Excerpts from an interview with Lee Bentham, Cal Wells, and Vicki O'Connor done on December 1, 1998. The moderator was Mr. T. E. McHale, CART News Manager.
T.E. McHALE: Last week, Canadian Lee Bentham received the opportunity to drive the No. 25 MCI WorldCom Arciero-Wells Reynard Toyota at Button Willow Race Course in California as a reward for winning the 1998 KOOL/Toyota Atlantic Championship. Lee joins us today with Arciero-Wells racing co-owner Cal Wells III and KOOL/Toyota Atlantic Championship president Vicki O'Connor to talk about that experience. Welcome to Lee, Cal and Vicki. Thanks for taking the time to be with us this afternoon. 28-year-old Lee Bentham won the 1998 KOOL/Toyota Atlantic Championship on the strength of two victories, three pole positions and five podium finishes in 13 events. He was the 1996 Atlantic championship runner-up and competed in the PPG Dayton Indy Lights series in 1997. Lee actually had the opportunity to drive two different champ cars during the month of November. Earlier in the month he drove a players Reynard Mercedes at Firebird International Raceway outside of Phoenix Arizona. And with that, we're going to open the floor up for questions.
Q. First of all, Lee congratulations on the win in the Atlantic series. But this had to be a thrill to jump into the big car, didn't it? LEE BENTHAM: Absolutely. It's a thrill of a lifetime and it's one of the things that any driver works towards in his career, and to get a chance to do that is just fantastic and it's just made me hungrier to do so much more.
Q. What are you looking at for 1999? LEE BENTHAM: Well, there was very limited spots open this year. I was around talking to many team owners and it seems that a lot of contracts are not up yet and there wasn't just a lot of spots open for a rookie driver to move up. I may be resigned to the fact that I'll be going back to the Atlantic Series for next year, unless anything else comes up, but certainly I'm with a good team, the Player's Forsythe racing team and we look forward to defending the championship next year.
Q. How important was it for you in '98, because the Player's Forsythe team has always been pretty spectacular in the Toyota Atlantic Series but also the Links team in the last few years has been the team to beat. And the fact that you were able to beat them, how important is it in your resume to for that? LEE BENTHAM: That was certainly one of the primary goals I had this year because the Links have been so strong and almost undefeated for a couple of years. I think one of the key issues was the chassis change. I think the fact that most of the teams switched over to the new swift chassis. I think what it did is put everybody on more equal playing field and it really showed whose team was very strong engineering-wise. And starting with a clean sheet of paper and a chassis, it showed who could really come up with a good setup.
Q. And if I may ask an added question for Vicki: That is, I think, probably a hallmark for the KOOL/Toyota Atlantic Series is the fact that everyone was on an even keel and the series indeed became a driver development series. VICKI O'CONNOR: That's correct. I think we achieved our goal to get a level-playing field. We were pretty happy. You could look at a grid any time this year after Montreal amongst teams that switched over. The top 10 drivers would be nine different teams; so that was pretty exciting.
Q. I'm just wondering, with having to return Atlantic very likely, it seems like a champion sort of should make the next step and unfortunately things just haven't worked out. Will the incentive be there next year like it was this year? LEE BENTHAM: Absolutely. The incentive is going to be there up until the day I pass on, I think. Certainly I'm always hungry to win any races in any time type of vehicle, and the fact that there weren't any opportunities for me to move up into a champ car for next year, so be it. Perhaps the timing wasn't right or something of that nature. But, what can you say. We'll press on and I certainly look forward to returning again and defending the title.
Q. Tell me, you had the opportunity to drive two champ cars. Can you describe, you know, what the experience was like, and can you also describe the difference between the two power plants and the performance. LEE BENTHAM: Well, the experience was one that just -- it's unequaled. It's a fantastic opportunity, and obviously each mile in a champ car that I spent, I improved, got better and enjoyed it more and more and felt quite comfortable. The difference was not that great. I mean, Toyota has made huge strides with their motors and I would expect them to be a winning power plant in the near future. The biggest difference, I guess, was the Mercedes would have a little more mid-range but the Toyota that actually a little more runt around the corners and comparable top speed.
Q. That's interesting. What are your prospects for a champ car ride, do you think, maybe the third Forsythe car? LEE BENTHAM: Well, it's hard to say. I've heard really nothing relative to that subject yet and it's hard to say whether anything will develop next year or not. I've certainly been looking around and there are just not that many spots open. Certainly, I've been trying my hardest to get in there. I know I'm ready for a champ car ride, but if the opportunities don't present themselves, sometimes you just have to wait.
Q. And I guess, Cal, you're on line there. What were your impressions of Lee behind the wheel? CAL WELLS III: Well, unfortunately due to a death in my wife's family, I wasn't able to attend. But I did have my leading engineer and our director of Indy car operations, Richard Buck, there and they have written a comprehensive report highly complimentary of Lee and the capabilities that he demonstrated during the test and his acute acumen of the vehicle itself and how it responded and his input into how to make it respond, and his patience because the doggoned thing broke down the first day he was in there. But he had the patience to hang out an extra day with us and let us show him we could put a car together that would keep running.
Q. That's great. And very quick thing for Vicki. Have you got the '99 nine schedule for the Atlantic yet? VICKI O'CONNOR: I knew someone was going to ask that. We expect hopefully to have something at the end of this week.
Q. Rumors abound that the Atlantic's schedule will be expanding possibly to even Road Atlanta. Can you comment on that? VICKI O'CONNOR: Road Atlanta is a possibility for this year. We won't know that for sure for a couple more weeks.
Q. Certainly those of us that live in the southeast would look forward to seeing the Atlantics in this area. VICKI O'CONNOR: We look forward to being there. It's a tremendous facility.
Q. This is for Vicki O'Connor: You and I have known each other a long time, and I know you have to look back on this series with a lot of satisfaction because it's grown tremendously. VICKI O'CONNOR: Yes, it has. It was a labor of love, though, Walt.
Q. Isn't all of this? VICKI O'CONNOR: Yeah it had to be. But it's so gratifying where it got to, how it grew up and how are our teams stayed together and really were a great part of our development, as well as we would be nowhere without Toyota. They have just been the most fantastic sponsor. And that cold call I made to Les Unger about 11 years ago is really the key to the entire success of the series.
Q. It gives you great satisfaction, I know, to look at these young fellows and say: I new him when he was just starting out or when he was just so old or whatever. And I know a got I big kick out of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Here the other day when we had him on our show, and knowing that he was going to win the championship. But all in all, these young fellows are quite sharp now, a lot different than they were 15 or 20 years ago and a lot of boys coming up and saying, I just want to drive a race car. VICKI O'CONNOR: It's very gratifying. It's funny, when I look, Jacques Villeneuve, my husband raced against his father. So I met Jacques when he was two; so they do grow up fast.
Q. Vicki, when we look at women in motor racing, you pretty much have put the biggest stamp. And not so much in a car, but the fact that you've been able to organize and have a racing series that has grown much the way that it has. Has it surprised you on how quickly the series has grown and the fact that it -- has been able to hang around for as long as it has? VICKI O'CONNOR: Thanks. I think it's a series that refused to die. There's so many people that just love the Atlantic cars and we've had just great history, and celebrating our 25th anniversary this year, I certainly did look back. In some ways this didn't take that long and in some ways it seemed to take a real long time to get where we wanted to go. But I think we're secure now for the future forever.
Q. But you've refused to let it die. You have said it's a series that refused to die, but you would not let it die, would you? VICKI O'CONNOR: No, I didn't think it was supposed to. I didn't know you couldn't do this. But it worked out very well and I had a slot of support. Atlantic fans are Atlantic fans. They are really strongly it behind and us. I think that helped us and people were happy to see it keep its position in motor sports.
Q. A final question: You're trying to sell the series to corporate America. Did you first have to sell the fact that a woman can return run a motor racing series? VICKI O'CONNOR: No, I didn't. That never even occurred to me. At the time, I didn't look at it that was something that wasn't doable and I really didn't bring that angle into it at all. Probably I was pretty dumb not to. But I just thought the series could stand on its own as long as someone was doing a good job in keeping it going.
Q. For Vicki, you have pretty much done it all in open wheels and I was wondering what mountains are left yet to be conquered for you. VICKI O'CONNOR: There will always be a mountain. Every day is sort of a new challenge. I think now is just keeping up with what our real dictate it, and that's which is to recruit, educate and graduate drivers. That is really what we do do and to see how our championships move on. Unfortunately, Lee can't move on this year, but I think the year after you'll see him and I'll be very gratified. That's what we need to do is keep our drivers on a career goal.
T.E. McHALE: I might just step out of character real quickly and ask Cal to comment on something we were talking about before we went on. Cal, you told me you got your new car last week. Can you give us a timetable as to when you might have it out on the course? CAL WELLS III: We've got a test scheduled in a couple of weeks down in Homestead and we've got both road course and oval testing planned there. And then Sebring on the 18th, 19th and 20th, end of December, somewhere in there. And then we hope to start engine testing the new Toyota Phase VI engine. I believe that's always an RV-8E, although I'm not sure yet it's going to be flagged. But anyway, we believe we will be doing some testing with that engine sometime in January. That's our hope, certainly. And that will pretty much dictate where we head with our testing program for the balance of the year. I would like to commend Toyota's development efforts and still keep our chassis current with what the other teams are doing. T.E. McHALE: You had indicated to me that it was a full testing schedule it sure sounds like it. We wish you a lot of luck with that and with your two new drivers, Christiano Da Matta and Scott Pruett. We wish Lee Bentham the best of luck in the coming season, wherever he might land. And we thank Lee, Cal, Vicki O'Connor or for coming on and being our guests this afternoon. Thanks again to all of you for being with us and good afternoon.