Continued from part 1 SULLIVAN: Other questions? Q: Have you gotten used to on ovals having J.R. in front of you, cars alongside you at the speeds you're traveling? Are you getting used to that or are you still a little ...
Continued from part 1
SULLIVAN: Other questions?
Q: Have you gotten used to on ovals having J.R. in front of you, cars alongside you at the speeds you're traveling? Are you getting used to that or are you still a little nervous?
ROMANCINI: No, I'm used to that. I mean since the first test in Homestead, the second day we took the day to just run in traffic so then I could get used to it. The race in Kansas helped me because I was running side by side with Cunningham almost 15, 20 laps which gave me confidence to know if you trust the guy running side by side with you, you've got to trust it, he's thinking the same way you are, that you both need to finish the race. So who has the best car will win.
Q: Mario, before I forget, I'm just curious about this differential between your qualifying speed and what you did out there today. What did you guys do to race trim to bring this car alive?
ROMANCINI: We don't know. That's what we'll try to find out for the next race.
HILDEBRAND: I know how that works.
ROMANCINI: Yeah, it's true, we knew we had a good car for the race since from the beginning, but we knew we weren't quick enough to qualify well. I don't know what was --
HILDEBRAND: I can sympathize with Mario here, the last year we had the exact same thing happen. So qualified 21st, so what the heck, you know? And then the race, boom, right back to normal.
SULLIVAN: When things happen for you, you don't question.
ROMANCINI: You just accept it.
SULLIVAN: Anything else? Gentlemen, congratulations and thank you for coming in.
HILDEBRAND: Thank you. Thanks, everybody.
SULLIVAN: Well, the winner of the Firestone Freedom 100, Wade Cunningham. Wade, we chatted briefly yesterday and down behind your garage, and it was interesting because you said, "I have a car to win the pole," and you felt like you should win the pole position. And I got the read from you that, like a good race driver and former champion, you felt like you ought to win the race; and you did it, and it wasn't easy.
WADE CUNNINGHAM: No, it definitely was not easy. I felt like I got out of a bar fight and had a few glasses smashed over my head. It was very tough. I got a great start. I have to give kudos to my team. After Kansas, we struggled on the restarts with gearing. We just got hosed really by AGR and Saavedra, in particular. And my guys were amazing. I'm not sure if you could see the nuances on the track, but my first restart and all my subsequent restarts when I wasn't leading, we made serious ground. That goes down to my engineer, Doug, who did a fantastic job with that after Kansas.
But the whole race in general, there was a bit of to and fro-ing the whole time. The way our gearbox and our ratios, you can't have the ideal ratio around here for running out front. So I got to the front early on, and it was obvious I knew I couldn't lead 40 laps. I knew right then that I didn't want to be leading at the end. So I gave up position very early, very easy. I never fought J.R. or Sebastian and I let them go, and I just maintained third place because it seemed like we were going to pull away from the field a little bit. But it didn't quite work out that way with the yellow flags midway through the race and then the long yellow. I think everybody got a little antsy in the cars, and then it got pretty hectic with Mario very, very high just like Kansas the whole race. When I got shuffled back to fourth, it was difficult with three cars in front of us. You're trying to find some clean air on corner entry and you're really struggling.
So my first concern was to get to second because that was the best place to be. As you saw, I leapfrogged Mario on the third to last lap and pushed J.R. in Turn 1 and boxed Mario outside and he couldn't get back in. So that gave me my second place and the opportunity to do what I needed to do to try to set J.R. up. That for me was probably the winning move, because if I had fought J.R. into Turn 1 and instead of trying to do something to slow Mario down, the field would have still been bunched up and I wouldn't have had the room I needed. So that was planned on my part. And then J.R. really struggled with understeer through 2 on that second-to-last lap, and I saw my opportunity into 3. We had a slight headwind, too, so it was a little bit slow than he probably would have like with the gearing, and he just hit that wall, that headwind, and just slowed down a fraction and I was able to put my nose inside him a little bit before halfway down the back straight actually. And I boxed him out into 3, and I got that two-, three-car gap that I needed. And he just wasn't able to maintain the throttle that he needed after the last lap, and then he had to worry about the people behind him for once.
So it was great and, you know, that last lap was nerve-wracking. I thought they were going to be coming. I was looking the whole time, probably more than I was looking forward. So when I hit the finish line, it was just a sense of relief and joy.
SULLIVAN: That's a great description. What I was wondering when I saw it, because I wondered about the strategy near the end, did you at any point think you made your move and got to the front too quickly or did you have any other choice at that time?
CUNNINGHAM: I didn't have a choice because the way the momentum of the track works, we had a slight tailwind down the front straight, and with the way the gearing worked, if you tapped out on the limiter too early going down into 1, you might not have the chance because you've got to go, yourself and the guy in front of you, you have to breathe and he doesn't. So when I was able to carry the momentum through 1 and 2, I had to take him going down into 3. I delayed my turn-in a little bit into 3 on that lap when I passed J.R., and he just got caught out a little bit and that gave me the room I needed.
SULLIVAN: Pretty impressive. Questions for our winner?
Q: Wade, you won this race, you've been a champion in this series. Do you feel like you're having to reprove yourself again? Because I know you think you deserve to be up in the big leagues.
CUNNINGHAM: I feel like I've got the maturity and the ability to do everything required to be in an IndyCar. I understand the economics of it: There's not many rides going around, and there are a lot of good drivers sitting on the sidelines; a lot of veterans who have done really well like Oriol Servia, who came second in CART or Champ Car a few years ago, and he doesn't have a ride. I know the dilemma facing me. But the only way I saw it to get that opportunity again was to be back in the series and prove myself again. It seems that every year they said the new champion is bigger than the last, it's just human nature. I'm here, I want to stand at the top of the ladder again and be the first driver someone thinks of they want to put someone in if the opportunity does come up.
Q: Wade, the question is concerning Scott Dixon. Is there any help or advice you get from Scott?
CUNNINGHAM: At this track in particular, not really. Our cars are so different. They're able to do so much more with the technical regulations than we are with downforce and rocker packages and damper packages are kind of set for us; we don't have the freedom that they do. But there are general things you can ask, track conditions, for instance. Are they having a lot of problems with mid-exit understeer just in corner 1? That seems to be something pretty similar with the IndyCars, as well. So when you can cross-reference stuff like that, you know that maybe it's not a setup issue, it's just a track condition or an issue on the day that you're facing.
Q: I'm just curious about what was going through your mind. I saw you pump your fist and you were standing in the car and taking pictures. What ran through your mind when you talked yesterday about being in racing purgatory and what you've been through, and what's been going through your mind at that moment out there?
CUNNINGHAM: This is a very big race, especially for Sam Schmidt and the Sam Schmidt Motorsports team. When you get into the Lucas Oil car, there's a lot of pressure to perform. Probably not as much pressure as I put on myself, but it is there. So questions are asked when you're done. We had a very, very rough start to the season at St. Pete, a track that I haven't done well in the past, and I got second and a host of other problems, and then Long Beach, so we were sitting 18th in points. I'm sure Sam was wondering why he put me in the car. We got to Kansas, and that was the start of the turnaround, and we got pole there. We got beat fair and square in the race; we weren't quick enough. I was in the team shop talking with the manager and the engineer, and we worked very hard between Kansas and now to improve our package. I think it's shown because not only were we the quickest in qualifying and outright speed, but I think today we were the quickest car on the track because I look at the amount of time it took other people to pass the leader, and when I had the opportunity and I was planning to do it, I felt like I was able to make those passes easier than other people were. So I think we've got a very, very strong race pace now that we didn't have in Kansas.
Q: J.R. was just saying that in his mind he had to be second and that was the place to be. When he got out in the lead and saw you behind him, you didn't pass and he said, "Uh-oh, I think I'm in trouble." He also said your experience really paid off. Do you feel that you've got plenty of experience and knowledge of the tracks now that you can pretty much handle any situation that you might get yourself into to be able to pull off a win?
CUNNINGHAM: I definitely have more experience than the other drivers, but I'm always learning. For whatever reason, the outside groove of this track the last two years has gotten bigger, and the grip has improved. So I was seeing two-wide racing, which we didn't have back in 2006 when I was running, you just couldn't do it. So no, I'm always learning, I'm always taking sense of the surroundings around me. But I knew in the first four laps that I didn't want to be leading that race, and so when J.R. and Sebastian were passing me, I was lifting off from the start-finish line and just getting back in line and trying to hold position. I knew from last year that being in third was a lot more difficult than second because following two cars is monumentally harder than following one with the loss of downforce on the front wing. So it was a fight for second for me. I know J.R. found himself in the lead and with six laps to go, what can you do, you're not going to give the lead with six laps to go because what if the yellow, just like he was in the lead when it went yellow? And so a lot of things can happen. J.R. was doing everything he could to hold on to it because that was the hand he was dealt at the time. He drove a decent race, but I think he had that little too much understeer those last few laps and that's contributed to him not winning.
SULLIVAN: Any other questions for Wade?
Q: Yeah, you just said that the track is wider. I've heard a lot of guys say you can't run side by side through the corners, and I'm standing up watching this race; yes, you can. Do you think the IndyCars can do the same thing?
CUNNINGHAM: No, we're over-downforced for this race as part of the regulations. It provides exciting racing, and I think, too, we don't have enough ratios like the IndyCars, they can gear to about 25 RPM difference, and we can only do it to 100 each way. So we just don't have the options to run the ideal gearing, and that's I think what makes it exciting because the car that's in the front isn't running the best gear for the condition. He's pushing a two gear, and it's slowing him down. So exciting racing, that's what we're getting here. And I don't know what it looked like on TV, but I know how it felt like in the car, and I'm glad it's over.
Q: When you walk out of here, first person to win this race twice, is there any part of you that will say: What more can I do?
CUNNINGHAM: No, I try to have a positive attitude. I'm inherently a positive person. I try to be optimistic all the time. I'm racing in the series because I think if I do a good enough job for long enough and I prove myself against four years of new drivers coming through, that when the time comes and they do need a replacement driver, for whatever reason, sickness, injury, my name is going to be the first one to think of. That's what I'm working toward. But so, no, I don't have bad feelings because I'm still here. I look at Jeff Simmons, who he drove the old Indy Lights with CART back in 2000, and he finally got his chance. So I look to that. He drove eight years, I think, or over a period of eight years in Indy Lights and occasionally did the '500.' So I see what he did and he finally did get his chance with Rahal Letterman, that's what I am looking for.
SULLIVAN: Other questions for Wade? Wade, congratulations.
CUNNINGHAM: Thank you very much.