CHAMPCAR/CART: Champ Car Columbus Town Meeting, part I

CART Champ Car Columbus Town Meeting Transcript with Derrick Walker, Bobby Rahal, Sebastien Bourdais, John Lopes and Danica Patrick CALVIN FISH: Thank you very much. Welcome to the fifth Champ Car town meeting of 2003. Certainly these Champ...

CART Champ Car Columbus Town Meeting Transcript with Derrick Walker, Bobby Rahal, Sebastien Bourdais, John Lopes and Danica Patrick

CALVIN FISH: Thank you very much. Welcome to the fifth Champ Car town meeting of 2003. Certainly these Champ Car town meetings have proved to be very popular and successful over the last year. We really broke new ground here in Columbus just under a year ago. You really set the trend. I'd like to give you a round of applause right now for making these things happen. Congratulations, everyone.

We're certainly pleased with our exciting panel of guests this evening, and we've attracted such a good turnout in pretty nasty weather. This Englishman certainly attracts bad weather wherever he goes. It is really a true indication that Champ Car's upcoming event at Mid-Ohio will certainly attract a very strong crowd, as usual.

For myself, Mid-Ohio has always been one of my favorite circuits when I was competing in the CART Toyota Atlantic Series and Dayton Indy Lights championship. Since that time, my affinity has certainly grown as now I'm the chief instructor up at the school there, so I certainly have a special interest on the upcoming event.

I'm not sure how many in the crowd have really attended any of the events, maybe some of you were up at Cleveland. Certainly it's been a very exciting start to the season, and if you haven't seen any of the events live, hopefully you've had a chance to catch some of them on SPEED Channel or on the CBS network via their broadcasts.

Certainly myself and the boys on the broadcast team have had a great time enjoying bringing the action to you in your own living room.

This season we have a lot of great things going for us. The Ford-Cosworth engine program, strong rules stability program, cost-cutting measures have really created a level playing field and a strong platform for new teams to compete on.

Certainly new operations such as Rocketsports, Mi-Jack Conquest Racing, and American Spirit Team Johansson have made their mark very early in their season. We of course have an exciting crop of new young rookies in the series, as well, who are rapidly establishing themselves as the future stars in this sport.

I think names such as Ryan Hunter-Reay, Darren Manning, Mario Haberfeld and the sensational Sebastien Bourdais have the potential to follow the likes of Alex Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya, creating their own public recognition in the Champ Car series as those guys did.

Certainly the championship is at a boiling point right now. We have a handful of drivers with a legitimate shot at this championship. By the time we get back here in a couple of races I'm sure things will really start to heat up.

Once again, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to join us this evening. Our program will be a simple answer-and-question session for the next hour and a half. We have a lot to get through. We're going to try to charge straight through this without a pit stop. I'm used to working down in the pits, but there are no pit stops this evening. Afterwards, we'll certainly have a chance to meet some of the stars here on the panel this evening.

CALVIN FISH: Two of the bright young stars in our series, both Sebastien Bourdais and Danica Patrick.

Right now I'd like to introduce the guests to you. Joining us to represent the CART Champ Car is vice president of racing operations, Mr. John Lopes. Please welcome John to the stage.

Next I'd like you to welcome the top rookie in the Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford, Sebastien Bourdais, driver of the #2 Lilly Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone, with Newman/Haas Racing, three-time winner in 2003.

We're also very pleased to have a driver for the Columbus-based Team Rahal. She's a rookie in the Toyota Atlantic championship, certainly garnering a lot of attention this year, Ms. Danica Patrick.

Last and certainly not least, we'd like to welcome the president and owner of Walker Racing, he's a member of CART's board of directors, he's one of the owners who possibly has a little more here than our own Bobby Rahal, please welcome Mr. Derrick Walker. We certainly appreciate Derrick joining us this evening.

Bobby was going to be here on stage.  Unfortunately, he had some business
that he had to take care of over on the West Coast.  We believe that we
should have Bobby on the phone right now.  Is Bobby with us?

BOBBY RAHAL: I'm with you, Calvin. How are you?

CALVIN FISH: Good, mate.

BOBBY RAHAL: I'd like to thank everybody at CART for really working hard to make sure I could participate. I'm sorry I can't be there in person. I'm happy we could at least participate in this way.

CALVIN FISH: It feels like I'm on the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire game. You're out there with some sponsorship negotiations. Did you get the check today?

BOBBY RAHAL: Not yet. We're working hard on it. I have to say there seems to be some real interest in the series. For a year or so, it seemed like all you heard was bad news. I think CBS is doing great things for us from a television standpoint, I think it's generating some interest. We're certainly hopeful it will be successful out here.

CALVIN FISH: Bobby, I'll pose a question to you right now. A big year for you. You have teams in three major championships. You have your son competing and winning in the Stars of Tomorrow series. You have a lot of plates to keep spinning. How do you manage to keep it going?

BOBBY RAHAL: It's not easy, as you can imagine. I'm never quite sure which time zone I'm in. But all kidding aside, it wouldn't be possible without having great people in our team. Scott Roembke, who is really my right-hand man and runs the team on a day-to-day basis, takes a lot of the load off of me, allows me to do the things like I'm doing currently. But also we're a fairly mature organization in terms of people who have been with the team for a long time. Ray Leto, who was one of our chassis engineers, race engineers, has now taken over as team manager of Michel's [Jourdain Jr.] program and has done a very good job. He and Todd Bowland, who is a race engineer, have done a great job with Michel. And Don Halliday is back with us. Frankly, it's just having good people that allow us to pursue all these different activities.

CALVIN FISH: That's great.

Quick question for John. I'll get the ball rolling. I'll pose a question to each of our panelists, then open up the floor.

John, it was really a goal to have more affordable and competitive racing for this season. Seems you really pulled that off. The racing has been very competitive, indeed. It seems it really has come at a more affordable price than ever before. Are you pleased with the on-track performance thus far?

JOHN LOPES: We are. We're very pleased. It can always be better. We're working on a few things we might talk about tonight. I think a couple good examples of this year would be the elimination of traction control and some of the wing packages that we actually have used. In fact, when I think of a wing package, I think about this young man's first win, Sebastien's first win at EuroSpeedway. I don't know if any of you saw, but it was the most nail-biting race that I've ever seen. You came out of the car shaking I think at the end of that race.

But literally it was wheel-to-wheel, nose-to-tail the entire time. Those of you who saw the Cleveland event, there was an exciting podium pass with Paul Tracy there at the end that got the fans to their feet. So ultimately the goal is to provide better entertainment to the fans. This year with the Cosworth format we've put together, as well as the elimination of traction control, it's helped there.

Do you feel things have improved on your side in terms of team owner?

DERRICK WALKER: Very much so. I think if you look at the financial output that you have to put to run one of these cars, I think we've cut the budgets by (mumbling). Wish you heard that, right (laughter). You can see it's quite a lot of money. I had to be careful what I said because Scott is over there. I don't want to give away any secrets. The budgets, seriously, they've been at least 30% cut out of the budget. I think that's all due to the CART leadership, and taking charge of the situation, getting us to see some sense.

CALVIN FISH: Next up, Sebastien Bourdais. The man who won Cleveland last year went on to win the second race in Ohio, Patrick Carpentier. Sebastien, I'm sure you'd like to do the same thing.

But talk about what John mentioned with the lack of traction control this year-- the cars are really being driven flat out for over two hours at times. I know at the end of Cleveland, both you and Paul Tracy, who finished second, were absolutely exhausted.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: Yeah, it's true. Hi, everybody. I'm pleased to be here. It's true that this race in Cleveland has been qualifying time for two hours. It's been very physically demanding. And it was a great show.

I hope those who went there had a lot of fun because I think we gave a lot for this race. It's true that it's really spectacular due to the fact that we have no traction control, basically no assistance on the car. But from the inside, it's also really fun. It's a really good package for Champ Car racing.

CALVIN FISH: Certainly a very spectacular evening up there in Cleveland under the lights. First time we had a serious road racing championship being conducted under the lights in Cleveland. By winning his third event, he is the first rookie since Montoya to do that. Certainly a great feat for Sebastien.

Next we have this young lady being based here in Columbus, from Illinois, Danica Patrick. Danica competes in the Toyota Atlantic championship. You've have four top six finishes, started the season with a podium finish. This championship this year is really, really tough. How are you finding it?

DANICA PATRICK: Other than the two yellow cars, as I like to call them, which is AJ Allmendinger and Aaron Justus, everybody else has two or three --

(Hang up tone.)

DANICA PATRICK: Bye, Bobby (laughter).

They all have tons of experience. I found it to be up and down for that matter. We kicked it off with a really good result at Monterrey, found our way back there sometimes after that. I think Milwaukee we were in a good position to get fourth there, which would have been good. But, you know, due to lap traffic and things like that... The competition is really tough, and there really are no other people in it that are bad. If they're not good, they don't find the money, other than one or two stragglers at the end.

CALVIN FISH: I think you're supposed to mention Bobby's name first. I know you would have gotten to that. Is Bobby still on the line? We don't have him back yet. Hopefully Bobby will join us. Again, he has limited time.

DANICA PATRICK: It's the weather.

CALVIN FISH: That got us started certainly. I want to turn it over to you. We have Mr. Adam Saal on stage joining me. Welcome Adam to the group this evening. He's the CART Champ Car vice president of communications. Very appropriate that Adam is going to get down there in the crowd with you and try and get some of these questions answered for you.

Adam, anyone lined up?

ADAM SAAL: Go ahead with the first question.

Q: Pete Metzger, from Columbus, Ohio. Question to John. In the March 24th issue of Auto Week, Chris Pook stated he didn't particularly care for natural terrain road courses. I happen to be a fan of Mid-Ohio. I like those courses. What are CART's plans for the future as far as like Elkhart Lake, Mid-Ohio and courses like that?

JOHN LOPES: Well, I'll break it into two questions. The first question has to do with natural terrain courses. We will continue to run on natural terrain courses as well as street circuits, speedways and short ovals. It's part of the diversity mix that really sets CART Champ Car apart. We will continue that.

With respect specifically to Mid-Ohio, because there's been a lot of questions, and I think it's important we mention it tonight, Michelle Trueman brought it up earlier today that a lot of fans have approached her. There is no decision with respect to next season. Michelle has made it clear she'd like us to come back. And certainly Mid-Ohio has been a great course for us over the years. We've been racing here since 1980. The fan base here is as strong and as loyal as anywhere. It's an important circuit, very important circuit, on the championship.

So after this year's event, we're going to sit down with Michelle and discuss the future. At this time, there really is no decision. But certainly it's a circuit that we feel is very, very important. And natural terrain courses, in general, will continue to be part of our format.

ADAM SAAL: Next question.

Q: Jeff from Pickerington, Ohio. I've been a CART fan for quite a long time. Quite honestly, the last couple seasons, I've been a little disappointed with the inconsistency of the penalties. I know Sebastien is not going to like this particular example, the race he won in Germany, I'm still personally trying to figure out what the difference was between Mario [Dominguez], when he was called for blocking, and Sebastien seemed to make a little bigger move.

The other particular example that I was curious about was a couple weeks ago in Portland, it took CART eight laps to figure out that what Paul Tracy had done was a penalty. To me it either is or it isn't a penalty. Why is this taking so long? It seems to be happening more on a regular basis. Once it was deemed a penalty, I was curious why Michel wasn't allowed to slot back up into the first position where he should have been.

CALVIN FISH: We'll put this to Derrick as a team owner. I know up and down pit lane, guys get frustrated with things. {Chief Steward] Chris Kneifel and the team, with the question over in Germany with Mario and Sebastien, what they tried to do was to give Mario a penalty that wouldn't really ruin his race. Unfortunately, at the end of the race, when what was deemed Sebastien was doing the same moves on Mario, he didn't have another pit stop to make. To do a drive-through and a stop, they would have effectively taken Sebastien out of the race in terms of a real result.

Derrick, you see it happen.  Sometimes there's a lot of controversy down
there.  I think the guys in general are doing a pretty good job.

DERRICK WALKER: I think overall the quality of officiating is actually getting better, believe it or not. I think when you look at the chief steward and the job he has to do, with the tools he has to do it, he goes overboard to try to be fair and make sure the evidence he has is absolutely clear so that he makes a call, it can stand up and be judged correctly.

Sometimes there is a delay as he goes through and tries to ascertain what the penalty was or if there should be a penalty.

The other thing I will say, these guys up here will all testify to the fact that a lot of the push for change and more control and more regulations is actually coming from the drivers. The drivers are voicing their opinion in these drivers' meetings like you wouldn't believe. They're not shouting at the chief steward, although they are looking for leadership from the chief steward to make those calls as crisp and quick as they can, and fair. But they're actually talking to each other saying, "No longer is it acceptable to do blocking. No longer can you chop the guy up and win the race."

I think every incident you see nowadays; certainly this year they go under the magnifier ten times more than they ever did.

Part II

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Juan Pablo Montoya
Teams Conquest Racing