Indy Racing League Weekly Teleconference August 12, 2003 Jeff Simmons/Dan Wheldon K. Johnson: We welcome everyone to the Indy Racing conference call for this week, Tuesday, Aug. 12. Today we will visit with IRL Infiniti Pro Series driver Jeff...
Indy Racing League
Weekly Teleconference August 12, 2003
Jeff Simmons/Dan Wheldon
K. Johnson: We welcome everyone to the Indy Racing conference call for this week, Tuesday, Aug. 12. Today we will visit with IRL Infiniti Pro Series driver Jeff Simmons as well as IndyCarTM Series driver Dan Wheldon. Our first guest is Jeff Simmons. He drives the No. 20 Western Union Speed Team/Duesenberg Racing Dallara/Infiniti/Firestone. He currently stands second in the Infiniti Pro Series point standings with six top-five finishes, including his first career victory, which took place this past weekend at the Gateway 100 at Gateway International Raceway. Jeff good morning and thanks for joining us today.
Jeff Simmons: Thanks for having me.
K. Johnson: Let's start by taking a look back at Sunday's Gateway 100. You are driving around lying in third place throughout much of the race, then, two laps from the end you inherit the lead and earn your first Infiniti Pro Series victory. Tell us about what happened and how it all came about. What went through your head when you came around to take the white flag and you are the leader?
Jeff Simmons: Well, for the race we had a bit more understeer than we would have wanted, quite a bit more than we had in the morning warm-up where the car was really good. I was just kind of fighting to stay up front there, trying to keep in touch and put a little pressure on Brandon Erwin pretty much the whole race and wait for him to encounter traffic or maybe make some sort of mistake. When we got down there with two laps to go, I can see Mark Taylor pushed real high in Turns 1 and 2, and I knew right then that we were going to have some sort of chance at maybe getting a run on the front two guys. It looked like Brandon went to the outside of him, and he started to lose it kind of on his own, and then caught Mark in the right rear, as well. There was a whole lot of smoke and I just tried to find part of the track. I slowed down. I was pretty hard on the brakes, actually, to avoid them, and then when they came apart I was able to shoot right through the middle. So, it was really good for the Western Union Speed Team because we have been knocking on the door pretty much all year, it seems like, and it was nice to finally get that monkey off our backs.
K. Johnson: You have been incredibly consistent this season. I mean, you have not qualified worse than fifth all year, and Sunday's win was your sixth top-five out of eight events.
Jeff Simmons: We have had a pretty consistent year. We have the two finishes that were not in the top five - at Homestead, where I crashed out while leading, so that one was certainly on me. I was not happy about that one at all. The other one was Kansas, where we had a wire fall off the alternator and the car died so we had to make a pit stop. So, every other race we have finished in the top five as well. We were expecting wins earlier than this, really, and it was nice to finally get one, because we have been competitive pretty much every weekend and always a threat for the win. So, it was nice to finally get the first one under our belt.
K. Johnson: So, you currently stand second in the Pro Series point standings. You are 91 points behind leader Mark Taylor, but you are 23 ahead of third place Ed Carpenter. At this point four races remain in the season. What is your focus?
Jeff Simmons: We are still trying to win races. Obviously, I will always kind of have one eye, I guess, looking back at the people that are trying to catch up to me in the points, and I know who the main threats are. The other eye is always on Mark Taylor, because he is leading the points, and we need to still try to claw back into the fight. We are probably going to need him to have some more trouble. He is probably going to have to pull out of a couple more races or at least have a couple of bad finishes. So, we are going to keep one eye in front us and one eye behind, I guess.
Q: Since you have been so consistent and everything, do you think that will help you maybe get a full-time ride next year in the IRL IndyCar Series?
Jeff Simmons: I certainly hope so. I mean, that is what my focus has been. I wanted to do this year's year in the Pro Series and, if possible, move up to the IndyCar Series next year. Right now, it seems for the IndyCar Series seats there is kind of a, everybody is kind of playing a little bit of a waiting game, waiting for certain people to announce what they are going to be doing next year, especially Sam Hornish, people have been talking about him, recently. But, hopefully, the guys up there, the team owners and managers are noticing. When I came into this year, if there was a chance to stay with the same team, being on the Western Union Speed Team, I would stay with Keith Duesenberg Racing because I would definitely like to consider that, as well. I mean, they gave me this opportunity and this shot and I want to stay with them and try to build a long-term relationship if we can all move forward towards the IndyCar Series.
Q: Jeff, is it difficult racing in a series such as you are, trying to look up front, so in a sense every race is an audition? Is it difficult to say, 'Okay, I need to bring the car home but I also need to win, because this is where my future is going to lie if I am going to make a step up?'
Jeff Simmons: Certainly, it is difficult. But, I just go about it trying to be professional about it in every way. I try to incorporate all of the things that I think an IndyCar Series team would look for in a driver. That is certainly speed, which we have shown, consistency, and the ability to not only win races, but also be smart about it and be able to judge a race and have good strategy in races and things like that. I think I have been able to show all those things. Like I said, I would certainly like to move up to the IndyCar Series and hopefully I will get the opportunity.
Q: If that opportunity does not come, do you take another year in the Infiniti Pro Series and try to hone your craft and still try to catch the eye of a car owner?
Jeff Simmons: Yes, I certainly think so. If we are not able to get up there and win the championship, then we go in next year really focused on the same thing. Trying to win it, trying to be smart and take care of the car and the equipment and try to win some races and finish up front all the time.
Q: I am just wondering what it takes to keep up with the Panther Racing guys, because it seems like they have really got everybody cornered this year? Is it Mark Taylor or is it the team or a combination thereof?
Jeff Simmons: I think, of course, it is a combination. Mark has not made too many big errors this year. He made a few small ones in his best race, and they got him in trouble.
Q: Good for you.
Jeff Simmons: Yes, it was very good for me. But, the team is obviously a great team. They have won the last two IndyCar Series championships. They are the best in the IndyCar Series, really. I mean, they have been struggling this year with the Chevy motor, but you can still see that he has been competitive, as well, even running that. As soon as they got the Gen IV motor in there, he was right up there battling for the win, again. So, they are a great team. They know exactly what they need to do for each session, and they know how to get the most out of the car for qualifying and for a race setup. So, they have been a real challenge for us, but I think that if we had a couple of breaks here and there we would be a lot closer in the points than we are.
Q: Yes, I understand. Any bites from any IndyCar Series teams?
Jeff Simmons: I am talking a little bit with a couple of teams. We are just going to have to see what happens with their drivers, and I am looking to maybe get some tests later in the year.
K. Johnson: Jeff, you just alluded to the competition between the Duesenberg team as well as the Panther Racing team. Everyone looks at Mark Taylor and Panther as, obviously, being the front-runner. But, from a consistency standpoint, from a standpoint of qualifying at the front and running at the end of the race you guys are right there.
Jeff Simmons: I think we are a tremendous team and we have gotten better all year, really. Also everybody looks at the driver's standings, basically, all year long, and a lot of people do not really look at the team standings. But, I have been watching those, as well, and certainly that is another focus of mine. I want Keith Duesenberg Racing to win the team championship, as well. Right now, we are lying second in that one, too, so, hopefully, we can both get up there.
K. Johnson: Well, Jeff, thank you for joining us today and the best of luck this weekend at Kentucky Speedway.
Jeff Simmons: Thanks very much.
K. Johnson: Now let us welcome IndyCar Series Driver Dan Wheldon. Dan drives the No. 26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda/Firestone for Andretti Green Racing. He earned his fourth top-ten and his second top-five finish of the 2003 season this past weekend with a fifth place drive at the Emerson Indy 250. Dan, good morning and thanks for joining us today.
Dan Wheldon: Good morning and thank you for having me. It is a pleasure. We are, actually, at sunny Nazareth preparing for a test day tomorrow for me.
K. Johnson: Let us start by taking a look back this past weekend at the event at Gateway International Raceway. You started 12th and worked your way up to a solid fifth place ride. Tell us about your weekend.
Dan Wheldon: St. Louis was one of the more difficult weekends we have had this season. I have had to adopt a new left-foot braking technique, which I have not really needed to do in the Junior Formula leading up to this season. So, it took me a little bit of time to adapt to that. I think, as the weekend progressed, we just got better and better. In the race we started 12th and, obviously, St. Louis is typically pretty hard to overtake in the IndyCar Series. But, we just kind of picked a few off one by one, and then Tony Cotman made some great calls in the pits along with the guys doing really, really fast pit stops. It went very, very well, according to plan. But, it is just we are still looking to be definitely on the podium, but it would be nice to get at least our first win.
K. Johnson: That fifth-place finish was your second top five over the last three outings. You placed fourth a couple of races ago at Nashville. Considering that you did not really start your competitive season until the Motegi event, do you feel that it has just been a matter of time for things to fall in place for you?
Dan Wheldon: Yes, I think, definitely, what you are up against in the IndyCar Series is very good drivers that have a lot of experience in Indy-style cars. I mean, you look at Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, Gil de Ferran, Scott Dixon; these guys have all been at the top level for a long time. It is not like your Infiniti Pro Series, your Indy Lights, your Toyota Atlantic, where you are only racing against guys that might have a year or two more experience. You are racing against guys that have really raced at a high level and won at that level for perhaps the past five to six seasons. So, it has certainly been more difficult than I would like it to be, but, obviously, we are closing that gap and that is the main thing. I think, definitely, each race I am improving and that knowledge of experience is building up slowly.
K. Johnson: Let's talk a bit about your fit within the Andretti Green Racing team. You look at the team's driver lineup this year; they have several incredibly experienced drivers. You have Tony Kanaan, Bryan Herta is over there now, Dario Franchitti before he was injured and then Michael Andretti started the season before he retired. Then, there is the relatively new guy on the block, Dan Wheldon. How have you seen yourself fit into the program, both with the team as well as your teammates?
Dan Wheldon: Very, very well. I could not have asked for better teammates. Certainly, with Michael's help, initially as a teammate as well as team owner, and certainly Tony Kanaan, that has been a fantastic help. I think being in this situation has helped speed up my learning curve. As far as being the young one in the team, I think, obviously, the team has got to look to the future because these guys cannot race forever. So, that is why they wanted to bring somebody young into the team. I think, obviously, being young, you are very prepared to do a lot of testing, and certainly with this team we have some great corporate sponsors. So, there is a lot of time taken up with appearances, but I love being part of the team. Like I say, I am just looking forward to building up my experience level with them and, in turn, with that improving the results.
K. Johnson: You were originally scheduled to begin your competitive season at Indianapolis, but you actually got a one-race jump when you filled in for Dario at Motegi. Now, you mentioned testing. To that point, you mainly served as the team's test driver. How difficult has it been, or was it, to go from serving as a test driver to actually competing? Especially given the fact that the rest of the field had a two-race jump on you?
Dan Wheldon: It is definitely more difficult when you are in that situation. Testing is great, but IndyCar Series cars are so different to what I have raced, previously. The races are a lot longer, there is a lot more strategy involved, and the car changes a lot more over the race distance. So, it is knowing what to do when you are put in those situations. The only way that you can really, really maximize that is by having experience and by just having been in that situation before. That is what is starting to happen now. Still, when you look at my experience in comparison to Michael's, I mean, it is not anywhere close. Even with, obviously, Tony, Bryan and Dario, they have been around a long time and they have been doing well for a long time. So, it is just different situations that you are put in. If you have experience, you are better able to read them and just handle them. So, that is where I am a little bit behind right now. I mean, obviously, that is coming, but with these guys around me, it definitely, definitely improves that learning curve. But, obviously, racing miles are what you need. Testing is great, but you have got to be racing all the time.
Q: You mentioned a learning curve. What has been the toughest part of the learning curve?
Dan Wheldon: Probably putting up with Tony Kanaan's jokes, I would say. In all seriousness, I think this is where Michael has been a big help, it's the car. You definitely can't run a neutral car, for example, 200 laps at Gateway. It is knowing what you need, as a racecar, to make sure you are quick for every one of those 200 laps. For example, at Motegi, because I, obviously, had not done a long race before, I started with my car to neutral and then it went towards oversteer in the race, and, obviously, it is very hard to carry that. So, just knowing how much understeer you need to start the race with, or how much down force you need to start the race with, is clearly the thing that I found the most difficult. Like I say, Michael has been a big help with that, and so have all the other guys in the team, and that is what you are starting to see now. I am starting to perform better in the races because my car is more to my liking during the whole race distance.
Q: You mentioned that the car will change, or something, during the race. Maybe you can explain what actually happens in the race and how you go about changing that, and how many mile-an-hour difference does it make between an understeer and an oversteer and maybe all those factors?
Dan Wheldon: The one thing that I have learned is that there is no specific numbers on how much the car is going to change. It just depends on the track conditions, the temperature, how many cars are running in front of you or around you. What, generally, seems to be the best for me is if you start the car with what we call in America is a car that pushes. You will have to forgive me for my terminology; it is still a bit European. I tend to call it understeer and oversteer. But, at that point you can actually still run a relatively fast lap with some push. If you are pretty neutral and the track happens to make the car go towards loose you lose so much more time. So, just given situations that happen in the track, you are often in dirty air and it may go towards loose. You have just got to make sure the car is comfortable for you. If it is more comfortable to have a little bit more push to start with, which you can eventually dial out over the race distance, than so be it. But, whatever, you cannot have the car going loose because you just lose a huge amount of time when that happens. I am probably not explaining it as well as I could because I am still learning. But, that is the general consensus, I would say.
Q: Different drivers have different ways to drive, but they all seem to come out in the end. No matter what you do, they all seem to be up there at the top speed close to each other. How do you justify that?
Dan Wheldon: How do I justify--?
Q: Yes. Every driver seems to have a little different technique but yet they all seem to come within the same speed.
Dan Wheldon: Because, I think, typically on these ovals, if the car is comfortable for you then you are able to extract a good lap time out of it. If you like your car neutral, that is how you have got to drive it. If you like it to understeer a little bit, that is how you have got to have it, and you have got to do whatever it takes that enables you to get the best out of it. I think that is why the times are so close, certainly, in qualifying. But, what I will say is that during a race it spaces out more, because not everybody's car lasts or is how they want it over the full race distance.
Q: Dan you said something about changing your braking technique earlier?
Dan Wheldon: Yes.
Q: Have you gone from left foot to right foot, or which way did you go?
Dan Wheldon: I went from right to left.
Q: You used to right-foot brake?
Dan Wheldon: Well, obviously, being a road course racer from Europe, that is obviously how we are taught when we grow up. In a lot of the Junior Formula I have raced in leading up to the IndyCar Series, I really have not had to brake and downshift. This IndyCar Series now is going to some places that you have to do that. By left foot braking, it just makes the transition from being off the throttle to the brake smoother, and so it makes the car feel better for the driver.
Q: You have had quite a few incidents this year. How do you recover from a difficult race and come back and perform as well as you did last weekend?
Dan Wheldon: Well, I would not say I have had many; they have just, perhaps, been in the press more. We have only had two, and in your rookie season you have got to expect things to happen, and as long as you learn from them I think that is a good thing. But, I have great comfort in my car and in my driving ability, so it really does not affect you too much.
Q: That is a good thing. Have you tested at Kentucky?
Dan Wheldon: Yes, we actually did the open test and we were quickest in that. So, hopefully, that luck transpires into the race weekend. But I am sure we will be very, very strong.
K. Johnson: Dan, heading into this season, what were your goals? And, secondly, to this point have you or are you achieving them?
Dan Wheldon: I think, certainly, the one thing that I did not want to do going into this season, and particularly not starting the season, I did not want to set myself any goals. I just wanted to do the best job I could possibly do each weekend, make as little mistakes as possible and just learn from, whether it be a three-day race weekend to a two-day, just every day really learn as much as I possibly could. As far as have I achieved that, yes, I am definitely learning a lot. Would I like to be further up in the championship and have won a race? Yes, for sure, but I think the competition in the IRL is very, very tough right now, and you have got to make sure you have got the complete package to win. But, I am definitely now feeling that I am certainly able to compete, and I am doing very well against all of these guys. I would say that I definitely prefer to have stronger results but I think they will come. But, nonetheless, I am having a good season, and I am certainly enjoying it.
K. Johnson: Dan that appears to be all the questions we have for you today. Again we appreciate you taking time out of your testing schedule to join us and we certainly wish you the best of luck this weekend at Kentucky.
Dan Wheldon: Thank you very much.