2006 ALLSTATE 400 AT THE BRICKYARD PRESS CONFERENCE Stephen Leicht, Paul Menard, Johnny Sauter, Kenny Wallace Friday, Aug. 4, 2006, Indianapolis Motor Speedway PAT SULLIVAN: Well, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Economaki Press Conference...
2006 ALLSTATE 400 AT THE BRICKYARD PRESS CONFERENCE
Stephen Leicht, Paul Menard, Johnny Sauter, Kenny Wallace
Friday, Aug. 4, 2006, Indianapolis Motor Speedway
PAT SULLIVAN: Well, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Economaki Press Conference Center. Glad that you joined us early. We have some very special guests with us, of course. Certainly as we get excited about the running of the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, we don't want to lose sight of the fact that we'll be running the 25th annual Kroger 200 at O'Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis. ORP has been a part of the NASCAR Busch Series since day one. Kroger has been the longest continuing sponsorship on that trail; and we have four gentlemen here who will be trying to do double duty this weekend.
Let's start all the way end, a young man from Asheville, North Carolina, looking to be the youngest man to qualify for the Allstate 400. Here is a young man who has excelled at every single step of the way. He ran in the Miniature Motorsports Association. He set a track record at Hickory at the age of 13. He was a runner-up at the ARA at the age of 14. He was a champion in that series at the age of 15. And he's also a former champion of the ASA Late Model Series, and had a lot of success, I might add, on Hoosier soil, Stephen Leicht. It's great to have you with us, Stephen.
Johnny Sauter, he's no stranger to any of us who have been around this area. He is a guy who has a great racing heritage. In fact, a quick note, the Kroger 200 was the first time that all three Green brothers ran in one single event. Well, the Sauters have certainly eclipsed that with all of their great success over the years. Here is a gentleman who got assistance from a long-time ASA driver, Alex (unintelligible), and, man, did he take off. 2001, I believe, was the year you were the Rookie of the Year. You won 10 races, you established innumerable records in the ASA trail and since have gone on to be an outstanding racer in both the NASCAR Busch and in the NEXTEL Cup Series.
Kenny Wallace, for a time I announced races in the Springfield, Missouri area. Of course, he kicked around the Lake Hill Speedway with the likes of the Roper brothers, his own family, the likes of the cantankerous Larry Phillips. He got an opportunity, also, to run the ASA. He was the Rookie of the Year in 1986. He got an opportunity to run at Martinsville in the NASCAR Busch Series, and that opportunity came courtesy of Dale Earnhardt. He's now made over 300 NEXTEL starts, and I believe he will be making his 370th start tonight -- that's right, he's tough -- in the NASCAR Busch Series. And I think that he has an opportunity to start his 10th Brickyard 400 and 10th Kroger 200.
Paul Menard, he may be the most diverse of all of our drivers in terms of racing background. He's raced on the ice; he's run the 24 hours of Daytona. He really made a breakthrough when he won the Southwest Tour event; I believe that was at Phoenix International Raceway, beat Ken Schrader in that particular event. You went to the ARCA Series and were able to be victorious there. And, of course, this year had an opportunity to score a victory in his native state of Wisconsin at the Milwaukee Mile.
A very, very great group of drivers trying to do double duty. Let's just go down the line and talk about your opportunities this weekend and what you've got going. I know, Stephen, you made your NEXTEL Cup debut, and what an opportunity to race at Indianapolis.
STEPHEN LEICHT: Like you said, I mean it's Indianapolis, the Brickyard, and grew up watching this race and watching Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt and all them guys around here. It's cool to be here, and just soaking it all in and hopefully make the race Saturday and go out and see all the fans in the stands. I'm sure that's going to be a cool part of it, walking out on the frontstretch and seeing all of that. Just very excited to be a part of this racing at this time and glad to have our sponsors on board, CitiFinancial. They're doing a great job and glad to have them with us. Just glad to be here and hopefully go out and run a good enough lap to get us in. Hopefully we get a good draw.
SULLIVAN: It's nice to have you with us, Stephen. Congratulations on your accomplishments. Johnny, I was thinking back a couple years ago, I was thinking it was the 2004 Kroger Speed Fest at ORP, you were dominant all weekend. You were dominant in the trucks, you were dominant in the Busch cars. You looked like you could have won two races, you came just a little short but you had a pretty good success at ORP, not only, obviously, in the trucks and Busch cars, but also the ASA.
JOHNNY SAUTER: ORP is probably my favorite racetrack in the whole country. I know a lot of drivers say that about every racetrack they go to week in and week out, but ORP is definitely my favorite. It's just a fun place to race.
I think it's probably special, I clinched the ASA championship there, and that was a big accomplishment to me, and to be able to win the race and win the championship all in the same night, that was pretty cool. Got a lot of exciting stuff happening this weekend. Yellow Transportation is going to make their NEXTEL Cup debut hopefully, if we can make the race. They're going to do double duty, as well, as I am going to run the Busch race at ORP and then hopefully run the race at the Brickyard. So if we can make the race for them, that would be great and, you know, just exciting to be here. Obviously, it's a pretty awesome atmosphere and can't wait to get started.
SULLIVAN: Kenny, obviously when we take a look at, at least the Kroger 200, you've had some great runs out there, many, many top 10s in your starts out there. Interesting crossover now, your family has been involved in racing so many years, you have your brother now announcing IndyCar Series events, so he's got a little attachment to this place. Talk about what it's like to race in Indianapolis.
KENNY WALLACE: Well, when you come here, there's, you I know, it's different. It's way different when you come to Indy. We started, I was here for the first test and then, you know, just every time you come to race here, everybody's got a different atmosphere about them. Everybody handles theirself differently. It's almost like we're not at a NASCAR event. Qualifying is so temperamental. I don't know another way they would do if because they're cramming everything into a one day. It's a one-day show even though we're practicing today. We draw, and that's probably the biggest thing of the week, with qualifying starting at 10:00, the track will slow up by the tenths every half hour. Early draw is very important to sit on the pole. I don't know if you can draw any later than 20th, 25th and have a shot at the pole. So it's like the Indy 500, it's really breathtaking; and once the draw comes, that's another story within itself. So it's been a lot of fun coming here.
SULLIVAN: Paul, obviously, the Menard name is certainly echoed around this place in honor many times for a variety of different accomplishments. Got to be exciting for you to come here. Again, congratulations, it's always good to win an event, but it's always great to win one at what would be your home track.
PAUL MENARD: Thank you. Being at Indianapolis is awesome. I've been coming here since 1989. Watched my first Indy 500 in '89, and that's what got me started in go-kart racing. After I watched my first '500,' I begged my dad to get me a go-kart. We did and went on to win some races from there. To run double duty this weekend, it's going to be a lot, you know, flying back and forth between the two tracks. Looking forward to it, though. As these guys alluded to, the qualifying draw is going to be huge. If we can get an early draw, all the better. If not, we'll play the cards we're dealt. But it's going to be an interesting qualifying session, for sure.
SULLIVAN: We'll open it up to questions. You're not shy, folks, are you?
Q: This is to Paul and Kenny and Johnny. Everybody talks about guys that run in both series but there's something special about the Busch Series. It's still the old Saturday-night type of racing where it's a shorter race, guys are really hungry. You know, a Cup level is a whole different ball game. Would you like to see the series not change to where that all goes away? Do you want it to stay the way it is? Because there's a lot of talk about the Busch Series changing in the future, possibly going to different cars. Can you just talk, each one of you, about what you've enjoyed about the uniqueness of making that series pretty much stay the way it is despite having a lot of guys that do double duty?
MENARD: Well, I'll take this one. The Busch Series is kind of built on short-track racing from what my limited experience tells me. I'd love to see more short-track racing in the Busch Series. But the way it's been going the last couple years, there's a huge influx in NEXTEL Cup teams, which I'm a part of and Johnny is a part of, which is good for us. You know, because our goal is to run NEXTEL Cup full time, run against the Kevin Harvicks and guys like that week in and week out is good for us. At the same time, it takes a little away from the uniqueness of the Busch Series. Not having a -- guys like David Green who came up through the Busch Series, Busch Series champion and Randy Lajoie, guys like that who have been racing Busch cars for years and making a good living at it, you probably won't see a lot in the future. It's more young guys taking their shots with the tried and true NEXTEL Cup guys. It's kind of mixed for me; but all in all, I'm having fun.
WALLACE: Well, I talked to NASCAR about that situation at Gateway, and we all agreed. They spent some time up at Kevin Harvick's shop this week, you know, questioning Kevin what they can do to cut the cost in the Busch Series. Really, what I said to them is it's up to NASCAR to cut the costs, not what is the ideal. It's how big do you want the Busch Series to be. We started out running about 28 races a year, now we're up to 36. So it's up to NASCAR the way they want to see the Busch Series. If they want to see the Busch Series on mile-and-a-halfs every week, then they're the bosses. They do the schedule. If they want to see us go to Mexico and Canada and keep the Cup Series inside the United States, then that's -- they're the ones that are doing the schedule. So it would be interesting to see how the meeting with NASCAR went with Kevin Harvick to look at his books and see where all the costs are going. I told them that -- they wanted to know my opinion, and I said you are the ones that have created this monster. You are the ones that have made us go to California. You know, 10 mile-and-a-half tracks has been perfect, but they took us from Hickory and Myrtle Beach, and they're the ones that took the short-track racing out of here. So I'm really glad that we're running this racetrack.
Q: Just a quick thought, do you like the fact that Busch has specifically Mexico City and Canada where the Cup guys are?
WALLACE: It's fun the first couple races, and it wears thin. (Laughter) It's like the first time I went to Japan, rode in that airliner and went over there, then the second time it's like, 'Holy hell, this is a long way, you know.' (Laughter).
I think it's not -- I just didn't -- Jim Hunter and everybody at NASCAR, good friend of mine, I guess Hunter's comments about Cup Series would never go out of the country because it's a logistical nightmare. Well, what the hell is the Busch Series, you know? So that's just the way -- that's where we're at with the Busch Series right now. It's up to them.
SAUTER: I'm a firm believer that NASCAR has their finger on it; they're 25 years strong with the NASCAR Busch Series. I think as the Busch Series gets more and more popular, obviously more and more people pay attention to it. There's almost a need to go to maybe bigger markets, so to speak. Obviously, the fans get more involved. There's no doubt that the NEXTEL Cup Series, when we run in conjunction, there's more people at the Busch race. So don't get me wrong, I'm as big a fan or advocate of short-track racing as anybody here. I love it, that's where I grew up. But there's a fine line, I think, and NASCAR will figure it out.
Q: Stephen, two quick questions. Number one, your team had a press conference scheduled for today, and we're hearing that's canceled. Do you know anything about that?
LEICHT: Actually, I did not realize that until you just told me. (Laughter)
Q: How did it feel when you came here to test and you first came here, how did it feel when you took your first lap around this place? Just your thoughts and your feelings during that test session for the first time at Indy.
LEICHT: Really, the first lap around here, I don't think I took a breath until I took three or four laps just getting aware of my surroundings. It's kind of funny, we were sleeping in our van when we pulled in here to test. I woke up, got out and saw the trees and saw the buildings and said, "Are we at the track?" They said, "Yeah, we're inside right now." So it's a pretty neat deal. We were able to go through the F1 garages where those guys go when they do Indy 500 testing and racing. We got to use those garages when we tested here. Being on the frontstretch and seeing everything is a pretty neat deal. Obviously, this is one of the biggest races of the year, if not the biggest. I know a bunch of drivers, I know Tony Stewart thinks this is the biggest race of his career, a bunch of people think the Daytona 500 is, and I won't know until I run both. This is definitely one for the books as far as my racing goes.
Q: Paul, you're actually, obviously, a desired young racer right now. What is your status? There's a lot of rumors out there that people are seeking after you and that, you know, you may be leaving DEI or at least that you're getting courted to go other places.
MENARD: Must have been reading Jayski, huh? The whole Red Bull rumor is circulating, and it's no surprise I am a Red Bull athlete, have been all year. They just put me up on the Web page within the last couple weeks. That's where all that came from. Right now our plan hasn't been announced officially, but our plan is to run the 15 Menard Chevy next year for DEI.
SULLIVAN: There you have it.
Q: Are you going to run the Busch Series as well or strictly Cup?
MENARD: We'll run some Busch races. I'm not sure which ones. It will probably be in conjunction with -- obviously, NEXTEL Cup races but with the Car of Tomorrow coming out next year, we definitely will not run conjunction races where they have the Car of Tomorrow and the regular style Busch car. It will be old-style Cup car and Busch car.
Q: Doing the same thing (inaudible) --
MENARD: Yeah, the majority of them. Some guys are pretty happy being in the Busch Series, so they'll probably work on the limited Busch team. Some guys will want to move up. So it's going to be a mixed bag.
Q: To follow up on that with the rest of you three, give us where you guys are at as far as next year is concerned and what you're doing?
SAUTER: I just signed a contract with BFI. I'm going to change my profession and become a garbage man. (Laughter)
Right now the plan is for me to stay at Haas Racing. I signed a long-term contract with those guys last year. So definitely happy driving for Gene Haas and everybody there and representing Yellow Transportation. Whether it's in NEXTEL Cup or Busch, it's not exactly sure yet, but that's the plan right now.
WALLACE: I have a three-year deal with PPC; I have one year left on my contract. Still excited about helping this start-up Cup team out of Denver, Colorado, and run my dirt car and do some TV. (Laughter)
Everybody says, "You race anymore, Kenny?" I said, "Hell, I don't know. I run Busch and Cup and dirt and TV." (Laughter)
LEICHT: As far as next year goes, I'm not really focused on that. I'm more focused on this year and really just this weekend and making the race and the rest of the Busch races. Very excited to be apart of Robert Yates Racing and whatever they do have in store for me next year, I would be pleased to have CitiFinancial back with us, and pretty much right now taking it a race at a time and seeing how it goes.
Q: Kind of along those lines, Stephen, what's the mood like at Robert Yates Racing with all the defections that have happened and everything that seems to be going on there?
LEICHT: I think everybody has a very good attitude at Robert Yates. Obviously, they made a bunch of changes here recently. All it is is we're trying to catch up. We've been behind and then our knowledge of the race cars, and we've got behind over the last year and a half. I'm sure you guys remember last year Childress had tough times. They were struggling week in and week out, and it took them time, but they figured it out. I know Robert is a very smart guy, and everybody that works over at Robert Yates Racing, and they will figure it out. It's just going to take some time.
SULLIVAN: Other questions?
Q: For Paul, actually. I didn't read it on the Web site, it was the listeners actually follow your web site and people saw you up on this Web site for a second and then gone. So we got e-mails like crazy, all of a sudden. It's amazing how people follow the sport. But I want to ask you how things are over at DEI. There's a lot of talk about how the cars are, what your plans are as you plan to progress with them next year. Do you take your team with you? Are the plans formulated?
MENARD: Yeah. I mean, kind of like I said, some guys want to move up and some guys don't. We're going to run a part-time Busch team for the three of us, Martin, Dale and myself. So we'll probably have a full-time part-time Busch team, you know what I mean? Most of our guys will move up. The mood at DEI is pretty good, Dale Jr. is knocking on the door for the Chase. He was up there, had some trouble last couple weeks. Martin is learning, that's a rookie team; they moved up from the Busch Series. And we're trying to get our feet wet in the Cup Series. So I was pretty happy with our test here last month. Took the notes that Dale Jr. had. He was pretty good in testing, took his notes, put in our car, and it worked. Brought the car back and cut the body off, so we have a better body now. So things are pretty good.
SULLIVAN: Anything else?
Q: Paul, have you noticed a change in the way when you're in the Busch car, after you won, change in the way people look at you and has your attitude changed after winning at Milwaukee?
MENARD: I don't think so. I still look at every race the same as going out and trying to win them. I don't feel like I'm any different, and I don't know if guys look at me differently; you have to ask them. I don't really pay attention to other people that much. But we just go out week in and week out and do what we can, you know.
WALLACE: A driver should never be around his race shop, believe me. (Laughter) And the ones that do, they're always in trouble. (Laughter)
SULLIVAN: Any other questions for our bad boys up here? Gentlemen, thank you very much for coming in, and best of luck in both races.