By Amy Konrath
Today’s IZOD IndyCar Series, Firestone Indy Lights and Mazda Road to Indy headlines:
1. If you missed it: April 24 Conference Call
2. Jourdain links up with Rahal for Indy 500 return
3. Sao Paulo circuit gets fine-tuned for Year 3
4. Dollar General to sponsor Newgarden at Indianapolis
5. Power wins first quarter Driver Of The Year
1. If you missed it: April 24 Conference Call: Earlier today, Rahal Letterman Racing co-owner Bobby Rahal and driver Michel Jourdain Jr. participated in a media conference call to discuss the announcement that Jourdain will drive for the team in the Indianapolis 500 (See Note below). IZOD IndyCar Series driver Helio Castroneves also participated to preview this weekend’s Sao Paulo Indy 300. A full transcript and a broadcast-quality MP3 are available at media.indycar.com. Selected quotes from the interview are below.
Q. Bobby, can you talk about today’s announcement and renewing your relationship with Michel who was very successful racing with your team in the not‑so‑distant past.
BOBBY RAHAL: Well, thank you. You know, I think we’re very excited about this partnership again. Michel did a very, very good job for us really at some of the high points in Indy car racing in 2002, 2003, and probably should have won a few more. Not through his fault, but other things.
I’m just pleased that we’ve been able to put something back together with him. We started this discussion at Las Vegas actually last year and were able to work hard, and here we are. So I’m very pleased to have him back with us. He’s still only 35 years old. I think people forget how young he was. He was 19 when he went to Indy for the 500 the first time, so he’s only 35, younger than Franchitti and many others in this series. I think good drivers are good drivers. They acclimate themselves to whatever it is they’re driving quickly. So I anticipate we’ll have a very good month with Michel as part of the team.
Q. Last year the team came within a few laps of winning the Indy 500. Do you feel like the pairing of Michel with Takuma Sato gives you another chance at winning a 500?
BOBBY RAHAL: Well, I think every time you go to Indy it’s a pretty unpredictable race, so anything can happen. If there had been a yellow with four or five laps to go, there would be a Belgian Indy 500 champion today, but that didn’t come to pass.
But nevertheless, I’m very pleased with where we’re going technically. I think we’re in form. The first few races have shown that. My feeling is that now we can have a competitive month. It’s going to take a lot of effort to be sure, but no different than with anybody else. It’s just up to us to make the best of it.
Q. It’s been 16 years since you last raced in the Indianapolis 500. What brings you back to the speedway to race this year?
MICHEL JOURDAIN: Well, really, you know, I came to the Vegas race and I’ve been following, of course, IndyCar all this time. I have all this time a lot of friends there, and then I want to come and try to do something. I spoke to Bobby and then spoke to the guys from Office Depot in México, and things have started running, and it’s really a dream for me to get back into driving in IndyCar, especially in IndyCar’s race to get back with Bobby’s team. To go to St. Pete and to Long Beach, and there’s so many people that were there 10 years ago when I was driving. I spent the best years of my life with Bobby, and I think it’s a good situation to get back in it.
MODERATOR: What do you expect from the new IZOD IndyCar Series car? I guess this would be a good year to come back with everyone having less familiarity with the car at Indianapolis.
MICHEL JOURDAIN: Yes. It’s part of the thinking that, you know, everybody is starting from scratch. Bobby’s engineering group I think is really, really good, to see how they’ve done these races. They’ve done an amazing job, and every year, Bobby, the last couple years, the team has done a fantastic job. I think it’s a good situation and a great year.
It feels good, from the sponsors to the team to the fans. Like I said, it’s fantastic. And we think it’s a fantastic time to get back in it.
Q. Helio, the season so far, is it what you expected, and do you think you have what it takes to win on the streets of Saõ Paulo?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Yeah, the team has certainly been doing a phenomenal job starting obviously three races of the season and able to capture three wins. Certainly I feel great. I feel very good about the season, especially after what we had last year, and we feel great.
Unfortunately last race we had a little bit of issues with traffic and incidents, but we want to continue carrying this good momentum with the team, especially here in my hometown of Brazil. Certainly there is a lot of hype and there is a lot of excitement for this race. Everybody is really pumped. Hopefully Mother Nature helps this year so that we can have a dry race, and that will help the Brazilians.
Q. You have three big feats, and I would assume they’re probably goals for you, that you have a strong chance to capture the season, with one of them winning in your hometown on Sunday. Second one you can win your record-tying fourth 500 at the end of May, and the third one is winning your first series championship. In what order would you rank those three feats that you’d like to accomplish?
HELIO CASTRONEVES: Good question. I dream big, and my dream is to capture all of them, and I have no order. The order for me is as it comes, so Brazil, Indy, and then the championship. Certainly if you’ve got to choose one, I always dream about Indy and even now so close to do something very amazing. No question Indy would be an incredible achievement.
But again, for me, it’s race and go out there to do my best and try to capture all my goals, and the goals is to win. Unfortunately there is a lot of people against that goal, and that’s what we face every weekend in and out trying to beat everyone, and that’s the beauty of the sport.
So I’m really excited to start the season the way we started so that we can achieve all the goals. And hopefully when we talk about it, we’ll be inside.
2. Jourdain links up with Rahal for Indy 500 return: Sixteen years between Indianapolis 500 efforts is viewed more as an opportunity than an obstacle to Michel Jourdain Jr., who will join Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for the 96th running of the race on May 27.
“I am extremely happy about this new opportunity,” said Jourdain, 35, of Mexico City. “In St. Pete and Long Beach when I walked in the paddock and saw all my friends (drivers, owners, team members, media, etc.) I felt like I had been away just for a few months, but it is actually eight years, and that is a lot. I have been working out harder than ever, to make sure I am as fit as possible.
“I know it is a huge challenge to drive at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after so long and with this type of cars, but I hope that I will feel at home in a few days.”
The event record between starts is 17 years (1930-47) by Cy Marshall and Roland Free.
“I have only competed in the Indy 500 once in 1996, but you can always see that this race is the best,” Jourdain added. “Bobby and I spoke in Las Vegas, but also I came to the new shop in Indy the first days of January. I saw in Bobby a big commitment to get back to the top in Indy car racing. With the hiring of Tom Anderson and the very strong engineering group, I feel this is the best chance for me to come back strong. Everybody in the team knows that it will take some time for me to re-adapt to this type of cars and racing, but with the showings Takuma (Sato) had in the beginning of the season and the team’s history at the Indy 500, I know we can have a strong month of May.”
Jourdain will be a teammate of Sato, who drives the No. 15 Honda-powered entry full time. The team won the Indianapolis 500 from the pole position in 2004 with driver Buddy Rice.
The No. 30 Honda-powered entry will be sponsored by Office Depot Mexico with associate sponsorship from Roshfrans, Grupo Indi and Grupo Multi.
“For me, this is not only a professional project, it is also personal, and having Office Depot Mexico, their suppliers and Roshfrans supporting me like they did 10 years ago means a lot to me,” Jourdain continued. “This shows that we did a good job for them.
Jourdain last competed in Indy car in 2004. He became the youngest driver to start a Champ Car race to date when he drove at Long Beach in 1996 at the age of 19 years, 6 months, 12 days. He made 152 starts in CART and Champ Car from 1996-2004 plus three Indy Racing League starts, including the 1996 Indy 500 where he qualified eighth and finished 13th.
He won races in Montreal and Milwaukee in 2003 with Team Rahal and moved to RuSPORT for 2004 when Team Rahal focused solely on the Indy Racing League that season. With support from Ford Motor Company, he moved to NASCAR’s Nationwide Series from 2005-2008 and also competed in the Camping World Truck Series in 2006. Since then, he competed in various rally and sports car series.
“I am pleased to have Michel back with the team,” team co-owner Bobby Rahal said. “When we were last together we had a lot of success and I don’t see any reason why we can’t continue that. It is also good to represent Office Depot again and their many associate sponsors that are making this happen. We are really pleased for Michel and happy to be a part of this.”
Although he will be classified as a veteran for the Indianapolis 500, Jourdain will participate in a “refresher” course May 10 in conjunction with the Rookie Orientation Program. Opening Day is May 12.
“The excitement in Mexico has been great from sponsors, media, friends, etc., and with the IndyCar Series, I see motivated people, a lot of drivers wanting to come into it, sponsors, etc., so I really hope I can come back, do more races and hopefully the full 2013 season with RLL,” Jourdain said.
3. Sao Paulo circuit gets fine-tuned for Year 3: Minor alterations to the 2.536-mile, 11-turn temporary street circuit and venue for the Itaipava São Paulo Indy 300 presented by Nestle certainly will be noticeable to drivers and spectators this weekend in São Paulo, Brazil.
Circuit designer Tony Cotman said the painted Turn 1 runoff, which became a skating rink when wet last year, has been addressed along with a “pretty significant” bump in the transition from the concrete surface of the Anhembi Sambodromo to the asphalt leading into Turn 1.
“The layout of the track has not changed and the curbs have not changed,” Cotman said. “Reducing some of the bumps was among the goals that have been addressed. Also, drainage in five or six locations has been addressed. Now that it’s all done, we hope we don’t need it.”
A grandstand will be added in Turn 11 – the right-hander that flows from the longest straightaway on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule and one of the best overtaking areas into the Anhembi Sambodromo – as a structure that prevented its placement the previous two years has been razed. Also, directional signage and concession stand placement have been addressed.
“They are subtle things to help people get around,” Cotman said. “A lot of people won’t notice the things, but it will be more efficient, more fluid and it will be fun. They’re such passionate fans and take a great interest in this race.”
The role of Cotman’s company, NZR Consulting, in the event also has evolved to the benefit of his down time. In constructing the circuit, 27,456 feet of fencing, 41 miles of fence cabling, 5,450 fence poles, 11,000 tires, and about 100 miles of reinforcing steel rod (for building the 5.2 miles of cement barriers) were used. Because of the heavy traffic – there are 7 million vehicles in use in the city — the event will be held on the weekend only.
“The city’s support has been incredible, and the people who are working on the ground have enough of a knowledge base now that they know what to do and what to expect,” Cotman said. “This year, we’re a week ahead of past years.
“You look back to Year 1 and it was do whatever you could to get the race on. Year 2 was a significant repave of the entire circuit with higher-grade asphalt and reducing bumps. The lap times were quicker, but we weren’t able to utilize it on race day because of the weather. Year 3 is about fine-tuning some of these areas.
“For us, it’s more of an overseeing role like it should be rather than a hands-on role and that’s been the biggest difference.”
4. Dollar General to sponsor Newgarden at Indianapolis: Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing proved it was a force to be reckoned with when the team won at Kentucky Speedway last fall with Dollar General onboard as a sponsor.
The two will join forces again for one race in 2012 where the stakes will be higher – the Indianapolis 500.
“Dollar General is excited to once again partner with Sarah and her team for the Indy 500 in the 96th running of this iconic race,” said Rick Dreiling, CEO of Dollar General. “We look forward to having Dollar General represented in “the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
With its win at Kentucky Speedway in October 2011, SFHR was the last IZOD IndyCar series team to win on an oval. The team is eager to return to its home track with Dollar General.
“I am honored to welcome Dollar General back to our team for the Indianapolis 500,” said Sarah Fisher, owner of SFHR. “The privilege we have to continue the relationship with a company that stood behind us during the tough times at the start of our team means a great deal to me. This opportunity is a direct result of the fantastic relationships SFHR maintains with its partners.”
In only his third start with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, driver Josef Newgarden started on the outside of the front row for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Newgarden is eager to return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he won the 2011 Freedom 100 in Firestone Indy Lights.
“Indianapolis is such a challenge,” Newgarden said. “You can go around that track 200 times and learn something new about your car or yourself as a driver on each lap.”
Newgarden should feel right at home in a Dollar General car as his hometown of Hendersonville, Tenn., is a neighboring suburb to Goodlettsville., where Dollar General’s headquarters are located.
For the month of May, the No. 67 car driven by Josef Newgarden will feature a livery with the familiar black and yellow Dollar General colors that Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing fans are used to seeing.
“It will be exciting for our fans to once again see the black and yellow No. 67 attempt to bring home a victory at the Indy 500,” Fisher said.
5. Power wins first quarter Driver Of The Year: Will Power came from near the middle of the grid on twisting road and street courses to claim back-to-back victories in the IZOD Indy Car Series. Those credentials allowed Power to claim the first quarter Driver of the Year Award as voted on by a panel of 21 broadcasters and journalists.
“I think my guys feel very confident no matter where we start now that it’s always possible,” Power said after his most recent victory at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. “It is a great honor to be recognized by such an elite panel. This award is a testament to how hard the Verizon Team Penske crew has worked this year and we hope to keep it going for the rest of the season.”
Power, who drives the Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet earned eight first-place ballots and totaled 99 points, according to the Driver of the Year points system. NHRA Funny car driver Robert Hight, who drives the Auto Club Mustang for John Force Racing, also recorded eight first place votes and garnered 98 points.
There has only been one tie in Driver Of The Year history – in 2002 when Cristiano da Matta (then in Champ Car) took the annual title in tie-breaker over NASCAR’s Tony Stewart based on points earned in the quarterly tallies. A total of 16 drivers scored points in the third quarter voting.
“I certainly take pride in winning this award and want to thank everyone on the panel,” Power added.
The next IZOD IndyCar Series race is the Itaipava Sao Paulo Indy 300 presented by Nestle on April 29 on the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil. The race will be televised by NBC Sports Network at 11 a.m. (ET) and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network on SiriusXM (XM 94 and Sirius 212), and affiliates.