Cal Wells, Andy Houston interview

PPI Motorsports announced this afternoon that it has hired Andy Houston to be the NASCAR Winston Cup driver of the No. 96 McDonald's Taurus in 2001. Car owner Cal Wells, along with Houston, were part of a teleconference earlier today in...

PPI Motorsports announced this afternoon that it has hired Andy Houston to be the NASCAR Winston Cup driver of the No. 96 McDonald's Taurus in 2001. Car owner Cal Wells, along with Houston, were part of a teleconference earlier today in which they discussed their goals for the future.

CAL WELLS, Car Owner --96-- McDonald's Taurus -- "There have obviously been a lot of rumor floating around who may be the McDonald's driver for the year 2001 and beyond. It's a lot of work, a lot of research and a lot of time into coming up with what we believe is the best candidate, the best athlete to represent McDonald's and represent our team -- PPI Motorsports. And with that, I'm sure you'll all have questions, but before hand I'd like to introduce and announce our Winston Cup driver of the McDonald's car 96 for the year 2001 -- Andy Houston.

ANDY HOUSTON --96-- McDonald's Taurus -- "I'm very excited. This is a huge opportunity for me and I'm just looking forward to having a great relationship with PPI and with McDonald's and I'm looking forward to next season. It's a big opportunity. I'm 29 years old and my wife and I talked about over the past few years how I wanted to be in Winston Cup racing by the age of 30 and it looks like we're gonna be there. We're at Atlanta Motor Speedway today testing our NASCAR Craftsman Truck and I just couldn't be more happier."

WELLS -- DO YOU PLAN TO RUN ANY MORE RACES WITH ANDY THIS YEAR? "Yes we do. We're researching the possibility of running four more events, maintaining his rookie status and getting him an opportunity to meld with the team and the team with him."

HOUSTON -- OBVIOUSLY THIS IS A BIG DAY FOR YOU. "Yeah, it is. I'm very excited. This is something I've wanted to do my whole life and, really, I couldn't ask for a better opportunity. I feel like Cal has created a great racing program with PPI and with a great sponsor like McDonald's how can we go wrong. We're just gonna try to maybe later in the year gain some more experience and get ready for 2001 and I feel like we're gonna have a good time."

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT FOLLOWING SOMEONE LIKE BILL ELLIOTT WITH THAT SPONSORSHIP? "It's a wonderful opportunity for myself. I look at everything Bill Elliott has done over the years for McDonald's and if I can do half of what he's done it's gonna be a huge accomplishment. He's been a legend in Winston Cup racing for a lot of years and, hopefully, we'll be able to build our own fan base and to get some fans behind myself and PPI. It is -- it's big shoes to fill and we're just gonna try to do the best we can at it."

WHY HAVEN'T YOU BEEN IN WINSTON CUP BEFORE NOW? "Really, you look at everybody's career path back through the years. Casey Atwood started racing when he was seven or eight years old with go-karts and up through the years. When I was growing up as a little boy my father was always running the Busch Grand National Series and that was our livelihood and that's what we did and we really concentrated on helping him and learning all we could about racing. I actually didn't start racing until I was 17 and once I started it snowballed from there. It just kept picking up steam and moving on, but I think that's the difference. Nowadays, fathers and relatives are starting the kids out a little younger because NASCAR is such a huge sport and it's so big. If that's something the kids want to do and get involved in, there are so many more opportunities nowadays than there were years ago."

WELLS -- WERE YOU LOOKING FOR A YOUNGER DRIVER? "We were looking very broad spectrum. There were schools of thought that a more experienced Cup driver might be a good compliment to the McDonald's program and to PPI Motorsports to work well and maybe in some respects mentor Scott (Pruett) on our Tide number 32. And then there was the school of thought that rather than look at some of the drivers that were possibly in their twilight or look at the drivers that were available, that maybe we should look outside the Cup garage yet still stay within the NASCAR venues. Ultimately, based on what was available and based on the various meetings we had, it became actually in some respects a very challenging decision, but to end up with an athlete of Andy's tremendous ability outweighed the opportunities of others that were available. So, consequently, that's the way we gravitated."

HOUSTON -- DO YOU HAVE A GAMEPLAN FOR EASING INTO WINSTON CUP? "A gameplan, no not really. Basically, when I get back to the race track to run another Winston Cup race I'm gonna approach it the same way I approached Michigan and that's to first get in the race, run the race and learn all I can. Really, Michigan, I felt like it was an eye-opener for some people. We ran well and I've got to give a ton of that credit to PPI and to the team. I mean, they prepared a great car and when you have a good car like that it's not hard to run well, so the main thing I have to do is be smart, gain respect on all of the Winston Cup driver's part, and really just try to take it one step at a time and build on that. If we can do that, I think we'll be just fine."

WELLS -- CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THIS SEASON VERSUS YOUR PRE-SEASON EXPECTATIONS AS WELL AS WHAT YOU MIGHT EXPECT FROM ANDY? "For my first year in NASCAR, I can't speak for Scott Pruett's but knowing him pretty well, I can tell you that the challenges have been formidable. However, the opportunity to learn our way through the labyrinth of NASCAR competition as it relates to preparing for the McDonald's program has been outstanding. All of us really owe a bit of gratitude to Tide for taking a flyer on us in the top level of motorsports here in this country. And while our McDonald's Busch program has certainly assisted with that, nothing really prepares you for racing in Winston Cup other than to do it. What we've learned we've applied not only in our driver choice with Andy, but in developing the team for what we believe will be a very strong one-two punch next year."

HOUSTON -- WAS MICHIGAN AN EYE-OPENER FOR YOU? "You can look at that two different ways. Like I said earlier, my goal was to go up there and get in the race and then just learn -- run the whole race and as the race progressed on we started to run a little better and got better. Yeah, I guess you could say it was a little bit of an eye-opener for myself, but on the other hand when I came into the truck series we went to Homestead for the second race of the year in '98 and I ran up front all day and led some of the race and I surprised some people on that day as well. So, it's kind of in the past I've been able to do that at the point and time in my career when I needed to and, hopefully, it'll just continue on. I feel like McDonald's is gonna support us well and PPI definitely is and I think we're just gonna have a great time together."

HAD YOU EVER WONDERED IF THIS WAS GOING TO HAPPEN? "I guess so. I mean, if you're not at that level you always wonder why you're not there. Opportunity knocks and you have to look at all your opportunities, but here in the last few months there have been some really tough decisions that I had to make. I had a couple of Winston Cup teams talking with me and several Busch teams and it was just a matter of which way did I need to head -- which path did I need to take -- and I feel like I've landed exactly where I needed to. I kind of found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, so to speak, so it's a great opportunity."

WELLS -- WHAT DOES ANDY BRING TO THE TABLE THAT A MORE EXPERIENCED GUY COULDN'T? "I don't know if I'd say couldn't. I think that Andy epitomizes what McDonald's racing is all about. He's got a lot of youthful exuberance. In many respects if you look at his heritage -- his gene pool if you will -- his pop's experience, what he's grown up and lived around racing. His whole family is committed to racing. His brother actually works for us in an engineering capacity well before he ever knew Andy raced, but their whole family is committed to it. Those assets were gonna be phenomenal for the McDonald's program. I wouldn't say that some of the other incumbent NASCAR drivers don't have a lot of great assets as well, we're just looking for and have been looking for something that would allow some excitement. There are very big shoes to fill in a program that has built a lot of heritage in a very short period of time, so the decision itself was really critical that we make our own way, that we don't live off of borrowed equity if you will, but on the other hand that we can perform. Andy brings all those assets and a lot of NASCAR experience and an understanding of the NASCAR genre if you will."

HOUSTON -- WHAT DID YOU EXPECT OF CAL A YEAR AGO WHEN HE GOT INTO WINSTON CUP AND HOW HAS YOUR EXPECTATIONS CHANGED? "When I first heard that he was coming into Winston Cup racing, I felt like it was gonna be a huge impact. I watched what he had done in Indy car racing and the CART series and knew there were a lot of resources there. His team manager, Joe Garone, and myself actually talked back when they were first getting things started and I guess, in a way, that was the point in time where I kind of built a little bit of a relationship with Joe, not a day-to-day basis but we talked and we got to know each other a little bit and it just carried on from there. I kept my eye on the program the whole time and knew that he was gonna be successful and I feel that way. Scott Pruett has made huge gains in a short period of time and I feel like he's gonna be a great teammate with the Tide car and, hopefully, he can help us out with the McDonald's team and we'll be able to perform hand-in-hand and be an ultimate two-car team."

WELLS -- WAS THE MICHIGAN RACE THE DECIDING FACTOR IN CHOOSING ANDY? "It was actually a relatively complex process that is involved in selecting the McDonald's athlete. It went beyond just what I thought or Georgina (Roy, McDonald's Motorsports manager) or the number of us that had input. There is an advisory board that we all report up through at McDonald's, that is involved directly with racing as well as other issues and items and opportunities and marketing within McDonald's, and we went through a stair-step process starting with a whole list of candidates and working our way through to the two that we felt would be best and then we actually could go out and run -- which was Andy and Chad (Little) -- and certainly after his performance it was pretty obvious that you just couldn't go wrong by selecting him. Georgina took the baton and went through the labyrinth at McDonald's to make sure we had approvals and we went up and spent some time in Oakbrook before we actually got a green light and that just came very, very, very recently and, ultimately, was the deciding factor. But, as a team owner, certainly looking at Andy's performance and meeting his wife and spending some time with his family and meeting his dad and looking at how he interacted with Scott and his crew chief Brad Parrott and his engineer Roy McCauley -- and how they all interacted -- was so critical to me when ultimately making the decision that we could put another very, very important cornerstone in our ultimate plan of having an extraordinarily strong two-car team. All of those aspects contributed to the decision to select Andy. His on-track performance was obviously magnificent, certainly was a huge contributor, but there's quite a bit more to this young man that's really gonna contribute to our two-car success next year."

HAVE YOU DECIDED WHAT THE OTHER FOUR RACES WILL BE THIS YEAR? "We don't have it nailed down yet, but most likely in no particular order -- Charlotte, Rockingham, Phoenix and Miami."

HOUSTON -- WHAT ARE SOME REALISTIC GOALS FOR NEXT YEAR? "Obviously, we're gonna be looking at the rookie of the year title first and foremost. I don't think that's gonna be an easy thing to win. You're gonna have a couple more rookies in there that we know of right now. Definitely Casey Atwood and it's looking like Kurt Busch as well, so those guys are gonna be tough and they're gonna be competitive. First and foremost for the whole season is just to be competitive. I mean, to run up front and to have opportunities to win. I feel like if you put yourself in that situation from time-to-time you're gonna win races and you're gonna have good runs and have people looking at you and talking about you. So, really, that's kind of what we're looking at. I know this is the toughest racing in the world, I found that out last Sunday at Michigan, so we're just gonna do what we can do. Really, rookie of the year I would say that's a definite goal and being competitive week-in and week-out."

HOW MUCH WILL RUNNING FOUR MORE RACES THIS YEAR HELP? "I think it'll help tremendously. Cal talked a little bit about the possibility of places we're gonna run. Rockingham, I've never raced there. I think there are gonna be four tracks on the schedule that I've never raced at, so getting time at some of those race tracks and being able to start fresh in 2001 and having experience at most places you can have, I think it's gonna be priceless to be able to do that so we're just gonna spend a lot of time testing and, hopefully, race and be ready to go."

WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION WHEN MCDONALD'S AND PPI WANTED TO TALK WITH YOU? "You know, it's so funny. It's been a few months, but the first time it was the opportunity I talked to Joe Garone and he said, 'Hey, maybe we're interested in talking with you.' I can't really put an exact day of when that was, it was a few months back, then it was just kind of a step-by-step procedure and really, up until I'd say Indy weekend -- the week of the Brickyard -- we found out that we were gonna run a car at Michigan and at that point in time was really when I felt like this deal was looking pretty serious and I may have an opportunity here and it all worked out. It was a step-by-step process and went over a few months. Joe Garone and myself met a couple of years ago and built a small relationship I guess and talked from time-to-time. We both live in Hickory, North Carolina and we would see each other in restaurants and stuff and speak, and I think that just kind of helped build and then it grew into what it is now."

WHAT WAS THE DECIDING FACTOR IN YOU TAKING THIS JOB BECAUSE NOT EVERYONE WHO HAS JUMPED FROM THE TRUCK SERIES TO CUP HAVE BEEN SUCCESSFUL? "As far as myself, I went to my dad for a lot of advice and my dad ran Busch for years and years. Basically, the way I felt was if I go and spend two or three years in Busch and then move onto Winston Cup, I'm still gonna have a Winston Cup learning curve. I really struggle with knowing how much more experience I was gonna gain in the Busch Series, yeah, I'm not saying you wouldn't gain any -- you'd would, you would gain some more experience -- but I was wondering if that would be enough experience to go Winston Cup racing and not have a learning curve, I don't think so. I feel like you can go to the truck series, move right into Winston Cup. Yeah, you're gonna have some bumps in the road and you're gonna have some tough times but, hopefully, a year from now all of that will be out of the way to where if you would have been in the Busch Series for two years you're still gonna have somewhat of the same learning curve. So that's kind of the way I felt and that's really helped in my decision-making process."

WELLS -- WHAT WERE YOU EXPECTATIONS IN WINSTON CUP AND HAVE THEY BEEN SATISFIED? "Our want, our desire was to qualify for every show. We didn't make that happen. We missed three of them. We missed another one because of rain, but I don't count that. I don't think fairly you can, but there are three shows that we thought we could make and, certainly, it was a real awakening when didn't. It's not that we were cocky or arrogant about how tough it was gonna be, but the reality that you may not race on any particular weekend and the kind of hole that it buries you in was something that I have never experienced and that was probably my rudest awakening to how competitive Winston Cup is. Ultimately, and we're all human we put our pants on one leg at a time and it's not something that all of us at certain levels will learn, but these are extraordinary athletes -- extraordinarily strong teams and I had hoped we would have been closer to the top 30 in points which we're not. I'm not giving up, we have a great opportunity to do so based on the improvement of our Tide program this year. But what it really has done is prepare me properly to have the strongest two-car program I possibly can next year. There is a massive, massive benefit for the McDonald's program which I think you see everytime Scott runs now. Andy having more of this vehicle type of experience than Scott -- a truck is an awful lot closer to a Winston Cup car than an Indy car is -- that he's gonna be able to help Scott on the short tracks. Scott is gonna be able to help him particularly in qualifying. Scott can ring more out of a set of tires than anybody I've ever met and, collectively, they're gonna be fantastic as teammates next year and Tide and McDonald's are gonna be fantastic as marketeering partners at many levels of our program. So, what I've learned this year and the gut punches that we've had to deal with are really helping us a lot for next year."

HOW GRATIFYING WAS THE BRICKYARD 400 FOR YOU AND TO SEE SCOTT GET A TOP 10? "Very much so, very much so. That being said, it's water over the dam. We need to back it up, which we haven't yet so, hopefully, this weekend."

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Bill Elliott , Andy Houston , Kurt Busch , Casey Atwood , Scott Pruett