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CART Media Conference

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Open Wheel Racing Topics:  CART

CART Media Conference

Alex Zanardi
July 29, 1997

T.E. McHALE: Thank you and good afternoon to everyone. Welcome to the CART Media Teleconference. We want to thank you all for joining us today. We would like to extend a special welcome to our guest this afternoon, driver Alex Zanardi of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. Welcome, Alex. Thanks for taking the time to be with us today.

ALEX ZANARDI: Thank you very much.

T.E. McHALE: Before we begin with Alex, I'd like to make you all aware that approximately 20 minutes ago, the city of Houston Texas, Texaco and Championship Auto Racing Teams announced an agreement to stage a PPG CART World Series event on the streets of Downtown Houston on October 4, 1998 continuing annually through the year 2003. The event will be known as the Texaco Grand Prix of Houston and will be contested on a 1.68 mile, 10-turn road course anchored at the George R. Brown Convention Center which will serve as the headquarters for the event. Management will be under the auspices of Texaco Houston Grand Prix LLC, a joint venture between Texaco Incorporated and Carl Haas, co-owner of the Newman/Haas Racing Team which campaigns Michael Andretti's Kmart, Texaco/Havoline Swift Ford and Christian Fittipaldi's Kmart Budweiser Swift Ford in the PPG CART World Series. With the addition of Houston, five street races will be contested as part of the 1998 PPG CART World Series. Other street races are held in Detroit; Long Beach, California; Toronto, Ontario; Vancouver British Columbia and Queensland, Australia. Tickets for the Texaco Grand Prix of Houston will go on sale soon. Anyone needing a copy of the press release announcing the race may obtain one by calling me at Championship Auto Racing Team's office 248-362-8800. At this point I want to turn it over to Mike Knight of Target/Chip Ganassi Racing who has a brief update before we introduce Alex. Mike.

MIKE KNIGHT: Thanks for taking time to join us. We just wanted to bring you up-to-date on a couple of things after Alex's victory in last week end's U.S. 500. As I think many of you are aware Target/Chip Ganassi Racing entered into a special relationship with St. Jude's Children Research Hospital in Memphis this year to contribute money towards the construction of the Target House which will be the home away from home for the families of patients who are being treated at St. Jude's. For every race victory, the team contributes $5,000 to the Target House construction. $1,000 to every pole position and $25 for every lap led. And, it is significant that I bring it up at this time because thanks to Alex's great performance at Michigan last weekend, a total of $7,600 was added to the total at the U.S. 500 which has now brought the team's contribution to St. Jude and the Target House to over $25,000 for the season. The total being $25,475. We also did want to bring you up-to-date on the fact that Alex will be testing at the new California speedway this Thursday and Friday in preparation for the Marlboro 500 which, as you know, is the concluding race of the season this year on September the 28th. Meanwhile, PPG Cup Champion Jimmy Vasser and team owner, Chip Ganassi, are en route to Japan. Jimmy will be running some demonstration laps at the new Motegi Twin Racing Circuit which as you already know has already been announced as the host of the Budweiser 500 Kilometer Race. Next year Jimmy and Chip will be participating in various opening ceremonies at Motegi. And, Jimmy will be driving his Target Reynard Honda in demonstration laps at Motegi later this week. Regarding the upcoming Miller 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, we did want to advise you that both Jimmy and Alex have tested at Mid-Ohio and last year's race at Mid-Ohio represented the first ever 1-2 finish for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing with Alex leading 79 of the 83 laps to win the race from the pole. Jimmy Vasser led the other 4 laps to finish second. And, T. E. That is all that I had. Thank you very much.

T.E. McHALE: Thank you, Mike. Now we will introduce Alex. Driver of the number 4 Target Reynard Honda who won Sunday's second annual U.S. 500 presented by Toyota and took the PPG Cup lead in the process. It was the 6th victory of Alex's career, his third of the season following earlier wins at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and the Medic Drug Grand Prix of Cleveland. And, it was his first career victory on an oval. He led a race high 104 of 250 laps, finished 31.737 seconds ahead of runnerup Mark Blundell and averaged 167.044 miles per hour en route to the victory. Alex now owns 6 victories and 9 pole positions in 28 career starts in the PPG CART World Series. He has earned 58 of his series high 127 PPG Cup points in the last three races with a win from the pole at Cleveland, a runnerup finish at Toronto and Sunday's victory at Michigan Speedway. As Mike already alluded to, Alex enters the August 10th Miller 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course as defending champion having won from the pole at Mid-Ohio last season. He holds a 6.127 to 121 lead over Paul Tracy in the PPG Cup race. The Miller 200, round 13 of the PPG World Series, will be televised live by ABC on Sunday August 10 at 3 P.M. eastern daylight time. With that, we will open it up for questions.

Q. You have won your last two races with some fantastic charges from behind, back in the 20s, in both races. But, now, you are coming to a course at Mid-Ohio that is not really conducive to charging. I think that the farthest anyone has ever won a CART race from is the 6th starting position there. So, say, you are in the middle of the race and something has happened to you where you are back in the pack again, how far back in the pack do you think you can possibly be, say, at that point, and expect to mount a charge similar to the ones that you have had in your last two victories?

ALEX ZANARDI: Well, it is very simple. I mean, the plan both for Cleveland and for the U.S. 500 was to stay on the lead. And, the reason we fell down there was because something went wrong and we found ourselves in that situation. Now, we are totally aware of, me, Chip, all the engineers that we have some problems; we have been working on those problems, and we know that in circuits like Mid-Ohio or Vancouver, for example, if we have a problem like that, we will probably throwing the weekend away. So, we are totally aware. But, if, for instance, we start from the front row, we better stay there. Nevertheless, whenever you have a problem or you face a situation that change completely your strategy of the race, you have to try to get the best out of it. Cleveland, fortunately, was a circuit where you could -- I wouldn't say easily, but you could overtake people, especially in the situation we were, we took advantage and the team did an amazing job taking advantage of the problem that we had earlier on in the race when the race was just about to go green again on that first yellow, we pit again. And, we put that little extra amount of gas that made us able to then push very, very strong all race long. And, that was an advantage, definitely, in the last part of the race itself. In Michigan, it is clearly easy if you have the speed to overtake people in front of you. But, as you said, we are totally aware that in Mid-Ohio it is going to be a different deal and our plan is to try to stay on the lead and not have to recover.

Q. I was wondering you said that in the post-race press conference a few years ago you couldn't speak very much English. How did you pick up the language?

ALEX ZANARDI: Well, I don't know. Just talking to people, mechanics, relationship in general with everybody I guess my main strength initially was the fact that I wasn't aware of looking bad to people saying funny things sometimes and seeing people laughing at me. But, you know, when you basically living out of your country for so long and you basically obliged to speak a language, you finally pick it up very fast because, I mean, you have no choice, no option. I never had a manager. I never had anybody here except my wife and so you know, I was obliged. I was thrown in that condition finally to put people -- to make people understand myself and to understand people, so, I guess because I was forced to do that. You know, now I am great to that factor because I speak another language. When I was a little kid I studied French at school and I can speak French, but I couldn't speak English. That was a problem in the first years of my career. But, now I guess it is not a factor anymore.

Q. I want to congratulate you, Alex, on your wins. But, you know, this last Sunday your race took intense concentration, 4 miles a minute. How do you feel a day or so after that?

ALEX ZANARDI: First of all, thank you very much for the congratulation. Yes, you are absolutely right it took a lot of concentration. It is actually the main problem when you are racing on a super speedway so fast like Michigan the main problem is to maintain the concentration because, believe it or not, when you are running -- after you have been running for 100 laps, it is -- everything you do, it becomes so automatic. It becomes, in a way, so easy to do; especially if the car is running well, that there is a lot of danger sitting in that aspect. Because if you lose your concentration - and I can guarantee that it is very easy to do so - sometimes you do maybe a little mistake and the time of recovering is less than a thousandth of a second. I mean, it is amazing, last year at the Marlboro 500 the second event we had in Michigan, I lost my car at the beginning of the Turn 3 and I hit the wall at the actual Turn 4. Then I went back with my scooter to check the distance between the point where I lost the car and I finally hit the wall and that is about a mile. So, it is incredible. You wouldn't believe that in half a mile a driver is not capable of catching his car back and, you know, still able to go around the circuit. But, this is the way it is. This is the speed you are going. And, that is the amount of concentration you have got to put in order to finish the race. On top of everything, it is a very, very hard and demanding race on the equipment, so you got to be able to share that concentration between your driving and listening to every little noise that is going around on the car in order to, you know, prevent any sort of problems. So, you have got to give a break to the car when it is time to do it. You got to take it very easy with the gearbox, as all the problems that other drivers had showed over the weekend. So, it is a very, very difficult race and I am obviously very proud of the fact that I won it even if, obviously, I know that last weekend the Target/Chip Ganassi Racing gave me probably the best piece of equipment that I drove in my career. So it was relatively easy.

Q. With Joe Montana, did you know who he was or did you know anything about him or when did you first come to understand, you know, who he was and what he had been in his football career?

ALEX ZANARDI: Well, it is pretty funny, when I first met Joe Montana I didn't know who he was. I mean, I am coming from Italy. Like all the sportsmen, I guess, all the sportsmen that are so committed and involved with their activity, I didn't have much time when I was a kid and I was racing go-carts and cars in Italy to follow other sports. And, you can obviously imagine that I didn't have time to follow American football in United States. So, I didn't know who Joe Montana was. You know, when you are a little kid and you follow commercial in television and there is one that you like because of the music or because of what they are doing. We had a commercial about a meat that they sell there a can, you know, that was called "Montana." And when I got introduced to Joe Montana, I thought he was the owner of that company. And, then later on they told me who he was. And, I clearly understood the first time I talked to him which kind of a person he is. And, I tell you that it has been very, very helpful with the team and for the team, but he has been terribly helpful for me in many occasion and in particular last year after the race I had in Long Beach, while I was leading I went off trying to overtake Bobby Rahal that I was a lap down and he came back -- I was very depressed because I lost the race and I felt -- in a way, I felt it was a little bit my fault, you know, for losing that race. And, he came back to me and he made me a long speech and he made me feel completely different. He made me find, again, the anger to go out there and try to do my job as best as I can. So, although, sometimes he doesn't know everything about motor racing, he knows a lot of how to find your way to win. It is obviously up to me to play with everything I have got, technically speaking, to achieve the goal. But, definitely it is very good to have somebody like Joe on your side.

Q. Congratulations on that U.S. 500 win.

ALEX ZANARDI: Thank you very much.

Q. Your teammate Jimmy Vasser had his success early last season then held on for the title. How is it different for you this season peaking so strongly near the end?

ALEX ZANARDI: Well, I guess Jimmy is an excellent driver and a fantastic 500-mile-race driver because nobody better than him is capable of taking care of his equipment. What happened to him last weekend was pure bad luck. And, I knew that if his car would last until the end Jimmy was going to be a big factor in that race and probably one or the man to beat. But, I learn a lot from him. And, that is what you have to do. I mean, we both very good friends and we both share every piece of information we have concerning how to develop the car technically. And, I always help him a lot, especially on the road course and the street course, I -- sometime I have probably due to the fact that I have more experience for what it concerns - the setup of the car because of my past in Formula I and working with the active suspension cars in Formula I, I learn a lot. And, sometime I have new ideas, new things that I want to try and I share those things with Jimmy. And, he does the same with me. So, I have been trying to learn. I have been trying to go to school, if you like, because last year I approached both the 500 mile race like sprint races. I mean, at U.S. 500, I didn't want to leave the lead of a single lap to anybody. I want to lead all the laps and I was probably, maybe, I don't know, but maybe too hard on the equipment. I don't know. Maybe if I would have been a bit more gentle, I would have finished the race. At the second race I did a mistake and I finished the race in the fence. So, this year I was obviously very concentrated, trying to avoid both these kind of mistakes. And it worked very well. Plus, when I saw earlier on in the race both Michael and Greg Moore falling out of it, I decided that that was a race that I desperately had to finish. And, to be honest with you, just doing that, it took me to the end in a very good position. What surprised me a lot is the fact that a lot of people were running very good and very strong at the beginning of the race and some fell out in the early part and some were there at least almost at the end and those cars were actually slow second part of the race, so, it means that the condition of the circuit changed and they have not been able to adjust their cars, whether -- in the first part of the race I was very slow. I mean, I had a lot of problems at every pit spot, I had just something and I just -- just the aerodynamics of the car and I was playing with the anti-roll bars inside. Finally, from mid-race on, I found the combination that was working perfectly and was keeping my car in perfect balance from the first lap of each segment to the last. And, so, you know, at the end of the race I was really surprised by seeing some drivers going kind of backward and my car, at that point, was absolutely perfect. So, I wouldn't say it was a piece of cake, but it was relatively easy at the end.

Q. A lot of problems with cars breaking down, especially with the gearbox. How solid was your car when the mechanics had a chance to go over after the race?

ALEX ZANARDI: Obviously you always believe that the car is running great until you see a big smoke in your mirrors, and you soon find out that, you know, you pushed it too hard. But, I took good care of my equipment. I was trying the best, you know, downshifting, always using the clutch and we knew that the 500 mile races are very, very tough on the equipment and this one was going to be the worst because the heat was terrible, a lot of humidity. We knew the key to win was, first of all, try to finish and so, as I was saying, I was using clutch downshifting. I was upshifting also, lefting with the throttle. And, you know, I was letting the clutch slip maybe a little bit longer, taking off from the pit in order not to be so hard on the gears. I was trying to use all the tricks that probably other drivers did use too, but maybe I was more lucky than other people. What can I say? And, I got to the end of it.

Q. I'd like to ask Alex what do you think of this series going to Houston, a new market, and one that I understand is very popular with CART Racing?

ALEX ZANARDI: Well, for us it is -- obviously, we are very excited about that new race and it is very good for us because one of our associated sponsors is Texaco, so we couldn't come to a better place for them. And, I am obviously even more excited because I am not looking forward to -- although I just won a race on an oval and although it looked like I am finally getting the experience it takes to, you know, to be successful on ovals, I still believe that I am a stronger driver on road courses and on street courses, so I couldn't welcome another street race more than, you know, nobody more than me could do that. So, I am excited and I am looking forward to put the wheel down on the ground and see what it is.

Q. Alex, did you find out in what situation the gearboxes were failing? I had heard that it was coming in and out of the pits shifting then, but then also there -- maybe that there were some going on the track itself. Do you know?

ALEX ZANARDI: Yes, it is pretty simple in a way. You wouldn't believe that the gearbox is one of the most dangerous part of the car in a way. Let me explain again. You wouldn't believe that there could be any problem, especially in a circuit where you basically are not upshifting or downshifting at any time because, I mean, you are going almost flat out around Michigan and you never upshift or downshift. You stay in 6th gear all the time, so, you wouldn't believe that the gearbox could be a factor in the race. But, in fact it is, for a very simple reason: The engine gets cooled down from the water that goes in the radiators, but all the heat they that produce and they produce a lot of heat because you are basically going full power all the time, full revs all the time, all the heat that goes through the engine goes then to the gearbox which is the last part in the car. And, I am sure for the next event we will have some better cooling system. But, basically nobody was prepared to -- for this situation and maybe for the -- the reason is the fact that we never experienced something like that. We never raced on a 500 mile race with such a heat, such outside temperature. And, we were -- everybody was basically overheating the gearbox and the oil at that point becomes very, very fluid, lubrication becomes very, very difficult and the gears are basically so hot that when you come in into the pits and you downshift, if you don't use the clutch properly, if you don't flip the throttle properly in order to let the gear spin at the same RPM as the RPM of the motor, basically you can break and you can damage something. And this is what I believe happened to a lot of people. There is a lot of drivers that coming into the pits, they break with the left foot and they simply push down the lever in order to downshift and that could be definitely a problem because you bang the gear in and if the ratio is already extremely hard, it can break in pieces right away. I believe that was the main problem. Then a lot of drivers tried to be gentle in order to avoid that problem and for a lot of people it didn't work it anyway. For me, it did. So, I don't know whether I was better man other people in order to take care of the gearbox or it was simply more luck. But it worked and I take it.

Q. Congratulations, Alex.

ALEX ZANARDI: Thank you.

Q. You mentioned a moment ago when you were talking about learning the English language, you found yourself with no other option but to learn the English language. I am wondering when you find yourself in situations like you had at Cleveland and Michigan that you put it in your mind that you have no other option, this is what happened now, let us be positive?

ALEX ZANARDI: Well, absolutely. I don't like to -- I don't like to spend too many good words about what I did or about myself. I rather -- I guarantee that I enjoy very much when other people say good things about myself. But at that point I had no option, in Cleveland I fell down there and I was dead last and I was letting my anger going through my driving and I couldn't go around some back markers; that, in a normal situation, are very easy to pass. So, I just decide after one lap, I just decide, I said to myself, "Hey, Alex if you keep driving like this, we are not going to finish this race anyway. We are probably going to finish in the wall. So, let us forget about everything. Let us get the best out of this car lap by lap. It is going to be very hard because of the heat, because of how hard it is to drive around this course. But, let us try to drive it as you do it in qualify, get the 120 percent out of it every lap. And, then when the checker flags drop down, we will check what we have got." That is what I did. I never thought about, you know, when I was 4th or 3rd, I never thought, okay, that is good, I never thought about nothing. I just drove it as hard as I could. And, I knew I could count on a strong car and just drove it very, very hard until the end and, boy, when I saw that checkered flag then I start to realize what I did and I was obviously extremely happy and I had to do that something at that point, you know, to release the pressure, to release all the emotion that I kept inside deep inside and that is why I did those doughnuts to start to enjoy the pride and the joy of that victory.

Q. Did the confidence that you gained at Cleveland play into effect at Michigan when once again you found yourself down?

ALEX ZANARDI: Well, I believe that in life -- in sport, like in life, you do have good periods of your life where things go right and you do have bad periods where things go wrong. And, it certainly influence your -- it certainly change your effort a little bit. In other words, it is easier to do everything right when you get a little bit of help from luck and things that are going right. So, you actually give that maybe 5 extra percent that sometime it may be crucial. But, I don't personally believe that if you have a good race the following weekend you are going to win again simply because you have more motivation, you know -- because you know I did it so I am going to do it again and you finally do it. I don't think it is a question of desire. Motor racing is a question of preparation, dedication. It is a question of, you know, if you can do it, you are going to do it. That -- I don't know. That is my understanding and I know that there has been things happening in all the sports where you see a driver not winning nothing for years and then he wins one and then the following weekend he wins another one again. So, it would seem to be that, you know, all it takes is just desire and confidence. I don't think it is that way. I mean, even in Michigan I knew that I could do a good result, but I was never thinking about winning the race. I was just thinking about trying to do the best. And, recently at the Target/Chip Ganassi Racing we proved that our best, it is more than enough to win races sometime. But, nevertheless, we know that the opposition is very tough and it is going to take all we can to try to beat it. And, there is teams out there that are capable of doing the same kind of job that we have been doing. But, we definitely are confident that if we can get the best out of ourselves, we are going to be close to the lead. So, I am confident.

Q. Which races do you expect to be the strongest at for the rest of the season?

ALEX ZANARDI: Well, every one and no one. I know you want to hear something better. But, you see, last year I won my first -- I got my first win at Portland and we won that this year and we didn't look as competitive as we were last. Then we went to Cleveland and last year I started from the front row, but my teammate Jimmy Vasser was ahead of me and for some reason I was very, very strong out there. So, we know that Mid-Ohio should be a very good race for us. We have been testing there and we went very, very fast. Our car seems to work very well. We were definitely a clear second on the track record I set last year. So I, obviously, have to believe that the car is going to be all right and we are going to be probably competitive or more than competitive. We will have a good shot to win that race. But, what is really is giving me the confidence right now is the fact that I see our technical partners giving us very good equipment. When I say that, I mean Firestone has done an extremely good work recently and they provide us excellent tires. Their tire perform in the heat much better than what the Goodyear tires have. Honda has given us an excellent motor, very powerful. But, more than that, the Honda motor seems to suffer the heat that we are expecting from now on to the end of the season, much, much less than what the Mercedes and the Ford have been suffering. So, the Reynard chassis is good. A lot of drivers have the Reynard chassis. But, the Target/Chip Ganassi Racing has done some modifications to it. And, our Reynard chassis has been working very well. So, these are the factors that are giving me the confidence to believe that we are going to be protagonists in all the events from now on 'til the end of the season. I am obviously expecting a lot from the Mid-Ohio race because, as I said, I went there to test and we went very well. I am expecting also something very good out of Laguna Seca because it is a course that I love and, technically speaking, our car suits that course very, very well. But, I am expecting a lot from any event and I am not prepared to leave anything on the table.

MIKE KNIGHT: Just as a note for everyone, Alex mentioned the Firestone tires and the importance that they played in the victory at the U.S. 500. And I previously referenced the fact that Jimmy Vasser is on his way to Japan to do the demonstration at Motegi. Just as a note for everyone, the last set of Firestone tires that Alex took on on his last pit spot and drove to the checkered flag at Michigan, those tires were put onto the Target Reynard that is going to Japan and will be used on Jimmy's car when he makes the demonstration runs at Motegi. Thank you.

Q. Congratulations, Alex. You certainly proved to people that you can drive on the ovals. Going into Mid-Ohio, give me an overview of what you think is going to be a key factor in that race and thirdly, what are your plans for next year? I assume you are still going to be driving for Chip?

ALEX ZANARDI: Thank you for your congratulations. Obviously, going to Mid-Ohio, we know it is going to be a different scenario and you have to get the best in qualifying. You have to drive the car 120 percent and the only time where you can rest it up a little bit is if you are leading the race and you have some advantage, otherwise it is going to be a sprint race and it is going to be very fast one because a lot of people have been testing there and a lot of people are going to be fast. And, in order to beat them, you have got to get the best out of your equipment, so you cannot leave anything on the transporter. It is going to be a tough race. But, we are very confident. I mean, Morris Nunn, my race engineer, is not simply very good. It is very good with me. We have a good relationship. And, it look like every weekend we go out there, we start on Friday morning with a car and we ended up on Sunday afternoon with another car that normally is the car that I want to drive. So, it is very important for a driver to change his car over the weekend in order to achieve what he wants and not to have -- to be obliged to adapt himself or change his driving style in order to go around certain problems. I have choose a long time ago a certain driving style because I believe it is the fastest driving style, so I want to drive like that. And, I always try to make the car suit that kind of driving style. And, Morris, in those respects, help me a lot because we now have a perfect understanding and we always find the little tricks that finally makes the car work very well. So I hope it is going to be the case in Mid-Ohio as well. As I said, we have been testing there and the car has been running very well. We should have a good baseline to go out with and then we will change it if the conditions are going to be different. But, I guess we should have everything that it takes to do well. Concerning what I am going to do next year, I am under contract with Chip Ganassi for another year, so Chip -- well, I guess it is Chip's decision to keep me or fire me. If you guys have more news than me, please, let me know. Recently, Chip Ganassi has been smiling at me and he has told everybody that he is pretty happy with the job that I am doing so I guess I am staying there.

T.E. McHALE: Thank you Alex for joining us this afternoon. Alex, we wish you the best of luck in the upcoming Miller 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on August 10. Thank you all for joining us and we will talk to you again next week.

ALEX ZANARDI: Thank you very much.

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