So hello, welcome to RACER.com, and thanks for your interest in my column. If you’re not a fan, then I hope to convert you over the course of the season. If you are a fan, well… I hope we don’t give you as bumpy a ride as you suffered the last couple of years.
This will be my fourth year in the IndyCar Series, and I haven’t been this excited in my whole career, going into a race season. That being said, it’s not secret that these are tough economic times and marketing budgets are one of the first things to go when an economic crisis hits. Finding a sponsor in this environment is hard.
I consider myself very lucky to be with a team that still has good corporate support and knows how to manage sponsors during tough times like we have now. These days I see the bigger picture, and I know I have to work my butt off in sponsor appearances, because the equation is really simple: money we get from our partners decides how fast we’re gonna go. I’ve got to be happy with the teammates that I have – Tony Kanaan, Danica Patrick and Hideki Mutoh – that they can help attract those kind of sponsors.
But this year, we’ve got to get prize money, too, and I think I’ve got the things and the people I need right behind me. Having strategist Kyle Moyer back is definitely a positive, and so’s working with engineer Pete Gibbons, who worked with Dad when he was racing. Eddie Jones, my previous engineer, is going to be pushing Danica to a new level and Pete’s going to push me to a new level, so it should be great.
The problem about being excited about the season is that I’m impatient to get going. It’s hard to believe but I assure you it’s true: Until Spring Training at Homestead, I hadn’t driven the Indy car since the last round of ’08. What I have done, though, is race in the A1GP series. Those cars are so different from what I know. We’re still way down the learning curve regarding what we need mechanically to make them work. Obviously Team USA is Andretti Green Racing now, and we have a load of talent, but we haven’t yet got the hang of it compared to the other teams with A1GP experience.
I know they’re new cars this year but the tires’ behavior is the biggest difference compared to our Indy cars. But doing A1 is good for me because in the winter when all the other IndyCar drivers are working out in the gym, I’m working the muscles I need use, and I’m keeping fresh and race-ready. You could be in the best shape of your life, but if you haven’t driven a racecar for four months, then you’re gonna be breathing heavy just from nerves. So learning to drive a car that’s less than perfect is really good for me. But I realize we can’t just use the A1 races as test sessions or for my own fitness. We need to perform because people are watching.
We have a clearer direction on what we need from the Indy car. I think we were losing out to the Penske and Ganassi cars mostly on the road courses and the four of us should not be getting beat on road courses, certainly not to the extent that we are. I have loads of respect for the other talent out there, drivers and teams, but there’s no way we should be where we are. In my rookie year I was supposed to be The Man on the road courses and afraid of the ovals. But now people are saying the opposite.
It’s really hard, though, because we’re working with tiny, tiny margins now. The Dallara-Honda is developed. You can look at speed discrepancies on charts and it might look big, but it’s really not. Also, it’s not just one answer that we’re looking for to get up with Ganassi and Penske. It’s a bunch of little things.
AGR absolutely has the capability of catching back up, no question. We’ve been on top before. That’s just the way it goes. When you’re on the top, it’s the hardest thing in the world to stay there, but when you’re not on top, it’s the hardest thing to catch back up. Well, that’s what we’re trying to do.
And we’re all trying to do it, as a team. It’s a lot more than just getting in the car and driving. That’s probably the main thing I’ve learned since my rookie year in ’06. That year, if we were slow on a superspeedway, I’d be like, “You’re the engineer, you make it go faster.” Now, I try and figure out every little detail, because as a driver I can help.
It’s not like we’re so far off, either. We led a lot of different races last year, no matter what type of track, and led properly too – not through pit stop sequences or anything like that. But we need consistency and we need finishes, week in, week out, like Scott Dixon. You look at the last two years, and the first- and second-placed finishers in the championship averaged second place. Seriously. That’s just unbelievable!
Given that, I think there may have to be an alteration in my philosophy in the races, too. My job is to maximize what the car can do. If the car’s a second-place car, and I can’t win the race, second is where I need to finish, rather than pushing for that extra bit and ending up in the wall: that’s not the way to win championships. That’s going to be my goal: to do everything that the car can do, and to enjoy myself. That’s the way as a driver we do our best work. If we get the consistency, I really see myself competing with Dixon every single weekend. That’s what we have to do.
The first few races will be interesting because we’ll find out how the guys that used to be in Champ Car have progressed, now that they’ve had a season and an off-season to get themselves together. There is a lot of talent out there, and if they get a grip of the ovals, then it’s going to be tough getting a championship for sure; but if we get it across all the tracks, week in, week out, we will put ourselves in contention for the title as soon as this season.
Longer term, I still see Formula 1 as my ultimate goal. In an ideal world, we could win the big races over here, maybe a title, and then something might present itself. But it’s not something you can really force. The deciding factors are whether it’s the right time, whether they really want you, who your teammate is, and whether the car’s competitive. Forget the pay; it’s gotta be a car that’s competitive. We need to go over there and do well because they don’t look at Americans with a lot of respect right now, so we need to get the job done, if you know what I mean. A lot has to happen, but I’m willing to do whatever it takes, that’s for sure.