Dan Wheldon, Panther Racing - Q&A
10 April 2009
Former Indianapolis 500 winner and IndyCar Series champion Dan Wheldon has returned to Panther Racing for 2009, driving the #4 National Guard Dallara for the team that gave him his break in the series in 2002.
With the first race of the season under his belt, the Briton looks back on St Petersburg, ahead to Long Beach and beyond - and the reasons for returning to John Barnes' underdog operation.
Let's take a quick look back at the race in St Petersburg for a couple minutes. You started eleventh, moved up to seventh right away with the action in the first corner and then were up to second not long after that. Seems like you must have had a pretty strong car.
Yeah, it was certainly an area that we've worked on over the winter. I've always, being a European, thought very highly of the road courses. but had some difficulty. So between the engineering department at the new team and everybody there, we've already made a big effort to step up my performance and step up the team's performance, and that certainly showed over the weekend.
We've still got a little bit of work to do, making sure that we're consistent over a race weekend and making sure that we just had the ability to fine tune the race car rather than make big changes. But I think what you saw is a combination of a lot of hard work from the race team and a lot of hard work from myself.
To be quite frank, I thought it was probably the most confidence I've had in a road course car for a long time, probably ever. So it was a very promising race for us. It was a little unfortunate. I tended to struggle a little bit on restarts. My car, with the pick-up that we seemed to get from the racetrack, it was pretty difficult. It was difficult for everybody, but certainly over the long run my car seemed to get better and better.
Unfortunately on one restart I went from third and dropped back to sixth, and then on the following restart I was able to get a good one, and I tried to out-brake Tony [Kanaan] and just braked a touch too late and wasn't actually able to keep the car on the line I wanted to and therefore ran a little wide and he bumped me back. But unfortunately that bunched everybody up. I actually thought it was Graham Rahal, but it was Robert Doornbos that tried to get down the inside of me, and I tried to give him as much room as I could, knowing that he was pretty committed. But he just ran over my outside front wheel.
So that was a disappointing way to finish what was a very, very good race but, by the same token, I was very happy that we had great pace. I think for a lot of people, including myself, at Panther Racing, we were very excited, and now we're very hungry to get to Long Beach.
You mentioned there kind of the way the tires picked up. A lot of people really said that it was pretty slick at St Pete. Is that something that's pretty common on street courses, or do you anticipate that same type of situation at Long Beach, or was that kind of just unique to this past weekend?
Well, Long Beach is going to be a new track for me in IndyCars, but it's certainly something that seems to be the case at St Petersburg. I know Firestone will certainly work on that over the next few months. Any time that that is an issue, they really do work hard.
Actually it's something even I discussed with Firestone at the weekend; with the way that the tyre testing works, it seems to be allocated pretty much to the top few teams, and so we've asked if we can participate a little bit more, which will certainly make... the way the testing gets kind of implemented, if other teams can do more, I think it will just be structured better and it will be more fair. But that's something that they're going to address.
I think pretty much that that was more of a St Petersburg thing. I could be wrong. I haven't done Long Beach in IndyCars but, with the competition so tight, yeah, if you got off line and picked up the marbles, it was incredibly difficult not to lose many spots because it was just so close all weekend.
But I think what you saw there is just a great, very intense, competitive first IndyCar race, and I thought everybody... it was aggressive. There was probably a few too many accidents that didn't need to happen, but it was a great show.
In answer to your question, I think that's typically a St Petersburg thing, but it's certainly something that I think Firestone will address and try and help. But that's the nature of the beast when you're racing on street tracks.
Talking about tyres, this weekend was the first that we used the alternate tyres. How did you guys manage the use of those tyres throughout the weekend, and what did you learn about those tyres over the weekend?
Well, it was obviously the same for everybody, and I think that's something.... it certainly added another element to the competition and to the racing that you saw at the weekend. It was new for everybody, and different people played different strategies with the different tyres.
I liked the way that we at Panther Racing played it, although certainly, with the experience we've got now, we'll probably try and adjust that a little bit at Long Beach. The IndyCar Series is so strong right now and so competitive, and it's definitely great to watch and great to be part of, but I think it spiced up the storyline a little. And when you have a partner like Firestone that are committed to doing that, it definitely makes it entertaining, and obviously from a spectator's standpoint, it also adds another element of interest.
I thought the red tyres definitely give you more, I think, longitudinal grip, so you have better traction and, with the experience that we've gained, we will be able to affect the car's handling characteristics around that red tyre perhaps a little better than what we did at St Petersburg. But nonetheless, I thought it was a very good contribution to the competition and the spectacle.
Now let's look at Long Beach a little bit. As you mentioned, you haven't raced there in the IndyCars before, but I'm assuming that you've made probably at least a couple starts in Atlantics and Indy Lights. What do you remember about racing there in the past?
Well, it's a great track to go to. St Petersburg was a very good event - it wasn't just a great race, it was a very good event. Long Beach certainly has some history with IndyCars, and it's always great to go to places that have that because I think it makes the event even more exciting for not just the drivers but for the fans, too. So it's a great place to go back to.
I think, as far as street tracks go, it's very good. You can overtake, you've got the long straightaway. If you have a good run at that final hairpin you can draft and, hopefully, out-brake somebody into turn one. But I'm excited to be back. I was always very good there in Atlantics and Indy Lights, and as the competition is so close, it's really fun to be part of the series right now. You've got to be on your game. The team has got to be on your game. You've got to have great pit-stops. So I think it's going to be just as exciting as St Petersburg.
And then after Long Beach we get onto the mile-and-a-half ovals for the first time when we go to Kansas in a few weeks from now. You've won the last two races there and, before that, you were second twice in a row. What is it about Kansas that suits you so well?
I really don't know, but yeah, I'm hoping I can make it three in a row. I know, if you look at the team's results on the one-and-a-half-mile ovals, they're very, very strong. Certainly, we're going to try to continue to make the team stronger.
I think Kansas is going to be particularly important this year because it leads into Indianapolis. Normally, we're able to have Homestead and Kansas but, with the changing schedule and making Homestead the last race of the season, Kansas is our first oval race before leading into the month of May. So it's going to be incredibly important for us, so I think certainly with the development that we have in mind and even the experience that we have at Kansas and the experience we'll take out of Kansas, I think we'll certainly have one eye on Indianapolis.
But I would expect the same thing there. It's going to be a very intense race. Each year, the track tends to lose a little bit of grip, so you're going to have to work hard on having a good handling race car across the seams that the racetrack has and being fast. But I really wish I knew what made me good around there and Homestead, but it seems to certainly suit my style, and with the fact that I've now moved to the National Guard Panther Racing team, I would expect us to be very, very strong, and I'm excited to go back there.
A couple years ago, you had won three straight at Homestead, in '05, '06, '07, and tried for that fourth in a row in '08. Not many drivers get the chance to win three or four straight on a track. Is it something that you put any type of special emphasis on, trying to get that third win in a row at a place, or is it just the mentality to take one race at a time and try to win every race that you go out and start?
It doesn't matter what track that you go to, you just have to be committed to winning every weekend. If you go with the approach of just scoring a top five finish, typically you're going to do that or worse. You've got to set your goals very high.
With all these racetracks, it doesn't matter where you go, you have to have that focus and that determination to win. It's so competitive. I keep talking about it, but if you look at the race from St Petersburg, you'll certainly see that. You can't afford to miss anything. I personally love to be on top of that podium, and certainly I know Panther do, so that's what we try to do each individual race.
And one more thing about Kansas - it will be your 100th career start in the IndyCar Series. What does that milestone mean to you?
Well, I didn't know that to tell you the truth. I mean, that's certainly something, to have been around a long time. You're making me feel old, but I've had some great opportunities in IndyCar. I've been with some great teams, and I'm with a great team now. I'm working very hard towards adding to my win tally and, more importantly, adding another Indianapolis 500 to my résumé.
But I've very much enjoyed the IndyCar Series. I think it's certainly evolved since I first raced in 2002. The competition level now is very, very intense. I think even with the tough economic times that we have ahead of us, the series continues to thrive, and with partners like National Guard being involved with Panther Racing, with Honda and Firestone and Dallara, I expect it to just get stronger and stronger.
I'm proud to be part of it. I really, really do enjoy all the different types of disciplines that we go to. You go to a three-quarter mile track at Richmond and then we go to a real big oval like Indianapolis or on the streets of Long Beach. We go to Watkins Glen, we've got the one-mile up in Milwaukee. It's incredibly challenging, and I enjoy that aspect of it.
I definitely like the way Brian Barnhart runs the series. I think the element of competition and safety he continues to evolve as best he can and to put on a great spectacle for the fans. I hope I can do many more races, but I think the one thing that I've learned in those 100 races is how good that milk tastes [at the Indianapolis 500], and I'd definitely like to taste it again.
A couple questions about your return to Panther. Being with Panther, when you've also had the opportunity to race for Andretti Green and Target Chip Ganassi - two very good teams in the IndyCar Series - what do you notice between those three teams? How are they different from each other in terms of philosophy, in terms of how they approach things, not necessarily one way is better than the other, but obviously everybody does things a little bit differently. What are some of the differences that you notice between the three teams and how they go about things?
Well, that's a hard thing to say. They're all very, very different, obviously. I would say that Panther is obviously a smaller operation being a one-car team, and some people say it's more of like a family-type atmosphere. But, to some degree, I think that it doesn't... when you say that about Panther Racing, what people miss with that, although it does have that element, it's incredibly driven. Everybody in the shop is very, very hungry, and I must say that about Andretti Green and Target Chip Ganassi Racing. That's the common goal that they all share.
Now, they're run in different ways. I think obviously Target Chip Ganassi Racing is more of a corporate-type team; Andretti Green is obviously a very big operation running four cars. But if I was to tell you all the differences, we'd probably be on this teleconference for a long time. They're all very, very different but, by the same token, they all have that same goal and passion to win. The personnel that the teams have are very, very talented, and that's what you need to be able to win in the IndyCar Series.
I've been part of these teams for a long time - obviously Andretti Green for three years, a little bit more than that actually, and the same with Target Chip Ganassi Racing and now being part of Panther, they're all great experiences. They are different, but they are all great in their own ways.
As a driver, what you have to do is maximise the positives from the team. There's always going to be stuff in teams that perhaps one does better than the other, but you've really got to make sure that you get the best out of the team that you're part of and use the experience that you've had in different teams to make the team that you're with currently be better.
I really am enjoying my time at Panther Racing. Being a one-car team, there's a lot of responsibility on me, and I like that aspect. I'm looking forward to really growing and being a big part of the team. Like I say, they're all very good in their own ways, and I've really enjoyed being part of all of them, I really have, both from a business standpoint and a personal standpoint.
You just touched on how much you enjoy the responsibility of being a one-car team. I don't know if that's your answer to this next question, but what have you liked the most about the move to Panther Racing?
The motivation behind all the guys on the team, and even the ladies on the team that work in the office. Everybody in that shop wants to get back into victory lane. In 2001-2002 they were used to winning championships. They were very strong in 2005. It's a team that hasn't had the strongest run the last couple of years, but everybody is ready to get back into victory lane.
Seeing that hunger, seeing that motivation is great to be part of, and I thrive off that, I really do. I would say that's the thing that I've really most enjoyed and has been the thing that I've noticed the most about the team. Obviously John Barnes is very, very intense. He'll give you everything that he possibly can give you to make sure that you win, and that's also something that I've enjoyed a lot, too.
How much do you owe your overall driving success to the teaching and skills that you received from Terry Fullerton in your early karting days?
That takes me back.... He was obviously somebody that was very instrumental in my karting career early on. Both Terry Fullerton and Mark Rose were people that ran me in 1995. But I would have to say that most of my success has come through mostly my family and my father's dedication to me from the age of four. He's been with me through thick and thin, and even when Terry Fullerton and Mark Rose were running me in karts, my dad was still a big part of that.
I would have to say I would put most of it down to my father and my family but, by the same token, Terry Fullerton and Mark Rose taught me a great deal. I mean, any time that you can win European championship races and the World Cup that I won in Suzuka in 1995, all these big races, it takes a team, and that's what's different about motor racing. It looks very individualistic with just the driver and the race car, but it really does take everybody. They were part of my wins, and so they'll always have a very special place in my heart.
Aside from Indy, which tracks are you most looking forward to, and which one track do you wish was on the schedule for this year but isn't?
I love Road America. I think it's a great racetrack. If I had to choose a racetrack that we could realistically go to, I think that would be a great one. But I'd also love the series to go to Europe. Formula One is not going to Silverstone anymore, and I think that would be a great event. The IndyCar Series has not only grown in America, it seems to have grown a lot in Europe now with the help of Sky Sports and just with the fact that the series is becoming more and more popular. I think my dream race would be to be at Silverstone but, realistically, I think Road America.
The first part of your question, I love the Japanese race. That's very special to me because obviously that was the scene of my first win. I've been with Honda now for I think it's about seven or eight years, and so it's a special track for them, too, and I just love the layout of the racetrack. It's very, very challenging, and if you get a good race car there, it gives you great satisfaction to drive. I've always been successful there, so that helps.
But I like Homestead a lot, I like Kansas, I love Sonoma, I love Watkins Glen. I have to say I'm not a very good person to ask when I have to answer this question because I like a lot of the tracks on the schedule. I love Richmond. They're all good for different reasons.
The ones that I haven't won, there's some of them on the schedule that you just want to win. I enjoy Richmond. I've won there, and that's a great place to win. I love Milwaukee - I haven't won at Milwaukee, and I think anybody that wins around there has really shown that they can drive a short oval. But I'd have to say Iowa, too, because they have great trophies. So there's a lot of different ones. I can't give you a good answer on that question because I really like a lot of them.
What's your favourite moment from racing at Sonoma?
My favourite moment from racing at Sonoma? Probably the race last year. I didn't qualify particularly well, and it was one of those things in a lot of these road course races it's very difficult to pass, and it's incredibly difficult at Sonoma to overtake. So what you would normally do is you'd go into what we call a fuel-saving mode and you try and save as much fuel as you possibly can to open up your window. I didn't have to do that this year. We literally just ran the whole race flat-out, and the people at Target Chip Ganassi Racing, on the #10 side, called a great race.
But having the ability to just run a race flat out the whole time is very rewarding, and I enjoy that side of it. Saving fuel is something that you have to do and you have to be very good at, but where I could just go flat-out the whole race was enjoyable and satisfying, and we ended up with a top-five finish there, so that was good.
Five Quick Questions:
Now that you're a new dad, two questions – who designed the nursery, and are you getting up in the middle of the night to help with the baby?
I would have to put a lot of that down to my wife, but she did get mad at me at one point. It was her project and the wall is two colours – it sounds terrible, but it actually looks good. It's brown and yellow. And then we have a border. Susie had them paint that yellow, and I disagreed with that, so I had them switch it to white. You learn in marriage that there are some things that you can push for and some things you can't, and that was one thing I knew I could sneak in. We've now changed that to white, but the majority of the nursery was chosen by my wife.
I do sometimes get up in the middle of the night. Susie's really good actually when there's a race close or a test close. Leading into that, I won't get up. She'll let me sleep through. But, when there's the chance that I can get up and help I like to. Obviously I like interacting with my son as much as possible. With the schedule the way it is, you have to make the most of your days when you're at home. Certainly with Panther Racing and National Guard I've been travelling more than I ever have. I definitely utilize my time at home. It's brutal sometimes. I like to sleep. It's difficult, but I'm getting used to it.
American football or soccer?
I've got to say American football. I'm a big fan. I really am. I guess people would say I've become an American. I love soccer too, don't get me wrong. Often when I'm back in England I'll watch it a lot on TV, but for the most part I'm an American football fan.
Best memory from racing?
Winning the Indianapolis 500. I've had a lot of great memories, but certainly winning the Indianapolis 500 is my most treasured, and having done it once I'm very hungry to do it again. The feeling that winning that race gives you is unbelievable, so my goal is to win that race again.
Worst memory from racing?
Indianapolis 500 in 2006. I dominated the race and picked up a flat tyre right at the end, so that's 100 per cent my worst memory.
Probably the Lance Armstrong book It's Not About the Bike - I'm a big fan of it.