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Champ Car Media Conference

Open Wheel Racing Topics:  Champ Car

Champ Car Media Conference

Ryan Hunter-Reay
Leonardo Maia
Jimmy Vasser
August 18, 2003

ERIC MAUK: Thank you all for joining us today for the CART Champ Car media teleconference. Today we are joined by a pair of Champ Car drivers as well as the new Barber Dodge Pro Series champion Leo Maia. We are joined today by Jimmy Vasser and Ryan Hunter-Reay, two drivers for American Spirit Team Johansson who are coming off their best weekend as a team of the season after the Champ Car Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio, and heading into the Molson Indy Montreal, and for Leo Maia, the 2003 Barber Dodge champion, heading into the final Barber Dodge race of the year, having already clinched the championship. However, he can set a series record by picking up his seventh victory of the year if he does so in the Molson Indy Montreal. Thanks for joining us today and taking time to talk to the media. We'll introduce Jimmy Vasser, driver of the #12 American Spirit Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone, coming off what could have been a very strong run at Mid-Ohio, had some problems in qualifying, absolutely tore through the field, made one of the better charges of the season, getting all the way up to fourth before an unfortunate error ended his day. Jimmy, just take us back through that. Obviously, you've had great cars before; you had another strong car at Mid-Ohio. Take us through that weekend.

JIMMY VASSER: Well, yeah, I think the engineering department did a good job preparing us for the race. I did a test day at Mid-Ohio, pretty much the only testing we've done really as a team. It just -- we found a few things, but it kind of backed up the theory that the starting setup was pretty close, the car felt pretty balanced, pretty good. I think we were confident going in that we were going to have decent cars for both Ryan and myself. On my side of the team, we made some mistakes from the get-go. We were competitive Friday with a lot of fuel in the car all day long (inaudible), but still not too bad really for the amount of fuel we had. Then Saturday obviously for those that know what's going on on the race weekend, we didn't even get to qualify basically. But Ryan qualified real well, showed again that the cars were quick. Then obviously my race, starting in the back, you know, I was a little bit surprised that it was easy to -- it was easier to move through the field than I was anticipating. We had alternative plans to go out of sequence in the strategy, but I waved those off because I felt the car was real strong. I thought that I had made some moves up till lap 10 early on, and I felt like I could get off the keyhole good and close enough to cars in front of me that, you know, would enable me to break them down off the back straight. The guys did a good job in the pits all day long. The car was fantastic up until the point where, you know, I made a mistake and got a little too much wheel spin over the rise on the backside. Just came around a little too much for me and just soft control, threw it away. That was kind of a drag. But certainly, you know, I thought that it showed well for the team obviously with Ryan. Ryan did a good job. You know, he showed if he has the car with some speed, that he qualified the car up there and ran a good race. You know, brought it home on the podium, which is a good thing for the team.

ERIC MAUK: Obviously, you've been around a while. You've been with a lot of the top flight teams with the series. You won the series championship in '96. You're with a rookie team this year, but a team that seems to be starting to be putting it together. Are you happy with where things are at the moment?

JIMMY VASSER: You're never happy, are you? I mean, we still have the Reynard chassis, which is, you know, pretty much a disadvantage across the board. And we're still working some things out. Unfortunately, I got some problems on my side of the engineering over the last week, might be having some changes there for next weekend. That's not a good thing. Ed Nasman (phonetic) left the team late last week. You know, I'm trying to coax him back. The best thing for me is to have him finish out the season, but I'm not sure that's even a possibility now. So, you know, you're always having hurdles put in front of you. Some you can see down the road, some they just kind of pop up in front of you. You're never really happy. But certainly, you know, last weekend I think was a booster for the team. It's going to be interesting to see if that momentum gain from Mid-Ohio is something that the team can feed off of. You know, sometimes they can, and sometimes they can't. It's going to be up to the team. While we wish that's the case, you know, it remains to be seen.

ERIC MAUK: Heading into this weekend's event, the Molson Indy Montreal, 2.709 mile permanent road course in Montreal, your 200th career start. Tell us what that means to you, to make 200 career starts in Champ Car.

JIMMY VASSER: Well, I think, you know, it's pretty cool. I haven't been really looking forward to it for very long. They kind of told me it's coming up. You know, it's just a number, right? I had my 199th last weekend. Didn't seem that big of a deal. But I guess it means I'm getting old, right (laughter)?

ERIC MAUK: Not quite yet.

JIMMY VASSER: 200 starts. But that's cool. You know, I thought -- when I started, you don't think you're going to race that many races. When I first started, my first few years in Champ Car, I thought, man, if I could have a 10-year career, that would be fantastic. After a couple years ago, after I achieved that, I thought, you know, didn't really think about the numbers so much. But I guess that's a cool thing.

ERIC MAUK: Absolutely. Here is to hoping we'll be talking about 250, 300.

JIMMY VASSER: Easy, man. I don't think so, bro. 300 (laughter)?

ERIC MAUK: I'd like to bring in Ryan Hunter-Reay, driver of the #31 American Spirit Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone. Ryan, a graduate of the Champ Car ladder system, started in the Barber Dodge Pro Series, competed in the Toyota Atlanta series, now running his rookie season in the Champ Cars, coming off his best race as a Champ Car driver in the Champ Car Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio two weeks ago, in which he started second, and finished third, ran up front all day, earned his first podium and the first podium for American Spirit Team Johansson. Ryan, after the event, everything was all smiles. You kind of didn't really look like the whole thing had sunk in yet. Now that you had a week to think about it, what does earning that first podium mean to you?

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: It's absolutely huge, as you can imagine. It's just excellent. You know, like you say, it didn't really sink in that day too much just because it's all kind of surreal. But, yeah, it's definitely here. It's sunk in. Now I got to go do the job again in Montreal. Hopefully we can get the car. Like Jimmy said, hopefully we can feed off of it and continue.

ERIC MAUK: Do you feel a little more confident? Do you feel a little more acclimated, raring to go for the next event?

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: Oh, sure I am, absolutely. You know, I'm very optimistic. But I am a realist. We do have a Reynard. Some of these tracks we go to, we're going to be at quite a disadvantage. You know, I know that. We'll just go, we'll work like we did at Mid-Ohio and see what we come out with. Hopefully the engineering department will do as good a job off the track and hopefully I'll do as good a job on the track, and hopefully the pit crew will do everything there, and we'll get hopefully a similar result. I'm just looking to hopefully get within the top five this weekend. That would be great. You know, we've got a bit of a hurdle to jump, as well, with some of the personnel on the team. We'll see how it goes. I mean, we're just going race by race here.

ERIC MAUK: Tell us your thoughts on Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Tell us about that racetrack.

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: Been there once really in Atlantics. It was a great track, love it. Big straights, chicanes. I love it to a certain extent. It's not like one of my favorites. But, you know, the event itself is unbelievable. The fans there are so supportive, it's such a great event for CART. The cars will be great there. The racing will be great. You know, I can't wait. For sure, I can't wait. I also saw Carpentier qualified fourth there last year. That gives us a glimmer of hope.

ERIC MAUK: Patrick qualifying fourth there last year in a Reynard just like you guys will be driving. 168,000 fans came out last year for the three-day event. A lot of those will come out looking at our new Barber Dodge Pro Series champion, Leo Maia. First of all, congratulations on clinching the championship. First time we have a chance to talk to you on the media teleconference since then. Tell us what winning this championship means to you.

LEO MAIA: Thanks a lot for the congratulations there. I mean, the championship means so much to me just because going into this season, man, I've been working so hard off the track, on the track, doing everything I can to win the championship, really dedicating myself like a hundred percent. When you really dedicate yourself like that, you really focus on something, you work really hard to get something, I mean, when it comes true, it's just a really enormous feeling of satisfaction, like a real big feeling of accomplishment. It means the world to me and, you know, on top of that, you still get the Career Enhancement Award the Pro Series provides, $100,000, try to move up into Atlantics next year, and the two-day test with the No. 1 team in the Toyota Atlantics right now. It's just great in every respect.

ERIC MAUK: The Career Enhancement Award, like you said, moving up to Toyota Atlantics, providing that money for a Toyota Atlantic ride next year. You're on the line with two other guys that have taken that same path, gone up the CART ladder system, having success in Champ Cars, as Jimmy has had for a long time now. Does it make you feel a little better about your future, seeing what these guys have now done, knowing they came from the same background as you did?

LEO MAIA: Oh, yeah. To see Ryan on the podium was inspirational for me. I'm trying to follow in his footsteps, you know. You know, he's sort of the proof that the ladder system works. You know, all the critics out there who said anything that Atlantics or American drivers couldn't cut it or that European drivers are better, I think Ryan showed them, you know, last weekend the truth really, that American drivers are just as quick as anyone, probably quicker than all those Europeans, you know. But, you know, it really gives me a lot of hope, you know, to see these guys come up through the same way I want to come up. The fact that they made it just, you know, gives me hope, it's that light at the end of the tunnel that makes me work even harder.

ERIC MAUK: We'll open it up to questions from the media.

Q. Thoughts on the Denver track now? It's still pretty thin, it's hard to pass on. Of course, it was rough last year. We have it pretty well smoothed out from what I understand. Your thoughts on coming into Denver, chance to do well here, the Denver track a little rough last year. A lot of crashes because of the surface. Supposed to be a lot better this year, a lot smoother. Your thoughts coming back in? It's a tight course.

JIMMY VASSER: I hope it's smoother. It was really bumpy last year. I had just come off in a test in the off-road buggy that I raced in the Baja 1000. Thought it was more bumpy at Denver than the off-road buggy, for sure. Anyhow, that's part of the challenge, is the track. Also there was a section where it was extremely slippery and the pavement they had put down had zero grip on it, so it was kind -- it was a strange course. The race was good. I like the layout. I think it was a great venue for a show like that. But, you know, a lot of street circuits we go on are tight. That's okay. As long as the surface is good and the grip levels are good, then you can race hard, have a couple decent braking zones to go for some overtaking maneuvers. You know, I like Denver as a city. I think it's a great venue for us. As far as the track surface goes, that remains to be seen.

Q. It was an interesting race from the standpoint last year that kind of once the green flag went down, you guys got into a single file mode that carried on for almost 60 some laps. Do you see that kind of as a possibility again this year because of the tightness of the course?

JIMMY VASSER: It's always a possibility, you know, with Champ Cars. You know, the competition level is so tight, it's hard to pass somebody that, you know, you might be a 10th or two, a lap quicker, especially if they don't want to let you by. But this year, we're not allowed to really throw any blocking maneuvers. You have to leave a braking zone open on the inside. Also, there's no traction control. So I would guess that you probably won't see that this year. I think there's more opportunity for more of a wide-open race.

Q. Hunter, your situation, I don't think you probably raced in Denver, have you?

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: I did race there last year in Atlantics.

Q. Your thoughts on the course then?

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: Well, I just -- like Jimmy said, it was incredibly bumpy in an Atlantic car. I can only imagine what it would be like in a Champ Car. I love the event itself. The layout is great, that big long straight down to that tight braking zone will create a lot of passing this year.

Q. That turn between four and five?

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: I think so, yeah. Hopefully the bumpy situation will be a little bit better. The track will be a bit smoother. But, I mean, I can't wait to get there in a Champ Car for sure. You know, last year the bumps cut me out going into one. I ended up turning the car around. You know, qualified well there. I think I qualified second there last year. Hopefully it will be good again this year.

Q. Jimmy, Sam Hornish came within a couple milliseconds of your speed record yesterday. How much of a sense of pride do you have about that mark? Pretty impressive mark you threw up at Fontana. How would you like to see it stay up there as an open-wheel record for speed?

JIMMY VASSER: I don't know, it sounds kind of cool, 'fastest race ever.' It's really a product of how many yellows there are, the distance of the race. Our race was a 500-mile race that I had only a couple yellows. Potentially the race speed could be in the 220s. But it's just a product of yellows. Yesterday's race didn't have a lot of yellows, I think they had one. The race distance was only 300 miles. I mean, if you had a hundred mile race with no yellows... It's just a product of the math. I think it sounds cool and all that, but it's really not a feat of gritting your teeth and making a faster race. Qualifying, usually it's a product of that. It looked to me -- I saw the race off and on a bit. Didn't really get a chance to watch the whole thing. Looked to me like Sam drove a great race. His car was fast. Whatever that engine is, whatever they call it, I guess they call it a Chevrolet. I know who built it, I know the guys who built it. I think they should be very proud. They built a good engine. The guys at Cosworth do a heck of a lot on a really limited budget compared to the likes of TRD and HPD. I think they should be proud.

Q. I remember talking last year after Long Beach about two Americans, you and Michael Andretti were on the podium with Max. You said you like the international flavor of the series. You have the American flags. When you hear people make comments about American drivers, you have a pretty easygoing personality, does that get your dander up? How to you react to denigrating comments about American drivers?

JIMMY VASSER: I think it's not very smart on their part. I certainly don't take it personal because I know they're not talking about me (laughter). But, you know, I think -- you know, everybody is entitled to their opinion, right? There are some fantastic drivers around the world. I think the problem is, it's not the lack of speed in the American drivers' genetic makeup, it's just a lack of, in my opinion, support, national support. There's not a lot of nationalism from the lower formula on up. I mean, an American driver can't drive a Player's car. It's only for Canadian drivers. It would be tough for an American to get in the Gigante car or the Tecate car because they're only for Mexicans. This is around the world. They have young driver programs in many different countries around the world, South America, Europe, so forth. They really don't have one -- they haven't had one for long here. If they do, I know they have the Red Bolt thing going on, they haven't had a really organized system that supports and champions young American drivers. I think it's just because there's too many things for the Americans to get into. There's football, baseball, basketball, you know, just a lot of different things. There's just not a lot of enthusiasm for the support side of it. I think those things are changing with what Ryan has gone through and what Leo talked about, young guys coming up. AJ Allmendinger is coming up. He's, for sure, a great talent, as well. I think we're going to see some more come up. A lot of young American drivers go the way of the Saturday night tracks, the dirt tracks, the fairgrounds, with hopes to make it into NASCAR. I think that's kind of the case. I don't take anything personally.

Q. I didn't think you did. Ryan, could you answer that question, too? Against the backdrop of what JJ has done, the names he has surpassed are royalty, AJ Foyt, of open-wheel racing in America. Somebody the other day said our path to the next level is NASCAR. That's preposterous when we have people like you and him in open-wheel cars.

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: What do you mean, just about support for American drivers?

Q. Yes.

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: Basically, I think it's like a trend or something like that. I you know, this guy has cool jeans or I want them too, something like that. They keep saying the same thing, like American drivers can't get it done. Really, I had the car that could compete in Mid-Ohio, and ended up doing it. I have a car that's equal to Manning or Haberfeld or any of these guys who have won three championships, this, that and the other. I'm right there competing with them, beating them. So it just doesn't hold any water really at all. I think Jimmy hit it on the head. We don't have a proper support system here for American drivers.

Q. Heading into Montreal, which is such a fabulous racetrack, do you guys feel the history of the place? I know it's going to be a better track for you than some of the other road courses because it is pretty smooth. Does that play into your preparations?

LEO MAIA: I thought it was for the Champ Car drivers.

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: The track is pretty smooth. You do have to realize we clobber (inaudible) there. We'll lift the car a foot off the air going over some of those curbs. The surface itself may be pretty smooth, but when it comes down to it, on a fast lap, on the racing line, you're actually lifting the car way off the ground, which is a disadvantage to the Reynard. It will have its ups and downs for us that weekend. But as for the Grand Prix track, you know, that's great, excellent. It's an honor to be racing there. Driving a car with 800 horsepower, 750 horsepower, with no traction control, no driver aids or anything like that, on a track like that, you can't do that anywhere else in the world.

Q. Should be a good show then.

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: Absolutely, it will be a great show.

Q. It will be tough because you do use the curbs a lot.

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: It may suit the Lola a little bit more going over the curbs like that. I'm a rookie so I have yet to speak from years and years of experience. I'm not really sure. But I would think that's the way it's going to go.

Q. Following up on one of the previous questions, Jimmy, Ryan, the lack of support for American drivers, now you both know I'm Canadian, and Mid-Ohio was quite exciting watching the US team, being that you were the only team with two US drivers, trying to chase down the Canadians. From a fan standpoint, it was wild. What do you guys do to get support for development? Clearly your cars are red, white and blue, American flag and all. Something like the US Postal Service would look on the side pods. Is the team looking at doing something like that?

JIMMY VASSER: I think absolutely, they're working very hard. I think there's some positive things going on for sponsorship. Some of it hinges on obviously what's going to happen with the series next year, waiting for a schedule, things along those lines. I know they do have some things working. They're working on them all year long. From my standpoint, it's very disappointing to see, you know, that we're struggling to achieve some good backing. You know, the whole theme of our team is American, and it's great. I think the aesthetics of the team are fantastic. The foundation is there. But, you know, we really need a good, solid sponsor. Obviously, a good, solid American company is what makes sense. I don't think either of us would have any problem, you know, even driving the Playtex Panty Liner Special, as long as we got good sponsorship, we could get out there and do some good development. I think that we're poised for a good future along those lines. You know, first and foremost, the future of the series needs to come into focus, then it will make it a lot easier for guys like Stefan to put the pieces together. But the Postal would be great. Coca-Cola would be a good, great, old-school American company, would be fantastic for us.

Q. It's definitely a huge hit in the financial pocketbook. Looking at the way the team has developed from almost a late starter into you guys being on the podium, damn close to it, I'm thinking that Stefan is almost a micromanager given that he's still an active racer and really is working hard. Can you talk about how he's developed the team, how it is working with him?

JIMMY VASSER: I mean, the team in its current state, it was his vision, probably minus a big sponsor. Stefan has a great history in many different types of motorsport over the years. He's kind of a detail guy. But yet I don't see him inside the team as a micromanager. I think he allows the people that he's hired to do their job and expects them to. You know, as we sit now, you know, some things could have been better throughout the season. We had certainly hoped to have better performance up to this point. But, you know, we didn't realize some of the challenges, the extra challenges, the Reynard was going to pose. As we sit now, like I said, Stefan has done a good job to put the team in this position to springboard forward. We're waiting on a few things to happen for us to be able to do that.

Q. Jimmy, I wanted to ask you, you and Paul Tracy have been friends for a long time. Just as a friend, obviously you'd rather see the American Spirit cars up front, but to see what's gone on, how things have fallen into place for him after what he's gone through, what has that been like as a friend to see him potentially chasing down a CART championship?

JIMMY VASSER: Well, I mean, he deserves to be a champion. He's been a great driver on the series for a long time, won a lot of races. I don't need to give you his resume. He's an exciting driver, great guy to have in the series. I know how hard he's been working, you know, over the last few years to get himself in this position. I think he deserves to be a champion. But having said that, he needs to make it happen. You know, in my opinion, I tell him the same thing, really it's his to lose. He's got arguably the best car out there, really he's got the most experience with the guys he's running the championship for. He needs to not do things like he did like at Elkhart Lake, not do things like I did at Mid-Ohio. He knows what he's got to do. You know, I hope he can win it. He is a friend. I think he'd be a great champion, great name to adorn the trophy. Bruno is not going to lay down, though. I think Jourdain is in there, too, with a good chance. He's real consistent. You know, it's going to be exciting to see what transpires over the next six races.

Q. To see the emotion that's been on hand for these Molson Indy events in Toronto and Vancouver, now a bigger one in Montreal, what is it like to see someone bask in the adulation of his countrymen like that?

JIMMY VASSER: I think it's cool. It's good to see. I'm a sports guy. I like to see things like that.

Q. Ryan, Jimmy, given that the first offer to buy CART has been thrown on the table officially this morning, don't need you guys to get political, about I'm curious, are you guys signed for next year or at least optioned?

JIMMY VASSER: Ryan, do you want to go with that one?

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: I mean, things have yet to kind of pan out in my situation. You know, hopefully American Spirit will be around. Hopefully it will be a successful organization. You know, a whole bunch of optimistic thoughts. At this point I need to concentrate on going to Montreal and doing a good job. I have no real news on my exact position for next year.

Q. Jimmy?

JIMMY VASSER: The team has an option on me. It's coming up. I'm not sure if they're going to be in a position to pick it up. Whether they do or not, it remains to be seen kind of what's going to go on with the series. I understand about the first offer to buy it out, so forth. But I'm also working in other arenas to see what transpires. For me, you know, if I can't put myself in a situation where I honestly think I can run for race wins and potentially a championship, then... This year has been a little frustrating to be racing where we are. We'll just have to see what transpires, make decisions when it's time.

Q. Fingers crossed. I'm sure we all are that way.

JIMMY VASSER: Absolutely.

ERIC MAUK: We'll let you get back to it. Got to go ahead and get up to Montreal. Best of luck to all of you. You can see final round qualifying live on SPEED Channel Saturday, 2 p.m. eastern, and you can catch the race also on SPEED channel, tape delayed basis, at 9 p.m. eastern. Thanks for joining us today.

JIMMY VASSER: Thank you.


LEO MAIA: Okay, thanks.

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