Ahead of this weekend's championship-deciding Cafes do Brasil Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, championship contenders Will Power and Dario Franchitti answered media questions along with their respective bosses: Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing, and Mike Hull, managing director of Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Full transcript:
Q. For the third straight year, Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske will battle for the IZOD IndyCar Series championship. What is it about these two organizations that keep putting drivers in the position to win the title? Tim, since your team leads the points with Will, we'll start with you.
TIM CINDRIC: Again, it comes down to the people. And whether it's the drivers or the team, I think those are the things that really put you in a position to compete for the championship. Unfortunately, Mike and his group have gotten the best of us over the past couple of years. But we'll give it a shot on Saturday.
MIKE HULL: I think we drive each other, to begin with. First of all, I think Penske racing has set really a high standard for a lot of years. And that's what we've tried to do. We've tried to achieve records.
We've tried to achieve goals with, as Tim said, the people process. But, you know, probably as important as this intangible thing you have when you get down toward the end of the year, with the drivers themselves and the people that are supporting and surrounding the drivers, that's where the fun begins. It's a key to actually who gets it up when it counts, that's why it's fun to race with Penske Racing.
Q. Tim, when you signed Will Power last year to substitute for Helio Castroneves and then brought him back in after his back injury at the start of the season, did you think he'd have this kind of season?
TIM CINDRIC: It's interesting, Will from the minute we sat down and talked to him about filling in for Helio, back at the beginning of 2009, he was adamant that he felt like he could win this championship. He continued to say, "I know I can compete for this championship. I know I can get there, I just need the chance," and that's continued to be really the thing that he's been very consistent in his belief.
It wasn't as much as I can win races or I'm fast enough. In his head, it's always been about trying to be a champion. And to see it I guess so early in our relationship, I can't say that I would have expected him to be in this position. In his first full season with us, would I have said that? I guess I would have probably said I wouldn't have expected him to be leading the championship, but obviously I think we felt like he was a championship contender or we wouldn't have had much interest in fielding a third car.
Q. Mike, you brought Dario back last year and he paid off with winning a title. This year he's back in title contention. What is it about Dario Franchitti that keeps him up at the front for three of the last four years, actually?
MIKE HULL: I think the fact that he has a desire to win races and he understands that desire with compounding wins leads to championships is the common denominator with him throughout his career.
We were lucky enough that he was available to drive for us last year. You said we brought him back; it was actually our first opportunity to work with him in an Indy car. And from the very first day, it's very easy to understand why he's able to win races. But what I like about him is the fact that he understands how important it is for the direction that he's going and from the direction he's come.
And, he has a great degree of respect for motor racing. I think when you respect motor racing or what it's meant to all of us, and you combine that with the challenge of power, then you find a very rare individual like Dario to lead you to winning championships.
Q. Tim, I know that Will really wants to win an oval race this season. And he's come pretty close a couple of times. Just talk a little bit about how he's improved on the ovals.
TIM CINDRIC: I think what we've seen with Will is he's continued to get his confidence. Obviously, on the road and street courses he has quite a bit of confidence in his abilities. And this year I think Indianapolis really helped him with being able to be there for more than a day at a time and be able to feel a well balanced car and have data from his teammates that helps him continue to build his confidence level. And it's really obvious he has talent in terms of driving.
He hasn't had the confidence to go wheel to wheel with the guys, because in the past maybe he hasn't been as comfortable on the ovals for one reason or another. But certainly I think he came into his own at Indy, and then you saw him last year where we stayed out, I can't remember which race it was Kentucky or somewhere, where he actually led the race and felt like what it was to run up front with the leaders. And he's continued to really be a student of the sport in a lot of ways to understand, that it's a lot different to run in that top 5 than it is to just finish in the top 10. I think he's come to understand what that takes. Really, it's a matter of putting the details together. And he's shown that he's capable. It's just a matter of doing it now.
Q. Mike, I know you touched on it a few minutes ago, but if you could talk about the amazing championship savvy that Dario seems to have. Dating all the way back to that great 1999 race when he was running for Team Cool Green and you had Juan Pablo Montoya driving for you. They had it tied up but the tie-breaker was most victories, how the last three seasons in IndyCar he's shown a tremendous ability to be in championship battles.
MIKE HULL: Personally, I just enjoy the fact that he doesn't rest on anything that's just happened. And he's not complacent or satisfied with what may have just happened. An example, what happened in Motegi. He has learned that the harder he works, the interest that he has now earned on his investment is the fact that he can put all that experience together.
And that in itself for us represents the drivers that we had in the past, the drivers we have presently, and the joy to work around a guy who just drives himself as hard as the guys who work on his car.
Q. We've got 27 entries for this weekend. That's a pretty good roster for the end of the season. I would like both of you to talk about the health of the IndyCar season over this year and what it's looking like for next year, especially with the new schedule.
MIKE HULL: Well, we're pleasantly surprised that there are 27 entries for Homestead. That's a really good thing for IndyCar racing.
Obviously the key is the motivation that needs to be created to get that group of entrance to be solid and race into the future. We hope it's a good sign going toward 2011 that the equipment that we have will be raced one more year and will provide a strong owner base for 2012, because we think with the new leadership in IndyCar racing that has a great opportunity to create positive momentum. So we're really excited about it.
TIM CINDRIC: I certainly echo what Mike says. In addition to that, I think that IndyCar racing now, having the leadership there that maybe is independent of the Indy 500 – and that's not a shot at Tony [George], that's more just giving credibility to a sport that's not waving its own flag in the sense that we have independent leadership between the league and the Speedway now. And on top of that, it's the first time that this series has really had a viable series sponsor. And that series sponsor is willing to promote and put money behind the league itself so that the league isn't the only one waving its own flag or the Speedway is not having to wave the flag of the league. The league is getting closer to being able to stand on its own in terms of relevance.
Q. I know both of you call races, but neither one of you will be calling Will or Dario's races. Does the battle that is the race for your drivers, Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon take precedence over what would be considered the war for the championship for Dario and Will?
TIM CINDRIC: I think, in a macro view, the championship is certainly the most important thing. But I think Mike would agree that once that green flag drops, it's our job to do the best job we can for the drivers we're working with at that point in time.
Obviously, those two guys are very competitive, and although there's not a championship trophy on the line, there is a difference between finishing third and fourth in their mind if not in their pocketbook. So it's something that certainly we'll try to keep an eye on each one, but those cars run independent with capable people. And you do what you can with regard to running that car and the pieces that are in place are pretty much there at the time that you get going.
MIKE HULL: I don't know how it's going to be with Roger, or how it's going to be with Chip. But we'll have a lot of fun from the 9 car timing stand. Chip will be working on the 10 car stand, similar to what he did last year. The reason that we won the championship last year was because we fought it out with [Ryan] Briscoe and those guys sat back there and did the right thing on the fuel.
And it turned out great for Chip Ganassi Racing. But I think that represented the question to your answer. We ran every race to win the race. It's a team deal, and it's important for a team to win a championship. But at the same time we do exactly what Tim said, you work just as hard at this race as you worked any other race to get the most for your team.
It will be a lot of fun to race there. And I might also add that Monday we were lucky enough to get a test day there, due to a reschedule, and in the evening a lot of drivers went out on the racetrack and ran wheel to wheel. I think that's an indication of what you're going to see on Saturday night. It's going to be heck of a race. It's not going to be a situation where everybody just rolls over for Dario and Will.
Q. Mike, it was probably about a month, month and a half ago, that it looked like Will had a pretty comfortable lead. Was there ever a point, though, that you guys thought, "Well, he's getting too far ahead, we're running out of time here"? And, is it more fun at this point to be the hunter or the hunted in this situation?
MIKE HULL: You'd like to go into a race just having to finish the race to get points to win a championship. But that's not really the right way to do it. I think that the honest answer is, yeah, when a guy gets a big lead in the championship you freak out – you say, "Man, can we do this? Can we do this?"
But we're surrounded by people who believe in themselves. [Scott] Dixon and Franchitti believe in themselves; they don't give up. We know that Will and Helio and Brian for Penske Racing are the same way. Somebody asked the question at the beginning, why is it that we race against each other? I think the reason over time is the strength that each team has, has been built by the consistency over time and the belief in each other.
And, quite frankly, I think you could take our drivers and swap them around, because the organizations are very strong, and they're run the same way. It's all about belief, self belief. And I think that's why you don't give up, and that's why we have a championship on Saturday night that's going to be determined between these two guys.
Q. Mike, you've been around a lot of guys who finally accomplished something like an Indy 500 win or a championship. How do you think that changes a driver when they have something tangible like that to put by their name?
MIKE HULL: I think what it does, if their mettle is strong, you find that out because they work harder to win it again. That's what you find out about race drivers, how much they want it.
If you have a race driver who remembers where he came from and have a group of people who do the same and you go back and you win again as a team, that's when you truly find out how strong that race driver is. It's not the first go, it's the second go or the third go that really counts. And I'm not sure that Chip Ganassi Racing is a true measure of that. I'd say Penske Racing is, over years of the Indy 500.
You just go into that Speedway Museum and you look at those model cars of the winners and the polesitters there and reflect on the history of the teams that have done that, it would be great some day to be in that position like Penske Racing is today. They can certainly answer the question better than we can.
Q. Tim, could you talk about Dario just a little bit. He's put so many of these things together late in his career or later in his career than some. I know everybody in the paddock gives him the credit he deserves, but do you think that it's just been slow for the outside world to kind of see where his place in history is?
TIM CINDRIC: I think the credit goes to Dario, really, with him having the unique ability to understand when it's his time and how far to push it. He doesn't put himself in too many bad situations over time.
And I think, I guess the longer he's gone in his career, the better he's gotten at those things. And you sit back and you pretty much understand what he's doing during the race, because he's pretty calculated, and a lot in the way [Gil] de Ferran was in the end of his career.
I'm not saying it's the end of Dario's career, I'm just saying as he became more and more experienced, he understood when it was time to go and when it was time to hang out and make sure you're ready to go and kind of get the measure of everybody else.
And I think that's what's continued to put him in that position. But also I think that there was an added bit of hunger maybe added at that point in his career when he did go to NASCAR. Obviously that didn't work out the way he wanted it to. But he didn't just walk away from the sport. He came back much more determined maybe than he would have if he would have just continued in IndyCar racing to get back on top, because like Mike said, I think he's one of those guys who knew what it was like to be on top and knew what that feeling was and then he didn't have it for a period of time. And he wanted to rediscover that, and I think his championship last year and the fact that he's won Indy multiple times is a testament to really his race savvy as much as his driving ability.
Q. Regarding team orders: We know that both of you want the championship so much – is it possible we could see something happen like Dixon slowing so Dario can win the championship? Or both of the other Penske guys slowing down so Power can win the championship? Is it possible we will see that Saturday night?
MIKE HULL: I'll try to answer the question. I hope not. You know, the thing is it would be great to have a script and know exactly what was going to happen. But for all the years that I've worked for Chip Ganassi and sat on a timing stand, I don't think there's been one opportunity for us to truly do that, because the races have just unfolded and played themselves out.
And I don't know, I think it's all about the integrity of motor racing for us, and we want to race each other to see who can win the championship, not who can manipulate the championship. I think that's a true difference in what we do in this kind of racing versus some other types of motorsports.
TIM CINDRIC: You have to remember, too, from Penske's standpoint it's more advantageous for our two other guys, being Helio and Ryan, to run out front and win the race, because of the points spread. I mean, on top of all the things that Mike said, from that standpoint it's advantageous for our two other guys to actually do what's pure anyway, and that's to go out and be the best that they can.
You have to also keep in mind that four of the five drivers we're talking about all have something at stake in terms of where they finish in the championship beyond just that race itself. So I think it will lend itself to some very good racing overall.
Q. Tim, over the last few oval track races, Helio has reasserted himself as the "ovalmeister." I'm wondering if you've gone to him especially now that he's out of the championship and asked Helio to mentor Will these last days leading up to the race here, but allow him to pick his brain about anything that he knows about HMS?
TIM CINDRIC: At the end of the day, it's an open book. The thing that's enjoyable from my standpoint is I don't have to tell Helio and I don't have to tell Will or Ryan to work with another guy. They understand the benefits of success through their teammates, although their teammate is the best gauge of their success or failure.
Those guys understand from a team concept what's most important, but the other thing that I think that is really the most valuable to Will in this situation is the fact that Rick Mears – who understands a lot of these things and maybe hasn't driven one of these cars, but he understands the mental aspect of what Will's going through right now – and that as much as anything else in terms of gaining the confidence and understanding maybe how to approach the race, I think that Rick is really Will's best asset right now.