Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Tony George responded to questions posed at the recent 2008 Indy 500 Media Tour. Topics included open wheel unification, entries for the 92nd running of the Indianapolis 500, the upcoming Motegi/Long Beach weekend, the state of the IndyCar Series, Paul Tracy, and more.
Click play below to listen to audio from the session (27 minutes).
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The official transcript follows.
2008 INDIANAPOLIS 500 MEDIA TOUR PRESS CONFERENCE
April 8, 2008, Indianapolis Motor Speedway
BOB JENKINS: As Ron indicated, we’re on sort of a tight schedule here this morning, especially with Tony, he has other commitments, so I will not dwell any further in getting things started here. I don’t think I need to formally introduce him. He is, of course, the CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Mr. Tony George. (Applause)
The Indianapolis 500, of course, was, is and always will be the world’s greatest sporting event. But it takes on added importance this year because of the fact that we have one series and all the stars. So I’m going to begin the questioning, and then we’ll open it up to you.
We will have one-on-ones as much as time will permit, but again Tony is on a tight schedule, so we can’t keep him past 9:30. But if there is time for one on one, we will certainly do that.
Tony, it’s been about six weeks now since you made the announcement that there would be a unified series this year. How has it made a difference so far in the IndyCar Series that has run two races at Homestead, Miami and St. Pete.
TONY GEORGE: It’s been six weeks, I would say the first couple of weeks there was a lot of anxious feeling, I think, among the Champ Car teams that were faced with a really big task of preparing for a season that was upon them and having to go a completely new direction with new equipment, new faces, new people, new competitors to learn, their habits of on-track and off-track abilities.
But it’s been interesting. Since then I think after we got through those initial couple of weeks and actually got equipment in the hands of the teams and they were able to work with the teams that they were paired with and with the league to try and help make their transition as smooth as possible, I think things started to settle down. Two weeks into it, I think with, you know, the biggest focus being on that first event down in Miami, a lot of questions as to whether or not a lot of teams who have never had any experience or drivers without any experience on ovals, teams who haven’t been on ovals in a while, how they would deal with that. But by and large, they all dealt with it as you would expect as professionals, very well. It wasn’t, I’m sure, the effort they hoped to turn in by the end of the season, but nonetheless, it was a pretty safe race. We had a really great race last weekend, a great race weekend, big crowds, big energy, a lot of competitive fields, everybody more comfortable on the road course, obviously. But it’s been going very well from the standpoint of interest from a lot of sponsors who may have been sitting on the sidelines waiting for unification. There’s been a lot of interest since then expressed and possibly starting some programs as early as 2008 with an eye toward 2009.
So by and large, all that has come together in the last six weeks, and I think for the most part it’s setting it up, you know, for a very exciting month of May, which is really what this press conference is all about.
I think you’ll see the teams continue to get comfortable with Kansas the week before the month of May opens up and then having hopefully good weather so they can get a lot of track time in during the month of May. I think come race weekend it’s going to be a very exciting race.
JENKINS: Can you put a number on maybe entries that you expect for the ‘500?’
GEORGE: You know, I don’t know. I think it’s, you know, probably mid-30s is what we’ll look for. I guess it could be lower than that; it could be higher than that. But, you know, I don’t think you’ll look at many of the, if any, of the Champ Car teams looking to run additional entries at this point. I think they’ve got their hands full, and there’s, you know, an equipment issue. So I don’t know, they’ll probably have a tally later this week on what the final entry number will look like. But I would think mid-30s is realistic.
JENKINS: OK, questions from you all now? We do ask that you hold on until we can get a mike to you and we will make sure that we can hear your question. Over here we have a question.
Q: Two questions. The first one, maybe you can help me a little bit with the car regulation of the IRL. Is it possible that maybe another engine or chassis manufacturer can enter the IRL or is it necessary to stay with the Dallara and Honda package? And my second question is what’s the current situation with the Long Beach Grand Prix? Can the ex-Champ Car teams still run their Panoz chassis there or saying we get to one with the IRL chassis?
GEORGE: With regard to the current IRL rules, right now we have a single supply engine that’s provided by Honda, and that’s the only choice at the moment. At Indianapolis, in addition to Dallara, the Panoz chasses are approved for competition. Beyond that, the Panoz haven’t been updated to run and aren’t permitted to run, I don’t believe, on any of the other IndyCar Series race weekends. But in the future, you know, I suppose once things are stabilized and as we look to, you know, the future, I would think that we should expect there to be interest in competition and that we would have competition among engine suppliers and chassis suppliers. But for the foreseeable future, I think you’re basically looking at Honda/Dallara packages. And then with regard to Long Beach, I’m not sure I understood the last part of it. The Champ Car race at Long Beach this year, is that what you were referring to? Will be run with the Panoz DP01 Champ Car equipment.
You know, it’s I think 17 or 18 cars that have been entered or intend to run in a couple of weeks. And then that will be the last race that they’ll use those cars, and they’ll revert back to the Dallaras for Kansas the following week.
Q: Tony, have any of the teams indicated they have any interest in running both Motegi as well as Long Beach?
GEORGE: There’s been interest in doing that. It’s not practical and it won’t be permitted, so — (Laughter)
JENKINS: That answers that.
GEORGE: I mean, no drivers are going to do a double-duty that weekend. It’s just not right. I mean, we wouldn’t want any driver having the opportunity to earn double points or any teams having the opportunity to earn double points. They will be competing for points. So, you know, there was some concern about how the field in Long Beach would be comprised regarding drivers, but I think that’s all, you know — we’re all as comfortable as we’re going to get. It’s going to be a great weekend, and we’re going to make the most of ensuring that both events come off in world-class fashion.
Q: Talking about how well the unification process seems to be, is there any sense now that you guys are finally together and things seem to be jelling so well that maybe you’re kind of wondering why you guys didn’t get together earlier, why this couldn’t happen earlier?
GEORGE: Well, no, I don’t really reflect on that or worry about that or wonder about that. You know, I’m just trying to look forward. You know, we didn’t get together for a variety of reasons at various points in time. It doesn’t do much good to dwell on that now.
Q: Tony, now that you’ve gotten this bump in the interest from the unification, what kind of things do you need to do now to kind of, you know, be able to capitalize on that and keep the momentum going?
GEORGE: I think we just keep doing what we’re doing. We’re getting a lot of interest from teams, from drivers, from sponsors, from fans who are excited about it. You know, I think a lot has been made — it would be nice to have transitioned everybody obviously that wanted to be a part of the new, unified series. Unfortunately there have been a few teams, you know, left on the sidelines, a few drivers. But all that’s very fluid, it’s subject to change.
I think as, you know, as things stabilize, there will be opportunities for drivers, teams and sponsors to enter the field of competition and will continue to grow. I think we need to keep doing a good job of marketing. I think we need to, you know, attract a title sponsor. Everybody has got an opinion as to what we should do. I think we need to just, you know, try to do our best to leverage all of our assets that we have and come up with the best schedule possible for the future, you know, keep the diversity that IndyCar has been known for, you know, the last 30 years and try to encourage and welcome teams and drivers into this sport.
I think realistically, you know, the Indianapolis 500 provides some opportunity beyond what the series offers on a season-long basis. So there’s opportunity for, I think, some Indy-only teams to in the future better establish their programs to come early and, you know — in the past, last 10 or 12 years it seems like everything has been last minute. I just think if we, you know, do our jobs and we keep pulling together the way we have, that things will begin to fall in place. I’m confident that we’ve got good leadership and a spirit of cooperation among all the teams coming in to work hard and work together to advance the sport.
Q: Tony, how important, attention-wise nationally, was Graham Rahal’s victory, a handsome young American driver that you’ve been looking for?
GEORGE: Well, it was a great story. We’ve all, you know, followed Graham’s career, so we know he’s very talented and he comes from a father, a family with a lot of history not only here but in motorsports on both sides of the ocean. He’s very young, there’s an even better story given the fact that he wasn’t able to participate in the first race and this was his first race. He’s the youngest driver to win in open-wheel racing at this level. Just all those stories, not to mention the fact that it was a very competitive weekend front to back. You know, I think they were, you know, a second and a half, two seconds separating the front of the field from the back of the field, and all in all a very competitive weekend, challenging, changing conditions during the race. You know, he held his composure and showed why everyone has a lot of high expectation for him and for helping represent the face of the league going forward. You know, you add that to what we already have, and it has the makings of something really big, and we’re very excited about that, I think looking forward to capitalizing on all of that.
Q: The schedule for 2008, in 2009, is there a comfortable number or a comfortable formula of road courses, street courses and ovals? Have you got that figured out yet?
GEORGE: Again, it’s one of those things that everybody’s got an opinion about. I think for the foreseeable future we’re going to try and add or take advantage of the best opportunities. I think the number, total number is somewhere between 18 and 22 we could comfortably do, and the mix could be anywhere from, you know, 70/30 to 50/50, I guess. I’m not hung up on any of that. I’m more interested in finding the best opportunities, the right opportunities for us to grow this business.
Q: Are there any plans for the future to have races like in Europe?
GEORGE: We haven’t really talked about Europe. Again, we expect to have more opportunities to race internationally. I think we have to be careful about how we, you know, develop the schedule from an international standpoint. I think we are, by and large, a domestic, North American series, and we want to have a very strong focus on that. Most of our teams, most of our sponsors, at least as they exist today, want us to do that. There may be some opportunities to race in Europe or other parts of the world; we’ll just have to evaluate those opportunities as they present themselves. I just think we’ll have to wait and see if Europe is a part of the mix or not.
Q: Tony, how much of your dream of the IRL originally has been fulfilled today? Not necessarily considering unification, but where the series is at today.
GEORGE: Well, it’s really kind of where we — you probably weren’t around, Rich, when we had the press conference in ‘94? Were you? You were probably still in college, weren’t you?
Q: I wish.
JENKINS: Or diapers. (Laughter)
GEORGE: You may recall our plans at that time when formulating to add to, not to necessarily replace CART at the time, but to add to open-wheel racing at the highest level by, you know, encouraging investment in permanent oval facilities. We wanted to maintain a focus on that but not to the exclusion of road and/or street racing. We had hoped to have road and street racing a part of our schedule initially, and we, you know, if you were around then, you know we modestly announced a five-race schedule the first year and really, eight races in the calendar the next year, I think. And we just didn’t really get the right opportunities to go road racing. Again, that’s all ancient history it seems, you know.
So relative to where we’re at today, we have the diverse schedule, we are one series now going forward as opposed to two trying to either add to American open-wheel racing by adding additional opportunities for drivers, teams and sponsors. We got through all the consternation of the last 10 or 12 years, and now we’re focused on kind of, you know, working together, building it. So I don’t know if that was a dream, a nightmare or what — (Laughter) - but this is our reality today, and we’re trying to live in the moment and live in the present and planning for the future.
Q: Can I follow up on that real quick?
GEORGE: Please. (Laughter)
Q: What about in terms of, a lot of things that were talked about way back then were cost and opportunities for drivers. Do you feel like you’ve met some of those goals?
GEORGE: I think it costs probably the same today to compete, if not less than it did back then. I absolutely think there’s been more opportunity along the way. I think there’s more opportunity today than there was back then. So that’s about as simply as I can put it. I mean, you look at Tony Stewart getting a shot, you look at Ed Carpenter getting a shot, you look at, you know, some of the international drivers that have either come over with their teams from CART or come into the series through another form of motorsports, but there’s been a lot of opportunity.
In the end, I think, I don’t know if we can ever see, you know, 35, 40-car fields. I don’t know that we want that. Most of the venues we run at, we’re somewhat limited to how large the fields can be by the number of pit stalls in the pit road.
You know, if the series becomes successful enough, I guess we’ll figure out a way to support more, but we’re a long way from seeing 35-, 40-car fields. But, again, I think that will all sort of be shaped in the years to come. And I think this series will continue to provide the kind of opportunity that we had hoped for, you know, back in 1994.
Q: Tony, Paul Tracy has been the most successful and the most recognizable driver in recent years in the Champ Car series. How important is it to get him involved in the IndyCar Series, and could that opportunity come with your Vision Racing team?
GEORGE: Was it Paul Tracy, is that what you said? (Laughter)
You know, I don’t know. I intend to call; I got a message yesterday from his business manager. I didn’t have a chance to call him back. The message was is that he’s free to talk about a ride beginning as early as Motegi. He said he would not be running Long Beach, much to my surprise.
You know, all of that’s kind of unfortunate in all of this. I’m not sure what his prospects are, and I’m not sure what teams, you know, have available seats that would meet his expectations. We’re currently planning to be a two-car team. On the outside chance we would need to add a third or on the outside chance the right business opportunity comes along for us to run a third, we would consider that. But, you know, at this point I’m not inclined to go spend a lot more money to do that. I don’t think we’ll need to. On the other hand, I’d like to see Paul in, and if it could be with Vision, that would be great. If it could be with another team, that would be great. I just want him to have the chance to come over now and, you know, I don’t know how long he wants to do it, probably a year or two, couple of years and transition into the next phase of his professional career. But it is kind of unfortunate, some would say a travesty, that he’s been sort of left on the sidelines here.
I’ll have plenty of time to call back and find out what’s going on today.
JENKINS: One last question, if there is one.
Q: Tony, do you see the unification as keeping some of your drivers in open-wheel, staying with the open-wheel series instead of moving to stock cars and maybe those guys who went to stock cars coming back to open-wheel?
GEORGE: You know, I don’t know. We’ll see. All I can say is we’ll see. I have no idea how to respond to that. It would be my hope that people would want to view this series as a destination for those who want to run in this series based on what it is, diverse, challenging, you know, high profile, top-shelf form of racing, I would hope that that is enough to attract, retain and maybe even draw back some people who had been part of it in the past.
JENKINS: All right, Tony. Thank you very much for joining us this morning. Again, he needs to get out of here very quickly. So one-on-ones are probably kind of limited.
In just a few minutes, Terry (Angstadt) and Brian (Barnhart) will be up here as we continue our media tour. (Applause)
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