CHAMP CAR ATLANTIC MEDIA TELECONFERENCE TRANSCRIPT WITH BOBBY RAHAL, AL UNSER JR., GRAHAM RAHAL AND AL UNSER III MERRILL CAIN: Good afternoon and welcome to today's Champ Car Media Teleconference Atlantic edition. We're preparing for Round 2 of...
CHAMP CAR ATLANTIC MEDIA TELECONFERENCE TRANSCRIPT WITH BOBBY RAHAL, AL UNSER JR., GRAHAM RAHAL AND AL UNSER III
MERRILL CAIN: Good afternoon and welcome to today's Champ Car Media Teleconference Atlantic edition. We're preparing for Round 2 of the Yokohama Presents The Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda next week in Houston. Today, we're happy to welcome two generations of two of the most famous names in all of racing . We are joined by two teammates in the 2006 Champ Car Atlantic Championship - Graham Rahal and Al Unser III - who both joined the new Mi-Jack Conquest Racing Atlantic team this season. We're also privileged to welcome the legendary fathers of these two young and up-and-coming drivers, three-time Champ Car champion Bobby Rahal, and two-time Champ Car title winner, Al Unser, Jr. Thank you all for joining us this afternoon, gentlemen.
Let's begin today's call by getting some opening comments from all four of our guests today. Per the norm on the Champ Car teleconference, we'll then open it up to the media members on the line and take some questions from them.
Bobby Rahal, himself a graduate of the Atlantic Series, owner of 24 wins in his illustrious Champ Car career, and proud father of Graham. Bobby, what attracted you and Graham to the Atlantic Championship for the 2006 season and how exciting was it for you to watch Graham last month in his series debut in Long Beach as he brought home a fifth-place finish?
BOBBY RAHAL: First, it's nice to be on the call with everybody. We're excited. I've always felt strongly about the Atlantic Series being an excellent training ground for young drivers. I think both Graham and I felt this was the next logical step after Star Mazda. I frankly couldn't be happier with the way the season's lining up. Tremendous depth, great competitiveness throughout the field. I think that's going to make for a very exciting year. Hopefully we'll get more than our fair share of that excitement.
But it was a thrill to watch Graham and all the guys at Long Beach, having driven there especially. Of course, I never won like Al did. Nevertheless, I thought it was a good first outing for everybody. On to the next one.
MERRILL CAIN: Bobby, can you describe how you help and how you work with Graham during a race weekend. I got a chance to see you working closely together at Long Beach. You were pretty much bending his ear all weekend long.
BOBBY RAHAL: I pretty much stay out of the way (laughter). I think that's usually a pretty good policy. I go out and watch. Graham works real well with Don Halliday and Mike Zimicki, his driver coach. I mean, the last thing they need is me getting in the thick of it. They're doing a great job and have been doing a great job. I just kind of go out in the corners and stay out of the everybody's way, at least I try to, and watch. Every now and then, I come into the pits.
I tend to, when it comes race time or qualifying time, be out watching like a fan.
MERRILL CAIN: Next we'll hear from Graham Rahal, Bobby's 17-year-old son, a junior at New Albany High School in New Albany, Ohio. Graham is in his first season competing in Atlantics after excelling the last several years in the Formula BMW USA series, Star Mazda, most recently in the A1 Grand Prix series. As we just said, he finished fifth in the Atlantic season opener at Long Beach, driving the #18 Gehl Company car for Mi-Jack Conquest Racing.
Graham, as you look back on your Atlantic debut, can you assess how you did? What was it like taking the first green flag among the 28 cars in the new-look Atlantic Series?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Obviously, it's great to be part of the series. Long Beach was very good for us. Obviously, like you said, we finished fifth, which may be a little bit better than expected. But on the first lap I actually hit the wall in Turn 10. That changed things a little bit for the rest of the race.
Really, if you look at it in the big picture, it's a very successful event for us. We were quick all weekend. Never really had a bad session at all. We have to be pretty pleased with where we're at. Really in the end it's all about points. When you look at the points table, we're only a couple points out of the top two or three positions. Everywhere we go, we just need to keep building on that. At the end of the season, we hope to be there.
MERRILL CAIN: Graham, you touched on it a little bit, your dad did to in his comments, but how much confidence does it give you in the race weekend and when you're just starting out with this team knowing that you have such an experienced crew with you, with your dad in your corner, guys like Don Halliday, Mike Zimicki behind the scenes, making that learning curve much easier, I would think.
GRAHAM RAHAL: Obviously, that does help. It's not just Don and Mike, but the entire team. Especially having Al, it's a whole group. When we put it all together, we definitely have the most experienced team. Really when you put all the minds together up front in the engineering department, we definitely try to take as much advantage as we can.
It's for sure, you know, when we go to tracks like Long Beach, where dad and Al certainly have a lot of experience and success, to have their feedback along with Don and Lee (Dykstra), it always gives us a little bit of an edge on everybody else.
MERRILL CAIN: Al Unser, Jr. is also a graduate of the Atlantic Championship. He captured the checkered flag 31 times in his distinguished Champ Car career. He was also at Long Beach last month to witness his son Al make his debut with his new Atlantic team.
Talk about the development you've seen in your son as a racer over the last few years competing in Atlantics. It's his third season in the series. Can you reflect on some of the memories that you have of Bobby as a teammate when you were at Galles Racing with CART in the early '90s?
AL UNSER, JR.: Wow, okay. First off I want to thank everybody for joining us today. Long Beach and Al, he didn't have as successful a time as Graham did. I mean, we put the deal together very last minute. My son had very limited time in the car. But, you know, he came away with some points and brought the thing home in one piece basically.
You know, the Atlantic Series, I feel the same way that Bob had just said, that it's very, very competitive, the field is very, very deep, and it's just a great training series. The cars, the size is good, the power is good with them. Everything about them is very good to teach a young driver as he progresses in his career. Al has run a little bit in the IPS cars. He did a real good job there. Moving into the Atlantics, my basic feeling is the more different types of cars that he can drive, the better driver he's going to become and be able to adapt to different situations.
I really enjoyed watching him. I, too, like Bobby, I was out watching in the corners and stuff like that. The team is very, very good, the Mi-Jack team. Al's engineer Lee Dykstra is very, very experienced, very smart. I think everybody together, what Graham was saying, the engineering, there's a lot of experience there. I think they're going to do a great job at the next race in Houston.
You know, what can I say? My years with Bobby. Bobby helped me win my CART championship or Champ Car championship when we were teammates (in 1990). He and I got along very well during those years. I really feel our boys are going to do the same.
MERRILL CAIN: Is it a little unusual for you to kind of look back on those times and now see your two sons at teammates here some 20 years later?
AL UNSER, JR.: It's not unusual. It makes me feel old. That's what it does.
BOBBY RAHAL: Ditto.
MERRILL CAIN: You guys are still going strong. I don't think you have to worry about that.
Last but certainly not least, Al Unser III. Al is in his third season of Atlantic competition. He drives the #30 200+MMP car for Mi-Jack Conquest. Al, it's no secret you got into professional racing a little later in your development. You're really starting to come into your own as a driver now at age 23. How tough was it for you to establish your own identity and earn your opportunities in racing, especially carrying around the name 'Unser', which could probably help you and hurt you in some ways?
AL UNSER, III: You know, I'd like to again thank everybody for being here.
I'd say the name's a double-edged sword, being that I started late. People were expecting some stuff out of me in the early years. I think that I took it one step at a time. Whatever pressure you put on yourself is something that you do to yourself anyway. I think we plugged away through it pretty good. Now we're still here still learning, very excited to be Graham's teammate and part of the Mi-Jack Conquest team.
MERRILL CAIN: How has it been working with Graham and the team? Do you spend much time talking about what it's like to follow in your dad's footsteps?
AL UNSER, III: No, not really. We kind of both know what it's like, this kind of stuff. The press conferences, media stuff, I think comes a little bit easier to us. Other than that, we definitely talk about the cars, who has what setup, who is running what springs and so forth so that we can find an ultimate balance for each of our driving style.
MERRILL CAIN: Let's open it up for questions from the media.
Q: Bobby, in the last six, eight months, Graham has driven about everything but a Yugo. How much have you seen him take quantum leaps forward in his talent or showing his talent? What do you think all that experience has meant for him?
BOBBY RAHAL: I believe, like Al Jr. was saying, the more types of cars you drive, the better you're going to be. I think certainly, like you say, the last six, eight months, I mean, he's driven a Formula 3000 car in Italy, the A1GP car, GT3 Porsche at Daytona, RSR Porsche at Sebring. All these experiences, especially for any driver but more importantly for a young driver, the more you're in a car, the better you're going to get, the more experience you're going to get. That does nothing but help.
You can't say any one thing is going to be specifically helpful in any way. It's just the overall experiences I think really start to add up so that when he gets into any kind of car, he's just got that much more to bring to the equation.
For Graham, I think especially running the A1 GP, the Formula 3000 car, to get in those and to do what he did, I think it just gives him a lot of confidence. Still a long way to go, he's still just starting out. Comparative to a year ago, it's a whole different person. You would expect that. Nevertheless, that's why we continue to try to find other rides in sports cars, what have you, because it's all additive. Each experience helps.
Q: You and Al Jr. both, with your sons coming along like this, Marco (Andretti) running IRL this year, do you foresee that day when that generation soups up the open-wheel thing even more in the next decade?
BOBBY RAHAL: I think it already is to some degree, it seems. There's a lot of interest in the fact there's the names Rahal, Unser and Andretti going at it again, the next generation. Yeah, it can only do a lot to sort of energize open-wheel racing. On top of that, there's an awful lot of other good young drivers that these guys are racing against this year in some other categories. I think there's an awful lot of talent. That just I think it bodes well for the future of open-wheel racing.
Q: For the two young drivers, you have these great resources in your dads, you have about 80 years of engineering experience in Halliday and Dykstra, and (co-owner) Eric Bachelart running the team. You have tremendous experience and resources to draw on. This looks nothing but good. Is there any downside to it? Is there any danger of over-engineering the car, that aspect of things, or does all of this experience drag you back to reality if and when you have to?
GRAHAM RAHAL: Certainly for me with Don, when we do our debriefs, everything else, we're all there together. Like you said, we've got tons and tons of years of engineering experience sitting there.
I think that Don and Lee are definitely aware that there is definitely a possibility of over-engineering. I can be the first to say that at Long Beach we were probably the most conservative of everybody because we knew we were close, and we hadn't had much time testing.
They're obviously both extremely smart. They know if you're close, you don't want to do anything too much to get yourself in a hole then. Certainly, as you said, there is a danger there of going too far. With all their experience, you know, certainly they can do that if they'd like.
I think so far, even Don has said he recognizes that. I don't think we'll be getting ourselves caught in that situation at all this year. Certainly testing this weekend at Houston will help a lot because, as I said, we're very conservative at Long Beach, and it will help us gain a little more knowledge of what we can and can't do.
AL UNSER, III: You know, I think Graham said a lot right there. We were very conservative. We've got not that much test time. We kind of look at it as, you know, we stick with making one change at a time. There's a lot of time between the sessions at the racetrack and not a lot of time on the track. We don't want to be chasing our tail out there.
Q: Bobby and Al, obviously you have been around racing long enough to know about the 'racing dad syndrome'. How do you strike that balance between giving your sons the guidance and support, the kick in the behind, without becoming the 'racing dad syndrome'?
BOBBY RAHAL: You're first, Al.
AL UNSER, JR.: I can tell you, it's difficult. What I learned in my career is there's a real fine line between aggressive and being too aggressive. That falls in the category of a father talking to his son. It doesn't really have to relate to racing. It could be baseball, football, soccer, what have you. A father can be very aggressive.
Really what I've tried to do is learn from my Uncle Bobby and my father. My Uncle Bobby did it in a very different way than what my father did. I'm trying to do it more the way my father did than the way my Uncle Bobby did. My Uncle Bobby was just, you know, straightforward. If you didn't get around the track, then he started making things happen that you really didn't like as a driver.
But the desire has to be there. The aggressiveness has to be there. Basically, myself, I just work with Al. You know, I definitely learned with my father, he's got to ask the question in order for me to answer it. On Uncle Bobby's side of things, you didn't even have a chance to ask the question, he told you what you were doing wrong, and you better fix it, all that kind of stuff. I don't think that method works. I think the student has to ask the teacher the question in order for the student to understand what he's doing.
Like I said, it's a fine line. You definitely have to keep yourself in check. I do all the time. I have to keep myself in check all the time because I'm definitely wanting my son to be successful and so on. You push too hard and pretty soon he's in the fence, then nothing's done.
BOBBY RAHAL: I think it's a lot like Al said. You want the best for your children. You want them to achieve their dreams and their goals. You want to help them. A lot of times the best way of helping them is not getting involved, which is difficult to do, because that sort of runs contrary to what you think.
As Al said, this is relevant whether it's baseball, football, basketball or whatever. I mean, any time fathers and sons get together, one's trying to do what the other did, there's lots of free advice out there, lots of advice, but where do you turn. That's why I asked Mike Zimicki to get with Graham like a year or two ago. The same thing with Don. There's that lack of emotion. There's just that disconnect, enough of a disconnect that, you know, Graham, he's not inhibited by them. It's just a healthier deal.
It's difficult, like Al says. Sometimes you see things and you just want to jump in with both feet because that's what you've been used to doing. You just sort of approach it as if you were driving the car. Of course, you're not. You see things, and you really have to bite your lip a lot of times. Not that there's that many occurrences of that.
You know, it's really, like Al said, a full-time occupation for me making sure that I stay out of everything. That's why I go off and watch from the corners. I want to be with him at the races. I figure if he really needs me, you know there's that glass booth where it says, 'In case of emergency, break glass,' well I'm kind of behind that glass. If it's that bad, he'll look for me and, like Al said, ask the question. In the meantime, it's best for me to hang out with (Atlantic Managing Director) Vicki O'Connor and talk about the old days.
Q: Bobby and little Al, it would have been maybe natural because you and little Al are plying your trade in the Indy Racing League that your sons, although they had a lot to do with where they want to race, would maybe think about the Infiniti Pro Series. Why did you decide it was going to be good for the offspring to learn how to race on the Champ Car side with the Atlantic Championship?
BOBBY RAHAL: Well, in our case, in Graham's case, he's not old enough to run the IPS series. Having said that, we are going to run, he can run, at the US Grand Prix event. He's going to do that. Because he couldn't run there, I guess that wasn't really much of an option for us.
I do think the road racing, especially the new Atlantic car - it's going to have more power - I think we both felt that was a good place to be. We certainly really feel that way. I think the talent level in the Atlantic Series this year is probably as good as it's ever been. That's saying a lot when you consider in the days of Rosberg and Villeneuve, Brack, all those guys. I don't think there was anything other than the fact this was the best venue for us to be given all the situations.
Continued in part 2