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June 6, 2006

Johnny Rutherford

Tomas Scheckter

TIM HARMS: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us for today's Indy Racing League teleconference. We're pleased to have two guests joining us today. Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, and our defending race winner for Texas, Mr. Tomas Scheckter. Good afternoon, gentlemen.
Johnny of course well-known as Lone Star JR. He continues to make his home in Fort Worth, site of this weekend's Bombardier Lear Jet 500. JR won the Indianapolis 500 in 1974, '76 and 1980. He's currently in charge of special projects for the Indy Racing League. Among his duties are those of driving the pace car for most of the IndyCar Series road series events.
Tomas Scheckter is in his fifth season in the IndyCar Series, this year driving the No. 2 car for Vision Racing. His sixth start at Texas Motor Speedway, Tomas has led more laps than any other IndyCar Series driver, 371 total laps, including 119 last year when he won the pole.
Gentlemen, I'll open up with a couple questions for each of you, then we'll open it up for questions from the media.
JR, as a driver of the pace car, do you have a favorite track on the circuit that we go to? What would make it your favorite?
JOHNNY RUTHERFORD: Oh, I think probably all of them. You know, that's the way I looked at it during my racing career, is I enjoy racing. I liked all tracks. I guess if you had to pick, you know, one, would be the Indianapolis Motor Speedway obviously for what it means and stands for. And then probably MIS in Michigan, Michigan International Raceway. It's a two-mile high-bank. The pace speeds are a little quicker there under the caution because of the racetrack.
TIM HARMS: So it's still about driving fast, right?
JOHNNY RUTHERFORD: Yeah, it still is (laughter).
TIM HARMS: What about a favorite car? Obviously at a place like Indianapolis, it's traditionally been a Corvette or the SSR. This year we have the Honda Accord Hybrid. Is there a car from a pace car standpoint that kind of stands out as one that's really fun to drive?
JOHNNY RUTHERFORD: Well, obviously because of the design, it's a Hot Rod to begin with, a Corvette, and the way the chassis it's on and the way it handles and everything, it's good. But I'm very impressed with the new Honda Accord Hybrid that we have. When I first heard we were going to have a hybrid, I thought, Oh, boy. I'm impressed with the power and the handling quality of the Accord. It's quite an automobile, I tell you what.
TIM HARMS: Part of your duties are also those of that of a driver consultant. What does that role entail exactly? How much are you interacting with guys like Tomas and the or drivers, feedback and advice?
JOHNNY RUTHERFORD: Well, it's not so much the veterans, Tim, because those guys are established. Tomas and the veterans have all established themselves. More or less it's been the new drivers. The term "rookie" doesn't apply, but it does because it's their first or second year. Just keeping an eye on the rookies.
I've given a lot of drivers tests. Just evaluate the drivers, give them their drivers tests when they're brand-new and haven't got a lot of background. Just kind of keeping an eye on them during the racing season, at all of the races, particularly Indianapolis with all of the little rules you have to kind of learn and establish for yourself, make sure they don't start any bad habits, things that we know will give them a problem later on down the road. Keep an eye on them more or less.
TIM HARMS: Texas Motor Speedway, celebrating its 10th anniversary of competition. What is your fondest memory of the IndyCar Series races that we've had down there?
JOHNNY RUTHERFORD: Oh, I think the fact that they've all been so close and they've been very competitive races. It's like the track and our formula with the cars were made for each other. It's very fast, and Tomas will tell you how close they run, how competitive it is. It's one of our tracks that showcases the IRL's cars and drivers very well. I can't think of any one particular race that was something that was a standout other than they all seemed to be very close, two or three cars under a blanket, four or five cars under a blanket at the finish line. It's a very exciting race and racetrack.
TIM HARMS: As we go back to Texas, coming off of last year's win, what is your excitement level?
TOMAS SCHECKTER: Especially going back, because we won there last year, but it's always a great track, a great atmosphere, racing there at night, the weather has always been great. It's something we've been struggling with a little bit this year.
But it's super. Even the day before when they're racing other events, what we'll do, I'll jump on top of my motorhome, we'll get the (indiscernible) going, we'll jump on top of my motorhome and watch a race. It's a good atmosphere. Fans love it. I think it's proper IRL racing.
TIM HARMS: You've led, as I mentioned, more laps there than anybody else, including laps in three of the six races there. What is it about you and the track that just tend to produce that type of result, you getting up front?
TOMAS SCHECKTER: I'm not sure. Every time I got into that track, we were quick, whichever car I've got into. I'm not sure if it suits me or we seem to get the best out of the car or maybe I just enjoy being there. I don't have a proper explanation.
I mean, one of the things is I do like to race side by side, and I've got no problem doing that for 200 laps every race. I mean, maybe that's one thing. I'm not sure, though.
TIM HARMS: Vision Racing, you joined them earlier this year, only in its second season and really starting the season, very strong results. Tell us about your experience with the team, what you've seen from them since joining them?
TOMAS SCHECKTER: Yeah, for sure. I mean, obviously we got to think we're racing against Penske, Ganassi and Andretti. To have the team in its second year, to have led some laps like we did last race, to be running in the top five like we were at Indy, I mean, just shows what this team can deliver if we get all our chips aligned.
I'm still driving the wheels off the car sometimes, maybe a little too much to try to get it up there. But, you know, it's developing so much. Larry and everybody on the engineering staff, they're working flat out. The guys on the crew are working flat out. You can see how quickly it's changed around.
There's certainly still a lot left for the team to develop, but we're heading in the right direction. Definitely looking forward to getting a Vision car in Victory Lane soon.
TIM HARMS: Let's open it up for questions.
Q. JR, I wanted to ask you, from your perspective as a former driver and maybe more so as a driver right now, how did you look at that on-track confrontation last week between Eddie Cheever and Marco?
JOHNNY RUTHERFORD: Well, I was in the pace car and we were staged right in that area. Marco probably came across in front of us not more than 10 feet away, plugged into the tire barrier on the opposite side of the track.
I didn't see the way it started, but I talked with Al Unser who was up in the control watching the monitors. It appears that Eddie was being overtaken by Marco, and Eddie moved to the right to let Marco by on the inside, and Marco chose to go to the right, and they came together. That's my knowledge about the incident.
I know Marco was plenty upset when he got out of the car. In fact, he came over to the pace car and took his helmet and HANS device off and threw the gloves and helmet and set it on top of the pace car. It was a caution.
We had to go pick up the leaders. We had to tell him, Marco, you've got to get a ride with somebody else, we're busy right now.
Q. From what you've seen of Marco's driving so far, make some comments on how he's progressing?
JOHNNY RUTHERFORD: Well, the young man certainly displays a lot of talent. I think the thing he needs to do is, just like every young driver who is beginning, is get experience. If he can couple his experience knowledge with his driving, he ought to be a winner, that's for sure.
Q. Tomas, could you go back and explain your reasoning, your decision to go to Vision Racing. Did you see Panther as a team in decline or was it a money deal? What prompted your move?
TOMAS SCHECKTER: Well, to be honest, at that stage Panther didn't know exactly what was going on. Obviously, we were speaking to the people at Vision. They wanted me to make a decision. You know, I loved everybody at Panther. I enjoyed working with John Barnes, everybody there, Doug Boles. Really, it was a case of, I was on the phone a lot to John saying, What was going on? He said, Tomas, I can't confirm anything for next year sponsorship-wise, so we're not sure whether we can hold you another year.
It got to the stage where I just had to make a decision and say, Look, I need to be in a car. I need to make sure I'm set in a car for next year. I couldn't wait that long.
Vision, I sat down and spoke with them a lot, saw Larry and what he's done with his career, what he was saying what he wanted to do with the team, and thought it was a good decision to go over there for this year.
Q. Does it seem weird to you to see that car out there without a sponsor?
TOMAS SCHECKTER: It does. It does. Which, the Vision car or the Panther car?
Q. I guess Panther more than anything right now. You guys, too, are also looking for a backer.
TOMAS SCHECKTER: Yeah, we did something great with Rock Republic for the month of May. I'm not sure, but hopefully they'll be back soon to do something. I think they all had a good time and enjoyed it.
Yeah, sure, the Panther car, it's funny to see it in the traditional yellow Pennzoil car, such a beautiful car, so much history in IndyCars. John and everybody, it's a great organization there at Panther Racing. They'll get it together for sure. You can obviously see from the racing side and engineering side, they've done a great job, put Vitor in second last race.
Q. Do you think Vitor is the proverbial victory waiting to happen?
TOMAS SCHECKTER: Yeah, I mean, I think there's a lot of people out there that it's waiting to happen. It's tough now. It's (indiscernible) for the Penskes, Vision, even Andrettis it's tough. When you have Penske and Ganassi that are really a level ahead, they've got two great drivers in each team. So you need to have an unbelievable day. Your car needs to be perfect. You need to have a lot of luck on your side to get ahead of those two teams.
Q. Tomas, a track like Texas is not an easy one, but with you leading so many laps there, at what point did you really find a secret or find something that worked? Has it just been very easy for you to apply it every year?
TOMAS SCHECKTER: Yeah, I sort of just got out there and went quick no matter what. I'm not sure how many poles we have there either. You know, the cars just seem to work with me. I'm not sure if the stars are aligned every time I get out there.
But, you know, people have problems at the track, and I sort of just have a clear run every time I get there. Hopefully it will stay the same this year as well.
Q. Regarding Vision, when you came aboard, what was your timetable in mind about becoming competitive and where the team was headed? How did you expect one or both cars to be up there? Did you really foresee what's happening this year?
TOMAS SCHECKTER: Yeah, that's a good question. Did I set a time limit? No, you know, I just try to look at -- also how you rate performances is also tough. I didn't come in and say, Okay, I want to win a race by then. I try to really go, Okay, I want hopefully the engineering side or this to be at a certain level by the time we're halfway through the season, or these people working with these people by a certain part of the season. Normally when you get those things aligned, then the results just start happening.
I suppose it's been about exactly where I thought it would be. Hopefully we can carry on developing and bring it to, I would say, the Andretti level, which is just below the Ganassi and Penske level.
Q. Do you think sponsors are looking to see where this team is headed this year and kind of waiting maybe until late in the season or looking toward next year to really get on board?
TOMAS SCHECKTER: Yeah, I mean, there's been so many different sponsors that we've almost got. Obviously Rock Republic was great to have on the month of May. A great young brand that's doing unbelievable. But I'm not sure. I'm not sure exactly why. I think there's a couple of things why we haven't had the full sponsorship on the car for the whole year.
I think, you know, if people are looking, they can see the results are coming. We're in front. We're leading races. It's definitely a new Vision Racing compared to where it was last year. These cars aren't running around the back. They're definitely running in the front. I think it's just a matter of time. For a team, it needs to sort of get its feet grounded where it can build trust in these companies that their cars are going to be running up front. I think it's a matter of time before we get a title sponsor on both cars.
Q. Do you feel as confident going to Texas this year with Vision Racing as you did last year with Panther?
TOMAS SCHECKTER: Last year was so different, we had Chevy engines. We knew that our engines sort of (indiscernible) at the track a little bit. Chevy was extremely good at a very high rpm just before the rev limiter. At Texas, you're always running in that power band. We knew we would be good on a lot of the high-bank tracks.
So this year I think we're a little bit behind where I was last year just because engine-wise everybody's equal. You know, I still think on our cars we're a little bit behind. But I think it's just a case of a lot of these things. Penske is continuously in the wind tunnel. So is Ganassi. They're finding thing after thing. It's less and less drag.
I would say I was a little bit more confident last year in what we were going to deliver, but not saying that I'm not confident going back there this year. It's just going to be, I'd say a little tougher job to add more laps on the leaderboard than I did last year.
Q. You said you really liked wheel-to-wheel racing, especially at a place like Texas. Why?
TOMAS SCHECKTER: I'm not scared, that's why probably. There's not a lot of things that scare me. You would have thought after a couple times hitting concrete at 200 miles an hour that it would slow you down. But it hasn't slowed me down yet. I enjoy that. I don't have a problem with that.
I think it's part of what we do. Racing side-by-side is IRL racing. The fans stand up for the last 20 laps of a race because they don't know who is going to take the win. There's not a lot of racing series in the world that you can say you watch, a Formula One race or most of the time you watch a NASCAR race, to be honest, it's pretty boring the whole time.
IRL racing is 200 miles an hour, side-by-side, and extremely close finishes. I enjoy that part.
Q. Tomas, another sponsor-related question. Do you find it a little bit ironic that the team owned by Tony George has to struggle for a sponsor like any other team? Is that a little disconcerting to you?
TOMAS SCHECKTER: Yeah, but I think, you know, Tony -- if you know Tony, he's an extremely special person. You would have thought, well, you know, how much interlink business is going on in different areas that it would be possible for us to get sponsorship.
But I think he really does it in extremely legitimate ways. He wants a proper sponsor that has come not because someone's doing a favor or someone's doing business with him in another way and put them on the cars.
He runs this team like any team owner. I think it's just a matter of time, to be honest. We had one for all three cars. I don't know what's happened with Texas, but I think there will be a name on our car down there.
It's racing. These things take -- if there's a hardest thing in racing, it's sponsorship and to deal with that. I think it's just a matter of time before we have a title sponsor on our cars.
TIM HARMS: Gentlemen, thank you again for both taking the time to join us this afternoon. We appreciate it. We look forward to seeing you down at Texas this weekend.
JOHNNY RUTHERFORD: I'd like to add that if the fans haven't seen the IndyCars running at night, they need to come out to Texas because that is very, very exciting.
TIM HARMS: Absolutely, JR. It will be a great show for the fans and a great show live on ESPN 9:00 eastern time.

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