IRL: Rahal Letterman Racing press conference transcript, part 3

88th Indianapolis 500 Press Conference Bobby Rahal, Vitor Meira, Buddy Rice, Roger Yasukawa Thursday, May 13, 2004 Part 3 of 3 Q: Bobby, you came here back in the good old days, but you were here last year. Pole Day was exciting as it's ever...

88th Indianapolis 500 Press Conference
Bobby Rahal, Vitor Meira, Buddy Rice, Roger Yasukawa
Thursday, May 13, 2004

Part 3 of 3

Q: Bobby, you came here back in the good old days, but you were here last year. Pole Day was exciting as it's ever been in some respects, and there was a crowd of like 30, 40,000. What do you think is missing and do you see it coming back at all? What do you think is missing about Pole Day? It used to be the second biggest crowd in sports in the world, only second to race day and now it seems the interest isn't really there. What do you think is missing there?

RAHAL: I have to say that even before the split, you know, Pole Day -- the attendance was declining anyway, so that's been ongoing for quite sometime. Why that is, I don't know precisely, other than perhaps there's more things to do for people. They don't want to be here for two weekends of one month. Memorial Day is a big commitment. Most people want to be at home with family. So just to be here on Race Day is a big commitment. I definitely think that it seems to me that just about everybody who is anybody -- the right people are here this year. Last year the buzz was certainly evident, and I think it's even greater this year. We won't see record speeds, obviously, that used to attract a lot of people. But obviously you're going to see a lot more, a lot closer and better race I think come Memorial Day. I also think maybe it was easier to come here on qualifying weekend in the past when they had general admission, what was it, five bucks to get in. Now you have to buy a seat and everything else. Although that's perhaps not much more -- I don't know. I don't know the real reason but it's been ongoing for many, many years, far more than since 1995 or '6. I don't know if it will ever get back to where it was, but certainly as the racing gets better and better and the drivers become more and more well known and all the things that need to happen, period, I think that will probably start to draw a lot more people for any event, for any day of any event. But I'm sure a lot of people have asked themselves why the crowds have declined over the last 20 some years, and I don't know if anybody has the answer.

Q: Vitor, you have talked about it, everybody has talked about the fact that you've been kind of the pack mule here, you've been working on the race setup while these guys are trying to go fast. Does this put you at any kind of a disadvantage going into qualifying or do you feel like you can get into the faster setup and still challenge these guys for the front row?

MEIRA: Not at all. That's the purpose of a three-car team. We have two guys working on qualifying setup, and one working on the racing setup. And yesterday we kind of tried the qualifying setup, and it was just great, fine. That's the beauty of a three-car team. On the same amount of time, which is seven hours of testing, we can gather the three-fold information that a one-car team would have. And it really helps in cases like today, and maybe tomorrow, the rain days and everything, for sure we would have a really good setup. The cars are the same. The only thing that changes is a little bit of weight on the drivers that we can figure out, and that's about it. I'm pretty sure if Buddy or Roger has a good qualifying setup, I'm going to have it too.

Q: Bobby, on a lighter note, I've always considered you to have pretty good fashion sense. Have you ever had to sit down with the three drivers and instruct them how to form the bill of a hat since there are three pretty extreme styles there?

RAHAL: No comment on Buddy's. The other guys look pretty good. (Laughter)

Q: Why does Buddy have his hat on backward?

RAHAL: As long as Buddy goes fast -- at least his hat is on the right way this year. As long as they're fast, they can -- not do everything, but they pretty much can do everything.

Q: Mine is a two-part question. The first one is, why does Buddy have his hat on backward this morning?

RAHAL: I didn't know that.

RICE: He did?

RAHAL: That's in contravention of his contract.

Q: And second, picking up on your comment that there dumb drivers on the track as well as smart drivers, how important is it for a driver to know the nuances, tastes and style of the driver in the car along side during the race?

RAHAL: I think it's -- especially when you're running as close as these guys run together now. No different than a pitcher in baseball, when a batter comes up he's got his notebook about what kind of pitch this guy likes to hit and what kind of pitch he doesn't like to hit. No different in racing, who can you trust, who can you run wheel-to-wheel with. I had it with when you were racing against guys like Rick Mears and Al (Unser) Jr., you could trust them implicitly that if you were side by side that they wouldn't do anything that would put either of you at risk, and I think they felt the same way. So you definitely have to have your notebook of what's this driver like, can I trust him, can I not trust him? Is he super-aggressive? Are his intentions known? Does he signal his intentions in a certain way? Not pointing, but just the way he drives you can tell. As I said, especially now that these guys are running wheel-to-wheel at a lot of these tracks, that's even more critical than it ever was.

Q: Do you have such a notebook?

RAHAL: I don't have it, but I hope these guys do.

RICE: You have a mental notebook. Most of us, I would say, have come up through the lower ranks and raced against each other at some point. Roger and I go back from racing go-karts in California in 1992 to where he and Roger have raced over in Europe together. There are other drivers I've raced against as well. So as you're coming up -- and you also watch -- even for some of the foreign guys that are coming over here to drive now, you've watched them drive over there, you have a mental notebook and you do know who you can and can't race against. You just have to know it.

Q: What do you do with a total stranger?

RICE: You have to be cautious. You don't know what they're going to do. Like I said, you have watched them come up. If they're going to be fast under a big team, you've obviously seen them come up from another series or from somewhere else and you know already their driving characteristics. But still if you're going to go race against them for the first time wheel-to-wheel, you have to throw a little bit of caution to the wind around them.

Q: Yesterday Tony Kanaan raised the issue about passing and said it was going to be very difficult during the race to pass from what he'd seen. I'd like the drivers to talk about that. What do you think about passing? What do you expect from what you've seen on the track?

RICE: I guess I'll answer this. I think -- I mean, we're just going to have to wait and see. I think with now the way the 3liter engine is with a little the less torque, the less horsepower, I think like these guys have been saying, it's going to put a lot of emphasis on momentum and chassis setup. But I think you will still see the same amount of passing that you have seen in previous years and also you've seen in the other speedways. Everything has just been dropped back a notch to come here to Indy. But I don't think it's going to change. Obviously, right now with the way everybody is gearing for qualifying, yeah, it's very difficult right now to make the car last very long in qualifying trim, we are so trimmed out to try to make the big speeds. But I think when it comes down to what we have seen in full-ank runs and I think how it's going to work in traffic, I think we'll be OK, I don't think it will be that big of an issue. But definitely momentum and definitely placing your passes at the right time to keep that up is going to be very important.

Q: Going back to what I was asking before about one guy working on the race setup while the other two are working on the qualifying setup. When you switch around, when you give information to each other, your engineers talk back and forth and so forth, how similar or dissimilar are your driving styles? How much of what Vitor does translates to what Roger or Buddy does and vice versa?

RICE: I think with the little bit of time that we've had with all three of us running together, I think it's worked out quite well. I think the first wave or that first portion of that working was actually at Motegi when the first time all three of us were on track. We all went out with the exact base setup to the T. I think all of our times were right together. I'm not exactly sure who was up front and who was in the back, but basically we all ran the same number. As the testing progressed as we got closer to the race we made minor adjustments and started going down our own paths a little bit, but basically all three cars were the same. And we've done that once again when we came here and started testing. At the start of the month, I think we all had a little bit different objectives that we needed to hit for the team to make sure that we helped all three of us out and it was all kind of separated, but I think you'll see obviously today Vitor now is finally going to be able to run on full-blown qualifying trim like we're at, and we'll all start working together to go down that route. When we start next week, we're going to all start on Vitor's full-tank setup. So it's all been translating quite well, and I think that's just a combination of what Bob said. It's what the engineers have been doing in the way of talking; it's what the three of us have been doing. When any one of us is running, if one of the others isn't, we're all down trying to listen, see where we're all at and we're all keeping up to speed on where everybody is at. Even though Vitor is on full tanks and we're on qualifying trim, we're still watching what the other one is doing so we're always kept up to speed so that when it comes time for us to flip-flop or do whatever it is we need to do that we already have a good idea, and it's paying off big right now, and hopefully come Saturday we'll see how well it pays off.

Q: Following up on the marketability aspect of this. Now that you're in this full time, what are some of your suggestions in terms of making these guys more visible, not just your team but IRL drivers in particular, given the quality of the racing that you have?

RAHAL: I don't know if I have any suggestions. I think they've already done a fair amount. You see it with the trucks and some of these things are doing and they have these fan evenings, you know, a night or two nights before the race, that one last year in Kentucky -- actually, it was in Cincinnati. It's just going to take some time, unfortunately. When you think about -- when I came to the series you had Andretti, Foyt, Unser -- well, Bobby had just retired. You had Al (Unser) Sr., you had Rutherford, Johncock, these guys had been around for 20 some years at that point. So it's a new breed here, and unfortunately it just takes time. But I think the racing -- I mean you have seen it -- we had a really good crowd in Miami this year, at Homestead, the best that I've seen since we've been there, and that's been since 1996 I think was the first year there. Last year in Kansas City and in Texas they get great crowds and Richmond and other places, so the racing is selling itself. These guys are, you know, starting to -- their racing is drawing more people, creating more interest and their notoriety is going to grow as it continues. Without question, you want sponsors that are going to promote their drivers. I think one of NASCAR's biggest strengths is the fact that the sponsors down there are out pushing that driver like there's no tomorrow, and the drivers are benefiting hugely from that. So as more and more sponsorship comes in and as the sell-ability of this aspect of the sport gets better, it's all going to start to feed on itself and it will start to grow. We've talked about this ad nauseam, in a very short period of time just about the entire, you know, I left, Danny (Sullivan) left, Rick (Mears) left, Mario (Andretti) left, you know. I mean there's just a vacuum at the top, and it just takes some time for it to come back, but I think it's on the path to doing that.

Q: Is it safe to say that the IRL is still going through growing pains, even though you have all these established teams over here?

RAHAL: Everything but NASCAR is going through growing pains right now, it seems. But I think that the IRL is certainly in the best situation of any of them, and that had a lot to do with why we made the commitment we made several months ago. As I said at the time, and I've always believed this, but I felt that the stronger the Indianapolis 500 became, the stronger open-wheel racing would become, and I think that's happening. I think that will continue to happen. And I'm confident that the path that's being followed -- while there can always be minor corrections -- I'm confident that the path it's on is the right one.

Q: Bob, for so many years the object was to try and go faster here, and now that you've kind of got to the point where you need to rein it in a little bit, could you talk a little bit about what the difference is maybe when you're in the seat? How many miles an hour makes a difference that you notice that kind of thing? What is the impact of 221 versus 216, that kind of thing?

RAHAL: I've always felt probably the hairiest lap I've ever done around here was about 200 miles an hour, and the most comfortable lap I ever did around here was 235 miles an hour. To me, it's the balancing of the car. If the thing is stuck, yeah, you know you're going fast, but the perception of speed or the sensation of speed is less than if you're kind of balancing the thing, it's in a drift, it's a little insecure and you're really up on your -- all your nerve endings are out there trying to make sure you pick up every little twitch, just because you have to be so far ahead of the car so if it starts to get go away from you, you can catch it. So while it was exciting to go out there every day and see how fast you could go -- they're doing the same thing now. The number is different, but the degree of difficulty to achieve the ultimate and the configuration that exists is no less challenging now than it was when you were doing 233 miles an hour around here. Yeah, I think you can tell one mile an hour difference. I mean, you can just feel it, the car feels free or whatever and you can feel it. But the degree of difficulty in going fast is not based on how fast you're going necessarily, it's how is the car relative to the speed you're trying to go. I hope that explained that fairly well.

Q: It did. Thanks.

Q: On the prestige of the Indy 500, how good is it to have a Newman-Haas back in the field?

RAHAL: Well, I think it's great, I think it's important. I'm glad Carl (Haas) made the decision. Obviously, I'd like to see him full time. But I don't think anybody can say -- I think what I particularly think about this year is nobody can say that it's less than it was. There are some new teams in here that are very, very good teams that would have been competitive 10, 15 years ago, but all the regulars are back, and I think that's great for this race, and I think it's great for the fans. That's why I say I think this race is going to be a tremendous race.

KELLY: Any more questions at all for Bobby, Vitor, Roger or Buddy Rice?

BLATTLER: I just wanted to mention, all three of these guys were rookies last year, and ironically they finished 10th, 11th and 12th.

RAHAL: So we're going for 1,2, 3 this year.

BLATTLER: Thanks everybody for coming out. I appreciate it. If you want to talk to them, we have some time.

Part 1


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Series IndyCar
Drivers Bobby Rahal , Tony Kanaan , Rick Mears , Roger Yasukawa , Buddy Rice , Vitor Meira