Champ Car Media Conference
September 18, 2006
ERIC MAUK: Welcome, everyone, today to a very special Champ Car Atlantic Series teleconference. For the third consecutive year the Yokohama Presents the Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda will come down to the final race of the season before determining a champion.
We are joined today by the two young men that are going to do battle for that championship as we go to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, and Road America next weekend. The race will be settled on the 24th of September, Sunday. It will be a 10 a.m. start. You can watch the replay of that event on SPEED later on in the next week.
We are joined today by our series points leader, driver for Team Australia, Walker Racing, rookie in the series, Simon Pagenaud. Simon, thank you for joining us.
SIMON PAGENAUD: Thanks for all of that. That's really nice.
ERIC MAUK: His pursuer, a young man that is 12 points behind Simon but leads the championship in wins, poles and laps led, he's a rookie, drives for Mi-Jack Conquest Racing, please welcome Graham Rahal to the call.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Thanks for having me.
ERIC MAUK: We'll start with our points leader. Simon, nine top fives in 11 starts this year. You go into Road America knowing if you finish third or better, no matter what it is Graham does, you come away with the Champ Car Atlantic title. Talk about your thoughts as we gear up towards the weekend.
SIMON PAGENAUD: Well, honestly it's a pretty good gap, pretty comfortable situation. As you look at all my performances on road course circuits, I just can't wait for this event. It has been about three weeks I didn't drive any car. I can't wait. I really want to drive on this kind of track, which is really nice.
Everybody is so focused here in the workshop. I really can't wait. It's going to be fun.
ERIC MAUK: Does it affect your approach heading into the weekend knowing that you don't necessarily need to win the race to reach your goal of winning the championship?
SIMON PAGENAUD: Not really. My thought is always the same. On each track I want to win. Each race where I go, I have the goal to win the race.
It's going to be exactly the same this weekend. For sure I have to calculate a little bit during the race. But during qualifying, it's just going to be maximum attack and then we will see.
ERIC MAUK: You've never raced on the four-mile Road America layout. I understand you've been watching a lot of video, trying to get as many tips as you can. What are your early impressions of this racetrack?
SIMON PAGENAUD: It's a very long track. I think it's going to be a little bit difficult to learn quickly because it is much longer than the other tracks we have been used to this year.
No, I'm pretty confident because it looks like a track in Europe. I'm much more used about this kind of track. It's a really nice track, very smooth, very quick. It suit to us pretty well this year.
Yeah, I think it's going to be well. I think it's going to be better than Denver or street races like we had this year.
ERIC MAUK: We look forward to seeing you on track this weekend. Best of luck as we move forward.
SIMON PAGENAUD: Thank you.
ERIC MAUK: Graham, a little different situation for you. You come in here, you've had a dominant season as we alluded to before. Five wins, four poles, 129 laps led. You find yourself 12 points down as we head into the finale. Tell us a little bit about your thoughts as we head into the Road America weekend.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, I mean, for me, I would say, you know, I really have no pressure on me because I can simply go out there and just push my hardest. When you look at the points, I mean, all I can do is go forward, I can't go back.
Really, I can just go out there and push my hardest and get as many points as I can. At the end of the day, you know, if we don't win, then we're second, which is exactly where we are now. If we do win, which is obviously what we want, then hopefully Simon has a bad day and we can gain some points and get the championship.
ERIC MAUK: How much emphasis are you putting on qualifying? There is a championship point available Friday and Saturday. Makes the job a little easier on Sunday if you can pick up some of those points.
GRAHAM RAHAL: I mean, certainly we need those points. That's something that's very important when we come into this weekend. At the same time Road America is one of those places, you almost want to say it's not ideal to start up front because it is so easy to get drafted by that it makes it very difficult to keep everybody behind you during the race.
There's something special about Road America. It certainly is different than every other track you'll go to, whether it's length, certainly the corners, just the layout of the track. It's fairly different than any other track I've been to.
Obviously, my experience there will work to my advantage. As Simon says, it's not the easiest track to get used to. I've had success there in the past. Obviously, growing up there with dad, you know, I think that's going to play to our advantage.
ERIC MAUK: As you just alluded to, your father raced there many times, winning two poles there, although he wasn't quite fortunate enough to win a Champ Car race at Road America. Have you talked about the racetrack with your dad and what has he told you about it?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I speak to him fairly often. In the past I've always done fairly well there. I would say I speak more with Mike Zimicki, my driver coach, about it than I would my dad.
Certainly he'll be there next weekend. He'll be putting all the information in he can. I think I have to say he's always been fairly good about giving me the little bits of information you need, but he never adds too much, which is very important. It is different from this to a Champ Car. I think he realizes that.
ERIC MAUK: As we talked about Simon watching tape, trying to learn all he could about Road America in the week leading up into the event, you took a different tack, were down in Sebring, had your first Champ Car test with Newman/Haas Racing. Tell us a little bit about that.
GRAHAM RAHAL: It was a great weekend for me, great last week, I should say, because I knew that I had a lot of pressure on my shoulders to go down there and do well in that test. That's exactly what we did.
I'm very pleased with that. I ran, I'm trying to think, the first day we ran almost 200 miles. Certainly I didn't have any physical issues in the car. I felt very strong. I was very surprised. I enjoyed the car a lot. I'm really looking forward to the new one. Just seeing it drive last weekend, it was pretty cool. It's very interesting. The car sounds pretty good. Certainly driving the power, I think it's going to make the straightaways of Road America a little longer. Other than that, shouldn't have a big effect.
ERIC MAUK: Good luck this coming weekend. Wish you best of luck.
We'll go ahead and take questions from the media.
Q. Graham, Elkhart in many ways is a home track for your family. You've heard a lot about Elkhart, been to Elkhart. A lot of emotion invested, if you will, in the family at Elkhart. Is that a good or a bad thing? Does that have any effect on you at all as you go up there this weekend for this race?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, I mean, like you say, certainly it's always been one of my favorite tracks. It was my father's favorite, I know that. There is a lot of attachment throughout my family. That's basically where my grandfather's career started. Obviously, it was close to Chicago. That's where my dad always went to race when he got time.
But I don't think it adds any pressure or anything else really or any disadvantage or advantage. I just know that being able to say I've driven the track is the biggest advantage. Enjoying the track is another advantage. If you don't enjoy it, it's very hard to have success on a track like that.
Q. Graham, have you figured out what you're going to do next year yet? If you get that big bonus for winning the championship with the millions of dollars, does that guarantee you'll be in Champ Car next year? Are you looking at other series? What are your plans for next year?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, you know, obviously we haven't made any announcements. I would almost guarantee that the Champ Car is my best option. Whether I win the $2 million or not, I don't think that has any effect on it. Certainly I want to win the $2 million just to say I've won at Atlantic championship. That's something I've always wanted to do.
Obviously with all the success we've had this year, I think, given we raced a couple bad races, we would have been gone in this championship by now. Certainly I think Champ Car is the best bet. I think that's where I'll end up.
I like racing here in the States. I will always focus on trying to get to Formula One. Right now the options are slim. I just need to focus on what I can do and have a successful career here.
ERIC MAUK: Simon, that same question to you. Should you hold on and win the championship, earn yourself $2 million towards a Champ Car ride next year, what do you think you're going to do?
SIMON PAGENAUD: Well, honestly, I came in USA to win this $2 million and the championship. It's going pretty well actually. My goal when I came here at the beginning of 2006 was to go in Champ Car. I'm just going to try to go forward, just try to take this prize and go in Champ Car. I don't know which team. I'll see talking with some people and then we'll see what happen. It's just a matter of money. If it happens, that's great for me. That's really good.
ERIC MAUK: Obviously, there's a lot of talk. We perpetuate as well about Graham having the ability to fall back on a three-time Champ Car champion, talking to his father Bobby. You have a guy in your corner that knows a little bit about winning championships, Sebastien Bourdais, instrumental in getting you over here, opening a couple doors for you. Tell us a little bit about the relationship you have with Sebastien.
SIMON PAGENAUD: First of all, Sebastien is a really, really good friend of mine. We have a really good, really strong relationship. He just helped me on each track to give me the good line, the spirit you need to have on this kind of track. The spirit you need to have on Road America track is not the same than you need to have in Denver, for example. He teach me something like this, some technical parts, then I just go and try to do my best. It works pretty well.
It's pretty amazing to have two French drivers leading both championships. That's pretty nice.
Q. Graham, when we talked at the USGP, everything was centered on you getting over to Europe. Now the goal has changed a little bit. Is there something in particular or some point in particular that caused your focus to shift?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, I mean, it's tough to say. Certainly the USGP, the whole reason we were there was to try to open some eyes. At the same time I think there have been a lot of opportunities that have come my way in Champ Car. As soon as everybody reads about the Newman/Haas opportunity, I just feel if you get an opportunity like that, how can you turn it down? I mean, there's just a proven record. They win. That's the type of team you want to be with.
For me it's tough to say. But the goal, like I said, is still Formula One. Right now, you know, I'm enjoying myself here. I want to see what I can do in Champ Car. The other issue is GP2. That seems to be the logical path, the clear way to Formula One. At the same time you have to make sure you're with a proper team, which is obviously apparent when you just watch the races. You can see which cars are the best. Right now those teams are full.
I just don't want to go there and suffer and look like a complete failure because after having a successful season like this year, I just don't want to go back and really change my fortunes at all.
Q. You had mentioned having some experience at Road America. Can you talk about how much experience you have at that track, what types of cars.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, last year I did do the June Sprints there. I drove in a Formula Mazda, but it was in the Formula Atlantic class. I finished second. That was basically just to prepare myself for the Star Mazda race, which I had there. Unfortunately we started right up front. I got taken out by my teammate actually in the first corner. I don't know what really happened there. Never really talked to him about that too much.
Then at Formula BMW, I was there. I ran up front, but then we basically only ran one lap under green. That was unfortunate. I led the first lap, then I came down the front straight. As usual in a car like that, a good draft can help a lot, about five guys got by me in one fell swoop. Then it went yellow. That was the rest of the race basically. That was unfortunate.
Q. Three races, two different kinds of cars, not the greatest experience.
GRAHAM RAHAL: No, no, but experience is experience. I mean, I have to say Formula BMW, I had my best qualifying of the entire season there. Ran right up front. Star Mazda, you know, we were very quick. Probably I think we had a good chance of winning the race if we hadn't gotten taken out. We were clearly the quickest in the afternoon sessions.
Just being able to say I've driven a hundred laps there is more than most people can say. That's what's most important.
Q. Graham, obviously you're going to wait and see what happens with the race this weekend, the championship to be decided, but regardless of results, do you have any other tests planned coming up over the winter months with any more Champ Car teams?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Well, I think -- if I have a deal in Champ Car, I think it will be announced fairly soon. Whichever team that's with, that's who I'll be testing with. I mean, at this point we all know that you can test the old car until I think it's December 15th. Basically once your motors run out, you're done.
I don't know. We'll see. I will be testing, continue to test, but probably with the team I'll race with next year. We'll see what happens there.
Q. I've seen where your times were fairly quick at Sebring. Can you talk about the adjustment of going from the Atlantic 300 horsepower to 800 horsepower car.
GRAHAM RAHAL: You know, I've got to say that being in a Newman/Haas car has to make it easier. They obviously have a great setup. The biggest difference is the power and the speed on the back straightaway. At Sebring, it's 30 miles an hour difference. That's about it.
Really the guys did a great job there. The car was fairly -- I was very happy with the car. Therefore, made it a lot easier. I was a lot more comfortable in the car. Therefore, the transition was nowhere near as difficult as it may be for most people.
Q. Simon, in your situation, I've heard from Derrick Walker that he has an interest in retaining you next year. Perhaps if he got his wish, he'd have you in a Champ Car. Do you think you might have a test with any of the Champ Car teams? Will it depend on whether you are actually able to get the championship coming up at Elkhart?
SIMON PAGENAUD: First of all, I think I may have a test day with Walker Racing at the end of the year because it was something we planned together. I may have a test like this. Then we will see. It's up to the championship if I take it. I don't know yet what's it's going to do. I don't know the money, where the money is going to be spent, by who, how it's going to work. I can't say a word on that because I don't know anything about it.
Actually I would say for sure if Team Australia can propose me a very good program, I'd like to stay with them. But I can't say anything because I don't know anything about that.
Q. Graham, as you go into this weekend, is it your mindset you have to get every point you can get? Will you explain what's going into your mind? I'd like Simon to answer that, too. Simon could cruise in second place and win the championship. I wanted to know what's on your minds as you head into this winner-take-all situation.
GRAHAM RAHAL: For me, that's basically it. I just need to go win. I'd like to say it's a lot easier -- it's easier said than done to just cruise in second. It's not going to be an easy task. At the same time, you know, we've seen people have bad weekends, whether it's me or Simon or whoever. If that happens to one of us, it's going to obviously make it fairly interesting and throw a little extra, I don't know, spark into the mix. It's going to be a challenging weekend.
I think for me the pressure's really off, like I said. I can't go backwards in points. Second is as far back as I can go. I already have the most race wins, most poles. I'm leading prize money by a fair chunk. I have everything else covered. I just need to win this championship. That's all I have to do really.
Q. Simon, what are your thoughts on that?
SIMON PAGENAUD: What is my thought on that?
Q. You don't necessarily have to win the race to win the championship. How does that change your psychological makeup going into this?
SIMON PAGENAUD: I absolutely agree with you, I don't need to win this weekend. But I'd like to because the team has worked so well for that, so it would be a great gift I could give to them. Winning a race, it's always a very good gift for everyone.
I'll thinking about that for sure. But if there is no pressure, I'm second behind Graham, I'm just going to stay there. If Graham is not that quick, I'm going to try to pass him for sure because I am a racer and I really want to win. That's it. I think when you have the car, you just want to win. It's just a matter of being a racing driver.
Q. What have you learned about yourself this season? This has been an incredible season in many respects, one of which is you could have won three or four more races like the Liberty Challenge, whatever it's called. What have you learned about yourself as a race car driver?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I have to say when I came into the season, being 17 years old, I sat there even looking at like Matos, these guys, they've got a lot of experience, age, everything he is on me. I didn't expect to win five races, let alone, as you say, I think if I hadn't got taken out of Portland, the same at Toronto, those are two tracks that are very difficult to pass on, and those are the two tracks where I absolutely had the best car, would have just run away with the race. Those were two places where if I could take it back, obviously at Portland I'd be less conservative.
I've learned that I can be competitive, that I can win races. I learned how to win races and I've learned the limits of the car. It's helped me because everything I've jumped into, even the Champ Car last week, I immediately could find the limits of what it can do, and therefore that brought me up to speed extremely quickly.
I think that was proven when I jumped into the IPS car. I felt very confident in the car. Obviously, I had a good car there, as well. Immediately we were competitive. That should have been a race I won. We've had a lot of those this year.
I would say the biggest disappointment for me was San Jose obviously. If I had just finished second, which I was perfectly happy doing, I would have been leading the championship right now. At the same time that's another learning experience. Now I can put that behind me and just move on.
Q. How many classes are you taking? What is your situation high school-wise?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I'm taking four classes at this point in time because I've worked extremely hard the last couple years to make sure that I could have an easier year this year. We've been in school three weeks now. I've been there four days. I have a full AG1 schedule this year. I know it's not going to get any better. I purposely did that. I'm not going to say that any of them are easy classes. I'm not just cruising through. I really feel that my racing, the opportunities I've gotten, have really taken off recently. It's something I need to focus on a lot more than I've had to in the past.
Q. Simon, have you and the team worked out all the different points and areas in terms of knowing where you're going to be in the race and how hard you have to push to win the championship or are you just going to go all out for the win?
SIMON PAGENAUD: I think first of all we need to see how we go in practice and then with we look at every part of the track, where we are fast, where we are slow, try to work on the slow parts, make the car the best we can and try to win this race. That's the only goal of everyone in the team actually. Then for sure I will think about the championship. Yeah, first of all, the first goal is to win the race for sure.
Q. You won't be happy with second or third place?
SIMON PAGENAUD: I say is up to where is Graham during the race. I would be happy if I'm in front of Rahal. I would be happy every time I would be in front of him for this race only. Even if I'm just behind him, that's the only matter, if I want to win the championship. For sure, the first goal is to win the race, then it's up to the setup we have on the car. If the car is really good, we try to win the race. If the car is not good, we do the position we can do and we'll see.
Q. Graham, you've had an opportunity to drive a number of different cars in the last year. Which one was most exciting?
GRAHAM RAHAL: I have to say that the Atlantic car has suited my style very well. I've always been one of the more smooth drivers out there. I think this car really rewards that, whereas I've driven some other cars like the Star Mazda which didn't. Certainly I would say the most exciting would have to be the Champ Car. The power, everything else, just makes it really enjoyable. Certainly the Atlantic car, obviously having the success I've had in it, that's probably the one I have enjoyed the most or I should say the most emotional connection to because I've had a lot of success and really enjoyed driving it.
Q. You were on track in Sebring last week with the new Champ Car. Although they supposedly are not trying for fast times with the new car yet, were you able to gauge at all the performance of that car compared to the Lola you were in? Was that car beating you at certain places in the track?
GRAHAM RAHAL: No. Well, certainly not. Like you said, they're not going for speed. You can see that. They're not making adjustments. What they're trying to do is run it until something breaks. I have to say nothing broke. Obviously they've done their job. That's their goal right now. I have to say that the car with the paddle shift and everything, it sounds great, downshifts really well. I think it's going to be a good series next year. The new car is going to add a lot of excitement.
I don't think there's any doubt in my mind that the car will be able to match the speeds of the Lola. Technology has advanced a lot since the Lola was built. I think in the interest of Champ Car, they can't make it so it's slower. We'll see what happens. For me being there, again, they weren't going for speed and I was. I would say that was the biggest difference.
Q. What are your plans between now and the end of the year? What projects do you have between now and the end of the year?
SIMON PAGENAUD: For myself we'll see at the end of this race how it's going to go. I might try to go on do some endurance race to see how it is, see some friends coming here and racing the Petit Le Mans. I'd like to see that. If I can drive, that would be great. After that, I just want to see how it can go for the next year, try to make the contract signed as quickly as I can.
GRAHAM RAHAL: For me, I would say much the same. I would hope a contract would be signed very soon. A1GP is something I have to focus on. My contract there is for eight races. I'll be busy with those. Also I have a few opportunities in sports cars. Hopefully I'll be at Daytona and possibly Sebring. We'll see.
I'll certainly be busy with A1. I think my first race will be Czech Republic in three weeks time. I'll be busy from there on out.
ERIC MAUK: That will bring an end to our Champ Car Atlantic media teleconference. Again, thanks to Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal for joining us today. Guys, best of luck next weekend at Road America.
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