CART contenders Q&A

With CART's permission, here is a transcript of this week's pre-event teleconference, held with all five contenders for the FedEx Championship Series title. One of these five will be champion by Sunday evening, after the final round of the 20-race season -- the Marlboro 500 at Fontana, California

CART contenders Q&A

Q: We are very fortunate to have the five drivers who are contending for the FedEx Championship Series Championship this weekend's Marlboro 500 presented by Toyota at California Speedway. There is a lot of money up for grabs: $1 million to the driver who wins the championship; $1 million to the driver that wins this race.

Joining us this afternoon are Gil de Ferran of Marlboro Team Penske who leads the championship with 153 points; Adrian Fernandez of Patrick Racing who has 148pts; Paul Tracy of Team KOOL Green and Kenny Brack of Team Rahal who are tied for third with 134 each; and Roberto Moreno of Patrick Racing who is in fifth place with 131.

I'd like to ask both Paul and Kenny, since you guys are pretty much in the same boat: Even though you guys are well back, do you still feel like you have a pretty realistic chance to pull this thing out?

I think that we still have a chance. We are 19 points back, which still makes it mathematically possible. It's going to be difficult, we have to have a lot of good luck, and a lot of good fortune. But, you know, this is a race where we've got to go out and try to take control and win it, and that's what it is going to take to win the championship, and also, win the $1 million dollars for the race. There's $2 million on the line.

I think it's possible to win the championship, but the sad thing is, we can't do it on our own. We're not in a situation where we can win it on our own. We need some bad luck for Gil, and probably Adrian, too.

But I think that what we can do is go to Fontana and try to do the best we can in the race and hopefully win the race, and if the cards fall our way all the way, we'll be looking pretty good in the championship in the end. But that's the view I take on it, at least.

Gil, you've taken, I guess, a lot of criticism for that first turn at Australia. How do you think -- what was really going through your head there at that point?

Yeah, I have certainly taken a lot of flak for that one, and I certainly believe it is a misunderstanding on most people's parts. And I think that the misunderstanding begins when they believe that I was trying to overtake Montoya, and as a matter of fact, I was trying to do exactly the opposite. I was trying to let him by, and we just kind of ran out of room there.

If you notice before the braking area, I was probably kind of -- a half-car length ahead of him before the braking area, which I thought was really not enough for me to dive on the brake and make it in front of him by the first apex. So I decided to back off a little early and tuck in behind -- tuck in behind him, going through the first left-hand or so; I did that. He gained half a car length on me, and we just kind of run out of room, you know. He was squeezing me to the right, and I had nowhere to go. Unfortunately, his rear touched my left front, and that was it.

But I was far from trying to overtake him. I was trying to fall in line and get out of his way, but at the point that he touched me I was standing on the brakes as hard as could I because I saw that he was coming, and I'm not so sure if he knew how far or how close to the wall I was.

Is this your worst-case scenario having four other guys within striking distance? With how close the whole points chase has been this year, did you think it would come down to this?

Yeah, to be honest with you, as I got involved in the incident there with Juan and driving back with the car very damaged, I thought, well, "It will be a miracle if we can get out again."

And at that point, I was already turning the page in my mind. It is what it is, and if I'd lost the championship lead to Paul or somebody else, you know, we were still going to Fontana with a chance to win. There are four or five guys there that have a shot at it. I've just got to do whatever I've got to do, I guess, to try and win this thing.

Also, it would have been nice if we won the championship three or four races ago, but since this thing has been so competitive, especially this season, I didn't really expect that that would have been the case. I just wanted to be in a good position to try to fight for the championship going into Fontana. I guess that's where we are. We're in a good position to fight for the championship.

At this point, I'm taking nothing for granted. Still, anything is possible, as we showed in Australia, much to our own demise.

For Roberto, I'll ask you the same question that was asked of Kenny and Paul. But also, could you just give me a quick capsule comment on this season as it approaches an end? I know it has been a joy for you?

For me, it has been quite a good season in a way that, here I am, amongst those guys. Still with a very, very slim chance, but I imagine it is still possible. I have to count on bad luck for most of them.

It's been an excellent season for me, considering it is my real first full season in a competitive team. Those guys that I'm fighting against, they have got quite a bit more on their experience than I have on competitive teams. So I think this was a great achievement for the team this year, and for me a great achievement.

You've never raced at Fontana; am I right?

No. I tested there one day before I went to Australia. That's as much as I did there. It's pretty much like Michigan, but a lot bumpier.

Gil, any time in your past, have you been in this position going into a late racing season, and how much of a nervous condition is it for you?

Well, I have fought for championships before, some successfully and some not so, and I guess it is, you know, exciting, to say the least, going into Fontana.

And it is tense, and not only for me, but I think for all involved, you know, because we all want to try to win this thing, and I think it is a very meaningful championship to win. It is certainly one of the most prestigious titles that one can have in auto racing, full stop, so it is very much a charged atmosphere. But, I guess that's big-time auto racing, so you'd better get used to it if you want to be a part of it.

For Gil, it being such a tight points race, I just wanted to get a comment about if your strategy is going to change at all, because really all you have to do is finish ahead of Fernandez to win this thing. Does that play into your mind or something that you have talked with the team about how you are going to play out the race?

For sure, like Paul said earlier, there is a lot at stake at that particular race. You know, there's the race itself, which pays very well, and the championship, which also pays very well. I think also my highest priority is the championship.

Having said that, 500-mile races are notoriously unpredictable and hard to plan out before you go into it. So I think we'll just, you know, go into it in a normal fashion, with the usual 500-mile strategy and see how things develop as the race goes on.

But it is a little difficult to try to map your whole race right now. I think you have to go into the race like there was nothing going on, and you're still trying to win the race, which I guess would still be nice!

Qualifying, you've all said that it doesn't really matter where you start at Fontana in a 500-mile race, but the fact that every point now is so critical, does this put a little more emphasis on Saturday's qualifying session than it would normally?

I don't think qualifying really matters so much at Fontana. I mean, at Michigan I qualified on the pole, and, you know, we started the race with not enough downforce on the car and I went back to 17th in about five laps...

Fontana and Michigan are the types of tracks where you've got to handle and be comfortable all day and if you're comfortable in the traffic, then you can move forward. But with the points race the way it is, at least from my standpoint, you have a bit of a roller coaster of emotions. You're hoping that you're going to have a good day and try to win the championship, if you have a bad day and with how tight the point race is, you look at a guy like Juan who is six points behind me and ninth, if you have a bad day, you could potentially drop to ninth in the points easily.

This is an incredible championship, and you could not ask for anything better.

For me, it is a completely different scenario. In order to win the championship, I must be on pole, and I must lead the most laps and the race. So, it is a different game for the championship. But, whatever happens, we'll try to be there at the end of the race.

I think that this qualifying is going to be more important for us, because we need to get as many points as possible to optimise our chances to try to win the championship.

But also as Paul said, the qualifying has no bearing on the race result, because in a 500-mile race on a track like Fontana, you know, I've never driven there, but they look -- other drivers says that it is very similar to Michigan. It doesn't matter where the starting line-up is, because you also have to handle well in the race so everyone has to make a -- sort of a -- think about how you go about the race weekend, because you really need a good car in the race.

I think we'll do whatever we can in a different instant.

I think the same thing like everybody else, the qualifying position itself has no bearing on the race whatsoever. You can qualify last and be up front in a matter of ten or 15 laps if you have a good car there. So, as far as the race is concerned, there is no change there.

However, for the championship, if any one of us can earn that extra point, you buy yourself -- in my case, you buy yourself a little more cushion or one position, I guess, in the race. It makes things a little bit more difficult for other guys.

So the only difference for me is trying to earn that extra point. If you earn that one point, that's always welcome.

For everybody, has there been a change in equipment or anything, because it is so competitive; or have the teams got just better gradually?

I presume you are referring to the championship as a whole, not to Fontana.

Yes, to the championship -- we have five people here fighting on the last week; nine previously, so it seems like it is a lot tighter. So has equipment changed or anything to make this this way?

I guess I'll answer this question in two parts. I think the first thing that comes to my mind is that since I joined the series in '95, you know, you had maybe two or three -- two or three teams that were, you know, definitely -- quite a bit better than everybody else's operations.

And I think what has happened over those years is that the level of all the teams in general have really raised quite a bit. So I think everybody really has invested a lot over the years into personnel, into equipment, and the teams that operate in our series.

Now, there is a first class, really; really extremely good in my view, and lose nothing to any racing operation around the world. I've seen plenty of them.

And I think on the other hand, I think this has been a -- the other thought that I think explains this season is it has been a funny season in a way that nobody has been able to -- how can I explain that better. I think it has been different in the sense that all of us that have on the telephone here today I think have had a patch during the season of a lot of zeros. So a lot of us here have scored well throughout many races, but we had a lot of non-scoring races. So I think nobody has been able to disappear off in the points. When you look back at the season, this has been very uncharacteristic, because the last two or three years, the number of zero points scored by the guys that are up front in the championship had not been very much.

I have to agree with everything that Gil said. You know, really, I've been around the longest, and the series has changed so much. The level of competition has got tougher and tougher every year, and that in part has a lot to do with what CART has done with the rules, by limiting testing, being stricter on rules and packaging of the race cars, aerodynamic packages. That has given a big bunch of teams a little bit less to work with and helped smaller teams become more competitive.

You know, the level of the drivers has got that much better. The team owners have gone and been able to find the resources to go out and find the best driver to drive their race car. There's a lot less guys coming in with just money in their pocket to get a drive. You know, the team owners now are looking for the guy that is going to get the job done, because that's going to enable them to keep the sponsors happy.

And, you know, like Gil said, it is so competitive now that it's hard to be in the Top-10 every weekend because there's so many competitive cars. And a lot of us have been in situations where we've qualified 17th, 18th, 19th, and when you're in that situation, it's pretty tough to make it through some of the things that happened during the race.

I agree with both of them. I would like to add a couple things on the technical side. One is that everybody is running the same tyres now, which evens out a bit between everybody. And also, information has passed on between teams and car manufacturers better now. They all have a good package.

The teams, also, are choosing to go to the best that there is, not just drivers, but if the car is no good, they are not going to go for it. You don't see people developing too much lately.

On the engine side also, some got better this year; some got worse. So it's sort of -- on the technical side, they all had something to add for being so competitive. Like Paul said, you know, with a very small amount now, you'll find yourself in the back of the grid starting at the back.

And one thing I think I've suffered in the end toward this championship is something that people need to look for the future is it is very, very difficult to get out of the slow session on the street course when you are in that position. It would be nice if we could find a solution for that.

Adrian Fernandez has joined us. Welcome Adrian.

Thank you.

Adrian, if you could comment on some of the things we've already talked about. Could you talk about how you are going to approach this race, knowing that any slip-up is going to be -- or the final slip up to cost you several million dollars?

Well, I don't look at it like that. I just look at it like I know the race. I'm not putting to myself or to the team more pressure than we should have. It's another race, and whatever happens, happens.

We've been very consistent and I feel that if we can keep doing what we've been doing, we should be fine. We've had good success in these races on the past, and that's how we are going to approach it this weekend. And at the end of the race, we'll just see where we are. Hopefully that will be good. And to be honest, I'm not put willing too much pressure on to myself. Whatever happens, happens.

I'm actually excited about what has happened to us this year. The championship is very close as the other drivers have said. Very competitive and I'm just happy to be in the position that I am right now.

Do you have a strategy in this race or do you have to ride it out?

There are always strategies, but the strategies have to be planned. I mean, you have some plans before the race, but a lot of the strategies depend on what happens during the race. You know, that's why I think myself and Roberto, we have a great team behind us, which makes great decisions at the right time. And those calls have to be made at the time that things are happening through the race, and they have to have the ability to be able to make those changes and decisions or make the right decisions at the right time when things are happening through the race.

So there is a lot of things that are unpredictable through the race and they have to be prepared. You know, I feel like I have a great team behind had he to make the right choices, the right decisions at the right time.

Gil, the points are so close that you could all look back and think of one moment that would have made a big difference to your seasons. If you had one race to do over again, what would that race be, and what would you do differently?

Tough one. Well, first of all, I'm sure I'm not in that singular position, because like I said, a lot of people -- well, everyone that's on the phone right now, had a lot of zeros. We had a few misfortunes this year, some mechanical failures. In Detroit, I made an error by getting involved in an accident that developed in front of me that I should have tried not to get involved in. But that's kind of part of racing, really. There's not much you can do.

I guess we really didn't have horrendous weekends throughout the season. Obviously, throughout the season you can look back and think: "I wish this one went a little different or this one a little different," but that's the way things develop.

So I think it would be wrong for me to kind of single one race out to say: "Well, I would have done that differently."

Adrian, has this championship position that you're in now sneaked up on you? Obviously you've had a very successful season, but were you thinking, "Championship" at any point because there were so many guys clustered at the top?

Yes, of course, I always thought "Championship" because we always were very close. Everybody has had their share of problems.

But I knew consistency this year was going to be a key, and so far it has proven that. We have been very consistent and that has helped us a lot, and we have always been thinking that we had a chance at the championship, because that has been all through the year. The last two years with Patrick we have been very consistent. We finished fourth in our first year; and last year we finished sixth, even though we missed four races; and this year has not been an exception.

I view this year as even better for us because this is my third year with the team. We all know each other better. We work better together. Also, Roberto coming to the team, bringing more experience and working well together, we're going to make the team even stronger. You can see that both of us, I think that we are the only two drivers, the only team that has the two drivers with the mathematical possibility of winning the championship; and that proves how well Roberto and myself have worked together.

But we both have struggled in qualifying. We both have seen the different problems. But still, we still have both of us chances of fighting for the championship, and I'm very excited. And as all of the drivers have said, it is just such a competitive series; that it is so wide open. We're in good position and we always had the hopes that we will be fighting for the championship all the way to the end.

Will your guys keep you abreast of where Gil is at every minute?

Of course. Not just Gil, but we have to see where is Paul and Kenny. And with Roberto, basically, with him it is a different matter, if he cannot take the pole, basically he is out of the hunt for the championship.

So, there is different things that, you know, you don't want to take a risk with somebody that you are not even fighting with the championship. So, you have to present and race the race smart, but at the same time you have to take your chances when you need to take them. And, of course, the team will have to do their job on telling me what is happening around me and what the guys who we are fighting with the championship are.

So it is going to be an exciting race, and I tell you, half of Mexico is going to be there.

Adrian, being the defending champion at Fontana and coming off a win at Australia, does that give you any edge going into the race? And the other drivers, do you feel like the champion has a bit of an advantage going into a race like this?

I don't think so. Because everybody, Penske with Gil, they are very strong, and also Team Green with Paul and Dario, they are very, very strong in these races. I feel I am going to be also strong. But I don't think it gives me an edge. It makes you feel good that you are the defending champion, but, you know, that was last year and now I have to do it again. So there is a lot of issues and a lot of things that can happen different than last year.

My main concern, is that I have a good car through the race weekend. If I have a good car that is good in traffic and it is consistent and it's comfortable and it's fast in qualifying, I'll be comfortable straightaway. We had a good test there when Paul and Alex were testing. I felt like we had a good car. We are fully supported from Ford and Reynard for the weekend, and I feel that it is pretty open for everybody right now.

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