Gomez, Gray, Wheldon teleconference, part 2

Continued from part 1 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 ...

Continued from part 1

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 (Dixon) 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 (Mutoh), 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 Barnhart 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 IndyCar 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 room for development. Everything is regulated very strongly to make the series very, very competitive. And with that being said, Brian Barnhart and Kevin (Blanch) 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 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 familiar 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 Paul Tracy 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 percent. 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, what did you think -- (regarding how you stack up against the rest of the field).

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 had 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 (Simmons) 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 following Sam Hornish Jr.'s and Dario Franchitti's results in NASCAR).

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 new 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 bear, 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 name 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 historical significance of winning the championship in a unified series).

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.

-credit: irl

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Series INDYCAR , INDYLIGHTS