IRL: Indy 500: Rahal Letterman Racing Media Tour, part 1

Bobby Rahal, Danica Patrick, Buddy Rice, Jeff Simmons BOB JENKINS: Moving right along, we welcome you once again to a continuation of media day here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Now give you an opportunity to talk with some principals of...

Bobby Rahal, Danica Patrick, Buddy Rice, Jeff Simmons

BOB JENKINS: Moving right along, we welcome you once again to a continuation of media day here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Now give you an opportunity to talk with some principals of one of the top teams in the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series.

We'll also talk about plans for the 90th running of the -- is it 90? Yeah. You won in '86, 20 years ago, unbelievable. (Laughter)

BOBBY RAHAL: I was very young.

JENKINS: I was really young also, yeah.

Introducing to you now members of the podium, to my immediate right is the 1986 winner -- I'm not good with numbers, have you noticed that? The '86 winner of the Indianapolis 500 -- whatever it is. Who now, of course, is a very successful car owner in the Indy Racing League, Mr. Bobby Rahal. (Applause)

Next to him is the 2004 winner of the Indianapolis 500, driving for the Rahal Letterman team, Buddy Rice. (Applause)

Next to him, the 2005 Indianapolis 500 JPMorgan Chase Rookie of the Year, Danica Patrick. (Applause)

And on the end, somebody who will be talked about here in just a few moments in greater detail, Indianapolis 500 starter and also Indy Pro Series driver, Jeff Simmons. (Applause)

To explain a little bit more about why Jeff Simmons is up here on the podium, we turn it over to Bobby Rahal.

RAHAL: Thank you, Bob. Good afternoon, everybody. I apologize if I'm a little foggy today. I just got back in from China last night. My son was racing over there. So I'm a little not quite sure what time zone I'm on currently. But it is great to be with all of you and to be back here at the Speedway. I have to say I got kind of excited coming over today thinking about what a great year, great couple of years we've had the last several and looking forward to having another great one this May.

We've obviously been through some real trials and tribulations already this year. We all know what happened at Homestead and what a terrible day that was for all of us and our team and racing and, in particular, Paul (Dana) and his family. And yet knowing Paul as we did, he was the kind of guy that was pretty no-nonsense about him, get on with life and get going. We intend to do that, and we've dedicated this year to Paul in our quest for the championship.

And one of the -- I think a great component for our team in order to bring that championship to us is that today I'm pleased to announce Jeff Simmons is going to drive the Ethanol No. 17 car for the remainder of the year. Jeff, of course, has been very successful in the Infiniti Pro Series and also has a pretty successful track record beyond that. We think that he's going to bring us a lot of value and contribute greatly to the overall performance of the team, and have no doubt that he'll be very competitive in his own right. So I am very, very pleased to introduce all of you to Jeff Simmons. (Applause)

JEFF SIMMONS: First of all, I want to thank Bobby and everybody on Team Ethanol for this opportunity. I'm honored to have this chance. This is something I've been working for for a long time. I don't think I could be in a better position, especially coming into these next couple of races where I'm going to be really trying to get up to speed myself. I've got a great team here with Danica and Buddy that I am really looking forward to working with. I think Danica started second, I believe her first visit to Japan last year, and obviously we know how well she did here at Indy and how well Buddy has done in the past. So these next few races, I think they're going to be carrying me a little bit. But I hope that I am able to contribute to the team as the year goes on. I just really am thankful for the opportunity.

JENKINS: We, of course, will open up the floor to questions from you all out there. We have the microphones that will be floating around the room. But I know you all want to know what the feelings of Buddy and Danica are as they look forward to the 90th running of the Indianapolis 500. Danica, we'll start with you. What are your hopes and dreams for the Indy 2006 race?

DANICA PATRICK: Well, I want to win it. It went pretty well last year, and we had some success and turned a few heads and went fast. So I think that, you know, in my mind that's obviously what I'm striving for and shooting for. But to be really honest, that's kind of the attitude that I have all the time. It just went better at Indy than anything else, really. But we have to take it race by race, I think, and that's really something that sort of keeps me grounded in my mind, is that just to go for the win every weekend. Like last weekend, for instance, I wasn't the fastest car out there, so you have to take the moment for what it's worth and not set your sights so high that you're disappointed.

But I have to say that Rahal Letterman's track record at Indy is so good that I can probably say that we're going to be on pace, we're going to have to work hard most definitely, and you can never quite take this event for granted. We're up against tough competition and, you know, we're all in Hondas now, so we've got even more work for us now as we lost that little bit of an edge. But that's OK. I think that as a team we're strong and individually with my engineer Ray, I think that we can work really, really well together and get the car to handle right and make it go the distance.

JENKINS: Buddy?

BUDDY RICE: Well, as a lot of you know, I took last year off, had a little vacation time. Probably not the most ideal time to take vacation, but it's the way it is. I think that we have a lot of drive from over the winter; we did a lot of testing. We think that even though we're one of the only teams as of right now that's on all the Panoz chassis, I think we're in a very good position.

Danica qualified last year, as did Kenny (Brack). I think with bringing Jeff Simmons in, it's going to be a good fit for the team. All three cars should be fast, and I think we're going to be quick when it comes to qualifying and as well as the race. We've proven that the Panoz chassis runs very good on these big tracks and runs well here at Indy, and we're coming back with the same package, and we have every opportunity to come back and bring another "500" win to Rahal Letterman. I think it would be good on the 20th anniversary of Bob's win here to try to bring another one home. It would be great to stick that on the mantle down at the shop as all of us would like to contribute to that. So I think we have an opportunity, and that's what we're looking for. We've all got our goals set very high to come in here for the month of May.

JENKINS: Just hold your hand up, and we'll get a microphone to you as quickly as we can to get your questions.

Q</I>: Danica, in terms of racecraft and race management, what would you say was the biggest lesson you learned last year in your first year of running events that are 200, 300, 500 miles long?

PATRICK: You know, I think I learned some of the characteristics of a car and what happens to it over the duration of a race. It did vary racetrack to racetrack, but I think I had a general idea of what needed to happen with the car to make sure that it would handle at the beginning of the fuel stint, at the end of the fuel stint, at the beginning of the race to the end of the race. There was definitely adapting that went on from event to event. For the most part, you could sort of -- you could go into the event knowing generally what would happen.

So I think that that was the most valuable thing I learned mechanically. Outside of that, just driving-wise, I learned how to race side by side and, you know, I remember it. Even mid to the end of the year, passing on the outside is still weird and foreign a little bit. Everything I've ever done, it's always on the inside. So it's getting comfortable with that and knowing that the car is going to be there and having confidence that the line is three cars wide as opposed to one. And I think it came along well last year, and I'm ready for this year. But not at Indy, you can only go one-wide here, anybody that tries two-wide, that's scary.

Q</I>: Buddy touched on this just briefly about you being the only team, full team with the Panoz chassis. Last year they were quick, there was no ifs, ands or buts out there, it was the fastest chassis but the critical issue was it didn't have the stability in traffic. Is there any change to the chassis that you feel confident it will handle in the traffic?

RICE: I think most of the stability problems came on the mile-and-a-half tracks, the high-bank tracks where we need to get the speed out of the car, and to do that we had made the car more unstable. I think with the rules package and what the IRL has done has made our car more competitive to the other chassis on those tracks. I don't think we had that big of an issue here at the Speedway in the Speedway package at this track. So I don't think that that's going to pose a big problem. I mean, the last two years our chassis have been able to run up front, and we've been able to stay right there in the front lead pack all day long. So I just think that definitely the IRL's rules package has helped us on the mile and a half and bigger tracks to be more competitive in dirty air.

Q</I>: Buddy, last year you were sitting up here as the defending champion and telling us about how great it felt. As you watched the race last year on your vacation, what kind of thoughts went through your head? What's going through there now trying to motivate you to get back into Victory Lane? Second question is, how is your Lincoln running, and has Bobby promised you a car if you win the 500 this year? (Laughter)

RICE: I think with sitting out last year, I mean I don't care who it is, whether you qualify or get injured, you don't want to sit out. This is the biggest race there is. So not being able to come back to defend was definitely hard, but it's just the way things go. I think now with this year, I'm going to come back, I have the same drive, I have all the same feelings and everything I want to do. So I think that when I start the month of May, I still have just as good a shot this year as I did last year, the year before to win. I think how we strengthen our team and some of the adjustments we've made, I think we're even stronger this year coming in right now than we were last year. So I think, you know, I have just as good a chance and I'm definitely going in that way. Obviously the start of the month actually starts tomorrow with our open test. My Mercury is running great, and hopefully I can add the car sitting in front of me to my collection.

Q</I>: This is for Jeff. Have you had an opportunity to sit down and make out some goals for yourself? Are you going to run both series, too?

SIMMONS: I think that the schedule this year for, especially with the Pro Series having to do another double weekend, that's just not really a possibility. Obviously, I want to concentrate 100 percent on this opportunity that I have. This is the most important thing; this is what I've worked so long for. This is the best chance that I could ask for.

In terms of goals, obviously we want to run for Rookie of the Year, but beyond that, you know, just contributing to the team, getting comfortable, learning every step of the way and also do my very best to promote the cause that Paul worked so hard for.

When I look at ethanol and Team Ethanol, this isn't just a product, this is a cause. I think the only way for me to honor Paul is to really do my best to continue to promote that message for a clean, renewable high-performance fuel. It's made in America. It's not lost on me how this opportunity came about for me. I know I want everybody to know that I hold that very, very deeply. So that's one of my goals, as well.

Q</I>: This is more rather than a question, is a comment for Bobby. If you could take us full circle, 1986 and all the emotional events and obviously with Jim's rapidly failing health and your victory after weather delays, if you could take us full circle, if you could, please, empty the memory banks a little bit, 1986 and now obviously emotion-filled start to this season and your thoughts on the potential to maybe have emotion and maybe even destiny come your way again.

RAHAL: Well, 1986 was, although I have to admit, it's getting a little foggier with each succeeding year, but it was obviously a tremendous year for us having won -- that was my first IndyCar championship, and we won six races. But Indy was the race that really kind of set us off on that accomplishment. Of course, for all of us at Truesports at the time with the failing health of Jim Trueman, who was our mentor and the guy who gave us all our opportunities, whether it was me or Steve Horne or some of the guys who still work for me today were on that team. Jim Prescott, who is the chief on Jeff's car, Jim was my -- one of my mechanics on that effort. So there's a lot of consistencies there. There's no question, it was a very emotional month that became more and more so as time went on.

Of course, the day of the race, you know, as I was asked today about it and, frankly, there were so many emotions flooding over you, I can't remember clearly just one. But as I said, I think probably a week later I was sitting there with Jim Trueman, it was the last time I saw him and we spoke, I was sitting on his bed and we were speaking for the first time about the month, and it was the first chance he and I had a chance to talk about it. That's what I remember most more so than anything else.

What saddens me more than anything about that is I just wonder how much greater the sport would have been had he stayed alive and continued to contribute. Here we are 20 years later, and certainly there's been a lot of emotion already. We certainly, as we dedicated, as Truesports dedicated the rest of that year to Jim, we've done the same now for Paul. I don't know, I hope it's not just destiny, I hope we have a little bit more to say in whether we win or not. But without question, it's good to have all the influences and the things that you learn from people that carry you forward. And Paul certainly left us with many, just as Jim did with me. You know, I think that as Buddy and Danica have already said and if you look at the past few years, we've been very strong here, and I think we intend to be extremely strong this month, and that starts tomorrow.

Q</I>: Bobby, in choosing Jeff, what kind of homework had you done on him, given that your history of really having an association with drivers before you bring them on? How far back did you go with him, and what was your criteria?

RAHAL: Well, we didn't really have any prior experience with Jeff other than I've seen him race and obviously seen him win. Actually earlier this year, there was the potential of us joining with his IPS team. As you know, in the IRL there is some value to incorporating an IPS team into your own in terms of test days. So I spoke to Jeff about that possibility and Kenn Hardley, who was very supportive of this whole thing, I must make clear, because he's lost a driver in this whole process with Jeff coming to us. But we had talked about it, and I think the only thing, the only reason we talked even about it with Kenn was because we felt that Jeff could bring value to us. Of course, we didn't quite understand or realize it would be as soon as it was, and certainly no one ever hoped it would come in the manner in which it came. But his performance has been a successful one throughout his career. And I think that's what, you know, when we were forced to look around, we wanted to make sure that if there was someone who was going to replace Paul, it was going to be someone who was going to be able to live up to the expectations. We thought that Jeff was that guy.

Q</I>: Jeff, you alluded just a minute ago to the circumstances around this. Can you just talk a little bit about the mixed emotions to have the opportunity of a lifetime come along but have it come along in this manner?

SIMMONS: Well, you know, certainly, as we said, this is different circumstances and not the ones under which I would like this opportunity to come about. But I have thought about this a lot over the past week or so as we've been talking about doing this. You know, Paul had the same dreams as me. Paul and I weren't close friends or anything like that. We were competitors. I think we got along, and we would wish each other luck and that sort of thing. But we had the same dream.

It has a deep and profound impact on me emotionally how this has come about. As I said before, I just want to do whatever I can to try to honor Paul's memory. You know, it's something I'll never forget, and I really want to express my condolences and deepest sympathies and everything to his family and friends and loved ones. As the whole team is doing this year is in honor to Paul, and I think that maybe I don't know even at this point exactly, I haven't had enough time to reflect on everything to really know how it's impacting me, but I take it very seriously.

Continued in part 2

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Bobby Rahal , Buddy Rice , Jeff Simmons , Steve Horne , Danica Patrick