THE MODERATOR: Welcome, everybody, to today's IndyCar conference call. We have two guests joining us today, IZOD IndyCar Series drivers Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing and JR Hildebrand of Panther Racing. Thanks for joining us today.
Scott is the driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda and is a two-time IndyCar Series champion and the 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner. Scott has finished second in each of the first two races to start the 2012 season and has led the most laps in each race.
Scott, the last time you did that was in 2003 when you won your first series title. I guess that's been a good omen to start the season.
SCOTT DIXON: It's definitely been a much better way to start the year. The last two or three years we've kind of put ourselves in a bit of a hole and had to play catch-up throughout most of the rest.
It's a positive start. It's still early. But as everybody knows, each race pays the same amount of points. Consistency over the last couple of championships has been key, especially for Dario to keep winning these things, that's been the key. He hasn't had any bad races or weaknesses throughout the season.
I think last weekend we were probably disappointed. Kind of St. Pete was a race where we got the most out of it, were fairly happy with our position there. But last weekend was a bit frustrating, seeing I think we focused on the wrong group of people and ended up biting us with some lap traffic and a bit of a fumble on the last pit stop which sort of gave the lead to Power.
All in all, strong start. So far pretty happy with the start of the season.
THE MODERATOR: JR, the 2011 Indianapolis 500 Rookie-of-the-Year. Your start is not as good as Scott's, with a couple of finishes outside the top 10. Despite running with the frontrunners at St. Pete and Barber, talk about how you can turn that around at Long Beach.
JR HILDEBRAND: It's been a little bit of a tough start from that perspective. Just by the end of the two races we weren't really where we wanted to be. You know, over at Panther this year we've put a pretty high priority on improving our road and street course program. Through the last two weekends, at least from a pace standpoint, we've showed that. At the end of the race at St. Pete, we were fighting for what would have been sixth position and just had kind of a fuel pressure issue and dropped out with a couple laps to go, but had been moving our way legitimately up through the field up until that point.
At Barber, qualified well, then just sort of missed I guess for the race. I guess one of those situations where at the track in Barber we tried so hard to not end up with a car that understeers that we ended up tipping it over for the race. That caught us out with that late caution at the end.
We're quite happy with the improvements we've made and feel like we're way further ahead in terms of our competitiveness on those types of tracks going into this season. Although it doesn't really show it on paper, we feel pretty good about where we're at.
Q: Yesterday you had the chance to test the new aero package that will be used at the Indianapolis 500. A brief comment about yesterday's test, what you learned about it, and how was the new car around Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
SCOTT DIXON: Yeah, I think everybody's made some pretty good changes. I think the mechanical side of things was the biggest issue over the winter, some are critical of that. I think in the long run we all knew it could be into the right direction as long as the parts were made.
Balance was much improved I think. It was also hard to do a lot of miles because all of us had to use race engines that we may have to use, will definitely use, at Long Beach. Also have a Sonoma test on Monday and then possibly race it at Brazil, too. I think if they'd done the test a different way, you would have seen all of us run a lot more laps.
All in all, I think a lot of the improvements on speed, a lot of that was from the engine manufacturers as opposed to the drag reduction from Dallara. I think everything is moving in a positive way, and it was enjoyable to be back out there yesterday. The speeds are definitely picking up, so it's good to see.
THE MODERATOR: JR, from the Chevy perspective?
JR HILDEBRAND: Kind of like Scott said, particularly this time of year, without there being any rubber on the track, all that kind of stuff, it ends up sort of being abrasive. We didn't want to run a lot of miles, get too many miles on a set of tires, get ourselves into trouble with there being so many things upcoming.
But I think a lot of people in the paddock would agree any day you get to go run out at the Speedway is a good day. Sort ever echoing Scott's sentiment, it's nice to be back out there, get some laps, kind of get a feel for the car.
Having not had any experience running there in the new car previously, it was all kind of a blank slate. We were I think going in a little bit hesitant about how is the stability of the car going to be, how is it going to handle, all these kind of things, because those were issues the last couple of tests there. We weren't really surprised but were pleasantly met with a well-handling racecar.
As we trimmed out, all that kind of stuff, we continued to have a good-handling racecar. From that perspective, I think the teams have done a good job and the engine manufacturers have done a good job to work with the teams, get all that stuff under control, and really at this stage, I know for us, we were sort of against the limit of (indiscernible) to the car.
We didn't leave that test with a lot of options to continue picking up speed. I think everybody is kind of in the same boat. We'll have to sort of figure out I guess as a group where things are really going to be at when we come back in May.
Q: Looking forward to next week's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, a track both of you have had some success at, what do you expect at Long Beach?
JR HILDEBRAND: I'm looking forward to getting back to Long Beach. That's really where my Indy Lights championship season back in '09 kicked off, going kind of pole-to-win there. It's a track that's obviously got a lot of significance just from a sort of historical perspective of being a long-time event on the calendar.
It's such a well-run event, it's sort of a good time whether you're racing or not. I'm definitely looking forward to it. I think at Panther, we're excited to kind of see how we can continue to progress on the road and street courses.
Q Scott, I know Target Chip Ganassi Racing has had a lot of success at Long Beach, Dario winning there in '09. I assume you're hoping to add your name to the list of Ganassi race winners at Long Beach.
SCOTT DIXON: Definitely. It's been sort of one that slipped by us many times on the 9 car side. As JR commented, it's a fun place to race. It has a different degree of difficulties. You have long straights, good braking areas, some fast corners, so it's a good mix. I think we'll put on a great show.
The kind of car we're racing now, with the racing being so good at Barber, I expect it to be very good at Long Beach.
Always excited to go there. With Team Target, I think we've always got a shot. Fingers crossed, we offload pretty well, start off at the pointy end of the field and put ourselves in a position of winning.
Q. Scott, as you look at the first two races of the season, you really have to feel very encouraged about heading into the month of May. You've done everything except win the race. Talk a little bit about how good of a start you've had and how encouraging that is from a momentum side going into the month of May.
SCOTT DIXON: Well, it can turn just as quick as it's going good. For us it's important to keep the momentum going, make sure we have consistency, make sure we keep earning good points and not getting into too much trouble out there.
We could have gotten caught out many times with how the yellows fell at St. Pete. It was good to have a little bit of luck on our side and pull that through.
I don't know. I think the ovals are going to be kind of different. It's hard to know with pre-season testing and things like that what the manufacturers are up to on either side, whether they're sort of backing it down, not showing their hand too much.
If we come into the month having some good finishes and staying good in the points, I think that's definitely good, a positive side, good for the confidence.
Indy is going to be different this year. Nobody knows what they've got. That's the hardest thing. For the past few years, we know what we had, what we worked on, the gains we should expect in most situations.
Fingers crossed we have a good package. I think we do. Honda and obviously the team have been working extremely hard. Hopefully they can back that up and have a good run through the month.
Q. With the new engine and the new car, everybody kind of thought it might create an opportunity in the early races for some other teams to jump in there, make some noise. Right now it seems to be another Penske/Ganassi battle.
SCOTT DIXON: Yeah, but I think you've seen a pretty good mix. Even in the Firestone Fast Six, a lot of times it's been six teams represented, maybe not so much at St. Pete, but definitely for Barber. You're seeing some of the smaller teams sort of show up and be very competitive.
Especially the first sessions have been kind of crazy. Sato, Rahal, even with Sarah Fisher Racing, they're right at the top. It's going to be hard always. The bigger teams normally work it out. If they struggle at the start, they figure it out pretty quickly. I don't think you're going to see that change too much.
I think already you've seen a pretty good mix, maybe not over the race distance, but as far as speed goes it's been pretty different.
Q. JR, last year during the time at Indy in May you were fast in practice, fast in qualifying, fast in the race. Do you feel you can be just as fast against the competition with this new car?
JR HILDEBRAND: I mean, I think we could certainly as a team point to a few specific reasons we felt like we were good kind of all month long. Some of those things won't change.
But certainly with everybody starting with a fresh kind of clean slate with a new car, engines, all that kind of stuff, there's just a little bit less to kind of tweak on and there's less experience to rely on.
I certainly feel like Panther and National Guard, all that kind of stuff, will continue having a strong program on the ovals this year. But I think it's certainly possible that it will end up being a little bit tougher and a little bit closer up at the top.
The other thing that I think plays a role in that, there's less things to sort of play with this year. A lot of those things, you talk about mirrors, endplates, all like that, by the time it had gotten to 2011 with all those things, I think people had pretty much kind of had them figured out. But things like that are a little bit more standardized and I think will make the field even closer.
We certainly think we can roll into the month of May with a bit of confidence. But I think it's going to be tough either way.
Q. Scott, this year we have the intrigue of the new car, which is a good thing, also the addition of a well-known Formula One driver, Rubens Barrichello. Do you think those two things can help offset the loss of Danica Patrick, all of her popularity, or do you think the loss of Danica isn't that big of a deal?
SCOTT DIXON: I think the series is in a really good, positive state at the moment. I think the new car, engine manufacturers, all that stuff, is a massive shake-up from what we've had, and to be honest a bit stagnant over the six or eight years with the same car and package. So there are a lot of exciting things with the different teams, younger teams, younger drivers with the rookies. Then you have people like Sato, Rubens, and now Jean Alesi may be coming to do the 500. There's lots of crazy things going on in the series.
I think more importantly we're trying to focus on making sure it's a good show. I think Beaux Barfield and everybody has been doing a pretty good job. They've released the reins a little bit to make the racing a little bit more productive and I think it's shown in the first two races. There's been a lot of passing going around. Toward the end of the St. Pete race, where it turned into a fuel race, that happens. I think you have to focus on the positives, and those are definitely them.
Q. JR, do you have any thoughts on losing any popularity because Danica is not here now?
JR HILDEBRAND: It's funny, until you get asked about it, I don't find myself or anybody else even really thinking about it that much. I've sort of found that interesting. We all sort of thought, Man, this is going to be a big deal. She decided to go to
NASCAR full-time, she's not doing the 500, all that kind of stuff.
In the end, I think it allows some of the drivers that have been here and are winning races and all that kind of stuff to sort of get their due credit for what's going on rather than it just being about Danica, wherever she finishes, all that kind of stuff to some degree.
I think in the end it's something that the series, you know, is going to have to be able to stand on its own based on the drivers that are there and the manufacturers and the cars and the races and all that kind of stuff.
So far I think it's been great this year. I mean, there's been a lot of excitement around the new manufacturers. You see people wholeheartedly getting behind one of the three of them already just sort of from a fan and enthusiasm perspective.
It's been a lot of fun. I think that momentum will just continue to grow as we get to races like Long Beach and the Indy 500 and Detroit and all this kind of stuff.
Q. Steering it back towards the Open Test yesterday. Yesterday seemed to be a time to experiment, get a foundation going for the month of May. Yet I look online and I see some of the fans seem to be a bit concerned about not being able to hit that 225 target. From your respective mindsets, where do you see the right balance between placating the purists who want to see the big numbers at Indy and the new generation of fans that may not necessarily need to see those numbers and just want an entertaining show above all else?
SCOTT DIXON: I think you got to stick to the important things. As you just stated, it's putting on a good show. I think it was kind of crazy that IndyCar even put out a statement saying they would achieve 225 without knowing or having run there too much.
I think those speeds are still possible. We only reached 218. But things develop fairly quickly. Once the rubber's down, I definitely see pole time being in the 220s. Whether it's 221 or 225, who really knows.
I think speed is kind of irrelevant. It wasn't too long ago, last year we were 226 to 228, but it wasn't too far back we were struggling to break 223s and 224s, with the change in the engine and tires.
You have to remember it's a new car, a new package. The boosts are a lot lower at big tracks like that. If boosts and things like that were open, those things would be achievable very easily.
I think they're on the right mind. I don't think speed is such a crazy thing. I think people get excited. It's been a long time since we've heard of a new track record. I don't think that's out of the question down the road.
But it's a new package. We have to find our ways and develop ties around the new car. The engine manufacturers have to feel safe in pushing these engines to make sure they're going to get to the end of the race.
I think it's going to come. But might not be this year.
JR HILDEBRAND: Yeah, I mean, for me just personally, the speed's always been definitely a focal point for what Indianapolis is all about. I think it's really probably one of the few places on the schedule that people really pay attention to that. Certainly the purists, as you'd say, that's sort of a big deal to some people.
I think when it comes to the race and kind of where we're at, all that kind of stuff, it really is all about putting on a good show. Nobody really cares or probably has any idea how fast individual cars are going as the race is going on, whether it's 210, 220, 230, whatever. I think that piece of it is sort of unimportant.
I think to me there's an aspect of the whole thing that I think the aim should be to go at least as fast as the old car was, the previous car. We're making, sort of like Scott said, small gains in going that direction. But I think down the road and in the end that's certainly something that I'd like to see remain a priority of some sort because that to me is a big piece of what IndyCar racing and open-wheel racing in North America has really been about for a long time.
Q. On a similar note, JR in particular, with the top speeds at 218 yesterday, were they done in a tow? Do you see the manufacturers being able to increase horsepower or reduce drag going forward in terms of achieving greater speeds than were shown at the tests yesterday?
JR HILDEBRAND: Without having like official timing and scoring, it's always a little bit hard to tell. I would certainly say it seemed to us as though the 218s that were being put down were at the end of the day in a draft.
It's sort of an unknown. We don't have a lot of cars on track. Right until the last hour of the day or something, there were rarely more than a car or two out there at once. It's hard to see how big an effect it has on that speed. Historically at the Speedway, you know, you can see another car, you're going a little faster than you would otherwise.
The cars are definitely getting faster anyhow. You certainly have reached higher speeds than at the previous tests just with cars out there on their own. The direction is there, and I think progress is being made.
I guess to your point about the manufacturers, all that kind of stuff, I felt like at the test we were getting into a range of being sort of limited in terms of taking more drag off the car. So it sort of remains to be seen if there will be some more tweaks and changes to make that happen.
Historically just taking a two-inch long wicker off the right place on the car, you pick up half a mile an hour. The cars are quite sensitive. I think if the right changes can be found, speed can come in a hurry.
On the manufacturer's side, I think it's a matter of where the engine manufacturers on the whole kind of want to go. As long as the engines are intended to last, I think there's a little bit of a limit to how much more boost will be allowed or for how long, whatever, during the month.
But I think the available performance, if longevity of the engines is not a huge issue, it's definitely there. I mean, sort of like Scott said earlier, I don't think either Honda nor Chevrolet at this test were really laying it all out on the line to see how fast the cars can go. We were just kind of running within the limits of where we're at for the races that we've got coming up.
There's definitely some available changes I think that can be made. It's just a matter of if that ends up being in the cars or not for this year. I think you look at a lot of the times where there's new engines, new chassis, stuff like that, maybe it takes a year to get it all figured out and get everything pumped up, making sure everything is working.
I personally have been super impressed, working as closely as we do with Chevrolet, but with all the engine manufacturers in the first couple races of the year, how well things run and how close everybody is.
I think as those things just continue to improve, you know, you'll start to see those performance gains.
Q. There was a lot of concern last month after the series tested at Texas about pack racing. From what you learned yesterday, is there any indication that maybe that won't be the same problem when you go back there or is it just too early to figure out right now?
SCOTT DIXON: I haven't even tested there. I know there was a test going on yesterday and today after rookie orientation, things like that.
I don't know. I think there's some pretty big options to take a lot of downforce off these cars with side walls, straights on the underwings. I think they can probably get to a situation where they can make the cars pretty difficult to drive, hard to follow each other.
But until I think until May 7th, we have the open test there, we don't know what kind of spec they're going to put us in or how the cars are going to be. Until then, if I commented on it, it would be probably false.
JR HILDEBRAND: I wouldn't say that I really have much to add to that, having not been a participant in the test down at Texas. With things changing as much as they are, to Scott's point, there's definitely a variety of means to decreasing the amount of downforce that the cars have, which I think certainly is a tool to make the pack racing less close.
But, you know, it's pretty difficult, given any experience I've had so far with the new car, to really say one way or the other.
Q. Regarding the speed at Indy, Scott, you came into CART about the time when the big numbers on the board like at California were coming to an end. JR, you're still pretty new to the sport. As racers and guys who like to kind of push the envelope, how much of that do you feel you missed out a little bit on the days of going to Indy and putting up the big numbers, the 230s?
SCOTT DIXON: I think you ask any racecar driver, they always want more grip and more power. A lot of the times it's actually easier to drive the cars when they're like that.
You know, I don't know. I did the Texas thing, close to 240 average, in 240s, at least on the straights. The power was pretty substantial when I got to CART, but we didn't race at the Speedway. Champ Car in early 2000s at the Speedway would have been some pretty crazy speeds out of those things.
I don't know. You have to look at other things, safety, things like that. I think things have changed a lot since those days. I don't feel like I really missed out on anything. For me, the drivers win races and championships, Indianapolis 500s, I don't really care if it's in a boat, to be honest.
JR HILDEBRAND: I guess I'd say, yeah, I mean, there's definitely — I think you definitely touched on it a little bit, that I'm much newer to the whole thing and all that. There's definitely a part of me that feels like it's hard for me to have a super strong opinion about whether I really think the cars should be faster or slower or anything because I don't have any experience with the cars being faster than they are, you know.
So there's a piece of that that I definitely would at some point like to have that experience for myself. Maybe if we were going 235 at the Speedway, I'd be sitting there like, Man, this is a little crazy.
But sort of until that happens, I don't really know, you know. Sort of like I said before, when I was growing up, you were watching the guys going faster every year at the Speedway for a long time, up to the point where it was getting a little bit insane.
I guess that was just a part of what I was drawn to as a fan or whatever when I was a little kid. There's always been at least some kind of general interest in seeing and feeling for myself what that's all about.
In the end, I don't think it's necessary for the show. I don't think it's necessary for the race. Oftentimes I think you ended up with closer races and all that kind of stuff when you're not going at crazy speeds, that you're white knuckling it every lap.
Like I said, I'd certainly like to know what that's all about for myself one of these days.
Q. Don't you also think that the nature of the beast at Indy is that we have several months to where we sit here and conjecture what the speed is going to be to win the pole, but the real story is the one week after qualifying is over and you get ready for the big show, which is the race?
JR HILDEBRAND: Yeah, in the end that is the truth of the matter. If you don't have a good racecar, it doesn't make a difference where you qualify because you'll just go backwards.
For sure. I mean, I think the race is absolutely the primary focus. To Scott's point, as a driver, you hear the tales from Arie Luyendyk about what it was like to set the lap record in qualifying and all that stuff. It kind of makes you think, man, that would have been pretty cool to be there and experience that in some way.
You know, I don't think it's super important for the series to have a high priority or a lot of emphasis on that. But I guess, as far as I'm concerned, I wouldn't want to see that become something that's entirely irrelevant and overlooked either.
THE MODERATOR: Seeing as we have no more questions, we will wrap-up today's IndyCar conference call. We wish you the best of luck next weekend in Long Beach.
SCOTT DIXON: Thank you.
JR HILDEBRAND: Thank you.