IRL: Indy Racing Champions press conference transcript

Test In The West Indy Racing Champions Press Conference Transcript Phoenix - Feb. 8, 2001 HOST: Mike King GUESTS: 1999 Indy Racing champion Greg Ray, 2000 Indy Racing champion Buddy Lazier, 1996 Indy Racing co-champion Buzz Calkins MIKE...

Test In The West Indy Racing Champions Press Conference Transcript Phoenix - Feb. 8, 2001

HOST: Mike King GUESTS: 1999 Indy Racing champion Greg Ray, 2000 Indy Racing champion Buddy Lazier, 1996 Indy Racing co-champion Buzz Calkins

MIKE KING: Welcome back for our final press conference of the day. This is our champions' press conference, and three of our champions, including the defending series champion, are here with us. First off, let me start from the far side of the table, Buzz Calkins was the inaugural race winner in the Indy Racing League, winning the 1996 running of the very first event in the series at Walt Disney World Speedway. He went on to be named co-champion of the first year, which was a bit of an abbreviated year. It was only three races. But Buzz and Scott Sharp wound up as co-champions that first year. Now, you come to nearest me, Greg Ray. Greg last year -- rather, I should say 1999, had a great year with Team Menard, wound up as champion. Greg is the series all-time leader in poles. Last year he sat on the pole six times and look for him to do the same again in the year 2001. Last year, was a bit of a down year for Greg and Team Menard. They got off to a tough start. They did have a great race at Atlanta, a race that they absolutely dominated, and Greg won that event. But he admitted to all of us it was a bit too little too late at that point in the season to catch this man, Buddy Lazier, who won the 2000 series championship. Buddy is from Vail, Colorado. And let me mention real quick that Buzz is from Denver and that Greg is from Plano, Texas.

GREG RAY: Dallas.

MIKE KING: Dallas, excuse me. Plano, Dallas-Fort Worth area. Buddy Lazier is an interesting guy. I've known Buddy -- I had known of Buddy for a good number of years, but certainly since he won the Indianapolis 500 in 1996, he has established himself as perhaps the most consistent oval racer in an Indy-type car in the world. I was looking the other day at his stats. Since winning the '96 500, he has posted 22 top-10 finishes and 15 top fives along with four wins. His season last year was absolutely incredible. So, Buddy, I think, while certainly Greg is a great racer, Buzz is a great racer, I think that Buddy deserves some respect and some due for what he has managed to accomplish since winning the '96 Indianapolis 500, that coming just a few weeks after breaking his back in Turn 2 here at Phoenix International Raceway after being involved in an incident with Lyn St. James. So, without further ado, we'll hear from our champions. We got the microphone right there, guys. Buddy, if you want to click that on, and we will start with you since you are the defending champion. I guess first off, after what happened last year, how difficult is it going to be to repeat a season like that?

BUDDY LAZIER: It's going to be really difficult. With the even platform the Indy Racing League has, anybody can win on any day, any one of the teams can win. So when all the equipment is so equal, it makes it extremely difficult to string lots of championships together or win a lot of races in a row because you can't get a technical advantage. You can't get a huge advantage, so I do have a great race team in my Hemelgarn Racing Team, the Coors Light/Delta Faucet/Tae-Bo car. We worked very hard this offseason to at least have a chance to stay on top. I think we have a great chance. Coming into Phoenix the first race of the season, it's kind of tough because this racetrack still really haunts me. I mean I was hurt awfully bad coming out of Turn 2. Last year was really the first time I've had any success here at this racetrack, so this place still kind of haunts me back and forth. It's personally a difficult place to start the season off, but we've had some success testing here the last few days and looking forward to the next two days. So I think we are positioned good to at least have a chance to repeat.

MIKE KING: In addition to being the defending series champion, Buddy is also the defending race winner here at PIR. Last year he started dead last on the grid and in a car that had not turned a lap. After they developed a problem with the car during qualifying, they withdrew that car and entered their backup car. I'm correct, that car had not been on the track, is that right, when you -

BUDDY LAZIER: Yeah, it was a brand-new race car that the team had just took delivery of about two weeks before the event. It wasn't actually fully assembled. They worked through the evening to finish putting it together, and it had never turned a lap. I think we actually made four or five laps in the morning warm-up session, so we had a little bit of time. It just shows, I think, to everyone how the good race team is that they can take a car that's never turned a lap and make it identical to the car that we had been testing. I mean I've got a great race team, and I think that's part of the reason why we're able to put together so much consistency on the racetrack, and like you were talking from 1996, that was my first year with Hemelgarn racing full time, and I've been with them ever since. There is a lot of continuity. My guys, my engineer and I have been together a long time. The team manager, we almost hardly don't even need to speak to each other anymore. We can tell by each other's facial expression what we are thinking and so we have a very efficient team. We work very well together. That allows us to move quickly through the setup and dialing in the race car.

MIKE KING: Greg, let's move to you. The 1999 series champion is Greg Ray. And, Greg, I guess will 2001 be a year to make a statement after coming back from a bit of a disappointment in 2000.

GREG RAY: I don't know that it's going to be a statement. Certainly last year was, you know, full of trials and tribulations for us. We always had a good race car. We were consistently quick, but between my mistakes that I made in the car, between some mechanical problems and, you know, here last year, on a restart, there was a rookie spun right in front of me. I had nowhere go. Kind of like say sometimes that's just racing, and it seems like we navigated the Bermuda Triangle all year long. We only steered clear in Atlanta. Like Buddy said, I think for sure that now that we have 13 races, it's going to give the teams a lot more chance to get on a rhythm. They are going to race more. They are going to test more. But, you know, the Indy Racing is so competitive, everybody has the same cars, they are fairly tightly scrutinized, and we have the same motors, same tires. And when you look at racing as a whole, you know, the setup means a lot, and the driver means a lot, and the car means a lot, the tires mean a lot, and you have this big dartboard that you get to aim for. Sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you get it wrong. Well, seeing that we have the equipment that's all so close together, you know, we are running on oval, so the possibility for setup is quite a bit smaller. So the board, instead of be a dartboard, we are all really sitting on top of the bull's eye, so to find an advantage is very, very difficult. I expect it's going to be a tough year. Thirteen races, I mean, you may have 13 different winners.

MIKE KING: Greg, as we mentioned, sat on the pole last year six times. He won five of those poles through qualifying. One of those poles he was awarded because of points because of a washout of the qualifying session. It was announced a little bit earlier that no points, championship points, would be awarded in 2001 for qualifying this year. Will that change Team Menard's philosophy at all as far as their approach to qualifying?

GREG RAY: Well, I mean, certainly having points awarded for qualifying, anytime you can get a point for leading a lap or qualifying or winning, I mean points go toward the championship. Those are very important. But even beside that, the race setup is going to be the most important issue. But at the start of a race, you see it time and time again. Things happen at the beginning of the race, and the closer you are to the front, you know, the least likely you are to have those problems. And I think if you look at last year's race at the Indianapolis 500, I mean if you look at just the sheer lap times, Buddy was actually quicker over the course of the race than Juan Montoya and so, you know, where you start, how you pit, everything matters. So I mean, yeah, the farther you start up, the better.

MIKE KING: Let's go to Buzz now. Buzz, you won that first race out of the chute in 1996 and you kind of came from nowhere, and then it's been a bit of a long dry spell. Is this 2001 the season where you put the Bradley Motorsports car back in Victory Lane?

BUZZ CALKINS: Yeah, I think we are in pretty good shape this year as we've made a lot of changes over the winter. We have actually moved all of our operations from Denver back to Indianapolis, and we did that mainly, you know, to get the people that we thought we needed to get to be able to be competitive in this environment, the environment that these guys are talking about that's so close and so crucial out of everything on every given day. I think that was big for us. We've got a bunch of new guys that are there and excited to go out, hopefully try to win some races, but we've also got a lot of the guys from last year that will help us keep -- you know, keep the consistency that's important in this whole thing, too. So we're looking forward and optimistic this year and hopefully get another one here before too long.

MIKE KING: You came in on crutches. You want to tell us what happened?

BUZZ CALKINS: Greg could probably tell a very similar story. We were testing down in Homestead yesterday, and kind of midway through the morning on our second day had a little incident between Turn 3 and 4. It was completely my fault and just one of those things that I think it's a tricky place, and I don't think I'm going to be the last one that ends up having something happen down there. And it's, you know, one of those things that happens, but we will be back. We kind of -- it was the only car that we had right now because our backup car was getting the update kit fitted to it back in Indianapolis, and so unfortunately we won't be participating here over the next couple days, but we're already making plans to get back here within the next week or two and go ahead and go about our business.

MIKE KING: Let's get back to Buddy. Buddy talked about before we ran the race at Kentucky Speedway last year, I think there had been a downtime of like six weeks. You went into that race with a points lead, but said that you had to get used to being in the car again. It had been a while. This year, no such situation. There is very little down time. How does that suit you, and in fact we'd like to get reaction from all three of you, on how the new schedule, 13 races in essentially 24 weeks, 25 weeks or so, how that suits you guys in terms of, I guess, mental and physical preparation for a season?

BUDDY LAZIER: From my point of view, I think it's all great. I mean it's all a good gain. It seems like we always just keep gaining momentum each year from a series point of view, and from a competitor's point of view, I can't think of a better situation. We are in front of the fans every two weeks. We are racing every two weeks. I think everybody is going to stay extra sharp. There are some teams that have been able to test even if we had eight weeks between races. There are teams that test every two weeks anyway. But now everybody gets to be in the car every two weeks, and I think it's just going to make -- I mean, it's hard to picture a more competitive series than what we had last year. I mean, there were races where half the field was going for the win at the end of the race, you know. Some of the closest open-wheel racing we've ever seen, we saw last year. But really, racing every two weeks will probably make it even closer and even better racing. So it's something I am really looking forward to.

MIKE KING: Greg, what about you?

GREG RAY: Well, absolutely. I mean, it's rhythm. You know, the mechanics get to the work on the car every two weeks. The drivers get to drive every two weeks, so it's not only just the big teams and small teams, as well. So it's really all about rhythm. I mean, whether you are playing baseball or basketball or driving a race car, the more you do it, the more in rhythm you get. And then also having a longer season, it's going to allow us to allow some of the teams if they have a bad weekend or two to maybe be able to come back, bounce back from that. You know, when you have a short series, you know, seven, eight, nine races, it's very difficult to have a bad weekend or two and overcome that. So, you know, if the series ultimately, you know, gets more events, I mean it essentially makes a more level playing field for the best team and the best driver. Definitely looking forward to it. I think it's great for the fans, the fact that we will be racing every two weeks and the fact that we are at Indianapolis almost the whole month of May. It's going to give us a lot more media exposure in the magazines, the newspaper, in ESPN, on all the racing stations, and that's going to allow the fans to be become more in touch with the drivers' personalities, with the teams, with the sponsors. And it's a big plus.

MIKE KING: Buzz, got anything to add to that?

BUZZ CALKINS: Not really. I think those guys pretty much covered everything there, but from our perspective, I think the biggest thing that was nice for us was having a true offseason this year. Since the series started, we haven't really had a, you know, true per se offseason, and it's been nice for us just making the big changes I was talking about earlier and, you know, being able to come into the -- coming into the opening race and hoping that you are where you need to be to be at a competitive level.

MIKE KING: You have all been champions in the series. Buddy, you are the defending champion. You're the only guy right now with a chance to repeat. What's it like to be series champion in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series?

BUDDY LAZIER: It's good. I like it. I like the long offseason. It's been nice.

MIKE KING: Have you spent the money yet?

BUDDY LAZIER: No, no, not even close. No, it is, I mean, a lot of money to win the championship. A lot of attention. It's been nice. I mean, it really is. It's a prize. You know, grand prix is grand prize, and it is a grand prize to win the championship. It's been wonderful. It's something we really want to repeat. But I can also see where it's difficult because, you know, when you become a champion or when you are racing and you win things and I saw first time ever, to the extent that you get in racing at this level, after winning the Indy 500, there is a lot a lot of distraction, and the race season is now upon us, and it's come up quick. I mean, it's been a long offseason, but when you are defending the championship and you are the champion, it really goes by quickly. So it's time, I think, for us to forget about last year, really focus on this year.

MIKE KING: You said you have had an opportunity to spend very little time at home. Give us an idea of what your offseason has been like.

BUDDY LAZIER: It's been a whole lot of time flying around doing lot of appearances. A lot of fun things I have wanted to take full advantage of the championship, because you never know in life and in your profession what kind of Y's in the road there are going to be. Positively, I'd like to think that I can get in some other chances to be champion and to feel this, and we certainly hope 2001 will be as good for us as 2000. But at the same time, if things don't go right, you want to take advantage of all the opportunities that you get when you are a champion. So we tried to really take advantage of things this year. My wife and (son) Flinn shared a lot of it with me, you know. Things like flying one day to one media event and one appearance, the following day another, the following day another, and all of a sudden, you look back and you have done 60, 70 events. It's been wonderful.

MIKE KING: Questions for our former champions?

Q: Greg, when you talk about the points specifically having gone away, are you going to reduce your efforts you think in qualifying?

GREG RAY: Well, I don't think we ever put - we never had an overemphasis on speed anyway. I mean, yeah, we had a lot of poles in the last two years, but I mean we worked on our race setup, we worked on going quick, and we worked on everything. It wasn't -- it was never a big focus, you know. We were lucky, I guess, and had the right chemistry and the right group of guys to make it go quick. But, you know, the bottom line is certainly all the points -- more of the points were coming from the races, and we certainly didn't get enough of those. We definitely have been focused on racing over the winter. We have been talking to the team and talking to the guys and really focusing on trying to gain points, and, you know, we are still going to try to start up front. But we really focus on the races.

MIKE KING: Anybody else? All three of you guys will be available for a couple minutes for one-on-ones. OK. Thank you all for being here today. Guys, thanks very much. Look forward to March.

-IRNLS/IMS-

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Buzz Calkins , Greg Ray , Buddy Lazier , Scott Sharp , Lyn St. James