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INDY RACING LEAGUE MEDIA CONFERENCE
September 6, 2006
THE MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining us for today's Indy Racing League teleconference. Our call today focuses on two very tight battles for series championships as we head into the final race weekend of the season.
We'll have the four IndyCar Series drivers involved in that championship battle joining us in a few minutes. First we'll talk with the four drivers who are eligible to win the Firestone Fire Hot Cup in the Indy Pro Series.
Jay Howard leads the points series with 354 points, Jonathan Klein is second just eight points back. Bobby Wilson is third 24 points behind. And our reigning series champion, Wade Cunningham, is fourth, 27 points back.
This is the first time in series history that four drivers have been eligible to win the championship heading into the final race of the season. The eight-point gap between first and second is the closest ever.
Jay, as the leader, let's start with a question or two for you. We've run two one and a half mile ovals this year. You won the pole at Homestead, then came back and won the race at Kentucky. How much does that add to your confidence level as we head into the race at Chicagoland?
JAY HOWARD: Yeah, obviously that's good. I hadn't really thought about that, to be honest. I know the car is going to be pretty good there. The guys tested, one of the rookies racing in one of the last race at Chicago there a few weeks back. He was fast, but I'm in the car.
With my experience, I'm sure we'll go a little bit faster. I know Wade and John, several other guys, are going to be all up there. It's going to be close. We're going to run in a pack. Yeah, I believe we can put on a good show for the fans. Hopefully I can win the championship.
THE MODERATOR: Your closest competition right now is your teammate Jonathan Klein. You mentioned to me that you guys are driving up there together tomorrow. Obviously you have a close relationship. How much will you guys work together this weekend and how much does it become every man for himself?
JAY HOWARD: Yeah, I mean, definitely on the ovals we tend to work a lot closer with each other than we have done on the road courses. I'm sure we're going to end up with pretty much identical cars. Yeah, we'll just see what happens. I don't know, hopefully I can win obviously. It's definitely going to be close. I know that me and John, Jaime, Wade as well, just relating back to the Kentucky race, it is going to be close.
Not a lot more I can say than that really. It will be really close and I'm sure it will be great racing.
THE MODERATOR: Jonathan, eight points. Not a very big deficit to make up. What is your game plan as you head into the weekend?
JONATHAN KLEIN: My game plan is going to be pretty much run mistake-free. I think it's going to come down to, as we saw at Kentucky, Wade, Jaime, Jay, myself, even a few other guys, are all capable of running up front, equal with each other. I think it's going to come down to a game who makes the least amount of mistakes.
My plan is to just run consistent, fast, concentrate on being mistake-free.
THE MODERATOR: Really the same question I just asked Jay. At what point during the race or during the weekend do you stop being teammates as much and really pull out all the stops to go ahead and go for the win?
JONATHAN KLEIN: I think we'll be teammates until the checkered flag. I'm not going -- there's not going to be any funny business during the entire weekend. There won't be any of that going on between Jay and myself.
But, you know, I'll treat him with the same respect that I would treat everyone else. I'm going to race him damn hard, but I'm not going to put ourselves in a situation where we can get ourselves into trouble.
THE MODERATOR: Bobby, you have a very interesting scenario facing you this weekend. Third in points, really need kind of a first or second place finish in the race to win the driver's championship. At the same time, Kenn Hardley Racing is the leader in the entrant points standings. Does that affect your strategy at all?
BOBBY WILSON: Not really. Pretty much all in at this point. My past experiences on ovals have not proven to be very stellar, but I guess the team pretty much is going to try to pull out all the stops this weekend, put a good car on the track.
I'm being really optimistic and hope things fall my way.
THE MODERATOR: Wade, you're also really in the position of needing a win or a second place finish to pass the three guys in front of you and win the championship. How much are you focusing on the championship as you prepare for the weekend?
WADE CUNNINGHAM: I'd say nearly to the point of I'm not -- we don't really need anything. The points -- if the field isn't above 20 cars, which I don't think it will be, it will be impossible to win unless the other guys crash.
You can't go into a race weekend wishing that upon other people. I'm just going to do what we've been doing at all the other races, and that is having fun and doing our best. All year our best has been pretty good.
Like the other two said earlier, we're all going to be at the front. It's not a secret. It's just really going to come down to who races the best.
THE MODERATOR: How would you compare this year to last year in the sense that last year you led the points race for most of the season, and if I'm correct in saying so, that caused you at times to race a little more conservatively and protect the points lead than go for wins, and this year you missed two St. Pete races and were kind of far back in the points early on, and maybe have been able to race more aggressively? Does that make sense to you? Is that how you see the season playing out for yourself here?
WADE CUNNINGHAM: Absolutely. I saw what happened with me last year. It's kind of been pretty similar for Jonathan. He has been very consistent all year. He's been rewarded with points.
You know, obviously Jay has been leading the championship for most of it. Once I think Jeff made the move to IndyCars after St. Pete, so he's been racing hard, as well. But he's had a few bad races which have allowed the others to catch up.
But with me, you know, we came into the year not talking about the championship. We just wanted to win individual races and be fast. We've achieved nearly all of our goals so far. You look at (indiscernible) poles, and we've won two races, which is equal to anyone else this year. We've had a good year.
Just want to top it off by having another good race at Chicago. The championship isn't really in my mind now at all.
THE MODERATOR: This question is related along the same lines. You're the first series champion that came back for a second full season in the Indy Pro Series. How much you think you've benefited coming back for year?
WADE CUNNINGHAM: Well, it's the first time since I've sort of gone back into a familiar situation. I only did one year of Formula Ford 2000, so it's really allowed me to develop a little bit further as a driver. We've nearly tripled the laps led than anybody else has. Proof we've been at the front of the whole year. It's important -- that's shown people that I can race hard and I can race at the front, which isn't something I did often last year.
THE MODERATOR: Let's open it up for questions for our four Indy Pro Series championship contenders.
Q. Jonathan, do you think you have to win this race to get into the victory circle for the championship? In terms of your development this year, how much has Jay helped you along the way?
JONATHAN KLEIN: Well, certainly I think winning the race, that's my goal, before I start worrying about the championship. I don't want to be a championship winner while not being a race winner. That wouldn't be very impressive to myself. I'd kind of be frustrated by that.
As far as Jay helping me, he's got certainly much more experience than I do in all forms of racing. You know, he and I give and take a lot from each other on road courses especially. So that's been a benefit for the both of us, I think.
Yeah, no, his experience is key for both myself and Jaime. So, yeah, I'm going to try to take it to him this weekend.
Q. Do you think there's something he's held back?
JONATHAN KLEIN: What is that?
Q. Do you think there's something he's held back to you about an oval?
JONATHAN KLEIN: I don't think so. A lot of people have brought that up. Jay and I, over this season, have become really, really good friends. We get along great. We're not out there to try to deceive each other. We're teammates and we're friends at the same time.
We help each other. That just makes the racing that much better between us two.
Q. Since you consider yourself out of the championship hunt for all practical purposes, where would you put your money as far as the other two, maybe three?
WADE CUNNINGHAM: I definitely have to say Jay has an advantage. Eight points is just a little bit less than the difference between first and second. If Jonathan comes anywhere other than second, other than first, Jay doesn't crash, it effectively gives him the championship.
I'm sure the Sam Schmidt cars are going to be quick, history proves it, especially on the 1.5 ovals. Either of them are going to be in the top four at any one time during the race, so it's really going to come down to who wins it, I think.
THE MODERATOR: All right, gentlemen. Thank you so much for taking some time out for us this afternoon. We really appreciate that. Good luck to all of you this weekend.
Gentlemen, thanks for taking some time to join us. We do have the media on the line with us already. Of course, we all know that you are wrapped up in one of the tightest championship battles in IndyCar Series history as we head into Chicago this weekend.
Helio holds a one-point lead over Sam, and leads Dan by 19 and Scott by 21.
Let me start off with a question for Helio and Sam here. How much have you guys talked to each other since Sonoma? Is it any more or less than usual? How much do you plan to work together this weekend?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Right now I'm even in a different room and I'm not talking to him at all (laughter).
No, just joking around.
We actually didn't have a chance to talk yet. I think when the weekend started we definitely going to try the same old deal, you know. I have to remember that there are two other cars in the hunt, which is the Ganassi guys. You want to make sure that he'll be in the group in control and obviously see what happen.
I can see my teammate already see that I'm talking a lot. I'm going to let him go.
THE MODERATOR: Sam, how about from your perspective? How much do you guys plan to work together this weekend? Does there come a point during the race that the fact you're teammate goes out the window, it becomes every man for yourself?
SAM HORNISH, JR.: I think about the last corner of the last lap we thought, We're not going to let that happen. We're going to work together to try to run as high as we possibly can, be smart, give ourselves an opportunity to win the championship, fight it out right at the end.
THE MODERATOR: Scott and Dan, how about you guys? Two teammates trying to track down the leaders. Have you guys talked about a game plan to work together to catch these guys?
DAN WHELDON: We haven't really spoken about it. We're going into this weekend to try and win the race like any other weekend. I think the distance in points for us is a little tough because the Penske cars are extremely strong on mile and a half ovals. It's going to be tough for us to get them back in the pack, one of us try to win the race.
We're going to go out, try to go for a race win. If it plays out, it plays out.
THE MODERATOR: I'd like each of you to weigh in on how badly you want to win the IndyCar Series championship.
Helio, you've got a couple of Indy 500 titles to your name, but haven't captured a series title before. How badly do you want to win the championship?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Probably as bad as those guys over there. Every year every one of those guys already have a championship. No question it would be great to capture this title obviously giving to Roger as well.
But, again, have to keep working. Obviously is not something going to come easy. Let's see what happens.
But I'm really, really exciting and optimistic.
THE MODERATOR: Sam, you mentioned at Kentucky that you have the opportunity not only to get Roger his first IndyCar Series championship, but also to be the only three-time champion in league history. How badly do you want to win it?
SAM HORNISH, JR.: You know, I go into this race as it's been a long year. I want to win the championship real bad. But, you know, I know that anything can happen out there. Obviously, there's quite a few possibilities of us all having the opportunity to win, different scenarios that can play out.
You know, we're all here to race. We're all here to win. We'll have to wait and see what happens. Hopefully I'll do the right thing. To be able to win the championship and the Indy 500 in the same year would be unbelievable.
THE MODERATOR: Scott, you've helped the Target team be resurgent this year with the Honda engines and Dallara chassis. How badly do you want to win your second championship?
SCOT DIXON: I want it real bad. I think for us, you know, it's been a big year for us getting back to the top and having competitive cars. For me it's been a lot of fun and just racing with guys back at the front, going for race wins each weekend, knowing you have a shot at it.
For me, I'm pretty happy with where we're at. Ultimately, we go in every year and try to set a goal of winning a championship. That would be pretty big for us.
THE MODERATOR: And, Dan, finally to you. You made the move from Andretti Green Racing where you won last year's title, some people questioned that move. How badly do you want to prove them wrong and justify your move and repeat as IndyCar Series championship?
DAN WHELDON: I don't think it's about that for me personally. I think it's not often that you get to win -- you get the chance to win a championship in such a competitive series. We definitely have the opportunity to do that, although it will be very difficult with the way the points spread is right now.
I'm going to do everything in my power to make that possible. Like you say, it's my first year at Target Chip Ganassi Racing. There would be no better way to kind of celebrate that year than with winning a championship. We'll just have to see what we can do.
I think everybody is working very hard at the team. We'll just try and win the race first and let the others take care of themselves.
THE MODERATOR: Let's go ahead and open it up for questions.
Q. At the end of the 2000 season, that last lap, talking about winner take all, wasn't Sam on the outside in that case?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: In 2002 you're talking about?
Q. Yes, Texas.
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Yes, I was in the inside lane, Sam was outside. It was a very similar scenario actually, except instead of one point it was 12 points. I would have to win, Sam finish third, and end up finish second he winning.
Q. If the situation presents itself again, Sam, do you want the outside or the inside? Helio, the same question?
SAM HORNISH, JR.: Whatever it takes. I can't tell him right now (laughter).
HELIO CASTRONEVES: I'll see where he's at. Hopefully I'll keep him in my rearview mirror. Let's see what happens.
Q. For Wheldon, of the two of them, given Sam's experience, is he the one to beat at this point in your mind?
DAN WHELDON: Helio is going to be mad at me because he can hear me say this, and he's right across the room from me. I think so personally. He's very good on one and a half mile tracks. He's somebody I've raced with a lot on the one and a half mile tracks this year.
If I was a betting man, I'd be putting my money on him. At the same time with this track, you know, you never know because it can be so close.
Q. Dixon, if you could follow up on that question. If you were putting your money on one of those Penske guys, would it be Sam?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Scott, I can share with you the prize money if you have the right answer.
SCOTT DIXON: I don't know. Both of them are obviously very competitive.
Q. Come on.
SCOT DIXON: Over the past, it's got to be Sam, I think. Sorry, Helio.
HELIO CASTRONEVES: No faith on me, okay (laughter).
DAN WHELDON: Sam is giving us half a million each, so we're looking good.
HELIO CASTRONEVES: I can see how the deals happen here. Is that true, Sam?
Q. Sam doesn't give away that much, let alone any.
SAM HORNISH, JR.: The way I look at this, it's going to be tough. I thought that in 2002 at the end of the season. I'm 12 points ahead of him, I'm going to go into this Texas race. He hasn't been very stellar on the mile-and-a-half's. He was there all day along and he fought me tough. He passed me towards the end of the race. We had a great battle.
You know, obviously I know that he's going to be some very strong competition. I've heard both Dan and Scott say it's going to be hard to win. The I look at their situation is they've got a great opportunity. Nobody is counted out of this out of the four guys that have an opportunity to win.
I think I'm not only watching for Helio, I'm watching both these guys. It doesn't take much for something to happen. Very easy possibility for them to come out here and win the race, get out of here with a championship if things work out right for them.
It's going to be competitive, I guarantee you that.
Q. All four of you, this is nothing new. You have all been in championship battles before. Can each of you explain what it's like. What is the pressure like for those of us who will never experience anything like this? How do you deal with that? How do you keep the pressure from becoming a problem?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Who is going to go first?
SCOT DIXON: I think it depends where you are in the points situation. For us, going into this weekend, we've got to do everything we can to possibly win, whereas the other guys have to look over their shoulders a little bit, maybe apply a little more pressure because they have to make sure they tonight make any mistakes.
Everybody deals with the championship quite different. It's a personal thing, how you deal with the pressure as well. I think you really only put the pressure on yourself. How much you do that, you know, is just what kind of person you are. I think it's very unique to everybody.
The only way you can deal with it is try and go in with a clear mind, do your best, and hopefully the outcome is the way you want it.
DAN WHELDON: I think I agree with Scott. It depends where you are in the championship. I think it also depends on your outlook personally. I'm a big believer in the fact that if a championship is meant to be, it's meant to be. I think everybody's putting emphasis on this last race because this is where it can be decided. In some respects, it's already been decided.
I think the preparation of the team and what the drivers put in from Round 1 can determine the outcomes. Our situation this last weekend, we've literally got to go into the race wanting to win, wanting to lead the most laps. Not just wanting, we've got to make that happen. Then the rest depends on the others.
If we can do that, then it adds more pressure to the Penske guys. They can somewhat determine whether we win or not. It's just very simple for us in this situation. If you're in that situation, it becomes a little more complicated. I think depending on the person you can handle it pretty simply also.
SAM HORNISH, JR.: Going into this weekend, I don't look at it any different than any race we've gone through this year. There's a tremendous amount of pressure to go out there and win the championship. I actually probably feel a lot more comfortable going into this race than I did going into Sonoma, even though I knew there would be another chance.
The goal is to try to keep within reach of the championship. Being able to do that, it gave me a great opportunity to come here and try to win the championship. But I know that I'm up against three very good race car drivers, three guys I've raced on the mile and a half ovals all year long. It's been the four of us almost everywhere we've gone.
I just feel, you know, like it's another race. You got to go out there and you got to try to make it to the end and give yourself an opportunity to win. If you can do that, be smart about it.
I'll be nervous about it Sunday morning, but right now it's about getting to that point. We can all talk about it, but to actually go out there and run the race. Been a week and a half already just sitting there, so what's going to happen is going to happen. Just looking forward to Sunday.
HELIO CASTRONEVES: I would say basically it's been the same area. They're saying it's close, it's going to be a normal weekend. Honestly, everybody feel a little bit of pressure. It's normal. It's natural. Everybody is fight for the championship.
I'm pretty much in the same area. I feel pretty confident, even the odds a little bit different than they say. I feel pretty confident.
Again, that just is a good chance to prove that it can be a good opportunity for me. I've been in so many hunts in the championship. Right now it's a good opportunity. I mean, what will be will be, just have to be there in the end and be smart.
Q. None of you are having any trouble sleeping?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: No. Right now, I think so far it's been all four guys. I would say it will continue with those four guys. He might show up some of the Andretti Green, they've been improving.
But that will be just a plus for who have been in a better situation in the championship. It will be interesting. I think that's going to have to watch and see.
Q. With the two teams and the four cars so competitive and close throughout the year, what area of the race or what aspect do each of you think you could exploit to sort of separate the pack and win this championship this weekend?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: I would say this place here is very interesting. But it's a tough place that you now you can't -- apart from the rest of the group. Seems everybody always be together. Watching the race from last year, you can see, we didn't have much power, we were still over there with those guys.
But I would say right now it's going to be an interesting race, what strategy they're going to put it on. Let me tell you, it's going to be a battle with all those guys, especially those guys in the hunt. It's going to be interesting to see.
Q. Dan, could you give me your opinion on that?
DAN WHELDON: I think you're looking at two teams that are very competitive. I think they're going to try to exploit every area possible. But at the same time, I think they're going to try to improve those areas where they know they're weak.
Certainly at Target Chip Ganassi Racing, we've tried to improve in every area possible. I think unfortunately the same is going to be said for Marlboro Team Penske. We've just got to focus on the big picture and make sure that Scott and I can run preferably first and second and lead the most laps and then see what happens.
Q. Dan, what has been easier on the nerves this year, trying to close out a lead you had for basically an entire season or trying to chase somebody down?
DAN WHELDON: No, I always prefer to be the leader, to be honest, because I think you can control a lot of situations that way. And, you know, it puts you in the stronger position.
I've not liked this year as much from that standpoint. At the same time, I think it's because, you know, us as a team, we've let some results slip away that we perhaps shouldn't have. But that's all part of a championship.
When you consider what we've done, the fact that we're only nine points out of the lead, that gives you a lot of motivation to go into this race and just try and dominate and then see what happens.
THE MODERATOR: All right, guys. Those are the questions we have for you this afternoon. Thanks for taking the time to join us. Good luck to all of you.
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