Team Rahal will be running a G Force/Honda/Firestone package in 2004 in the IRL.

Last week the team announced an expanded partnership with Argent Mortgage. The company was involved with the team last year, but has now expanded its partnership as a co-primary sponsor with Pioneer Electronics.

In an IRL teleconference, general manager Scott Roembke, co-owner Bobby Rahal and new driver Buddy Rice answered questions on what 2004 holds for the team...

Q:
Bobby, being careful how to phrase this, with the situation with CART and the open-wheel series, do you foresee the IRL going to road course events this year or next?

Bobby Rahal:
Well, I only know what I read or hear like you do. You probably know a lot more than I do. I certainly think that there are great road racing events that would be nothing but a credit to IndyCar Series racing. Long Beach, Toronto, Elkhart Lake, these are great; great circuits and have big crowds. That's just a plus.

I think it's really up to Tony [George] and Brian [Barnhart] and all the people that founded the IRL. Certainly it was always based on the fact that it was going to be oval racing. But, as I say, it's pretty hard to ignore a Long Beach Grand Prix. And I think you hear all kinds of rumours about the potential of going road racing. You know, I think that would be of great value. I think that's what made open-wheel racing so successful in the 1980s, for example, and early 1990s, was, you know, when you had sort of a combination of both. You know, personally, yeah, I'm hopeful that road racing is a component of the IRL. But that's really not up to me.

Q:
Bobby, this question comes from where you just were.

Open-wheel racing has gone through enormous changes, from being one of the premiere events in American sports to something less than that now. Is that a frustration for you to have come up through the ranks, from Toyota Atlantic to the highest levels of the sport to where now it's a struggle to see what direction it's going to go?

Bobby Rahal:
Well, certainly it hasn't been. You know, the last ten years in particular haven't been a lot of fun to be honest with you for me personally.

When you look at the struggle, you look at where open-wheel racing was, the Indy 500 and everything else, you know, over the last 10 years has been this upheaval. But having said that, I think it's got the opportunity to regain a lot of that, a lot of what it had. NASCAR is a lot bigger now than it was ten years ago or 15 years ago when open-wheel racing was clearly, if it wasn't #1, it was co #1 status with NASCAR in the spectators' minds, what have you. But I think we've just got to get this focus, just got to get back to it and do the right things.

You know, last year Indy, I certainly felt compared to the year before there was a lot more buzz. I wouldn't say there was as much as there used to be. I think it's certainly increasing, and I think that's a good sign. I think there are some good people that have been added to the staff of the Indy Racing League. You know, there are growing pains. There's always going to be growing pains. But having one clear leader in the sport certainly to me is of great value.

If I look back on CART, clearly that's what it didn't have. That probably pre-empted or probably produced much of the unfortunate things we've seen over the last ten years. We're all in this together. And I think if we want open-wheel racing to be what it once was or at least get on the path to what it once was, then we've got to all work together.

Q:
Bobby Rahal and Team Rahal were put in sports car racing, maybe investigating that as a potential growth for your business. Is that still on the table or are you putting more of your interest into this expansion of open-wheel?

Bobby Rahal:
Well, I think certainly the American LeMans series in particular is of great interest to me personally because that's really where I cut my teeth years and years ago. And, yes, Formula Atlantic was there obviously. But sports car racing was always a big interest of mine. I won Sebring. I won Daytona. It was a very big component during the early part of my racing career. I've seen a lot of exciting things happening there.

Aston Martin announced they're going to have a factory team. Ferrari has factory cars now. I think particularly in the GTS category there's a lot of excitement. You know, we have a racing company, so if the opportunities avail themselves, we'd be foolish not to look at it closely. I can't tell you precisely when we're going to find out if that's a go or no go for 2005, but certainly we're looking at it.

Q:
When you sit down and talk to sponsors, do they have any favourite, whether they'd like to be in sports cars or in open-wheel?

Bobby Rahal:
Well, of course, a lot of it's based on television, a lot of it's based on where it is. You know, without question, the Indy 500, irrespective of how little you might know about racing, that's known by everybody. And that's a powerful tool for us to use in selling our IndyCar program.

Having said that, I think it's a very different audience. I think there are companies that are probably inclined more towards sports car racing because of the demographics than they might be towards open-wheel racing. It's just a matter of, really for us, determining whether there's interest in companies like that to go forward.

But when you're associated with names like Ferrari or Aston Martin, even the new Corvette or what have you; those are pretty powerful symbols and icons. Some companies want to be associated with those kinds of icons.

Q:
Bobby, you've had opinions about where open-wheel racing has been going the past few years. Did the things that happened with CART have to happen for the open-wheel business model, so to speak, for it to get back to where it was before when it was thriving, and the Indy 500 still had its lustre?

Bobby Rahal:
Well, I don't think anybody would have wished what's happened over the last several years. You know, certainly Honda and Toyota leaving CART and going to the Indy Racing League was a big blow to CART because that took a lot of teams and cars with it.

I don't think anybody would wish that on anybody. But I think clearly there was a large dissatisfaction with the way CART was governed for many years by key players. (Roger) Penske, people like that. That probably, you know, as I said earlier in the teleconference, with Tony and Brian, you know where the buck stops. They're going to do what's right for their series as they see it.

I think if there's a plan, then most of the entities out there, Honda, Toyota, anybody, Chevrolet for that matter, are comfortable with the changes as they come down. I don't think there's any doubt that the fractious nature of the governance of CART, not in the last year certainly, but the last ten years, did much to undermine its future.

Q:
Do you see any particular irony in how CART, which evolved from the old USAC days and everything, how that evolved from that, then how IRL evolved from that because of dissatisfaction, now it seems to be coming back to where it was before?

Bobby Rahal:
I think certainly there were a lot of people that felt wronged by CART, and perhaps saw an opportunity to create something new in the beginning with the Indy Racing League. But I certainly don't see much evidence of that anymore. I think certainly, you know, all credit goes to Tony. He's stood up under a lot of pressure, criticism. I went to a number of the races last year, you look they crowds. I don't care if it's part of a ticket buyer or not, people still have to come out and watch it. Pretty impressive crowds at a lot of these circuits. You can't deny the racing how exciting it is. But I do think that all the USAC, CART, this, that, the sooner that's all put away the better for everybody, and the better for open-wheel racing.

Q:
Buddy, are you looking at this as sort of a new lease on life, the way your 2003 ended and stuff, just sort of how are you approaching this opportunity?

Buddy Rice:
It's an excellent opportunity. But it's just like what I said before. I'm in substituting for Kenny Brack. I got to make sure that I take care of the car and make sure that we get the Team Rahal car up front and take care of keeping the sponsors happy and everything the way it's supposed to be. The main objective right here is just to go out and do the best job I can and make sure I keep the car up front and win races. What happens after that will happen. That's where we're at with the whole situation.

Q:
Bobby, your so-called CART team is in limbo right now. How long can it stay in limbo with all the stuff you're reading, you're hearing today where the IRL might be bidding on some of the CART assets, some of its races? How in limbo is that side of things right now?

Bobby Rahal:
It's very much uncertain, without any doubt, particularly when you look at here it is mid-January. Obviously, everybody has their cars and everything. The biggest problem is here you have a lot of people on a payroll. What do you do if it doesn't work out? In the meantime, you've been supporting the team on the presumption that it was.

I think there's no question that the unknown is not good for CART. Thankfully, we have our strong programs in IndyCar and of course the Atlantic program is much stronger this year. So there's a lot going on with us. Without doubt, the sooner there's some clarity to what's going on, the better for all parties.

Q:
If, in fact, the IRL was to purchase some of the assets, including maybe the rights to a few of these races in CART, I don't know if they would go ahead and run this year or not, but would you have any intention at all of running Michel Jourdain in the IRL series?

Bobby Rahal:
Let me make clear, the reason Michel Jourdain is in CART is because of Gigante. The races in Mexico are very important to Gigante. As I said, maybe even a year or two ago when we went into the IRL there was some criticism. I can't be presumptuous enough to tell our sponsors where I think they should be. They're going to go where they feel their customers are. That's why we're in CART with Michel Jourdain.

If that didn't pan out, if CART didn't have a series, whatever they want to call it, open-wheel racing didn't have a series, we would do everything we could to convince Gigante to make the switch. But, right now, they're happy to be in CART. As I say, until there's more clarity to what's going on, that's where I believe we'll be. But certainly Michel has proven his mettle on high-speed ovals. He almost won Michigan, what, a year or two ago. And with us last year in Fontana, I think he was in even a stronger position than Jimmy, two years ago. Unfortunately, the engine broke. But Michel has proven his worth I think on ovals.

Q:
As a driver and as what I call an owner/driver because of the way you relate with your drivers, how difficult has it been to see Kenny rehabbing and sitting on the sidelines after that accident?

Bobby Rahal:
Well, I still say when you look at the severity of that accident; it's only I think by the grace of God that Kenny is still with us. You know, I've always had nothing but the highest regard for Kenny. I was very upset when he got hurt, but his recovery, even with all the glitches, has been I think extraordinary.

You know, he's still got that drive. I mean, one of the things I always respected, maybe the biggest thing I respected about Kenny was the way he approached his racing or his work. You talk work ethic, what have you, I don't know if I've ever seen anybody with it for the same degree. So naturally for us, we don't necessarily like the situation we're in with Kenny being hurt. But at least he's recovering.

We presume that he'll be back with us driving sometime during this year. But I've been in racing long enough to know that incidents do happen. I just think we're fortunate to have Buddy join us. I believed enough in him several years ago to have him under contract as an alternate in case one of our guys was sick or what have you. I'm just glad we're able to finally get it done. I think he's got a lot to prove, and that's good. Young guys should have a lot to prove. They should want to go out and show the world how good they are. We have to adapt. We have to prepare. We have sponsors that we're obligated to give them our best effort. I think, yes, it's a shame that Kenny got hurt. But thankfully he's recovering. And at least we have to guy of Buddy's calibre to step into the breach.

Q:
Best possible business scenario. What is best for open-wheel racing:

The two separate series or this merger of the IRL and what is left of CART?

Bobby Rahal:
I think it's pretty obvious two separate series don't make it. There's X amount of dollars. If there's one series, there's probably minimally eight more cars, ten more cars immediately in the Indy Racing League. Also, you have 20-car fields, 30-car fields. That's precisely what it needs. Conversely, if CART was stronger, the idea of 18-car fields, I think you can try to explain or spin that away as much as you want, but the reality is the more cars the better. So I definitely think there needs to be one series with all marketing efforts, all organizational effort dedicated to that one program.

I mean, I think it's a shame that the situation exists as it does with CART. I know there's been a lot of genuine effort to try to take it to the next level. But at some point I really wonder if it's just time for everybody, if it's opportunistic for everybody to finally get behind one deal and make it the best possible series in the United States.

 

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