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INDY RACING LEAGUE MEDIA CONFERENCE
March 26, 2008
THE MODERATOR: Thank you for joining us. We have several guests joining us today, starting the call with us is Firestone Indy Lights driver Logan Gomez and later in the call we'll be joined by Homestead Miami president Curtis Gray and IndyCar Series driver, Dan Wheldon. Good afternoon, Logan.
LOGAN GOMEZ: Good afternoon, how are you.
THE MODERATOR: Doing well. Thanks for joining us. Logan is returning for his second season at Firestone Indy Lights. This year he'll be driving the No. 23 car for Guthrie Racing, last year Logan finished seventh overall and was the second highest finishing rookie, recorded eight Top-10 finishes at the end of the season with a victory at Chicagoland Speedway, and recently the Guinness Book of World Records recognized that finish as the closest finish in car racing history.
Glad to have you back in the series in 2008. If you would, take a look back at us for the last race of the year and just tell us what it was like to close out your rookie season with a victory and also to do it in such a notable fashion.
LOGAN GOMEZ: Really, there's no better way to finish out the season. You know, with it being such a close race, it definitely drew more attention to it and like you said, recognized by the Guiness Book of World Records. It's great to go out like that and beat the champion of that year, Alex Lloyd, and also a teammate, it was a great feeling.
Looking after between then and now, it's carried on momentum through the off-season and we've got a good team, Guthrie Racing and we are looking to progress from where we finished last year.
THE MODERATOR: You touched on the momentum, that was my next question for you. You finished the season strong, really, after starting out with some struggles but victory and several Top-10 finishes in the last few races, how do you carry that momentum forward?
LOGAN GOMEZ: Really it's just carrying on the progress and remembering what you learned, obviously switching teams may be seen as a setback but as long as you remember the things you learned from teams you've been with in the past, it's always good to see the different types of ways of doing things.
The things that I've learned last year, I feel that I've learned at a relatively quick pace. With the knowledge I have now and be to winning races this young in my career, it's a benefit for me. Here on out, it's obvious that we're competitive and it going to be competing for race wins and hopefully the championship at the end of the season.
THE MODERATOR: Your teammate Sean Guthrie turns 20 in April. Between the two of you, you already have 38 starts in the Indy Pro Series. What's it like working with someone your same age and you both have a lot of experience going into the season?
LOGAN GOMEZ: Definitely there is a great wealth of experience between the team and the mechanics and the team members and the engineers. To have a teammate like him that's the same age and we both have the same goal, that's a benefit. If it comes to us both competing against each other to better ourselves, it's definitely a great thing to have good competition in the team. That only makes everybody work that were harder and hopefully the results showed.
THE MODERATOR: Last year you had the car, No. 23 with Sam Schmidt Motorsports, and you carried over the same car number. Is there a significance to you for the No. 23?
LOGAN GOMEZ: Not so much. Just trying to make it easier on fans and family and friends and people who know the number. I think it makes it a little easier and we are trying to build it in. That's one of the hardest things to do as a young driver is to be recognized and have people remember is you and look forward to you for the next year. Not saying I would not change the number if I moved into an IndyCar ride, but I think every little thing helps.
THE MODERATOR: The big news today is the Firestone Indy Lights, the new name. What are your thoughts and feelings about the name change to Firestone Indy Lights?
LOGAN GOMEZ: I think it's a great move for Firestone to take on that. They obviously do so much for the sport and they do provide the best tire out there. For them to step up in the series -- in the past I would tell people what I race in and they would refer back to what they used to be called, so I think it's a step in the right discretion and the more recognizable the series is, the more people can remember the name, it's definitely an easier name to say. I think it's great.
Q. In your young career here, what do you think believe has been the steepest learning curve that you've faced and climbed
LOGAN GOMEZ: I would say probably adapting to ovals. It's something that's new to me the previous yours year and I feel obviously with the win at Chicago, I've adapted pretty well. We started off last year in the same place we are now in Homestead, and I'm looking forward to see how we start this year just to see the improvements and going to the same race track now, and seeing the difference is going to be the great thing.
Q. Being a fast learner, is that one of the best skills a young driver has?
LOGAN GOMEZ: Yeah, it's definitely key to be able to adapt quickly in the conditions and different cars, and enables you to learn at a faster place and from the point where I'm at now, the key is to learn more and just to become more and more educated on the way the car reacts and different things like that. You hate to get to a point where you can't improve any more and I don't see that coming any time soon.
Q. Do you learn a lot from the veterans you race against?
LOGAN GOMEZ: Definitely. Having the depth and experience in the League as it is right now, you're able to talk to the IndyCar drivers and as well as the more experienced Firestone Indy Lights series drivers, so it definitely helps to talk to other drivers. The series is like a big family so it definitely helps.
Q. Obviously you're on a new team this season. I just wanted to ask you, have you noticed differences in philosophy from Sam Schmidt to Guthrie Racing or other differences like that?
LOGAN GOMEZ: Philosophy is a pretty broad word. Big difference is they are both very professional teams, and if anything, I believe Guthrie Racing is a little more homey feeling. They make it more of a family. You can definitely tell the efforts they are putting forth. Sam Schmidt was run more like a business, and that's good, but I believe when you're a learning driver, it's really important to be very comfortable in your surroundings and Guthrie Racing definitely provides that.
THE MODERATOR: Thanks again for joining us.
We are joined by Curtis Gray, president of Homestead Miami Speedway and Indy Car Series driver, Dan Wheldon. The IndyCar Series will open the season for seventh consecutive season on the 1.5 mile oval at Homestead Miami, and this and marks the second consecutive season the race will take place under the lights. Dan has won the last three races at Homestead Miami, starting the streak in 2005, when he also went on to win the Indy Car Series Championship, and last year Dan finished fourth in points in his second season with Target Chip Ganassi Racing.
Curtis, let's start with you, why don't you give us an update on preparations for this weekend's Gainsco Auto Insurance Indy 300 and tell us about what we can expect.
CURTIS GRAY: Obviously we are very honored to host the inaugural event again this year, and it's a heck of an exciting way to start out the year. We announced the unification here with Tony with his big announcement, and that just got a whole lot of interest here in South Florida going. The promotions have been great and the drivers have done a super job promoting the event. There have been a lot of things going on with a world-class golf tournament that ended this past weekend and tennis, and the obvious things that go on in South Florida during the springtime
But this event has really taken shape and we are excited to host the event again this year. And what we have done is we have created Speedjam to make it more than the racing activities on the track, it's become a whole festival. Besides the season-opening for the IndyCar Series and Gainsco coming on as our new sponsor, we have also got the Rolex Grand Am series here in the afternoon, and we have got a concert by Three Doors Down and other concerts during the day, car show, barbeques festival, karting and remote control cars and things for people to do all day long
That's what we have done is we have condensed it pretty much into one day of activities. Obviously we have the qualifying and practice on Friday but all of the racing and the big activities culminating with the race under the lights. It doesn't get much exciting than that.
Looks like 26 cars will be starting, and we have not had a field like that in the season opener in a long time, and that makes everything a lot more exciting for this year's season opener.
THE MODERATOR: Did you have a question you wanted to ask Dan?
CURTIS GRAY: I wanted to know how he's figured this place out so well, like nobody else has figured it out, and it's a tricky track because we have got the variable banking, 18, 19 and 20 degrees, but either it's the track or the setup and how he gets away from all the distractions in South Beach and the parties and everything else going down here in Miami, how he's worked his way through all that to just dominate at this facility.
DAN WHELDON: Well, I'm a married man now, Curtis, but I think first and more most, Miami, Homestead Speedway has always been very special to a lot of drivers purely because it's always been such an integral part of not only Champ Car and Champ Car was around but the IndyCar Series.
I remember going back there, way back in 1999 when I was driving in the U.S. f 2000 series, watching the car guys at spring training. It's always been a great facility. For the IndyCars. It's always been a track people have ran a lot because it's a great place for winter testing, but also the facilities, I think it's great from a fan perspective.
I think now with the variable banking, I think the fans really get a fantastic race that they love to see and, you know, with the races that we have had there, certainly in the last three or four years, they have always been incredibly competitive and the drivers love that.
In terms of how I have gone so well around that place, I have always been gifted with great race cars there. I think obviously as everybody knows, to win an IndyCar race is so hard these days because the championship is so competitive and you do need great equipment and I've always had that. I've always been associated with Honda, and I think everybody knows from back in the day when there was multiple engine manufacturers involved in the series, Honda were always the best. And now they provide engines for the whole series but they are very equal and I just love the place. I feel like Florida is my home now, so that makes it special to be able to drive to the race track.
I enjoy the racetrack, it's a challenge, and perhaps what we would call a Super Speedway-type track because it's not flat-out and difficult, and one of those racetracks you don't race as little downforce as possible, you have to judge the amount; and it's at night and that makes it exciting and that changes how the car handles from the daytime and pre-race; we practice mostly in the daytime
But for whatever reason, it just works for me and I'm not going to try and jinx that by saying anything different but I just love the place.
CURTIS GRAY: Thank you and we appreciate everything you've done and wish you all the luck in the world Saturday night.
THE MODERATOR: It's not only Homestead, but you've had a lot of success on 1 one-and-a-half-mile-ovals in general with eight of your 13 wins coming on one-and-a-half-mile ovals; is there something beyond just the fact that you've enjoyed the success at Homestead? Is there something in particular about the mile-and-a-halves that play to injure strengths?
DAN WHELDON: You know, I don't think so. I've obviously been good around places like Nazareth and Pike's Peak and Milwaukee and tracks like that, too. I would not say there's any rhyme or season.
I love all of the tracks we race on and I do think that we being, and when I say we, the IndyCar Series in general has a great talent and I look forward to that expanding. It just happens that that be the case. I certainly am not afraid to run wheel-to-wheel with anybody, and very close, and I think I have a good feel for what you need to be quick on that style of track, but again it sounds like I'm praising everybody that I'm involved with, but really you've got to have competitive equipment. I think everybody understands that in motor racing and I've always been gifted with good equipment, and you know, that's a big part of it, too.
So I think it's just overall the package, but that's not to say that we don't go well or enjoy the other tracks because that's certainly not the case. I love Milwaukee, that's a great track for me and obviously I love Indianapolis and they are not one-and-a-half-mile and we have always done well there in the past. It's just a combination of everything but I certainly enjoy that style of racing.
THE MODERATOR: You touched on earlier the fact of the race being in your home state, and the following week we are in your hometown of St. Petersburg where you won in 2005 and all three races you have led laps. The two races in general starting off in the home state, how important is it for you to get off to a good start in those first two races?
DAN WHELDON: I think it doesn't matter where you're racing. Those first few races, and particularly the first one, it's all great to start off very well and it gets everyone in the right frame of mind and gives everyone in the team a lot of confidence and momentum to start the season.
I think, you know, in any series, if you want to perform well and you want to put yourself in the championship hunt, you definitely can do that by scoring a lot of points early on and that doesn't necessarily mean wins. But if you can win the first five races and accumulate a lot of points, it gives you good momentum going into -- well, actually, the first three give you good momentum going into Indianapolis.
But the first five really give you good momentum to lead you into a tough stretch in the championship. If you can bank a lot of early points, it makes that mid-stretch not necessarily easier but puts you in a comfortable position, and that's important.
It just happens that the first few races are in the home state of Florida for me, and particularly St. Pete, I started off there fantastically in 2005 with a win, but it's also the last few years been one of the toughest races I've had for me. So I'm hoping to put that right this year.
THE MODERATOR: Earlier this year we announced the development series be called Firestone Indy Lights, and you built your resumé in the original series, can you tell us about what that name, Indy Lights, means in racing?
DAN WHELDON: I think that's what everybody knows is the feeder series to Indy Car. When you talk about the junior series where people kind of are aspiring IndyCar drivers, they pretty much all started off in Indy Lights, obviously myself, my teammate, Scott Dixon, Dario -- actually I'm not sure that Dario was part of that, but Tony I know was; Christian da Matta. There's a lot of big names that have gone through the Indy Lights series to become IndyCar drivers.
It's not going to change a great deal to a lot of people that are involved in motor racing. But I think from a fan perspective, it's much easier for them to understand the Indy Lights because that name has been so familiar to Indy Car racing in the past and that's important.
Q. You will have a bigger car count this year on a very fast track, and some of those guys maybe not being experienced on ovals. What are your feelings going into Saturday night about the increased car count and maybe having those less than experienced guys on the track?
DAN WHELDON: Hopefully it won't make any difference to myself because we'll be out front again and not worry about them. It will change, the complexity of the race a little bit. I think certainly you're going to be in traffic more whether you're lapping cars or just having to come through the field because of strategy; and with the fact that there is more cars, the risks -- you're going to have to play with strategy might mean where last year or the year before you dropped back to fourth or fifth in the back, now you might drop back to 10th or 11th and have to come through, and there's more cars that will imply that strategy where they stay out and perhaps others come in. So you will have to work with your car from that standpoint, making sure that it certainly handles better in traffic.
But I think in terms of the new drivers coming in, it's different to what we've seen in the past where we've seen one or two people come into the series later on in the latter rounds, this is a situation where they are starting off at the first race and you have to give everybody a chance, because, you know, you've got to start somewhere
But with these drivers we have coming in, I think they are all very, very talented and with that being said, their grasp of IndyCar Racing and particularly our style of racing on ovals they will pick up relatively quickly. I have not raced with many of the people that will be part of the series, but like I say -- there's a lot of incredibly talented people within that group, and I think that because of that, you're not going to see too much of a learning curve.
You will see some, don't get me wrong but the respect that we show one another on track will not really kind of worry too many people in terms of racing close. But it will definitely be a learning experience. I was familiar with that and when I joined the series, it definitely takes time, there's no doubt about that. Just have to soak it in like a sponge. I always tried to be around Sam Hornish as much as I could when I started the series because I thought he was the strongest at it on the ovals and because of that, I thought my learning curve sped up. I think the people involved will learn very, very quickly
Q. Last year with the DNF's, as close as Ganassi came to winning the championship, has that made the team more determined this year?
DAN WHELDON: Yeah, I think when you look at 2006 and 2007, we have just come up as a team, just, just shy and for a team that works as hard as they do, that only makes everybody involved in the team more determined. Hopefully this will be third time lucky.
The team has done a lot of work to improve on any areas that we possibly thought we could improve and I think we definitely made gains. What we have to do is continue to do what we are doing and I think the biggest thing is trying to maximize the weekends where you're not competitive and try and just score as many points as you possibly can without putting the car at risk, is what we need to do.
Strategy, we need to try and make the most on that, and it's going to probably be a little more important with more cars on the track and, you know, we will try to improve on weaknesses we've had there in the past
I think just every area we have felt we could improve, we've done that and hopefully this year, Scott or myself will come out on top.
Q. Car counts are higher but a couple of stars are gone, what will that do for competition? Will it be tighter than ever or only a few cars capable of winning?
DAN WHELDON: If you're referring to Sam and Dario going to NASCAR, I think if you look at the teams where they have moved on from, it's not like, you know, Michael Andretti or Roger Penske is going to replace them with people that are not up to par. You know, those team owners are both -- they understand to win championships and races, you need very talented drivers in those cars and they have replaced them in what they feel as very talented drivers.
I don't think it's going to change from that standpoint. I think Ryan Briscoe and even Hideki, although Hideki's will be steeper than Ryan's, I think they are both capable of being incredibly competitive because those guys wouldn't have picked them otherwise.
But I will say, I think that it's great that there is an increased car count. I think the IndyCar Series and Tony George and Brian Barnhardt should be credited with the way they have facilitated this transition, and I think everybody involved in the IndyCar Series and open-wheel racing is, you know, extremely proud that they have done it in the way that they have, because it's been not just a credit to them but a credit to everybody when you see how it has been introduced.
But in terms of drivers, I think you will see more people capable of winning. Obviously the Newman/Haas team is very good and they have got two very talented drivers. You've got Oriol Servia, incredibly competitive; I could keep going. And that's what is going to be really, really exciting for everybody to be part of the Indy Car Series this year, just because there is so many people that are capable of winning. And that's going to make it more difficult and rewarding to win. I've been fortunate enough to win Indy when there was just the IndyCar Series and there was Champ Car but now to win it where everybody is together will be definitely more gratifying. So that's something that I have to try and achieve this year, too.
I think a lot of people like Oriol Servia have been around for a long time, and they understand what it takes to be quick and what you need as a driver to perform well on those ovals. So I think people like him will be okay. Some of the others that perhaps are more inexperienced, it will take time but at the end of the day, with these ovals, it's about getting a car that you're comfortable with, to perform. That car has got to be comfortable and has to be quick, and I honestly think these people are talented enough that they will pick that up very, very quickly.
You know, I do think with the amount of cars involved in the series and as good as a lot of them are, you're going to have to perform well on all of them, and certainly the people coming over will be at a disadvantage to start with, but like I said, I think they will pick up on it very quickly and let me give you my reason being for that.
The regulations that we have to abide by, that doesn't leave a ton of stroke for development. Everything is regulated very strongly to make the series very, very competitive. And with that being said, Brian Barnhardt and Kevin keep a very close eye on how that development path is, you know, going in terms of is it getting out of control, is it separating the top teams from the bottom teams, is it separating the well-funded teams from the teams that are not so well funded, and with that being said, consequently, you get very competitive racing.
There is definitely areas where, you know, experience is going to be a key part, so in terms of do I think those guys are going to be able to match our pace or get pretty close, pretty quickly? Yes, it might take them a touch longer to get right on pace just because of the little things that we are family with.
But like I said, I am not going to underestimate any of those guys that I'm going to race against or the teams coming over because you know, you would be doing yourself an injustice by doing that because we have seen a lot of those guys be very competitive in the past in the different series that they have raced in.
I can't wait for PT to come across. That's somebody that everybody is looking to come to the series because he is very entertaining and he's got a big name and he's somebody that you know when he's on the racetrack, he's giving 100%. You know, when you have somebody like that, you definitely want to race with them.
Q. You know where he is all the time.
DAN WHELDON: There's no doubt about that. There's no doubt.
Q. During your test, did you do you think -- (indiscernible).
DAN WHELDON: It's always difficult to judge exactly because the preseason test is a little bit in advance of the race but in terms of do I feel confident we have a car capable of winning, yes, I do. The team have done a lot of preparation as a team in trying to improve on any areas where we felt we could improve and I felt like we have made gains from that standpoint.
For me personally, I have got a new engineer this year, and a few new guys on my crew and that gave us a chance to work together and give us a feel for one another, and the same with Scott. I think he's always a very good gauge and we performed well alongside him.
So I think from a team standpoint, both Scott and I feel like we have good chances of winning. The competition I think has definitely seemed to increase each year, and both Penske cars seem to be very quick and you can expect Andretti Green to be very fast.
And you know, I'm not going to count out any of the people coming over from Champ Car. I definitely think that they could spring some surprises because looking at people that are coming into the series that haven't got experience or haven't won races before, you know, a lot of those teams and drivers involved are very talented and the teams, too.
So I mean, they could definitely spring some surprises, especially the way Homestead is. It's a very tricky track and seems to have lost a little bit of grip in comparison to what we have last year. We tend to see that every time we come back each year. But more so this year. So I think it's going to add a premium on handling. But I do feel ready and especially after the end of last season I can't wait to get going
Q. Talking about adding a new engineer, do you get somebody from another team or do you promote somebody within your team? How long did it take to build that relationship with him?
DAN WHELDON: Well, I think obviously each team and each situation is very individual, it just depends. Scott's assistant engineer last year to Eric who was his primary engineer who has moved over to being my primary engineer, I remained with the same engineer with Brad Goldberg and my primary engineer from the last two years has now moved to being -- indiscernible -- on an engineering program there. So he's still an integral part of the engineering department and it's just shifted around.
Chris is somebody that has raced before and actually was very talented as a race car driver. Sometimes he will want to jump in and see and try it out himself especially when the car is really, really good. From an engineering standpoint, he's also very, very good, too.
And I think with the fact that he was a driver, that certainly is very good, and I would say that will speed up our process in learning together how one another works, purely because he has a good understanding of what it is like to be a driver. We have done a lot of testing and the team have certainly facilitated that change in a very professional manner and a manner in which has given us as much time together as possible from the end of last season to the start of this first race.
So I think we are pretty good, but certainly just in race situations, the more experience you have with one another, the more comfortable you are and hopefully we'll get that over the first few races.
I'm very confident in the winter testing that we have both on the ovals and the road courses has gone very good. I'm very confident going into the start of the season.
Q. (Regarding drivers moving to NASCAR series).
DAN WHELDON: Those guys are both incredibly good race car drivers, and it just goes to show how different NASCAR racing is, and how hard it is. I think knowing a little bit about Dario's situation, I think that the team just perhaps are not performing as they would perhaps like, and I'm sure Chip is about to go postal on that side of things because I know how incredibly competitive he is, and you know, he doesn't like seeing his cars and that's something I'm sure that would change very quick.
In Sam's case, I think he just had a little bit of bad luck. When you see his qualified performances, you've got to remember, he's very knew to that and he's up against and been racing that kind of car, some of them for 40 years when you look at it. His time will come. I think, you know, he's just got to be patient.
Q. Any advice for Dario when Chip does go postal?
DAN WHELDON: Don't be around. He's a big cuddly Teddy bare, really, but he's driven. He's like all of us at the end of the day, you know, Chip expects his drivers to perform because he wants to win and he'll give you the equipment to do so. If he doesn't feel that the equipment is right, he'll make changes to make it right.
Same for Dario, if I was Dario -- that's a top team and so Dario should be pushing them. It's obviously difficult for him because it is a new learning curve being in NASCAR, but at the same time, he's made a big commitment. It just hasn't worked out for them yet.
Q. Talk about the excitement level around the merger.
DAN WHELDON: I've touched on this before, it's fantastic for everybody involved and also the fans because you know, IndyCar Racing needed to get back to being where it was in the past and there's no doubt it took a steep -- time when there was a split in the two series or in the one series to make it two.
But it's back together now and I can answer from a driving standpoint, when you're a driver, the drivers -- you want to be racing against the best drivers and teams but you want to be racing at the best venues in front of big crowds, and the way the merger has been facilitated and everybody has gone about their business, it's going to happen as quick as it possibly can and that's exciting.
From a driving standpoint, I can't wait to get to Homestead and be racing against 25 other cars, and not just 25; there are some great names and it's going to be really fun to be racing against them but also to build up these different individuals that are racing in these cars and these teams. It's going to be good to hopefully getting back to having household names IndyCar drivers and to be a part of that for me is very special.
Q. Are tickets spiking?
CURTIS GRAY: Everybody is talking about the future and what this brings for the future, so it's neat to be hosting this historic event and that's what people are talking about is the history.
But I agree with Dan, it's going to take time to build up, but you've got to start somewhere. And all of us that remember when it was together in the past and how it was rivaling NASCAR, and hoping those days come back again and we can have two very competitive motorsports series in the country, which is an exciting proposition for all of us; and I think the sponsors will come on board.
And the Firestone Indy Lights series, if you've seen the growth of that series, it just means that there are going to be a lot of good, young drivers coming up, and I think that looking down the road is the most exciting part of this whole unification.
Q. (Regarding Indianapolis 500).
DAN WHELDON: Indianapolis comes up first and I think whenever you win Indianapolis, it would be special from the standpoint knowing that you're winning against the best open-wheel drivers around because they are all in this one series, and so that would be extremely gratifying, it's certainly going to be -- I'm not going to necessarily say more difficult because I think to win Indy, there's so many things that can go wrong to stop you from winning that race, it's always very, very difficult.
I think that the feeling is it would just be different and I think even from a media perception standpoint, it's going to be different because of the fact that there's nobody else they can say would have been part of the race that would have made it necessarily better if you would have beaten them if you know what I mean.
I think from a media standpoint it's going to change the perception but I think that -- definitely going to be a lot more interesting but from a championship standpoint, as well. I have mentioned this before, you're not going to be able to afford to have a bad race, there's so many guys that are going to be snapping points up from you, if you don't perform, that it will make it incredibly difficult and so it will be gratifying from that standpoint and I'll worry about Indy first before we worry about the championship.
THE MODERATOR: Dan and Curtis, thank you so much for the time this afternoon. Appreciate your insights into the upcoming weekend and season. Good luck.
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