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INDY RACING LEAGUE MEDIA CONFERENCE
February 21, 2007
THE MODERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. Welcome back to the conference room here at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Time to talk with the best of the best of 2006 in the IndyCar Series, as they now arrive.
First off, Sam Hornish, Jr., the defending IndyCar Series champion, a three-time champion now with his title last season.
Sam, you're sitting on 18 career wins?
SAM HORNISH, JR.: Yes.
THE MODERATOR: Also won the Indianapolis 500 in 2006. He won the first team Penske IndyCar Series title last season.
Dan Wheldon, Target Chip Ganassi Racing. In his first season racing for Chip, wound up with an outstanding first year. He had two wins and was tied with Sam Hornish, Jr. when the final race at Chicagoland Speedway had been checkered. Because Sam had four wins and Dan had two, Sam wins the championship by virtue of that tiebreaker.
Third place last year went to Helio Castroneves, who once again looked like going into the last race of the season was going to walk away with the title. Helio won four times in 2006. He was third in points, three points behind Sam and Dan.
Scott Dixon, also in the championship throughout the season, won twice. Nine top fives with Scott Dixon in 2006, the 2003 champion. I might want to mention that Dan Wheldon was the champion of the series in 2005.
Vitor Meira, after a difficult first race here in his first race start with Panther Racing, I believe you were 16th in that first race, they really turned it on. It was a significant story, given that Panther Racing perhaps a month before the start of the season had considered actually shuttering their shop and perhaps not racing at all, then it was a partial season that Panther Racing was going to run. They found a way with their relationship with Vitor and some associate sponsors to patch together what was an incredible run at the title. Vitor actually went into the final race of the season with a mathematic shot at winning the title, and he wound up fifth. Vitor still searching for that first trip to Victory Lane, but we all know sooner or later we're going to wind up talking to Vitor Meira in Victory Lane.
Let's start with the defending IndyCar Series champion, Sam Hornish, Jr. Sam, how did you spend your off-season?
SAM HORNISH, JR.: Doing a bunch of different things, anywhere from driving Daytona Prototype cars to Busch car. Very little in IndyCar just based on the fact we don't have a whole lot of testing we're allowed to do.
It really at the time seemed like it was not long enough, but I'm ready to go racing again, looking forward to getting back in the IndyCar, the first race at Miami. Miami has been very good to me in the past. Looking forward to seeing if we can't come out with another win.
THE MODERATOR: Three wins if I remember correctly at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Dan Wheldon, second in the championship points last year, you've won back-to-back races here at Homestead with two different teams - in 2005 with Andretti Green Racing, last year with Target Chip Ganassi Racing. I know you got to be excited about getting back to Homestead.
DAN WHELDON: I think it's just good to be back in the race car after it seemed like a long off-season. This is a good track for us, and certainly at Target Chip Ganassi Racing we're just going to build on the momentum that we kind of picked up last year. It was somewhat of a frustrating season. I think with the year together now, a year working with Scott, I think both of us really want to go out and start strong.
THE MODERATOR: Helio Castroneves winds up third in the championship points last season. Helio, I know it had to be frustrating to take the checkers and know a great opportunity to win the title had gone by the wayside. If you would, recap that final race and your off-season as you get ready for '07.
HELIO CASTRONEVES: It definitely was a long off-season. I've been also doing some testing, you know, with ALMS, the Porsche, and also we were trying -- we were racing Daytona 24 Hours. It was something to keep at least you active thinking about racing, you know. At the least, it's good for us.
About the season, I don't say it was a good season for the team obviously. It was just three points short, I would say. But we still end up with a lot of victories, a lot of pole positions, enough to be a positive thing. Unfortunately, this is the name of the game. You have five guys here today that was very competitive. I'm sure 2007 they going to still be very competitive.
THE MODERATOR: Scott Dixon was fourth in championship points last season. Scott, it was great to see you return to championship form after a couple of tough years. If you could, talk about that, the fact that you're back in your wheelhouse and have an opportunity to win a title once again.
SCOTT DIXON: Yeah, I think it was definitely a big year for myself and the team. '04, '05 was definitely a tough time for us and the package that we had. We always knew that we had the equipment or the team at least behind the equipment, the people behind the team to get the job done. It just showed once we had equal equipment we could be back there.
For me it was another fun season. It was good to be back up the top winning races. As Dan touched on a little, I think we had a lot of missed opportunities. I think we kind of on both sides of the team let another championship go.
This year I think we've got a lot of confidence. We've worked with the car for a year. The team's definitely fired up. Hopefully we can collect a lot of wins and maybe a championship for Chip.
THE MODERATOR: Vitor Meira was fifth in points as we mentioned with Panther Racing in 2006. Vitor, really an incredible story, what you guys managed to do at Panther Racing in 2006. I think I misspoke. I believe going to Chicagoland, it was only the top four that were mathematically eligible. Vitor was eligible through the 15th race to win the title. The bottom line, Vitor, to finish fifth in championship points last season, for Panther Racing to compete head-to-head the way you did with Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske, it has to give you a world of confidence now coming in as a fully funded operation in '07.
VITOR MEIRA: Yes, it does. The story last year was good. We did a lot with what we had. But I guess going to this year, changed a little bit. We have the funding. We had the time on the off-season. Now it's just trying to do what we did with last year, all the research, all the things we couldn't do because of funding last year, that's going to be the goal for this year. Having Delphi with us, you know, technological partner like they are, there are a lot of things to come.
It's not going to change overnight. We still going to have to spend a lot of time doing what those guys and everybody else did throughout the year, which is the research and everything. But we going to be okay and we going -- I want to start as strong this year as I finished last year. If we start as we finished last year, the rest of the season is going to take care of itself.
THE MODERATOR: Vitor, by the way, had 11 top tens and seven top fives. Six of the top fives came after the Indianapolis 500 in the month of May. Their second half was very strong.
Questions for our top five championship contenders in 2006.
Q. Sam, after some of the cars you've been in the last month or two, how comfortable is it to get back into an IndyCar?
SAM HORNISH, JR.: Having the experience running the 24 Hour race, getting in an IndyCar right after that at Daytona, it's amazing how much quicker the cars are, how much better they brake. It's a different kind of racecar.
As far as being on the oval, I haven't ran an IndyCar on the oval. Last time that was was the Chicago race. I don't think there should be any problem getting up to speed.
Definitely looking forward to getting back in there, getting back into something that I know what it's supposed to feel like and have a pretty good idea where the car needs to be to be quick in the race.
Q. How much have you struggled with the Busch car?
SAM HORNISH, JR.: It's definitely tough. You go into each race, you're not sure exactly how loose the car needs to be at the beginning of the run to be good at the end of the run. There's a lot of things that are just a learning process.
With not getting really much of the testing time that we wanted to get in last year, it was kind of thrown in, feel a little bit more comfortable with it this year. Looking forward to going to California this weekend and seeing if we can't get it a little bit closer for the race.
Q. Vitor, could you talk about the significance of the IRL switching to ethanol this year.
VITOR MEIRA: I think it's good for everybody. I mean, it's definitely a better solution I guess for everybody. You got to follow and you got to see where the world's going. I mean, we need to find other sources of fuels. For example, in Brazil, we had the ethanol program since the '80s and it's working very good there. It's a very good option. If IRL on the performance side of it can also contribute with all the development and also with all the good that it's doing, not only for the cars, but for the environment and everything, so I think if we can contribute with that a little bit, it's already a very good thing.
Q. Can you tell any difference with the ethanol, like when you're driving? Can you tell at all?
VITOR MEIRA: You know, when I jumped on the car the first time with ethanol, the engine was very well-developed already by Honda. You can feel a lot much more torque, much more from the bottom than before. But also the engine is a little different, not only the feel itself.
I just think that for the first time running it, I think IRL and Honda did a very good job picking up the changes and making the best out of it. It was definitely a good thing. Again, what I feel is that has more - much more - torque. That's my general feeling.
Q. Sam, with a different wing angle than the race last year, can you talk about preparing for that?
SAM HORNISH, JR.: I think it will be a little bit tighter field, of course. You add more wing angle, it's going to make it a little bit easier for the cars to draft up as well as the handling of the car, there will be more downforce, a little bit easier to drive.
The unfortunate part about it is, it's going to bring more of the pack together. I thought we saw a fantastic race in the closing laps last year. You had five or six guys fighting for the win and capable to win. You saw one of the closest finishes that we've had in the IndyCar Series history. Why we're doing it, I'm not sure. But that's the choice of Brian Barnhart, the technical group. Hopefully it will still be a good race.
THE MODERATOR: It's kind of incredible to look back over the last several years that the IndyCar Series has raced here at Homestead, what a great indicator this race is for the coming season. Scott Dixon won here to open the 2003 season, went on to win the championship. Sam Hornish, Jr. won here in '01 and '02 and went on to win the championship. Dan Wheldon won here to start the '05 season and went on to win the championship. Helio lost to Wheldon here by 14 thousandths of a second and nearly lost the championship.
Scott, how important to get out of the chute in a proper positive way here at Homestead?
SCOTT DIXON: Yeah, no, I think it definitely helps. I think it starts any season, pretty much like last year when we started with the 24 Hour win, it just gets the team to a good roll. I think it lifts the game, what you're capable of doing. You just got a ton of points during the season. It's a nice way to do it. As you can see, it definitely helps.
THE MODERATOR: Dan, same question for you. To come here after winning back-to-back races, is the confidence level sky high or is it a clean slate?
DAN WHELDON: Well, no, it's a clean slate. I think everybody's right now on zero points. It's all up for grabs. At the same time I think, you know, you want to start the season off right. You want to stamp down some authority and perhaps try and lead the championship. I mean, this is the way I prefer to do it.
You know, there's times where you just don't have the car to be able to win the first race. You know that might be the case, you just collect points and move on to the next one. But we'll certainly be trying hard to.
THE MODERATOR: Helio, this being a night race, will it change this race dramatically? You've come so close two of the last three seasons to winning this event. Will a night race change this event?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Well, our cars are very sensitive for the weather, no question. We race here about 1:00, and now racing much later. I do believe it's going to give more -- with the rules already with more downforce, so definitely have more people challenge for the victory.
If it change, which I believe a little bit, but change for good, hopefully the come-out will be different than last year. Just four tenths or hundredths?
THE MODERATOR: 14 thousandths.
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Why you have to remind me of that (laughter)?
DAN WHELDON: I have no problem with that.
HELIO CASTRONEVES: I still think I won the race, from the angle of the car (laughter).
THE MODERATOR: There is one other interesting thing about the top five here during the off-season. Three of the five, unless Dan is going to surprise us, got engaged. Mr. Dixon became engaged, as did Mr. Castroneves and Meira in the middle. Three eligible bachelor's in the IndyCar Series will be going by the wayside I guess.
DAN WHELDON: Such a waste. What a shame.
THE MODERATOR: Wheldon wants everybody to know he still is available.
DAN WHELDON: Single and ready to mingle.
THE MODERATOR: And Sam is already married.
Q. Sam, how often, if at all, do you still think about that last lap at Indy? How big a factor do you think Marco will be this season?
SAM HORNISH, JR.: I think about that all the time. Obviously any time I do an interview, I pretty much get asked the question about that. It's a good thing. It's something that I like to remember.
As far as Marco goes, he doesn't want to remember it. But he showed good strength throughout the season last year, had some real good races. As far as I'm concerned, I don't know if he'll be a factor for the championship, but I definitely know he'll be a factor as far as single races go. Sometimes it just takes a little while to get into that stride.
You never know what's going to happen. I think he's been quick enough.
Q. There's been a lot of talk about how close the finish was Sunday night. In the IRL, that's kind of like an every-race occurrence. Talk about that.
HELIO CASTRONEVES: You're right. Basically how many races we have in a season that it's been decided by the finish line? I guess NASCAR definitely, definitely it's a popular sport right now in motor racing. It was a long time they don't have a finish like that. Obviously they exploit it as much as they can.
It was just an interesting finish. I guess Harvick is very happy. His bank account must be very good, too (laughter).
SAM HORNISH, JR.: I think it was a fantastic finish down there. I think the best thing that NASCAR did was let them run to the line instead of throwing the yellow. The leaders had already gone by. Somebody would have felt disadvantaged if you threw the yellow. When the wreck started, Harvick was leading, then Martin, then Harvick eventually won.
I think they did the right thing. That reminds me a lot of Kurt Busch and I think Ricky Craven a couple years ago at Darlington. Like I said, a couple years ago. Definitely we have a lot more races that are like that. Hopefully people will start to open their eyes to that and see we have exciting finishes 50% of the time, if not more.
DAN WHELDON: I think with that particular track layout, the way the NASCARs go around there, you can expect a pretty close finish, especially with the yellow that fell towards the end. I think like everybody knows, it seems to happen a lot in the IndyCar Series.
I think with the way that the rules are going in IndyCars, I think you're going to see even closer finishes. It's very hard when you run that much wing around here to get any disparity between the top car and perhaps the slowest.
I'll be expecting more of the same.
Q. Dan, Sam kind of expressed his opinion, but in an IndyCar race, would you expect the yellow to come out in a situation like that or would you rather be able to run to the line?
DAN WHELDON: If that happened with us, I'd maybe expect the yellow to come out. But it's very close because obviously with -- you've got to be able to react quick. The people up there that decide that have to react very fast. By the time we come off turn four, it's not long till we've passed the start/finish line.
I would probably expect the yellow. I'm sure Mark Martin wished he had the yellow.
THE MODERATOR: Guys, thank you.
End of FastScripts