©2003 SpeedCenter Publishing
and Alex Zanardi
Eric Mauk: Good afternoon, appreciate you joining us for this special Champ Car media teleconference where we are quite pleased to be joined by a trio of drivers who have had not only great success in their racing careers but especially at Portland International Raceway where we'll be heading for the G.I. Joe's 200 in just a couple of weeks. We're joined today by Mario Andretti who obviously needs no introduction and doesn't need me to run down a litany of his successes. He's one of the most successful drivers ever to sit behind a wheel. He also won twice at Portland.
We are also joined by Mark Blundell. Mark won what is probably the epitome of a close racing duel at Portland. He took the closest victory ever in the history of Champ Car Racing back in 1997. Mark has also done a myriad of things and had a myriad of successes in his Champ Car career and is getting set to undergo another one as he is getting prepared to drive one of those beautiful Bentleys in the 24 Hours of Le Mans next week. Thank you.
First we start with Mario in 1985 Portland winner, you started fourth in '85 and led 29 laps including the last 19 completing a stretch where you won three of the year's first four races of '85. Then in '86 of course, you won on the last lap of that event, you won by 7/100 of a second, and you passed your son Michael on the last lap. You also won the pole there in '84. And obviously a strong mastery of that track, eight top-10 finishes in your Champ Car career there. What was it about Portland that suited your driving style?
Mario Andretti: It is always difficult to say that, I mean, to be able to analyze that. It's just that we come out of the box well, you know, the first race there, as you could see, I was on the pole and I didn't finish, but the following two years, you know, we won. So coming out of the gate in a new venue, you know, having had those results obviously will always put you in the position where you look forward to the event. As it turned out, for several reasons Portland was really a great venue for us from the standpoint of having one of our sponsors based there, Hanna, at the time, which was very prominent on the car.
And then we just found a great venue as far as the fans. The fans in the northwest, just very knowledgeable, the type of fans that make you feel so welcomed. The event has always been well attended and just another one of those venues where Portland, as a city, has been a great host of the event over the years. Great places to go. We all love the opportunity to be able to go to the great restaurants in the evening and enjoy that side of it. Here again, it's one of those venues that's very appealing all the way around.
Eric Mauk: Mark, you took your first ever CART win in Portland, you passed Gil de Ferran about 100 yards from the stripe, again, in the closest finishing series history, a margin victory of 0.027 of a second. You had been close to victory two races before that in Detroit where unfortunately you ran out of fuel pretty much within site of the checkered flag. But then after the Portland win you went on two weeks later and won in Toronto. Was that Portland win a sign to your PacWest Team at the time that you guys could actually put wins together in this series?
Mark Blundell: Yeah, I think so. I think actually Detroit was a signal to us that previous race that you mentioned that we were getting together with a package. To be perfectly honest with you, the biggest issue with me at the time was trying to get me and my race engineer in tune because I had unfortunately had a couple of different race engineers and we got settled down with a guy called Allen McDonald. Once we had an understanding between us, that was it. You could see that there was a transition in the performance of the team and definitely a transition on my side of the fence in terms of the results that we pulled off. Portland was a great race. As Mario was touching on, I think there are some very knowledgeable fans out there and some very educated people about racing. The track also is a pleasure to drive.
Eric Mauk: Tell us about the end of that race. I was talking to John Anderson today who was on the radio with you at the end of that race, and he relates a story that about three or four laps to go he let you know that you were about six seconds behind the leader but didn't bother to tell you who the leader was in that race; and that you really didn't know the pass on de Ferran was for the lead and that you didn't even know that you had won 'til probably halfway through the victory lap.
Mark Blundell: That's exactly correct. I knew that the leader was some several seconds in front of me, about four laps, and John had relayed that across the radio. He didn't tell me who the leader was but it was one of those scenarios where whoever was in front of me I was just going by, it was kind of that deal. Whoever was sort of lined up in front of me I just wanted to get by them. Come the last corner of the last lap when I outdragged Gil to that checkered flag, I had no idea whatsoever that we had just won the race. It wasn't actually 'til we got a couple of corners through and I looked up at the big signal board there with the numbers on and the positions, and I went back on the radio and asked for a confirmation and I guess at that point everybody was congratulating themselves, there was no confirmation back on the radio. So it wasn't until even a couple of more corners from that that I eventually found out that we had won. What really threw me as well was the fact that Gil would put his arm up, so at that point I thought I must be sort of in the mix because Gil is putting his arm up like he's won this thing. Then later I find out that we won and we won by such a small margin was a tremendous thing.
Eric Mauk: Mario, looking at the Portland track, obviously, as we said before, a couple of wins, 8 Top-10s, there. What is the key to being fast at Portland; any one place that you can make or break a race there?
Mario Andretti: Well, it's really a tough place to, for some reason, to be able to sustain the rhythm. When you enter the section after the Festival Curves, there are several corners there that - I tell you what - you really, really pulled the G's through there. You have to hustle the car. It's one of those tracks where the track pays you back when you are very aggressive, when you really attack it. Again, it's just one of those things that seemed like the majority of the field can negotiate the corners and to be able to gain just a little bit of an advantage it's really, really difficult. But it's very satisfying, again, you know, the premium there is to have the car really balanced. Obviously that works anywhere, but here, especially, because you are going left to right and it's usually, especially when it's hot, it gets very slippery, so you have to have a car to have really good traction coming off several key corners, and including onto the straightaway, even though that corner just has a radius that pretty much widens at the exit, still, as aggressive as you have to be, you have to have really good rear traction.
I always enjoyed testing there because seemed like we could always find something crucial to be able to benefit us in the race itself. But here again, you look at it statistically when you look at the rundown and the times for a road course, you know, just about two miles, you definitely see that the times are really -- they are as close as they are usually on an oval.
Eric Mauk: Judging from the result look likes you definitely found something pretty much every time you went there. Guys, we will go ahead and open it up for questions from the media.
Question: I'd like to talk to Mark because we're approaching the 20th anniversary; there's been an awful lot of people talking about the good old races. I wanted to ask Mark, are first wins kind of like first loves where you go and you do other things, but they are always special and you always kind of remember them with a particular fondness?
Mark Blundell: I don't remember my first girlfriend, so.... (Laughs). No, they are. They are. Obviously it wasn't the first win for me because I had won in many other Formulas but my first win in Champ Car Racing and to win there at Portland and the circumstances and in the conditions because that was also something that was very rewarding to me the fact that we had very variable conditions; a lot of guys went off the road trying to do that extra little with it and we put it altogether to come very strong at the end. But it is the fact that once you get that first win in there, it always stays in the back of your mind. What stays in the back of my mind is the amount of effort it took to get there and then the actual feeling of what it was like come the end of it when, after I had known that I had won the race, it was a very, very special moment. Maybe a little bit more extra special in the fact that my team owner at that point was based, not from the area, and it was kind of winning in his backyard. Everything came together on the day.
Question: Mario, how often, if ever, do you and Michael play that 1986 finish; that was a Father's Day deal too if I remember?
Mario Andretti: Yes, well, we actually we like to talk about it, certainly one of the highlights of both of our careers, no question, in that it is interesting, I was waiting for this to be brought up because -- and if it wasn't for Mark that's on this call I was going to challenge-- was going to put out this challenge again about the finish because whenever we crossed the line and I come in, the announcers were saying it was 7/1000 of a second and it was Michael Knight who was our publicist at the time was figuring it's impossible, so he changed it to 7/100.
But I have a huge photo in my sports bar here, an enlarged photo of Michael and I crossing the line and had it all measured and we were two inches, it was two inches advantage that I had at the line at about 170 miles an hour. I think that's pretty close. But nevertheless neither one of us knew for sure because we were looking at each other as we crossed the line. Obviously Michael had a problem, it was almost a situation where, like I was listening to Mark saying, about four, five laps to go, I think it was four laps to go, I was down several, I don't know, probably about 10, twelve seconds and I was basically resigned for a 2nd place finish. All of a sudden my engineer says, Michael is having some fuel pickup problems and so I really stood up on the seat and lo and behold, coming down for the checker, you know, we're coming out of that -- onto the straightaway and he's accelerating and all of a sudden the thing just coughs on him and I just had a run. Poor kid. For a second I felt sorry for him, but (laughs) only for a second.
In victory lane I could tell he was pretty disturbed, quite annoyed, and then he just thought about it. He said okay, dad, Happy Father's Day. But it was a fantastic, can you imagine, father and son and having a situation like that come up with a finish that close, it was tremendous.
Question: With Michael's retirement as a driver now do you look back and say where did all those years go?
Mario Andretti: Yeah, true, true, it's amazing, I say how can a guy be 40 years old when I am 37. (Laughter) but yeah, it's amazing, indeed, how the years fly and just the stint that he and I had together as teammates, I mean, that was quite a few years ago, with Newman/Haas and the fact that we had like 15 podiums together in Champ Car Racing, you know, things like that when we look back it's just phenomenal. Then I look at his record here, we're talking about Portland, you know, the place has been very special to us because here again, I won it twice. And he won it three times. So as a family we have had some great times up there.
Eric Mauk: We are now joined by Alex Zanardi. He took his first ever Champ Car win in 1996 at Portland International Raceway winning from the pole in the rain in '96 . He also won in '98 in a race where he didn't lead until lap 47, but would take over and lead all but five of the last 52 laps to take the win, a win that was the second of a now Champ Car record four consecutive victories. Thank you for joining us today.
Alex Zanardi: Good afternoon to everyone listening.
Eric Mauk: Following up on a question that was asked a little bit ago in your first Champ Car win in Portland in '96 obviously you had had wins in other Formulas coming up to get to where you were, but is that victory in Portland being your first one, is that one that you always look back on fondly, one you always remember?
Alex Zanardi: For sure. Portland is a beautiful city, and I have to admit that when I came to the scene in 1996 I was already so happy to be part of the game it was a great joy to be defined with the No. 4 because my name in the list was always up there with the top guys and I felt it was a great honor already. I didn't know at the time that my name was going to come up on the scene for other reasons which are definitely honorable and in particular, when I finally ended up leading some races and I had some misfortunes at the beginning of that '96 season, I was getting a little impatient suddenly until I finally arrived in Portland and that weekend everything went pretty well.
It was quite a dramatic event because of the rain in the middle part of the race itself, but the car that I had that day was just fantastic, so superior, the car that Target Chip Ganassi gave me that day was definitely the best one out there and so it was a fantastic joy, really, really special. My first ever victory at that level in motor racing and so of course, the memories that it was special.
Eric Mauk: The 1996 race you started off that race in the dry; then the rains came by halfway through as the rains usually do when we go to Portland. What is the key to getting around that track in the rain?
Alex Zanardi: Well, it's certainly a different key when you have wet tires but in that particular case I actually had slicks. It was very difficult. It was a dramatic race, and actually I was kind of wondering at the beginning of the race itself I couldn't see any anybody in my mirrors because I pulled away so easily and so rapidly that I said -- at that beginning of the season I used to have a lot of bad luck that was taking away results from me. Sometimes I actually feel that you are unlucky and maybe it's just a question of having the experience to hold the pressure and control the event, but for whatever reason I didn't have the opportunity to enjoy very good results after that point and so when I saw the first drops of rain in my shield, I said, okay, here we go, that's what it's going to take from me today. And I couldn't believe my eyes because it actually started pouring rain right when I was going to go in any way for fuel and tires.
Obviously I couldn't help my team at all because in the back straight it was dry and it was not raining and as I approached the pit lane it was pouring and I couldn't help them at all. I couldn't make the call myself to go with slicks or with wet. Turns out that we just went with the original plan, so we just filled the car with gas and put another set of slicks. And as I left pit lane it was just like on ice, to be on ice. It was definitely, very, very difficult to keep the car on the black road and not on the green one (grass).
The good thing is as I hit the back straight of the circuit it was pretty dry so I could pull quite a lot of speed and doing that I put some heat in the tires that helped me a lot also on the wet part. But it just lasted a couple of laps and then it quit raining and eventually the circuit dried up really, really rapidly. That saved my day, definitely, because I only lost the lead for fuel stops, then I came back in control of the situation. But for sure, in the middle part of it, my eyes were pretty fixed to keep control on what I was doing.
Question: I guess Alex, before you got on Mario was talking about the need to kind of find the right balance around all the turns and the varying kinds of turns at Portland. Another way to look at Portland, at least I have always understood is in a very shorthanded way is that some people say that it's in some ways like two drag strips connected by a bunch of corners because obviously you have the long front straight and the high speed back straight and with the turns at each end. But I am wondering how that -- just how you think that the drivers will approach that this year given that everybody has, you know, basically exactly the same amount of horsepower, you know, whereas in the past maybe, you know, if -- maybe Mark, you know, with the Mercedes, when you won or Alex with the Honda, or Mario with Chevys and Fords, you know, you might have approached it differently, but given that everybody is going to have the same amount of power how do you think that that's going -- what sort of challenge do you think that's going to present to the drivers and teams this year? This is for all three of you.
Mario Andretti: I feel that a compromise is going to be the premium here, like you said, you cannot afford a lot of downforce from the wings because you cannot afford the drag. You have got two straightaways that are very, very important for the speed, yet when you get to the corners you're really dying for that downforce. So here you go with a compromise. Believe me, in the areas where you need the downforce, you really, really love it. But now more than ever I think you are going to have to find that middle ground and that's going to be a pretty tricky situation, obviously, for the driver to deal with.
Alex Zanardi: I definitely agree with Mario and on top of that I would say that Portland, it seems to be very difficult to also find a good mechanical balance because if on other circuits you may have places where you just need the car to turn in rapidly but then you just need to turn the power and deliver all the power on the ground so you need good traction. In Portland you have middle and high speed turns where you have got to have a car that turns well but that stays in line for a long, long time and that's what you need to have a good balance.
Now the compromise normally is to run slightly stiff around the back, to have the front and the rear more kind of in the same motion and always keep a good balance with the car and distance of the corner. The down point is by doing that normally the rear can become slightly nervous. So it's always a compromise the end of the day, and certainly whoever is going to find the best compromise between springs, shock absorbers, downforce and everything, he could end up probably even more rewarded than he would in the past because as you said, there were years where Honda was dominant or where Mercedes had a flat edge on other people, but like when Mark won that race that year, at the end of the day, certainly spend some more words about that but he had a very, very competitive car everywhere like in Elkhart Lake as well they were very competitive. To a certain degree Elkhart Lake reminds me a lot like Portland for the way you stay long, long times in the corners.
Mark Blundell: I agree with Alex and Mario there, we use the word compromise and it truly is a compromise in trying to achieve a balance for a car which is going to be pretty much the same output of power across the grid. But I think the one other area where people are going to have to emphasize themselves on making sure that they get the best compromise is to see who is going to be able to use the tires the best because that's going to be an important factor for that kind of racing now because everybody has the same output so once you've got your aero compromise, your mechanical balance, who is going to use their tires efficiently because that's going to be where they are going to gain the advantage over the course of the race.
Question: The weather is often a factor, I should say, at Portland. Obviously it was in one of Alex's wins and certainly in Mark's. Mark, could you talk a little bit about driving that track in the rain which comes in their often and in your particular case, you had the right tire and it was a big sprint to the finish, just talk about your particular win that day in those conditions and just dealing with those conditions, in general, at Portland?
Mark Blundell: I think one of the factors, you know, and I know for sure with Alex and Mario, drivers of that stature, I am sure they say the same thing is when you are in a race where you are faced with rain and then the rain starts to come down, the important element is the timing of when you may change tires. Sometimes some guys get on the tire a little bit too early and it doesn't suit the conditions and that's when you kill your race and then sometimes you time it just right -- and it's not always a skill call by any means. It may not be the call from the cockpit or the call from inside the pit lane. It may just be an element of luck which just times out nicely. That's one of the biggest issues.
Some guys are suited to driving in wet conditions more than others. Some guys just struggle with it and some are okay with it. Personally I have always been okay with it from day one being from England and my racing career there I had to be faced with rain every other weekend, so it didn't factor out the problem of that blunder. As I say competing in Portland at that event was truly a great one and a rewarding one to go through those conditions and to drive in those dry conditions and be faced with the wet conditions as well. And to drive in those conditions is also something which is of high reward to me because you are always pushing the envelope trying to find that little bit more grip, and in very dicey conditions and just trying to get that little bit extra and if you get it right, it can be a big knock on the stopwatch coming into the lap.
Question: Mario, Alex any comment you'd like to add about the rain and encountering those kinds of conditions at Portland, changing conditions or running in the rain in particular there?
Mario Andretti: Here again you have all the high speed and in the small corners and again when you go into the Festival Corners, for instance, it's wet, it's really the guy that can really have a feel for how to put the power down can really shine, as to accelerating from first gear in the wet is pretty tricky. All these things play, again, then you have the esses just before the last corner where you know, you can gain or lose an awful lot of time but just not having the confidence in the car, for instance, through there, so, you got a mix of things thrown at you and the wet as Mark says, the conditions are always dodgy, and if you go off in those areas, I mean, you are going to stop in Seattle, you know, because you get into the grass. So you don't want to do that. So it's quite a task for the driver in the wet there, I would say. It's probably one of the difficult tracks to really do well in the wet. The guys that just do a little bit better than others in the wet that are usually the ones that really shine in that place.
Alex Zanardi: Personally I would agree but if I can only add one thing is when you have the best car out there, nevertheless, you are not interested in showing your ability in the wet at all. I mean, you just are very content with the way the situation is going. But obviously if that's not the case, if you are fighting for 5th or 6th place, and then a few drops of rain starts to come down if you feel you have something, then that maybe the opportunity you are looking for because obviously when the situation starts to change that's when -- that's the option for the bravest drivers, for the most powers to prove that they have something more compared to others.
I remember the race that Mark won in 1997 I was doing pretty well up to the point then the circuit finally dried up and we actually made a mistake ourselves calling the wrong set of tires. But I remember I was starting from the back and there at Turn 1 there's a piece of concrete which you definitely wanted to avoid when the circuit was completely wet. But after it started to dry I noticed that very few drivers changed their line out of the corner and that concrete dried up immediately and I was actually using that piece of concrete to heat the tires up and get much better traction in order to make a pass in Turn 4 which normally is not possible. But because I was coming up with so much better traction compared to other opponents, you know, that particular situation made that overtaking a little bit more possible. Not all the drivers realized that. They were probably very concentrating on what they were doing, keeping the car in the black. Not a lot of people realized that that option was available. So that's when you feel rewarded because if you win a race in that situation you may say, of course, I had a very good car, car was good enough to do this kind of job but certainly I did my part.
Question: I wanted to the check with Mario and I know we're talking Portland, but kind of relates to what he said earlier about he and his relationship with Michael. It's just when you saw Michael get out of the car after leading in Indianapolis this year, what emotions went through your mind -- what went through your mind as Michael got out of that car there, there wouldn't be another Andretti, just me in '69 at Indy?
Mario Andretti: Well, a rollercoaster of emotions is what I experienced at that point to be honest with you. I really -- I felt so badly for Michael because at that point he was in the position to really come up with a great result at Indianapolis, at least for his last race and if he would have come out the cockpit, you know, a winner obviously, it would have been, you know, okay, the joy of all joys to see that happen and then to see him come out of the cockpit with that type of disappointment after he was doing such a great job, I just -- my heart just broke for him, to be honest with you. But that's, you know, that's the way it is. We experienced that before unfortunately. But this time it was different.
Question: Mark, you have gone through a successful career in sports cars. Do you see any future in returning to the open-wheel cars?
Mark Blundell: Actually I was in sports car racing in '89 and '90 as well before I even went into Formula One and then Champ Car Racing, but sports car race is a great form of racing and it's also very nice as well because there's a lot of camaraderie with sharing the car with other drivers. Would I see myself going back into the single seater? Yeah, if the right opportunity existed then definitely, you know, but it's all about having the right opportunities and I don't really want to put myself in a situation that's not competitive, you know, I would ideally like to return to the states because I feel I have got some unfinished business there, but the offers that -- not so much now, but when I first came back from the U.S., what was being put in front of me just didn't have the resources against them to be competitive. And that for me, just doesn't make any sense. Iím not getting any younger, we're getting older, don't bounce like I used to and I want to be in a situation where I have the possibility to win races. If that doesn't happen then I think I'd soon as not do it.
Question: Alex, I read something, you were quoted as saying I am only good for a big effort that doesn't last very long and I don't think I have got the determination and the self-discipline that it takes to be a car owner. You made me laugh, I am sorry, when you said that. Have you changed your mind? Do you really believe that about yourself?
Alex Zanardi: Oh, well, not really. I mean, I don't know, maybe if a good opportunity would come along, but I guess this would definitely be more wise if I happen to live in the United States because I really enjoy my participation as a driver in Champ Cars, with CART, and I guess that could be an opportunity if I was there. But obviously I am not interested in just putting my name to a team and come two times a year. That's definitely not for me. But after all, you know what I really meant was that I don't think I would be a very good owner because an owner is somebody that thinks about his business that tries to live up to his people the best possible opportunity for everybody to do their job correctly. So it's somebody of thinking 360 degrees.
I think I have been good enough, let us put it that way, to do my job as an individual on Sunday afternoon to give my contribution to be part of a team that as a team went on and won the races, but everything was coming from somebody else, from Chip Ganassi obviously, of course, but from people like Tom Anderson; Morris Nunn, from the technical point of view and, you know, to be part of that team was really one of the greatest experiences I had in my racing career. Of course I did my part and I ended up enjoying a lot of great satisfactions, but I don't think I would have done the same job in Tom Anderson's shoes or Michael's shoes neither in Chip Ganassi at all because I mean, I had to admit that Chip always had and answer for all the requests that we had. So I think I will always be a fan and I think of me, again, still as a driver. I still feel like I am a driver. I am not a professional anymore but I still feel very passionate for this sport and if I will come back to a form of racing it will be in the driver spot.
Question: You said that do you like going to Portland because you like pretty girls coming up and kissing you and giving you roses. Are you going to come back on this anniversary celebration of Portland just so you can get roses and kisses?
Alex Zanardi: Unfortunately good thing that my wife is not listening to this, but in any case unfortunately I have other commitments, but Portland it's a beautiful place and for sure eventually I will come again to this fantastic city.
Eric Mauk: We'll go ahead and wrap this up. Mario and Alex thank you again very much. It's always a pleasure to having you guys joining us. Best of luck as you go down the road. Hopefully we'll be talking to both of you real soon.
Mario Andretti: Thank you. Thanks to everyone that was on here.
Alex Zanardi: Thank you very much to everyone and especially good-bye to my friend Mario Andretti.