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Champ Car Media Conference

Open Wheel Racing Topics:  Champ Car

Champ Car Media Conference

Ryan Hunter-Reay
Stefan Johansson
Jimmy Vasser
January 23, 2003

ERIC MAUK: Good afternoon. Thank you for joining us. Today we are joined by Stephan Johansson, owner of American Spirit Team Johansson, one of the newest teams that will contest the 2003 Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford. He has an announcement concerning his two drivers for the upcoming season so welcome Stefan, and you have the floor.

STEFAN JOHANSSON: Today I am making an announcement that I have been working on for quite some time, in announcing our drivers for 2003. I would like to welcome Jimmy Vasser and Ryan Hunter-Reay to American Spirit Team Johansson. I think we have a good lineup to go with a good team. We have experience and speed.

ERIC MAUK: Jimmy Vasser is one of the veterans of the Champ Car World Series and returns for his 12th season of CART competition. He has 10 career wins and eight poles, one of those wins coming last season as he won the fastest open-wheel race in history, taking the 500-miler at California Speedway in an average speed of 197.995mph. He has also put together one of the longest consecutive-start streaks in CART history, having taken the green flag in 164 straight events.

JIMMY VASSER: American Spirit Team Johansson is shaping up and I think it's also looking like it's going to be a great year, a lot of fantastic announcements for the series and new involvement from new teams. So while we're probably not going to have our cars out on the track next week, we're getting ready and real excited to get the equipment on the track in spring training.

ERIC MAUK: Ryan Hunter-Reay will be looking to start a streak of his own as he enters his rookie season of Champ Car competition this year. The 22-year-old Floridian has made his way up the CART ladder system from the Barber Dodge Pro Series where he won Rookie-of-the-Year honors in 2000 through the Toyota Atlantic Series where he took three wins last year and finished sixth in the point standings and will make his champ car debut this year at St. Petersburg. Ryan, welcome to the call. Congratulations.

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: Thanks so glad to be here.

ERIC MAUK: Ryan, just real quick, can you talk about what this means to you. Obviously it's something you've wanted to attain for quite some time and now that it's here, tell us some of your feelings.

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: It's just huge. I don't even think words can describe it. I've been working for this since the first day of karting and finally now everything is just beginning. I just really have to take advantage of the situation. I'm going to be learning from some unbelievable experience here with Jimmy and Stefan Johansson as a team owner. It's just going to be excellent. I'm going to learn from Jimmy and my engineer, Graham Taylor. It's just going to be excellent. I just have to be a sponge this season and I'm going to be going 110 percent from the first turn.

ERIC MAUK: We have a very large media contingent today and we're kind of on a tight time schedule so we'll go ahead and open it up for questions.

Q. Stefan, you've been looking to this for a long time. Just talk us through how long you've been wanting to step up into Champ Car as a team owner and how it's finally come about.

STEFAN JOHANSSON: Obviously, when we started the (Indy Lights) team back in '97, the goal was always to move in to CART. Unfortunately, it didn't materialize in the years to follow there. I think the whole situation at that time made it just very, very difficult to put a coherent deal together, so I went into the sports car thing for a few years, and obviously had pretty good success there with the team and so on, and this opportunity presented itself about halfway through the last year. I was working diligently on it for the most part of last year actually and was very pleased to having been able to put it together, and the fact that we actually have the only two Americans in the series right now and it's obviously very -- although I'm Swedish, this is a very patriotic deal we've got here as far as with the name and so on and I think we've on to something really good here. I think what (CART CEO) Chris (Pook) has done with the series since he came aboard has obviously brought it a huge amount of momentum here which is really to a large part enabled people like myself to put together a deal to run on a team in the series.

Q. Jimmy, you've had a lot of talk about what you're going to be doing for the 2003 season. Can you say what this means and what else you've been considering up until now?

JIMMY VASSER: Well, Stefan and I started talking probably a good couple months before the end of the season, and I was kicking around the idea of going and starting to do some Busch racing, maybe full-time NASCAR, but also talking with Stefan hoping that this thing would come together and as it looked liked it would more and more, I started changing my focus to full-time CART again and with all the great things that go with it. It seemed like there was a lot of negative energy about CART and things started turning around and I think, in particular, though, the last month and a half, it's really caused a lot of positive things so the timing was right to do the deal with Stefan. Stefan and I were great friends. We go back a ways and that made it that much more interesting for me and hopefully working with Ryan Hunter-Reay. The folks around the shop got a really good feeling around the team, and so I'm really excited about it and I'll try to sprinkle some Busch racing in in between. Obviously, it's secondary priority for the season but do that as well.

Q. What is the realistic goal or expectation for this team considering it is a start-up team? What are you looking to establish there year?

JIMMY VASSER: Well, going to accomplish everything we can. I mean, winning races and perhaps the championship is always the goal no matter what race team you're on and I think with the personnel that we have on the team and Stefan's experience, we can realistically achieve those things. As with anything else, it's just got to be one step at a time and keep it simple, and if do that, then hopefully things will come around and also getting Ryan Hunter-Reay, and I think he's going to be a fast learner. He's capable of achieving some of our goals as well.

Q. Is there a lot of champ car experience on the team in the shop?

JIMMY VASSER: Oh, yeah, just a tremendous amount with Ed Nathman and Rob Hill and guys all the way down the line I think we've got as much experience on the team as anybody out there.

Q. Stefan, can you talk about the fact that everybody has the same engine, everybody's got a turbo charged? Is this a good year to start a team as far as maybe you don't feel like maybe you're as far behind as you would have been coming in cold?

STEFAN JOHANSSON: Absolutely. I think there's no question about that. I think that we all know it turned into almost an engine formula the last couple of years here with qualifying engines and all the rest of that. So I think that that's going to play a big part to level the playing field a little bit, especially for new teams like ourselves. So yes, for sure, I think this definitely will swing back a lot more to the relationship between the driver and engineer, for example. And like Jimmy said, I think there's a lot to be said for just keeping things simple and stick to the basics and not try to get too clever but just work on the program and stick to that.

Q. Stefan, as a follow up, will you guys have any big sponsorship announcements or you just have partners or can you talk about how the team was put together?

STEFAN JOHANSSON: Obviously, I have some very, very good partners behind me, and that's basically the nucleus of the structure at the moment. We are working on a number of sponsorship deals but we're not ready to announce anything as of today.

Q. In this particular year when there isn't going to be a host of teams with a lot of experience, this may be the right time to take a chance that you might not have taken earlier in your career?

JIMMY VASSER: What kind of chances you talking about?

Q. Championship chances. I mean, this is the kind of year where a new team could win a championship that in year's past they couldn't?

JIMMY VASSER: Yeah, perhaps. The team is new but it's not really new with the personnel that's there. It's got the feel of a team that's been established for some time, and you're always going to want to go for championships, and you always think that you can, but I don't regard it as a big chance or anything like that. I think that it is a little bit different than some of the teams that have been there in the past, new teams that are coming in and drivers, they're going to pose different challenges and bring new competition. So it's never going to be easy to win a championship.

Q. You alluded to the Busch program so where does that leave the program, your program in the Busch series?

JIMMY VASSER: Well, it just has real limited goals in the number of races that I'm going to run. Right now, the only race I'm going to run for sure is the Daytona race the day before the 500, and obviously, whatever I do there is secondary to the CART program and have to see how that comes along. It doesn't have full-time funding for the limited number of races that I can do so that obviously is going to have something to do with it, but there's an interest there for me to get some experience there and essentially create a transition to NASCAR up to two years.

Q. There's always a lot made about keeping U.S. drivers in this series. When Champ Car is now so international and a good driver is a good driver no matter what country he comes from. Was in the back of Stefan's mind that, hey, it might not be a bad idea to get a team here with two American drivers on it?

STEFAN JOHANSSON: It so happens, and of course we put a lot of emphasis on American spirit and so on, but quite frankly, Jimmy was always my first choice. As soon as we decided to run two cars, Jimmy was always on front line because I know how he operates on the team. Not only is he fast, more than fast enough to win races or championships, but he's probably the best team player you can find. There's absolutely certain that there's no coincidence both Alex Zanardi and Juan Montoya achieved the results they did thanks to Jimmy. I mean, I know that, to us, is a huge, huge factor in getting Jimmy on board, the fact that he can lead the team. He's a total team player, and that really was the bones of my decision to do this apart from the fact that, as Jimmy said before, we're very good friends, of course, but first and foremost, he's absolutely the man for the job.

Q. Jimmy, let me ask you about that. Guys work well with teammates and some guys don't work well with teammates, but I think as Stefan said, you have a reputation of working very well with other drivers and here comes a young guy in who's basically green as the grass in these cars and is going to look for you for guidance. I know that that is kind of an environment that you thrive on, isn't it.

JIMMY VASSER: I don't mind it. It's not the first thing I go out and look for to be a mentor all the time, but Ryan is a good kid and I also am the same, I like to learn from teammates too, and I expect to have a two-way street with Ryan. I don't force myself on anybody when they're a teammate. If they want my help, that's fine, but I expect the same back at times when I need help, too, so just seems like it's been that way over the years since I'm always the guy that's been on the team before. I've been around a little longer and probably more for coincidental than anything.

Q: Stefan, it seems like in a lot of other countries, whether it's Latin America or Scandinavia, that there's a lot corporate interest in drivers younger in their career. You've got to be commended for bringing on an American guy from the ladder system. Why do you suppose it's so tough for young American guys to break in and did some of that go into the naming the team as American Spirit Racing?

STEFAN JOHANSSON: Well, first of all, I think it doesn't matter who you talk to in whatever country you talk, everybody's complaining that there's no support for their national drivers. The English complain about the same thing. We certainly do in Sweden. Finland is maybe a little bit different, but other all, it's a grind no matter where you are. I can tell you that from experience. Obviously, we have emphasis on the American spirit and so on, and this is an American series for all intents and purposes. And you know, I think you have plenty of good talent in America. Ryan, in my mind, is by far the best young American driver that's on the radar screen right now to make it big time, and that's the reason he's in our car obviously. I think one of the problems you have in America, maybe more so than other countries, is that you have so many different categories of racing on the grassroots level that you never get the nucleus of really hard competition. In Europe, for example, although it's starting to spread a little bit, too, I mean, when I came up through the ranks in racing it was karting A International. I raced against the pros and all those guys since I was 12 years old, and we used to see each other every two to three weeks and it was like war from 12 years on. And then you go to Formula 3 and then it's Formula 2, then it's Formula 1 and those only options at the time. Here you have all these different sprint racing, midgets, you have karting and multiple categories of go-karts, so it seems like it's very spread out all the time, very fragmented through the ranks. And having said that, I think CART is obviously onto something here with the ladder system that they implemented now and I think in years to come, I'm sure we're going to see there's going to be a good posture of young guys coming up through the ranks here now if that becomes successful.

Q. It seems to me the last time you drove a Champ Car was '96. Have you had any thoughts of jumping in the car to see what they're like these day to provide any feedback.

STEFAN JOHANSSON: No. I don't think so. I'm doing a few sports car races. That's enough to fill my quota. I guess in a way it'd be kind of fun just to try the cars just to see what they're like these days, but as far as racing or anything, no.

Q. Again, sort of continuing on a theme that's been posed to Jimmy a couple times already on the experience of the people there in place at what is the new team. Obviously, you have direct experience working with a couple of them like Rob and Ed and can you talk about how that might in some ways kind of shorten up the learning curve in terms of everybody coming together as a cohesive unit and you in particular?

JIMMY VASSER: It absolutely should shortcut it. Like I said a little bit, it doesn't have the feel of a complete new team. With all the experience the guys in the shop all the way on down the line, you know, I think that the melding together of everybody and the chemistry, it's all going to happen real quick and to have the feel and look of the team that's been around a long time.

Q. Ryan, from your standpoint, the opportunity to work with a guy like Jimmy who has not only a lot of experience but has a reputation of being a very good teammate to work with and what that means for you?

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: Absolutely. I couldn't ask for a better situation and the best thing is Jimmy and I knew each other before this as I did the mentor program with him as well and he was a big help. So it's just the whole CART ladder system coming together. Everything is coming together and I'm surrounded by experience. I just have to be a sponge. It's going to be excellent.

Q. For Stefan and Jimmy, because I think Jimmy was involved in the decision as well, but if you can discuss a little bit about your decision to run the Reynard versus the Lola, how that came about and what your thought processes were and what Jimmy's input was into that decision?

STEFAN JOHANSSON: Obviously, it was a tough decision to make. We were laboring over it considerably and I think between all of us, I think we know every practice session in our head who was where in what car and all, but really, to a certain degree, it was driven by the economics of it, but having said that, looking through the results last year really, seemingly, there weren't that much difference, really. I think obviously that the Lola had the benefit in a very large scale by the numbers. But if you take something like Tony Kanaan, for example, his results really didn't change that much when the switched the Lola. The difference between Rahal's team and Players were virtually identical, so we feel that if you just keep to the focus program, we believe we can stay competitive in this car.

Q. And Jimmy, you raced the Reynard and Lola both so you have good experience. What was your input into that decision?

JIMMY VASSER: Very much the same as Stefan. I think the Reynard is a little more mechanically friendly to work with and to drive, they mechanical and the balance. However, it was pretty well documented the Lola had a little more downforce, but we also figured with a little less horsepower a little less downforce might not be a bad thing because that ultimately has less drag. And the Reynard, they come with a lot of development as well so I figured at the end of the day I figured that we could probably get the job done with whatever car we went with.

Q. You are going to do 10 to 12 Busch races this year as well as your CART commitment. Do you see this new team being competitive out of the gate? Will you have enough testing going to Florida?

JIMMY VASSER: Yeah. I think we can be competitive right out of the gate, particularly because of experience and the cars and I think we can get pretty reasonably set up for the first race and the street circuit. They're all just a street fight, so I fully expect to be near the front of the grid.

Q. I wanted to know more about his decision to go with this name as American Spirit and American drivers?

STEFAN JOHANSSON: Well, it's pretty simple, really. I mean, the series is American, first of all, and I think the emphasis is still on America here and having lived here close to ten years now, I admire most things American. It's a great country, and I think it's a positive thing to embrace the whole American Spirit. I think American Spirit is a pretty cool name.

Q. Stefan, so at this time you don't have sponsorship. You're just going on investors. Are you searching for sponsorship or not going to announce sponsorship at this time.

STEFAN JOHANSSON: A, we're not going to announce a sponsorship. We're talking to a number of sponsors but really our objective this year, that was my mandate when we started this, is we're funded to run the season and we want to basically spend this year on building very strong relationships. We're here for the long haul. We're a solid company, solid partners to build a very strong long-term relationship. That's going to lead us into the future. So we're not in a huge hurry to announce our sponsorship. We'd rather try to build something that's going to be very solid and long term.

Q. For Jimmy, I want to go back to that team player issue to try to beat it to death if I can. You're known as a team player, and what I'd like to know is, is there somebody in your career of racing who set that example for you or is that just in your nature to be a team player?

STEFAN JOHANSSON: I think it was early on in my racing career or my Indy car career with Rick Galles. He helped me out a lot, helped out my first year and then we spent a lot of time talking with Rick and watched how he ran his Indy car team. It's all about the team and both sides working together and drivers and everything. I think that's where I kind of got it instilled in me.

Q. We have talked to you several times in the last few months and whenever we ended the call, we always sensed that even though you were talking about doing some stock car racing, we felt like you were holding out like holding out, I'm not going to put words in your mouth, but it seemed like you were holding out just hoping you could stay in open wheel racing because you love it, and that's sense we got. Is that true?

JIMMY VASSER: Well, it's true that I do love open wheel racing in cars, and there were some uncertainties a few months back about the car count that are being answered, but I was always genuinely just waiting for the right things to come together. Whatever the right thing for me would be whatever came together, and I was also excited about Stefan's opportunity or potential of his team. There were some things that weren't finalized on his end yet.

Q. Ryan, this was one of the potential scenarios that you had to consider throughout the season and you said you would love to drive for Stefan. Are you satisfied with the results so far and can you now better quantify what your expectations and goals are?

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: 100 percent satisfied. I couldn't ask for a better situation for my first season. I have to pinch myself now and then. Really, my goals for this coming season, just learn as much as I can, and so much there, but don't get me wrong, from the first test, I'm there to win races. I'm there to learn. So rookie of the year would be a goal and I am really just learn from all the experience of the team. Jimmy, as we've been talking about and myself, are just going to take advantage of every opportunity.

Q. For any of you following up on the Reynard discussion, do you feel ongoing development on the chassis might be directed this year?

STEFAN JOHANSSON: Well, there are some things happening which makes me comfortable. There's going to be some pretty good development. We obviously have some things ourselves. But we think there's some things in the pipeline that's going to make us that makes me feel very comfortable right now.

Q. Stefan, with the American Spirit team name kind of makes us wonder what the cars are going to look like. Do you have the design?

STEFAN JOHANSSON: Yeah, pretty cool. I think, obviously, they're going to incorporate the American colors and it will be kind of a retro look. It's going to be a nice package.

ERIC MAUK: Do you want to announce your car numbers to the media?

STEFAN JOHANSSON: Yes, we can do that. We got car number 31 for Ryan and we procured number 12 for Jimmy, again obviously, bringing back the memories for him.

Q. When Jimmy was testing the Busch car you made it very clear that the priority was the CART program. Stefan, do you have any worries about his diversifying like that?

STEFAN JOHANSSON: No, not at all. Jimmy is very professional just like myself. He's been doing this for so many years, it's not a hard thing to adapt to different cars.

Q. Jimmy, a few months back when everything was looking pretty good, did you have concerns about even if you had an opportunity going into CART thinking maybe the competition might be down with the drivers leaving the series, and have those worries been removed?

JIMMY VASSER: I think doubts all around how many cars so forth, but I think even the perception down in Daytona the last couple days, the perception had turned 180 degrees about the series now. The cars looks good, looks like it's getting better and people are really pulling for it, so I think it's really a pleasant surprise in the last month or two in the cars and driving at that point. I'm very excited about how it's shaping up and drivers coming in.

Q. Recently a lot of bad press about some of the older drivers, are there any drivers you drove with last year that don't have rides now that you'd like to see back for competitive edge?

JIMMY VASSER: Well, lot of drivers bring that competitiveness. It would be nice to have top race winners like Bryan Herta and Max Papis, but there are a lot of good, young drivers that are very good so there's a lot will more to it than just trying to get a guy in. But young guys are coming in as well, and that will add a lot of credibility to the series.

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