Indy Racing League Media Conference
Topics: Indy Racing League
Arie Luyendyk, Jr.
Al Unser, Jr.
May 2, 2006
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining us for the Indy Racing League teleconference. I do want to point out that starting here in May, running through June 6th, we will have our teleconference every Tuesday at 2:00 eastern.
We're honored today to be joined this afternoon by some very special guests as we prepare for the 90th running of the Indianapolis 500. We have two-time winners Arie Luyendyk and Al Unser, Jr. with us, as well as Michael Andretti, who will be coming out of retirement to compete alongside his son Marco in his 15th Indy 500. We have Arie Luyendyk, Jr., who will be making his Indy 500 debut.
Gentlemen, thank you for joining us this afternoon. Want to take the opportunity myself to ask a question or two of each of you and then we'll open it up to the media for their questions.
Al, let me start with you. You're coming back for your 18th Indianapolis 500. Actually I just received a press release about 20 minutes ago talking about you teaming up with GEICO and A1 Team USA. Tell us a little bit about that partnership sponsoring your effort this year.
AL UNSER, JR.: You bet. First off, I'd like to thank everyone for joining us today. We have made the announcement that the A1 Team USA car - red, white and blue car - it's going to be sponsored by GEICO, which we want to welcome both of those sponsors to the Indy 500. GEICO, of course, is the fourth largest auto insurer in the country. I feel really good about my racing because I've got the best insurance now, so I can just go get 'em. We do want to welcome them. I think it's really great that we've got some new sponsors coming into the sport.
I'm just really excited about coming back to Indy. I get to race with my good friend Michael Andretti and also his son Marco. Our families have been going at it for quite some time now. I really look forward to it.
THE MODERATOR: You're teammates on the Dreyer & Reinbold team with 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Lazier. This is the first time since back in 1994, 1995 that two former winners have been teammates. Of course, you were also part of that combination in '94 and '95 as well. Tell us about the significance of having a teammate who has won this race.
AL UNSER, JR.: Well, it's critical to have a teammate that you can get along with. Quite honestly, I think, you know, with Buddy's attitude and his style of driving, that we're going to be able to work very well together, be able to share the setups, just do some double duty out there. I'm sure that I'll be able to drive his car. I'm sure he'll be able to drive mine. We'll be able to really work together.
I can't believe it's been that long since two 500 winners have gotten together. I feel it makes the team that much stronger.
THE MODERATOR: Michael, there's only been three fathers and sons that have raced together in the Indianapolis 500. The Unsers obviously one of those families. You and Mario, one of the other families. I believe another set of Andrettis was the other. In 1984, your first year in the 500, you started on the second row together with your dad. What was that like from the son's perspective to race against your dad?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: It was a big deal. To be that close to dad at Indianapolis starting, it was a big moment for me. I think, you know, to be honest with you, my first year there was pretty much a dream. Everything just seemed to really go my way. It was just so cool to see dad next to me when we were going down for the green flag and stuff. Those are moments that stick with you your whole life.
I'm hoping that I'll be able to share some of those -- have some of those memories with Marco.
THE MODERATOR: Obviously, the tables are turned now as Marco makes his debut. Take it from the father's perspective, what is the difference in perspective there?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: It's a pretty big difference, to be honest with you. It's going to be a little strange, I'll tell you. I think when you're out there as a rookie, you don't have to worry about him, you're just worrying about yourself. Now I'm definitely going to be concerned with what's going on with him. It's going to be a little bit more of a nurturing feeling out there. It's going to be a little bit of an adjustment for me, for sure.
THE MODERATOR: Arie and Arie, Jr., you'll be working together on this Indianapolis 500 effort. Arie, you made 17 starts at Indy. Tell us about the advice that you're going to be passing along to Arie, Jr. and tell us how the deal came together to form a team and run Indy.
ARIE LUYENDYK: Arie, Jr. has been driving in the Pro Series, the development series for the IRL. Obviously he's been around a lot of oval tracks with the series. Throughout the years, I've been his spotter on the radio with him, so he's been getting a lot of advice over the last couple of years.
But, of course, Indy is still Indy. I think the big thing there for me with regards to Junior is to keep everybody calm, keep him calm behind the wheel, take it one step at a time.
We're looking forward to it. The deal came together, we've been working on this for quite a while. We're still not totally funded. Hopefully we'll get there soon. We have some great people working for us, Skip Faul who used to be my crew chief for many years, we won Indy together, and Tim Wardrop, the engineer who I won Indy together, has a great track record at Indy, a bunch of other guys that have a lot of experience. We are definitely not a new team. We're a team with experienced guys on board. Chip Ganassi Racing has been a tremendous help in our effort. The equipment and the car belongs to Chip Ganassi, and we've got top-notch equipment to have a great effort this year.
THE MODERATOR: Arie, Jr., you had a last-minute shot at Indy that fell just short. What type of goals and expectations do you bring into the month of May now that you have a little bit of experience under your belt?
ARIE LUYENDYK, JR.: I'm trying to keep an open mind. Currently we only have the budget to run the second weekend. We're still trying hard to find the remaining amount of money to have me run the whole month.
As of now, I'd like to obviously get through the rookie test and show some good speed in those two days, then just kind of build from there and try not to really set any high expectations for myself and just try to be -- you know, take it one step at a time, one day at the same time. Hopefully all the pieces will fall in their place.
THE MODERATOR: We'll go ahead and open it up for questions for our four guests.
Q. Arie, with Al, Jr., Michael, Cheever coming out of retirement and driving, have you thought anything about that, any desire for you?
ARIE LUYENDYK: A lot of people have asked me that question. I've already gone that route. I did that once. I retired officially in 1999. Then I worked for ABC in the broadcast booth for the Indy 500 in 2000. After that, I thought it would be a lot more fun to actually drive again. So in the following year, 2001, I raced at Indy, in 2002 as well. I decided to come back for one more try in 2003. I had a pretty big crash in practice, which put me out of the seat. Alex Barron drove my car in that race.
I've already been there and done that. I have no intentions of driving again. I think I have my hands full with running Arie, Jr. in the team.
Q. You mentioned trying to get the funding for this pursuit. One of the things about open-wheel racing right now, it seems to be so touch-and-go getting your sponsor money together. Has that been more of a burden on teams now to try and come up with the money? Does it seem harder to get money than it did 10 or 20 years ago?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: Well, I don't know. I think it's always been a problem. That's just part of racing. Ever since I've started, I've heard those stories. It's always been the biggest challenge I think sometimes is getting the funding to actually have a car out there.
I don't think so. I think people like to say that it's just because of the state of where we're at, but I don't think that's the whole reason. I think it's always been tough.
I think it is getting tougher overall to get it because, you know, there's so much competition out there nowadays for those dollars. It's always -- for me as a team owner, that's a main challenge day in and day out.
Q. How much more money do you need?
ARIE LUYENDYK: How about $5 million and we could race for the rest of the year? Our goal is not to just race in the Indy 500 but to build upon this program and hopefully become a permanent team owner for the rest of the year or for the future, like next year. Some of the potential sponsor companies we're talking to, we're not only talking about the Indy 500, we're talking about next year as well.
But like Michael said, it's never been easy. When I started racing in 1972, back in Europe, we were always fighting to find sponsors. It's nothing new. Like you say, there's a lot of competition out there from not just NASCAR but other sports as well.
Q. Arie, Jr., could you offer your perspective on what you would like to do for the rest of the season, what do you think you'll have to do to attract sponsors and try and get this thing to become a full-season effort?
ARIE LUYENDYK, JR.: I mean, obviously we want to have a good showing here at the 500. We want to keep all the sponsors we have on board right now happy and hopefully attract new sponsors with this race and the outcome of this race.
I hope to do very well. In turn, I hope to pick up a major sponsor for the rest of the year. That would be the ideal situation. That's what we're really trying to work on, is trying to, you know, not just build for this race, but build for the future for me, you know, try to do well in this race and move on from there.
Q. In terms of actual results, are you targeting something like a top 10 or something like that?
ARIE LUYENDYK, JR.: Oh, definitely. Most definitely. I think it's going to be hard qualifying in the second weekend. But definitely a top 10 finish. My goal is to walk away from the 500 with a Rookie-of-the-Year award. That would be my ultimate goal. I have all the pieces in place, all the people around me to do it. It's just a matter of executing.
Q. Al, could you kind of go over what the pros and cons were of you returning to drive again and what made a swing in the favor of trying to come back.
AL UNSER, JR.: Well, basically it was, gosh, watching the races last year, every time I watched a race I was commenting on the race. Finally my wife Gina, she caught me yelling at the TV one day during one of the races that somebody should have done something different, ta-da, ta-da. Basically said that I needed to get back in the car. She was tired of me hanging around the house.
We started thinking about it, started working on it back last September, October, right in that area. We were able to go down to Homestead for that first test and ran into Dennis Reinbold and Robbie Buhl. We just hit it off. I mean, it was something that they're great people, especially Dennis and Robbie. They're just fantastic people. We said if we can get something together, let's do it. It just fermented from there.
With Rick Weidinger from the A1 Team USA, he's trying to get some exposure for that series that runs during the wintertime, all the different countries and so on. It was just a natural fit.
Now it rolled again even further with a first-time ever sponsor in the Indy 500 which is GEICO, an auto insurance company. It's just a natural fit. I'm just very excited.
Q. Are there certain things you definitely have to get back to be sharp again as a driver when you haven't driven for so long? What are the key things there?
AL UNSER, JR.: I would say getting the car working. If the car's not working, then you're going to have a pretty long day and you're going to have a pretty rough time. Really, if the car's working, we'll be right into it. I mean, there's been other cars that I haven't driven for quite some time. You get into them. I mean, I really feel Michael could tell you, he hadn't been in a car for quite some time. He got in a car at Phoenix or Homestead, whenever he first got in it, before long, like five or six laps, you're right into the groove.
Q. Michael, your cars seem to be very well-funded. You seem to make this transition from driver to businessman almost seamlessly. What do the sponsors see in your team that they're maybe not seeing in some of the others?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: Well, I don't know. I think we have a really good base of a team. We have great people. I think when the sponsors come to our team, I think they start to feel like they're part of the family. I think what we've been able to do really well is we have so many different sponsors that we've actually been able to bring them all together and introduce each other together, that they end up doing a lot of business to business together. I think that has worked very well for us.
But I think, you know, in the end, it's all about results. I think we've been lucky enough the last three years to have good results. I think that is what keeps them wanting to come back.
Q. Is the B to B thing what a lot of teams are missing, they're still in the old school style of give us some money and let's go racing as opposed to how can my team be a partner with you in doing business?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: To be honest with you, I can't answer that because I don't know how other teams are doing it. I just know how we're doing it. It just seems to be working for us. We've been lucky enough to build our brand. Andretti Green Racing has become a strong brand in racing. That's because of the results.
In the end, that's what it's all about. One philosophy this team has is, whatever money it makes, it goes right back into trying to get the results. That's what we do. It seems to be working for us.
Q. With all the talk of reknitting open-wheel, are sponsors responding to that? Are they maybe getting in line a little stronger with the hope of something happening in putting the series back together?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: I think everybody's sitting and waiting now to see what happens. Is it going to be a positive? That would be a huge boost for us. I think one of the biggest problems we have is when we go to a sponsor, that's the first question they ask. It would be nice to go there, not have to worry about that, just talk about the positives of what we have going, not the negative.
We're hoping that this is where it's going.
Q. Michael, can you talk little bit about this used to be the biggest race in the world, but with the sport changing, do you think it's going back upwards of being a big event for everybody?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: I believe it is. I think it's still the biggest sporting event. I don't think there's any bigger yet. I think this year there's a lot of neat stories that are happening. I think you still have the Danica thing going. I think Danica is going to have a great month. She's going to be really tough. You have all the -- you have Al coming back, myself and Marco. I think you have a lot of really great stories. I think it's just going to help build it and make it even stronger than it is.
There has been some leaner years for it. Even in its lean years, it was still the biggest event.
Q. Can you talk about the progression of Marco in the car, how you think he'll fare through this whole month.
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: I think he's going to have a really good month. We just need to get some miles under him. It was really good for him to get a race under his belt at Motegi. He just tested at Watkins Glen. He was very happy with the way it went there. He's getting there. He's got everything it takes. It's just now you got to get him the miles and the experience. And the good part about Indy is you get a lot of running time. That's going to be the goal, just have him out there every day pounding around and just learning.
Q. Al, you've watched your son at the track. Michael has done that now with Marco. What do you think it's going to be like for Michael trying to be in a car on his own deal while trying to look at what his son is doing? Is that a difficult task for someone?
AL UNSER, JR.: You're asking me that (laughter)?
Q. As a father, how do you think that goes for Michael?
AL UNSER, JR.: I've never raced against my son at that level. The only thing I can compare it to is racing against my father, just like Michael. You can get out there and you can race snowmobiles, you can race motorcycles, you can go have fun. But, you know, when you start talking about Indianapolis Motor Speedway, IndyCar racing at that level, a lot of things change.
The only thing that I can tell you is what it was like racing against my father. With Michael racing against his son, I mean, I think he already said it, he's going to be a little bit more mindful than he was when he was racing against his dad because you can go race your dad and want to just beat him and all that kind of stuff. It's not really going to change with your son. Maybe you won't make a move on your boy that you would on your father. I don't know. I just don't know. Just like any competition, I mean, the winner is the one who wants it the most.
I think they're going to be racing each other pretty darn hard out there, just like I'm going to be racing everybody pretty hard, as hard as I can. When you reach that level, things do change. I mean, I think that's a question for Michael, not me.
Q. Does anybody think the unification talks this month will be any more or any less of a distraction than it's been the past couple years?
ARIE LUYENDYK: First of all, coming back to the father-son thing. Personally, if somebody would have asked me, would you like to race at Indy in the same race as your son, I probably would say no. I think Michael might be different than I would be, but just commenting on what Al said. When you come in the pits and you think about what kind of change do you want to make to your car, automatically the first question comes up like, how is Arie, Jr. doing? All of a sudden you have two things to worry about, not just yourself, but your son at the same time. I think it's a very difficult task at hand that Michael will have mentally. That's my opinion on that.
As far as unification, I think it's a good idea to talk about that after the month of May because right now everybody's kind of guessing.
Q. Al, doing a one-off effort like this, what do you see the big disadvantage of trying to run Indy only?
AL UNSER, JR.: I guess the largest disadvantage would be getting a relationship with the team. I've tried to do everything I can to put people in place that I've worked with before, that know me, that I know them, so on. But we still have some people that we need to hire and so on. We're not going to have the luxury of the other teams having the different races, St. Pete, Homestead, Motegi, to be into a race and to go through the motions, the pit stops, all that kind of stuff. We're not going to have that luxury. Really the biggest challenge is going to be just keeping everybody's head together on race day, just try to make it a nice smooth race for everyone.
Q. With that said, what is a realistic goal for you?
AL UNSER, JR.: First off, if we can finish would be a realistic goal. Then other than that, I don't know. I mean, the IRL is so equally competitive now. With everybody running Honda engines, the majority of the cars out there are Dallaras, everybody's on the same tires with Firestone. It's really a whole different atmosphere and so on than like when I was a rookie in the '80s and '90s where you had different engines, different cars, all that sort of thing.
It's very equally competitive. Your pit stops, your strategy, I mean, everything has to fall in place in your direction for you to move up in the lineup. We're just going to go out, we're going to have fun, we're going to do the best we can, and hopefully we'll be up near the front somewhere near the end of 500 miles.
Q. Michael and Arie, what changes have you seen as far as the competitiveness over the years of this race specifically?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: Well, I mean, for me I think I just look at -- you know, it's always been a very competitive race. But I think what makes it more so now is just that the fields are just that much deeper. So it used to be fairly easy to finish in the top five, but now if you finish in the top five, you've done something. It's just because the field is so deep. Instead of five people having a really good shot at winning it, now you have 15, 20 guys having a good shot at winning it. That's what makes it so tough.
ARIE LUYENDYK: I've seen over the years, too, I can't recall looking at the grid one year and saying there's only like three guys that can win this race. I always remember looking at it understand saying, wow, there's 10 or 15 guys that are competitive here. I'm talking about 1997, '98. I mean, all those years.
Really, I think the media sometimes has lost track of how competitive the IRL has always been from day one, maybe not in the very first year when we still used the old cars, but from then on. No, I mean, 'competitiveness' is one of the words that basically goes hand-in-hand with IRL racing. It's always been like that.
Q. I know all you gentlemen love the Indy 500, open-wheel racing. Do you see it kind of sad or frustrating that for many people, media, sponsors, this is the only race that counts or month that counts compared to NASCAR and there never-ending season, chase, all that?
MICHAEL ANDRETTI: I don't know who should answer that. I mean, I don't know. Is this a question we get all the time? Yeah. Do I find that our series has gotten better since I've been in it? Absolutely. I think every year our numbers have been going up. I think we're headed in the right direction, I really do. I think we have the best racing product out there. I truly believe that. It's not just because I'm in it.
But it is a little frustrating for me to see that it's not getting its due in the press. But I think, you know, it's coming. It's getting better. With stories like we have going like this for the month of May, that's what we need to do. With the TV package we have now, all that, I think things are looking good. I think they're a lot brighter than they have been in the past if you years. We have to build on that.
One thing I don't understand is I don't understand all our TV numbers. I know I can walk through an airport now, and more people recognize me now than they did 10 years ago, but yet we're hearing that our sport's not that popular. I just don't agree with it. I think there's a lot of people watching and a lot of people that know what's going on. I think a lot of it just has to do with all the negativity that the press always brings on about the split. That's what it's all about. They get lost -- they lose all the good stuff we have going.
ARIE LUYENDYK: I think the IndyCars have always suffered from that syndrome, that the Indy 500 is their crown jewel, all the other races kind of fall by the wayside. It is true that if you win the Indy 500, after winning that race, you feel a lot different than after, for instance, win -- like I've won at PIR in Phoenix. I always say winning a regular race is like winning a club event compared to winning Indy.
That's how the media also treat the IndyCars. The media has not followed the IndyCars the way they followed the Indy 500. It's not really a reflection of the fans not wanting to see anything else. I think it's more of a reflection of the media of pursuing the other races the way they pursue Indy. We're not trying to diss you guys.
Q. It seems as if the Indy 500 has become so much of an event that everything else gets obliterated.
ARIE LUYENDYK: It's like comparing to, let's say -- I'm not a real tennis fan, but I watch Wimbledon. The only cycling race I ever watch is the Tour de France. People tend to kind of get drawn to the big event, the big one. The Indy 500 is the big one for us. It's as hard to win any of the other races. Indy is not like the hardest race to win; it just happens to be the race with the most recognition. It really stands alone in itself as a really large event. I think it's great. I think it's great for us to have that type of event amongst the others.
Q. Al, in the five or six weeks since you were on the call last, can you take me through your preparation, what you've done.
AL UNSER, JR.: Well, we've been working on our sponsorship, for sure. That's been the main push. I've been back at Indy, gone through the shop looking over the car, pointing things out to the guys, just basically preparing in that way to get the month started off good and have the car ready. I'll be running on ROD, which is rookie orientation day, on May 7th, on Sunday. Just get out on the track and hopefully the guys will have the car ready to go and so on.
Really that's been the main push, is getting things ready for the month of May and, again, it basically came down to chasing down the sponsors, getting this thing funded.
THE MODERATOR: Gentlemen, thank you so much for taking the time this afternoon to join us. We really appreciate that. Best of luck to all of you this month.
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