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Indy Racing League Media Conference

Open Wheel Racing Topics:  Indy Racing League

Indy Racing League Media Conference

Wade Cunningham
Dennis Reinbold
Al Unser Jr.
Dan Wheldon
March 21, 2006

TOM SAVAGE: Good afternoon, everyone. We'd like to thank you for joining us on today's Indy Racing League teleconference. Today we have last year's Indy Pro Series and IndyCar Series champions on the call. Following questions and answers from Wade Cunningham and Dan Wheldon, we'll welcome Al Unser, Jr. and Dennis Reinbold, who earlier announced they have teamed up and entered the 90th running of the Indianapolis 500.
I'd also like to remind everyone that tomorrow ABC and ESPN will be hosting a teleconference at 12:00 noon eastern time. Guests on the call include Marty Reid, Scott Goodyear, Rusty Wallace and Rich Feinberg. To join tomorrow's teleconference, participants need to call 913-981-5572.
First on today's call we welcome the 2006 IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon. Dan, I imagine that introduction never gets old.
DAN WHELDON: No, absolutely not. I had a fantastic year last year. I achieved two of the biggest dreams I've ever had. To realize them and try to defend them this year is going to be pretty special.
You know what's also great for me is I've moved to Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Chip is somebody that I respect immensely. As I think everybody knows in racing, he's a guy that can put together a fantastic race team. I'm looking forward to being part of his team and looking to continue our success.
TOM SAVAGE: Your results from the Homestead test a couple weeks ago must give you some confidence heading into the season. You and your teammate Scott Dixon were at the top. Your thoughts going into '06 especially after that test?
DAN WHELDON: I think it's also very difficult to know exactly how you're going to perform. There's a lot of stuff that goes on in testing. Particularly with the way the testing is in the IndyCar Series, you don't get much, so you have to achieve a lot in a short period of time. That sometimes means some people aren't all out in qualifying trim or race trim. It's just up to us to do the best job we can possibly do.
I think certainly the team is very motivated to do well. They've now got Honda engines. I think they've obviously got two people that they believe can contend for the championship. That's what we intend to do. Chip doesn't do things by halves, he only does things right. That's what we've got to do this year to make sure he's in a much better mood at the end of the season.
TOM SAVAGE: Not a lot of time with Dan today so we'll open it up for questions for Dan Wheldon.
Q. This season, as the defending champion of the IRL IndyCar season, how different is it to seasons past when you were shooting for your first championship?
DAN WHELDON: That's a good question. I think, believe it or not, you become more motivated because certainly the season I had last year I very much enjoyed. You know, it's great to be at the top of the sport that you've dreamed about being at the top of.
I've changed teams, which has really kind of given me more energy. I think, like I said earlier, even more motivation. I'm looking forward to trying to achieve exactly the same as I did last year.
I've always dreamt of winning the Indianapolis 500 and the championship, as all young guys do. So to have achieved that, it's fantastic. But going into this season, everybody forgets that. It's about trying to do the same.
With Chip, he does things right. He knows how to win the big races, he knows how to win the championships. That's what Scott and I intend to do for him. We intend to deliver for him. We intend to deliver for him in a professional manner, but also in a fun manner. I've had a lot of fun the last few years and I want to continue that.
It's great to be coming back to Indianapolis. Certainly to be coming back at champion is pretty special.
Q. You and Andy Brown, as teammates now calling the engineering shots, you were together once before, how quickly or has that magic returned because he is a guy that can win championships?
DAN WHELDON: Yeah, absolutely. I have a ton of confidence in Andy Brown and the rest of the engineering staff at Target Chip Ganassi Racing. That's one thing I've been very impressed with, the depth of knowledge and talent in that department is special. At the same time, you know, with the testing ban in the IndyCar Series, it does take more than two or three days to get used to somebody and used to what he wants from me, and he's got to get to know what makes me tick.
We've had very limited testing, so it's been difficult. But I think with the confidence we have in one another, that sped up the learning process, but it's still going to take time. I think as the season progresses, we should just get stronger and stronger together.
Q. What makes you tick?
Q. That simple?
DAN WHELDON: Yeah, absolutely.
Q. The league this year has taken a different tack on things with its publicity. They brought in Gene Simmons of Kiss, they have a rock anthem, "I am Indy," trying to make the IRL the coolest sport on wheels. You as the champion, what is your spin on this? How do you feel about being a rock star in a rocket ship?
DAN WHELDON: I think that's great. I've yet to see it done. I think the way a driver is judged on his performance is the race results. At the same time I think obviously talk is cheap, you've got to make sure if that's what you're coming in and doing, you've got to deliver.
I mean, everything sounds very promising so far, but what we'll have to see as the championship progresses exactly how good this partnership is going to be between the IndyCar Series and Gene Simmons.
I'm a person, I'm not scared to admit it, I like the spotlight, I thrive on that kind of stuff. I certainly believe the IndyCar Series, the on-track product is fantastic, and the personalities involved are fantastic. I do believe that we certainly could be that if we're marketed right. I think everybody in the series, whether it be the Dan Wheldon personality, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon personality, is willing to do what it takes to drive not only the series forward but each individual personality in that series happen. We've got to make sure that it happens and we don't just talk about it because it's a very pivotal year for the IndyCar Series.
TOM SAVAGE: Dan, we appreciate you calling in. Well see you this weekend down in Homestead.
DAN WHELDON: Thank you very much.
TOM SAVAGE: We'd now like to welcome 2006 Indy Pro Series champion Wade Cunningham to the call. 2006 marks the first time in Indy Pro Series history that the defending champion will return to the series to defend his title. Wade, can you give us your thoughts as you enter this season defending your title?
WADE CUNNINGHAM: First off, I know I've said it before, maybe not to you guys, but this year is really like a new championship for me. They've changed the schedule. We've got an even number of road courses and ovals. They've changed the technical regulations of the car. They've gone to the twin shock in the front. There's a lot of new drivers coming in and a massive amount of prize money up for grabs. It's really about going out there and doing something new this year.
Last year we won on consistency, finishing points. This year it's going to be completely different. I think it's going to be a battle for every checkered flag this year so we're just going to be going out there for race wins.
TOM SAVAGE: Did the increase in the purse help persuade you to come back to defend your title this year?
WADE CUNNINGHAM: Honestly, I think I would have come back anyway. I still believe this is the best place to make it to the IndyCar Series, short of being a Formula One test driver or coming out of Formula One or Champ Car for that matter. Racing on ovals in America, this is the only series in an open-wheel car where you can do that. I'm happy to be here.
TOM SAVAGE: Your thoughts about running more road races this year. This year the Pro Series is six ovals and six road courses.
WADE CUNNINGHAM: I'm happy. I came from karting obviously. I ran Formula Ford 2000 after that, which was all road courses. I adapted well to the ovals last year and I really enjoyed the racing on the ovals, how close it is, how mentally challenging it is.
The road courses are fun, but I'm really getting into the ovals. They're still new for me. I'm glad we've got them as well.
TOM SAVAGE: Last year at Homestead I believe was your first oval, is that correct?
TOM SAVAGE: You obviously liked that place, third last year. Give us your thoughts about Homestead, especially after that last test.
WADE CUNNINGHAM: It's a reasonably challenging course. It's tougher than, say, Chicago or Fontana 'cause it's paperclip shaped. It's got the multiple areas of banking, which is good. You can run side by side there. It's going to be a tough race. The Sam Schmidt cars are quick there, (indiscernible) was quick last year. We've got a battle on our hands.
TOM SAVAGE: Did you give much consideration to running the No. 1 this season?
WADE CUNNINGHAM: Straightaway (laughter).
TOM SAVAGE: You're from New Zealand, as is IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon. Can you tell bus that relationship a bit.
WADE CUNNINGHAM: Funnily enough, I didn't know Scott until I arrived in America at the start of last year. We were in very different circles. He moved to formula car racing when he was 12. I continued in my karting until I was 19. We never crossed paths in New Zealand. It wasn't until I arrived up here and got introduced that we became friends.
Q. Who do you think are the people to beat this year? Added quite a few new drivers. Who do you think are the tough ones to beat for the championship?
WADE CUNNINGHAM: Obviously Jay Howard is in a very good car this year. I think he's going to be up the front a lot. We can't discount Jeff Simmons, he has had a lot of experience since '99 and 2000 in Indy Lights. He's been around the cars, he knows the packages. Then you have more new drivers. Bobby Wilson coming in. He was my teammate in 2004 in Formula Ford 2000. I obviously know he's very quick. I think there are going to be some surprise packages and we'll just have to see who they are at the first race.
Q. You were in the top five an awful lot last year. Do you think you can do that again this year or are you going to be the top one?
WADE CUNNINGHAM: As I said, we had 13 top-five finishes last year in 14 events. I think we got lucky in a few of them. I think we deserved the majority.
This year for me it's not really about consistency, it's about getting up front and winning. We're going to be pushing hard all year. We're going to be taking the chances, the 50/50s, that we didn't take last year. Saying that on the road courses, we've got a very interesting qualifying system this year. They have the top six inverted for the second race on the two double-header weekends. That's going to a throw a spin at Infineon and St. Petersburg.
TOM SAVAGE: Wade, thank you very much for joining us. We will see you this weekend down at Homestead.
WADE CUNNINGHAM: Thanks for having me.
TOM SAVAGE: Joining us now on the call is two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Al Unser, Jr. and Dennis Reinbold. Earlier today they entered the 90th running of the Indianapolis 500 with Unser as the driver. First, Dennis, let's talk with you. Welcome to the call. Can you tell us a little bit about today's announcement in some more detail?
DENNIS REINBOLD: Thank you. It's good to be here. I guess this started about three or four weeks ago when I got -- one of our crew guys was very excited and said that Al Jr., wanted to come back. I called Al. He was planning to come to Homestead, so we got together several times over the test session down in Homestead.
From our standpoint, we already -- we were working on putting things together for a second car anyway. I guess I just really wanted to talk with Al. I could see the sparkle in his eye. I knew that he wanted to get back in a race car pretty bad.
We really seemed to have a really good fit with a lot of the people we have on our team. For him coming in, it's pretty exciting. We're really looking forward to it.
TOM SAVAGE: Al, welcome back to the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, which I know is very close to your heart. You must be very excited about this new partnership. Can you give us your thoughts?
AL UNSER, JR.: You bet. Thank you very much. I want to thank everybody for being with us today. I am very super excited about coming back to Indianapolis and running the Indy 500. I just want to thank Dreyer Reinbold and Robbie Buhl, the whole team, for us getting together down at Homestead and making this a possibility.
TOM SAVAGE: Al, last time you were in an IndyCar was Richmond in 2004. Have there been some times over the past months since June of '04 you've been itching to get back in a race car?
AL UNSER, JR.: Well, to be honest, not right away I wasn't. As time went on and I was watching the races more and more, it's in my blood. What can I say? I just love racing. So now I'm making an effort to come back. We've made it possible.
TOM SAVAGE: Welcome back. We'll open it up for questions for Dennis Reinbold and Al Unser, Jr.
Q. I know Michael is going to be running with Marco. Do you have any sense if your son is going to be involved in the 500 as far as IndyCars go? If so, what would it mean for you to run with him?
AL UNSER, JR.: I think for sure it's the ultimate goal for my son to race in the Indy 500. The sooner the better. I would love for him to come back and compete and so on. It could happen this year. It could happen next year. But I would love to see it happen for sure.
Q. How do you prepare for just this one single race? Even though you have lots of experience with it, how do you get ready so have you those superlative reflexes to win that race?
AL UNSER, JR.: Well, we've been working out since January. I took my son down to see Pat Etcheberry down at Saddle Brook where I had done some training before. There's going to be plenty of practice. We'll be running in the open test on the 5th and 6th of April and then we'll get after it during the month of May.
With all the past experience, it should come right back to us.
Q. Seems to me when you stepped away, you were questioning whether you belonged in these cars in this day. How do you get over that? How do you decide you really do belong?
AL UNSER, JR.: Well, I just -- the past is the past. There was a time there that I wasn't loving what I was doing. Since I got out of the car, I've gotten into a real estate partnership. I played some golf. My wife and I, we've picked up tennis. It's just not doing it for me.
The Indy 500 is my true love. We're going to go back there. I really feel that with my teammates, Buddy Lazier, I think we can make some real exciting things happen with the Dreyer Reinbold team.
Q. This has traditionally been a pretty good team, but it's also fallen short. It hasn't won the Indy 500. What are realistic expectations?
AL UNSER, JR.: Well, one of the key things that is all a part of it is the engine package. I really feel that the engine package, with Honda in all of the cars, is a great equalizer. I really feel that we've had teams that weren't totally perfect teams before, and have gone and won races and championships. You know, if things fall in the right place, anything can happen.
Q. Do you kind of feel with the scenario, the situation as it was back in '04, the team that you were with was struggling, they didn't get any better after you left, that maybe in a different situation you may have left a little too soon?
AL UNSER, JR.: I just want to stay away from the past. The past is what it is. My life is just totally different. I'm married now. I'm super happy. I'm just looking forward. The Dreyer Reinbold team, they're great people. Robbie Buhl is a great person. Buddy Lazier, he's a great champion. I feel that we have a great opportunity to kind of do a magical thing that my dad did back in '87.
Q. Your dad showed up without a ride and he ended up in Victory Lane. I'm sure that's got to be -- that's left a lasting impression on you about making history repeat itself.
AL UNSER, JR.: That just proves that it can happen. That's all that that proves. I mean, you know, we don't have any - how should I say it - unforeseen miracles or anything like that are just automatically going to happen. We're going to have to work for it. You know, this is -- it's a dream, but dreams come true. But you do have to work hard.
Q. You're the only team in the race that's got two defending Indy 500 winners on it. That's got to be something that is a little bit of a thing to be proud of. Talk about having a guy like Buddy as your teammate.
AL UNSER, JR.: Well, just knowing Buddy and racing against Buddy, I think that we get along very well. We've never worked with each other officially, but I'll be down at Homestead, I'll be at St. Pete and working with the team.
Q. Did Michael Andretti's announcement that he was going to run in Indy influence you at all?
AL UNSER, JR.: No, it didn't. No, it didn't. The itch for me and missing the racing started quite a while ago. It finally got to a point where we had to scratch it. We went down to Homestead. Like Dennis said actually, I was talking to an old crew member of mine that actually started with me with the (indiscernible) team, went to Kelly, now he's with Dreyer Reinbold, so it was just -- we were talking, and that's how it started, exactly the way Dennis said.
Q. What did you miss most about racing?
AL UNSER, JR.: Everything, everything. I mean, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the fans, everything. It's in my blood. What can I say?
Q. How important is it in this league not only to have names like yourself and Michael Andretti in the news, but in the future your son and also Marco Andretti, with him coming in as a rookie? How important is it for the league to have those names back in the sport?
AL UNSER, JR.: Well, I think it definitely can't hurt to have the Andretti name and the Unser name. They've been there for a very long time and have been very successful at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. These are families that are legends. It can only be a plus.
Q. Is there a conscious thought on your part at all that maybe not an obligation but this is something you can do because of your name, help build the profile of the sport?
AL UNSER, JR.: I'm doing this because I love racing. I got out of it. I guess there's some things that you don't know what you have until it's gone. I've been doing this since I was nine years old and so on. I missed it incredibly. I'm coming back for me, to get the love back.
Q. Your dad won four times, your uncle three times. Any sense of that you have to at least catch Bobby?
AL UNSER, JR.: No. Just to win the Indy 500 once is a dream come true. Sure, it would be nice to sit at the dinner table and go, "I've got three wins like Uncle Bobby." Realistically these guys are legends. The sport is super competitive. What can I say? To win the Indy 500 is a very, very fortunate day for anybody who wins it.
Q. If we were still in the situation we were in last year where you had one dominant engine and two that were struggling, would you be making this kind of comeback? Would it be worth it to you?
AL UNSER, JR.: I do feel that everybody running the Honda is definitely an equalizer. It's going to come down to car preparation, it's going to come down to the engineers. It's going to come down to great strategy in the race and so on.
The timing is what it is. I missed the Indy last year and I don't want to miss it again.
Q. I know a lot has been said about Michael coming back, but also Eddie Cheever. Now that you're back, I don't mean this disrespectful at all, but in a way is it almost becoming a little bit like the seniors tour?
AL UNSER, JR.: I don't know. If you look at Marco and Dan Wheldon, Tony Kanaan, Danica Patrick, I don't think they'd call it a seniors tour.
Q. Because of these young kids, they're going to really push some of you old guys pretty hard.
AL UNSER, JR.: The Indy 500 has always had different age groups from the young to the old. No, it's going to be a strong competitive race, just like it always has been and always will be.
TOM SAVAGE: Gentlemen, thank you very much.
AL UNSER, JR.: I want to thank everybody for joining us today.

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