Totally worth it. It feels like I've been on the phone 20 hours a day for the last month trying to help Jay Penske get this deal together, but that's what I feel right now – it's all been totally worth it. Now we've done it, it's a feeling of relief but also a pretty impatient feeling: we just want to get out there and do it. Any driver who's had a layoff period knows how much it hurts watching races from the couch. And any team owner who's been through what Jay Penske's been through these past couple months knows about frustration, too. You could say that between us we've got some points to prove.
So, for now, we have five races with Jay's new-format Dragon Racing, and I've got to thank Jody at Motegi Racing and Wheel Pros for sticking by me. They've helped make this happen. We start at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Then I'll join Dreyer & Reinbold Racing for Indy with WIX Filters, then return to Dragon Racing for Texas, Toronto, Edmonton and Sonoma.
We've been trying to put this deal together with Jay since soon after he and Gil de Ferran split. Jay flew to Vegas to meet me, and said, “OK, let's go to work on this,” but obviously it was a short space of time to put together a whole season. And then a couple of things we were trying to put together fell through, because of timing and because of stuff that happened that was just out of our control.
There are a couple of other sponsors still in play but it's been moving a little bit slower than we want it to, and so while we were working on this deal, the Indy 500 ride with Dennis Reinbold and Robbie Buhl over at D&R fell into place. At that time, I didn't have anything completely squared away with Jay, so it was impossible to turn down the opportunity to work with D&R and WIX, especially remembering how good D&R was at Indy last year. In a way, it all worked out good, because it meant when I was looking for funding with Jay, I didn't have to worry about fitting the cost of Indy into that. Everyone wants to run at Indy, but wanting and finding the money are two different things, so WIX and D&R took that financial burden off. Now we can offer my other sponsors more races in the venues where they have big markets. Long Beach is obviously a huge event so that's perfect for Motegi Wheels as well as another sponsor I'm not allowed to confirm yet. The aftermarket wheels audience is big in California as a whole so Sonoma is good for Motegi Wheels, too. It'll be my first race there, so that will be pretty interesting. And Texas is big for Jody, too – he has his own suite at Texas Motor Speedway, and his head office is just 10 miles down the road.
So, we went for races that had big and important markets for our particular sponsors. And what we're trying to do now is fill in some of the other races and go find sponsorship for those. I'd love to do places like Milwaukee where I had three wins, Loudon because I've always been pretty good on short ovals, and Baltimore street race where everyone's starting from scratch because it's new. I guess Vegas is another one we'd like to do; (pity I'm not eligible for the $5m). But anyway, now we have a program up and running, we can build on that because we have something to go sell and try to fill in the blanks.
Expectations for Long Beach are that I expect nothing and will give everything, just like Dragon Racing will for me. We've had no testing, but it's still a street course where there can be a lot of carnage, a lot of pit strategy, crazy things happening…and it's a track that since they changed it to the current configuration, I've won three times [2004 pictured below] so it's not like I don't know my way around. The first time I won it, on the previous configuration in 1993, was for someone with the surname Penske…
Anyway, I don't feel I'm gonna have any problem getting up to speed and being competitive there. Considering the last few years I've had to wait until July to get in a car on a street course, I don't think this latest time-out will give me any issues. I know the equipment will be top notch and I know the team that Jay's put together is top notch, too. I'll have Eric Zeto as the engineer, and we know each other from our Forsythe days so there'll be no learning curve there; he knows what I want from a car, and I know what to expect from him. The majority of the crew was at Team Penske a long time, so I've worked with them in the past when I drove for Roger.
We all know what to do, and we'll go out and do it. I know my enthusiasm is matched by everyone I'll be working with, and soon it'll be time to just go out there and do it. And being under the Penske umbrella too...it's a little bit of a homecoming.
See you in sunny SoCal in less than two weeks. Feels good saying that.