Latest IRL News and Commentary

Q&A with Sam Schmidt and Richie Hearn

April 7, 2005

RON GREEN: We'll go ahead and get started as Chip hands out a release here. First of all, we want to thank Sam or for opening up his shop here at Sam Schmidt Motorsports. As we've touched on it, a couple of the other stops, these teams are very, very busy right now. There's probably not a team in the Indy Racing League as busy as Sam's team. Not only does he field three cars in the Menards Infiniti Pro Series for the Indy Racing League, he's also participating in the Indianapolis 500 with an entry. So he has a full plate, and his team does. Certainly it takes some time to, as you mentioned, clean up the shop and open the doors for everybody. So Sam, first of all, thanks for doing that. We really appreciate it. Joining Sam up here with me, we have Travis Gregg, who is leading the points currently in the Menards Infiniti Pro Series, winner of the first race, as well, and we'll spend some time talking with Travis. And we're great to welcome back -- it's great to welcome back Richie Hearn, who will be driving Sam's entry in the Indianapolis 500 this year and we'll spend some time talking with Richie as well. First of all, Sam, let's touch on the three-car effort that is proving to be very successful for you in the Pro Series, and I guess you did something nice for the crew members recently.

SAM SCHMIDT: Thanks, everybody, for coming, we really appreciate it. I was thinking about this the other day, I haven't done one these tours since 1999 with Treadway when I was driving the Sprint car; Sprint PCS car. I should get that sponsor right, right? But it's great to be here and to be back in this shop and to have everybody here. But, yeah, the three-car effort is something that I think initially we underestimated what it would take to do that in the IPS this year, and we really are taking it seriously after winning the championship last year and obviously want to go repeat that this year. We won the Freedom 100 last year, which is also extremely important this year for us to try and repeat that, being at the Speedway. We've got a great group of guys. Basically everybody that was here last year for the championship effort has stayed on, and then we brought in a couple more guys for the third car. But they're off to a great start. Qualifying one-two and finishing one-two and qualifying one-two-three at Phoenix. Frankly stumbling a little bit at St. Pete with the road course effort. We'll come back and evaluate the situation and hopefully be a lot better in time for the USGP weekend, which is going to be very important, as well.

GREEN: Sam, tell us about the shop. The shop has history in motorsports, and you know quite a bit of that history.

SCHMIDT: I'm not sure which year it was built, but Bill Simpson owns the whole complex, which he is the safety guru in the industry. I know you guys are going across the street to the plant after this. My understanding is he built this whole complex, he occupied quite a bit of it when he owned Simpson, and then he sold Simpson and started leasing to teams and I know for a fact that Greg Beck was in this shop and subsequent to that Treadway was in this shop, as well. Then we were in this shop back in 2001 and 2002, and then came back for this year. So there's a little bit of history there and, you know, being an IPS team, we came in, said 10,000 square feet, that's going to be, we'll have all kinds of room, and now we don't have any room. So it's just one of those things you tend to collect stuff. But it's a good place to be, it's centrally located to Gasoline Alley and everything else.

GREEN: Richie, hand the microphone to Travis, we'll start with Travis. Travis, you're headed into one of the most important months on the calendar in all of motorsports, month of May in Indianapolis. You're leading the points in your series and heading into probably the most prestigious race on that calendar. Talk about heading into the month of May and what it means to you.

TRAVIS GREGG: I'm happy to be back on top of the points standings. Coming out of the street course at St. Pete, it was different, kind of tough, my first street course race in any car, actually. And you know, the Indianapolis race is going to be very important. I think it's the most important race of the year as far as prestige. There's a lot of history there, and it will mean a lot to get a win there. And it would be great for the team.

GREEN: We'll move to Richie before we open it up to some questions. Richie, you've competed in the Indianapolis 500 for several years now, but the last two years have been rather challenging, that the programs have come together at the last minute. This one was announced quite some time ago. Talk about your mind-set going into the month of May knowing your program is in place.

RICHIE HEARN: I feel very privileged to be able to be a part of this media tour for the first time. Usually I'm not in part of the event until after everybody's been on the track for a week. So I have to thank Meijer and Coca-Cola and Sam for putting the deal together early so that we can get the right preparation, get the cars ready, the guys are mentally ready for the month and, you know, hopefully we can be the first car on the track on the 10th there and qualify on that first day and practice for the race, because that's what matters.

GREEN: Quite often drivers show up and get in the cockpit and don't have an appreciation really for what the owner is going through. Richie, you somewhat have an appreciation knowing what Sam goes through putting together four cars for the month of May on the racetrack. Richie is a car owner in another series. Talk about that effort.

HEARN: Last year I started in the Pro Mazda Series and so a lot of people said I was stupid to be a car owner, and I said, You know, it's no big deal, right? After a year into it, I scratch my head sometimes wondering what I'm doing. So I do have an idea of what it takes to organize on a smaller scale but organize the guys and organize the preparation and just every little thing that goes into it to make sure it's a proper effort. I think that helps me understand and not be impatient when things go wrong or things like that. I understand how it all works, and hopefully that makes me a better driver in the end and in the same side, you know, makes me a better owner, too.

GREEN: Travis, when you found out Sam was bringing on a full IndyCar effort for the month of May, did that give you a little bit of peace of mind knowing that you would have a seasoned veteran on the team that can help you? I know it's two separate cars but somebody to bounce some ideas off of?

GREGG: Sure, it's going to be my first trip around the big track, so I'll have him. He's the seasoned veteran at this, so any questions I may have, I'll be able to bounce some ideas and get some feedback. It will be great.

GREEN: Besides Sam's multi-car effort which keeps him busy enough, he's also -- he started a foundation years ago, the Sam Schmidt Foundation, takes also a great deal of his time. Joining us today, Ida Cahill with the foundation, who's the day-to-day director of the foundation. Just want to say hello to Ida, and Sam has a couple comments he wants to make about the foundation. He's worked hard on it the last couple years but with some events that have happened within the last year, he's really ramped up his efforts and he wanted to say a few things about that, as well.

SCHMIDT: Well, for those that don't know, I actually do see a lot of new faces, so I'm glad to see the regulars in and some new folks here. But the foundation was started five years ago from somewhat of a selfish origin that I want to eventually be involved with finding a cure for this thing, and that's much larger than me personally. I knew it was going to take a lot of research dollars and a lot of awareness and a lot of momentum. But more recently, with the passing of Christopher Reeve, our board has decided to really kind of ramp up the effort with a national PR program with just a lot more awareness and really more or less trying to capitalize on the fan loyalty that is involved in motorsports. There's no way that myself or Marc Buoniconti or anyone out there can fill Christopher Reeve's shoes on this issue, but hopefully together we can all keep the momentum going. It's obviously a pretty hot topic in Washington. Several states are passing initiatives for stem-cell research and different forms of research. We're right in the mix of that and obviously with the motorsports involvement and support, we hope to grow the foundation considerably this year. Ida actually was previously involved with Christopher Reeve's foundation, so she has a lot of experience in the industry, and it's basically her job to take it to the next level. So we're just really excited about what's going on. We've already got a tremendous amount of press this year and in some of our race markets. We're hoping that the effort at the 500 and once again, Meijer and Coca-Cola being involved, all of those exposure items from the team standpoint are meant to support the foundation and meant to support the awareness of the foundation.

GREEN: Ida will stick around the rest of the stop here at Sam Schmidt Motorsports -- it was really difficult when you drove for Treadway, I always struggled with that one, too -- but Ida will be available for one-on-ones after our program here. We'll turn it over to the media and start with some Q and A. We are transcribing this, but I will repeat the question or have you ask it in the microphone for all the people on the panel. First question?

Q: Sam, if you could, talk a little bit about what the future is for this team. With having an effort like this, this is more or less kind of a training ground -- I don't want to say training ground but a starting point for eventual move up to full time in the IndyCar Series?

SCHMIDT: Well, basically we had kind of like Richie said, I jumped in with both feet in 2001 and didn't really know what the heck I was doing from an owner standpoint, and we really didn't have the resources to compete at that time with the Panther Racings of the world. We found ourself doing really well but doing really well for that effort was fifth, sixth or seventh. When the Infiniti Pro Series started, I really felt like that was a better opportunity for us to compete, at least with equal budgets to the other teams in the series. And also, it's a really good fit for me coming from Formula Fords, Formula 2000, Atlantics to Indy cars to be able to work with drivers that were coming from the same stuff I did, working their way through the Infiniti Pro Series and hopefully going to IndyCar Series, that's a real good environment for me to be able to work with those drivers. Now we've got a situation in IndyCar Series where there's a ton more resources, extremely competitive teams, so if the opportunity arose with similar type of budgets those guys are working with, sure, we'd take a look at it and we'd look at it really seriously. But right now it's kind of like we're, you know, hopefully the dominating team in the Infiniti Pro Series. It's a much, it's much easier for me to get the motivation to go to the track and face all the challenges that it does to go to the track if you're winning races. Wouldn't want to go back to the IRL and just run in the middle of the pack just to be there. So I guess the answer to the question is if the right opportunity comes along, we'll certainly take a hard look at it, but right now we enjoy being in the position we're in in the Infiniti Pro Series.

GREEN: Next question?

Q: Richie, you came here I think in '96, wasn't it? And finished real well and then your car -- because of circumstances you went away, you came back. How much more do you appreciate now that you can drive again in the 500 from that first time?

HEARN: Well, when you're young you take things for granted a lot, and that year we had a great finish, finished third and honestly that's the first time -- that was the last time I had had a proper effort where I started at the beginning of the month and, you know, I never thought that it would be this hard to get that type of program back into place. This year we have that type of program, so I'm expecting the same results, if not better. So I think as a driver, yeah, I appreciate it more now and maybe focus more now on it because you never know when it might not happen again. So I'm pretty happy about the situation.

Q: For both Sam and Richie, do you know at this point what cars you're getting from Penske, or cars, and are you going to be ready to go on the track when the track opens?

SCHMIDT: Yeah, that's over the last two days kind of been working through the time line of things, but we're supposed to go up to Nazareth -- I'm sorry, Reading, what am I saying? next Tuesday to pick up two Panoz chassis. We're physically buying those from Roger. I believe one of them is a chassis we ran last year, which was a previous Gil de Ferran backup car, and then I believe the other chassis was the chassis that Castroneves tried out in 2003 before he switched to the Dallara for the rest of the month. So they're both obviously incredible cars and extremely well prepared. So we'll bring them back, we'll begin the 2005 update process and we've met with Panoz and Chevrolet and everybody that's involved in the project. We fully intend on being there May 10th ready to run at 12 oclock.

GREEN: Next question in the back.

Q: This is for Sam. Sam, as an owner, what do you look for as far as characteristics in the drivers?

SCHMIDT: Hmm. (Laughter) I must say it's a little different in the IPS series versus the IRL. Obviously we've got a lot riding on this IndyCar effort with the Meijer and Coca-Cola deal being sort of a perpetual deal. It's been around the last four or five years. It's been a great one-off program for a number of teams. In the past it's been, you know, you look at Treadway, you look at Morris Nunn, you look at last year Robby Gordon and we feel extremely honored to be chosen to get the program this year, you know. So if we do a good job, I mean there's no reason the program couldn't come back to us next year. And we'd already have the cars, we'd already have the groundwork in place that we're laying this year. It would be a very attractive thing for to us do. But obviously they're interested in performance. So our goals are to qualify the first weekend and run in the top 10 all day, and everything seems to shake out after that last pit stop, so that's kind of what we need to do to influence them and have a good start. So with all those things considered, I think Richie was a good choice for us because we have worked with him on and off for the last four years. He has a great relationship with the engineering staff and he knows when he gets in the car, I mean he can go on down in there in Turn 1 and leave it flat. Last year, I think he was flat the sixth time by and we only had a hundred miles on the car before he started the race. This year we'll obviously have a lot more time than that. But he gets the job done and doesn't complain. I think you also have to look at the fact that it's the Speedway, too, and there's clearly some drivers that we couldn't take a chance on a rookie situation because you either like racing at the Speedway or you can be intimidated by it. Clearly he isn't, and we just need somebody that's going to go out and stand on the gas. So that's what we were looking for there this year. The Infiniti Pro Series side, Travis obviously jumped in last year at Kentucky first race ever in the car and got a pole. So from that point on we were obviously looking to try and make a deal for him this year; and the results so far have been exactly what we expect. So it's just two different situations. I mean, unfortunately if we do a really good job in the Infiniti Pro Series, we have to kind of reinvent that wheel every year, which is a bit of a challenge, but that's the nature of a support series.

Q: Sam, in the past when Arie was part of the Meijer/Coca-Cola deal, they wanted him to run at Michigan, he ran at Michigan a time or two. Is that under discussion for you to run this year in the Michigan race?

SCHMIDT: I don't know, Brett Holiday is back in the back with Coca-Cola. If we won the Indy 500, they would probably love for us to go to Michigan. Chevrolet certainly wants to make a big impact at Michigan. We really haven't talked about it in-depthly, but we obviously aren't racing there in the IPS series. But depending on the outcome of Indy, anything can happen.

Q: Are you open to that?

SCHMIDT: Certainly.

Q: Sam, as a team owner and not having Andretti Green kind of budgets, do you think the new qualification rules play to your advantage giving you more of an opportunity or less of an opportunity, what's your thought?

SCHMIDT: I haven't really given it a whole lot of what I would call strategic thought on the pros and cons. But obviously there's no limitations as to how many times you can try a chassis anymore and there's no limitations on how many times you can qualify an engine. So it certainly would make it easier if somebody got in a little bit of a panic or little bit of a trouble the second weekend, maybe they had a problem the first weekend, had to go to the second weekend, it would give you more flexibility as far as utilizing chassis and engine combination. Our goal is to qualify in the first weekend and not be involved in any of that stuff. It certainly does open up things as far as flexibility and number of cars and people that can jump in at the last minute. For the guys that are running all month, I don't think it makes that much of a difference.

GREEN: Let's throw that question to Richie. What about as a driver, what do you think about the new rules for qualifying?

HEARN: I think it definitely would be better for TV and better for the public. As far as for me, I think it takes a little bit of pressure off because the limitations, once you go out, you can re-qualify. I think there will be a little bit of strategy depending on the weather if the weather changes from day-to-day, from Saturday to Sunday. Saturday is not so good and Sunday's really good, what do you do to get a better pit spot, things like that. But really, I don't think the goals change too much. I think what will change a little bit is that the shortened practice schedule for the first day makes it more of a premium to be out there right at the beginning. But your priorities have always been to try to qualify on that first day so you can work on your race setup and not worry about qualifying. I don't think it changes so much but it does take a little bit of pressure off knowing that you can get your car back out there, that car is not, once it qualifies, it's not done type of thing. That was always very stressful because you had to get two cars ready all the time and be prepared because you never know what could happen.

Q: Travis, you came in at Kentucky last year, now about nine months later you're sitting here and you're talking about going to the Indy, the Speedway, you're going to be driving in the other race but still you're suddenly in the picture that involves the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. What does that mean to you as a young driver?

GREGG: It certainly means a lot. As a young driver growing up, dreaming about running the Indy 500 is every racer's dream. Now I got a chance to race on that track. So even though it's not the Indianapolis 500, I still get a chance to race the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. So it's really special, and I'm looking forward to it. The whole month of May is just exciting, and there will be a lot of things going on other than racing. So that makes it kind of neat, too.

GREEN: Sam, talk about staffing, you have a pretty big crew to maintain the three cars for the full Menards Infiniti Pro Series. What have you had to do staffing-wise to prepare now a fourth car which is for the Indianapolis 500?

SCHMIDT: I mean, yeah, luckily we're very fortunate to basically obviously this isn't some other places you're going to be stopping are going to have upwards of 60 to a hundred people but we run this pretty much three-car effort on 12 full-time people. We're very fortunate to have guys that are overqualified for the Infiniti Pro Series, I think. We counted up the other day, between Champ Car, IRL and IPS, there's guys with, I think we have 14 championships in this building amongst our employees. So we certainly have qualified people there. We're probably going to bring in a couple more people to be able to help facilitate the cars for the next month and then also at the Speedway. Then we're obviously trying to run both of them on Carburetion Day. So there will be a couple additions. But for the most part we've got really talented crew chiefs on each of these IPS cars. We've got plenty of engineers now. So it's a really good program. I'm really excited about the caliber of the personnel to work on the IRL program.

Q: Travis, what was your background prior to the IPS?

GREGG: Started out in karting, and I did a couple years of SCCA Formula Atlantics, racing at Mid-Ohio and IRP, and basically the past five years raced non-wing sprint cars on dirt, mainly quarter-mile tracks with USAC and local tracks like Lawrenceburg, Indiana, too.

Q: Sam, what do you see can be done to really make the Infiniti Pro Series be a legitimate feeder series into the IndyCar Series? Because other than A.J. IV, Mark Taylor had an opportunity, but your driver from last year, Thiago, is walking around without a ride. What do you think is missing to make it truly a feeder Series?

SCHMIDT: Well, that's a good question. I think, unfortunately, I think Thiago is a bit of an anomaly because everybody in the IRL series knows he's got the talent, knows he's extremely talented. But it just happened to be one of those situations so far at the end of last year, which was very unlike previous seasons where nobody really retired, nobody got hurt, there wasn't a huge amount of shuffles of seats, et cetera, and there just didn't get to be an opportunity for him I think because of that. But clearly he is on the top of a lot of people's lists if somebody does have a problem this year to get in a seat. Everybody I talked to knows he has a tremendous amount of talent. I think it's only a matter of time before he'll get an opportunity over there. That would speak highly of the Infiniti Pro Series. I think we could easily get to a situation where we could do a couple more races without adding a ton to the budget to do it. It would be really good for that series I think if they had a couple more road courses, either that or possibly doubled up the race weekends on road courses that we already have. But it does need a couple -- it needs a little larger car count. There are some series things that have to be dealt with to accomplish that, but I think the owners in the IRL can understand who's doing what over there and can recognize talent when they see it. So it's kind of like a double-edged sword. There needs to be enough fundings in the IRL to bring these drivers on, too, and not require them to have to bring funding.

Q: Richie, going back to 1996, you're one of three drivers, I think, that are still here from that race. Talk a little bit just about it was the third race of the IRL and everybody was scrambling, everything was new. Reminisce a little bit about what went on that year.

HEARN: You're dating me a little bit because that was a long time ago. But it was new for a lot of people, including us. Our team came directly out of Toyota Atlantics into that. Fortunately the equipment we were running was proven, it was the previous year's champ car stuff, the '95 Reynard and stuff. But those years, that year the speeds were pretty incredible. I think Arie had the fastest lap of qualifying at over 240, and even I did in the warm-up on the Carburetion Day, I did a 235 lap. So now we go around here like 225, and it was just a totally different animal. But it was a lot of fun. I rate it, even though I won Las Vegas that same year, I still rate that as my biggest race of my life because I went a lap down early in the race, just because I stalled it in the pits and we were able to pass the leader at the time, I think it was -- I think it was Buddy (Lazier) at the time and actually catch back up to the back of the pack. And honestly, I think Scott Sharp spun out at the end. If he wouldn't have spun out, we were on a different fuel strategy than Davy Jones, and he would have run out of gas and we had a chance at second and maybe catch Buddy. After that race, you felt like you won it. Obviously we didn't, but third place was pretty awesome. I'll never forget it. It was quite an experience because it was new for the crowd and new for the league, and there was so many new drivers there. I think there was -- man, I don't know how many rookie drivers there were that year, I think probably 15? 19, yeah. And there were some questionable drivers out there, but they did pretty good, you know, overall the race went pretty well. I'll never forget it, that's for sure. You never forget your first Indy 500.

GREEN: Any more questions? We do want to allow ample time for one-on-ones with not only Sam, Travis and Richie and Ida, as well. What we'll probably do is keep Sam right here and maybe have Richie and Travis go to that end of the transporters to spread things out a little bit. But we have plenty of time for one-on-ones. So take your time and make sure you talk to each one of them. Sam, once again we appreciate you opening your doors for us and good luck in May.

SCHMIDT: No problem. I'll tell you there is plenty of Coca-Cola product over here if anybody would like anything to drink. If you guys haven't got a CD or cassette, don't miss that opportunity. On your way out we've got these Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation kits, and make sure you grab one of those on the way out, too.

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