making it better and better.

Q: Roger, you talked about you're running two different chassis. Some people might look at it as hedging your bets. It's cost you in terms of man-hours and money. Is there a way to quantify it, how much extra effort it is to prepare two different chassis for the team?

PENSKE: Well, I would say that we have the same number of people in our organization; they've just doubled up to do the work. From a manpower perspective, we got more productivity if you want to put it in current terms (laughter) - from both the drivers and the team. You know, the cars are about $300,000 apiece. The good news is that these cars will be saleable. It wasn't as if we were buying them at the end of a three-year run. So to me it was an investment. Look, this is a race that's so important to us, you know, we were not going to wind up being here in a car that we felt wasn't going to be competitive. The good news is we're on the right track, and we got the information we wanted. We'll move on from there.

Q: Rick, is there any sandbagging anymore? When you were still driving here, was there sandbagging?

MEARS: Never, never. No, I think today, from my point of view, I always had to see a number myself, you know, to make sure exactly I knew exactly where I was at. I think the real key, Gil hit on it, is the four-lap average. When you get in the car, and you're ready to qualify, you try to make the car as consistent as possible. But once the green flag drops, you become the engineer because you can't come back into the pit to make a change. You're limited on how many changes you can make in the car with adjustments. So then you have to exhaust that and then go to your pattern, where you're out on the racetrack, the engineer of the car, trying to keep that four-lap average up. All of that combined, it's just tight today. As far as sandbagging goes, I never knew what I was going to run 'til the day came. I don't think there's a lot of it going on.

Q: (Inaudible)?

DE FERRAN: In my mind, I got better things to worry about, you know (laughter). This sort of situation, to be honest, any race weekend, you know, I really concentrate on my own issues and not what everybody else is thinking and stuff like that. I always figure that's the best approach, is really to understand what your problems are, to work on your issues, and if you done a good job of that, typically you come out fairly well once the curtain is open. I really don't pay much attention to is there anybody looking, what's going on here, there and everywhere.

CASTRONEVES: Basically, I try to see what I can do on my own, you know, the sandbagging, when you're going and trying to get a draft, if you can put your name on top of the chart. Obviously, we've been doing pretty consistent during the week running by ourselves, trying to make as much accurate as possible where to be in a qualifying position. Yeah, sometimes it's impossible because you have so many cars out there, and you just have to evaluate the run and trying to see if that was good or not. But, yes, if your car go fast, obviously it's going to go fast as well in a draft, and we know what's happening outside there. But our key is to keep inside, make sure everything, all the pieces are together, especially for four laps, and hopefully we have a good performance.

Q: Tim, you may be the first Penske team manager who has had to deal with two different chassis in the race in almost 20 years. Can you explain what the challenges that you're going to experience are knowing that you've been running Dallara since the team came to the IRL, now you'll have two different sets of parts, suspensions, everything else to deal with.

CINDRIC: Sure. First of all, I think that history has occurred in 1987, is that correct, with Al (Unser) Sr.? But beyond that, keeping track of the parts and so forth, I mean, we joked about it quite a bit this week, that the word Dallara gets confused for the word G Force. They know what you mean, but you're saying the opposite. There's a lot of that going on the past month or so, especially with the guys that keep track of the parts. It's like this morning, I walked in the garages, the first thing I said, "It looks like these garages are a lot bigger today." We went from I think on Wednesday it was we ran five different cars with these two guys. Yesterday we brought it back down to three. Today hopefully it will be two. I'm sure we'll shakedown a backup car. Keeping track of the parts and that type of thing has been really another key point for the strength of our organization because at this point in time we've run six of the eight cars this month. All those cars have been well over 225, so it's not like we just ran them out here, make sure all the parts are put together properly. We ran those six cars in anger. Knock on wood, to this point in time, we're batting a thousand. You know, you never know the point at which you drop your guard, maybe that's the point in time when something goes the wrong way. But, you know, right now it's a lot more refreshing this morning to sit back and say, "OK, this is the one, this is the other one. Let's go do it."

Q: Helio, we've never talked about your superstitions. You mentioned you're trying to do as many things as possible this year as you did the last couple of years in order to get your third win. Can you talk a little bit about what some of those things might be, what some of the patterns you're trying to repeat are in order to repeat your victory?

CASTRONEVES: Obviously, it's difficult to remember a year ago. I don't remember what I had for breakfast this morning (laughter). Basically it's one of those things, you know, when I say that I'm doing exactly the same thing, it's the way I'm conducting and approaching to the Speedway. Basically, people ask me if I feel a lot of pressure or if I'm nervous. Yes, all of those things is part of the game. But, on the same time, I'm having a great time, you know, talking about do something that nobody had an opportunity to do it. That's what I always say: If is mean to be, will be. Records are meant to be broke, hopefully go ahead and do it. But, for sure, is one of those situations you never know. And that's why I'm really feel blessed person to be in this position right now.

Q: Getting the pole is very traditional, historic and so forth, but people remember race winners. Rick, how important is it to qualify, since over a 500-mile race, you can win from nearly anywhere in the front of the field?

MEARS: Well, it's very important for a couple reasons. I always kind of broke this up into two races. One is for the pole and the next one is for the race itself. So you try to win the first race. If you can win the first race, you get to, your sponsors get to utilize that for a couple weeks before the race. Secondly, if you start up front, if there is a problem at the beginning of the race, hopefully you'll miss it unless you caused it. So that was always a lot of incentive right there. I think it's very important. It's good for the team, it's good for yourself, you know, everybody to feel like they are competitive and ready to go. And today I think one other thing, the cars seem to be very sensitive in traffic, so track position is very important.

Q: Helio, I don't know if you had a chance to see it or not, in Paul Tracy's new media guide, he has under his greatest accomplishments, he has winning the 2002 Indy 500. How does that make you feel, seeing he is still having a problem with it a year later? Last time I checked, you cashed the check. Does it have any effect at all?

CASTRONEVES: What can I say, this is Paul Tracy (laughter). Basically, I respect a lot Paul. I know anybody want to win this race, no matter what kind of way. That's my face there on the trophy, I'm the one using the ring (laughter). It's tough to deal that. But to be honest, it's not make worst or better or stuff like that. Last year, basically, my team did a phenomenal job, and I'm so happy to get out of here. At least nobody can take away when I crossed that checkered flag, the moments I remember. That was just incredible. So that basically is in the past. Now I just need to thinking about forward. May 25th, that's on my mind.

Q: Roger, looks like it's going to be a squeeze to get a 33-car field this year. Do you think it detracts from the race at all? If you do come up short of 33, are you prepared to step in and help if they are a car short at the end?

PENSKE: Well, I think we'll have to determine the number of cars. As I said earlier, there's a lot of pressure on a lot of things from an economy standpoint, you know, at a number of races, even NASCAR, where there's just been enough to fill the field. From our perspective, we're concentrating on the two cars now. We'll deal with the third car, you know, later next week. You know, we've not made any public statement whether we'd run a third car at this point.

 

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