T.E. McHALE: We are joined now by Paul’s teammate, Dario Franchitti, the runnerup in the 1999 FedEx Championship Series. Good afternoon. Thanks for being on the call today. DARIO FRANCHITTI: Hi. T.E. McHALE: Dario was half of a historic battle for the 1999 FedEx Championship Series Championship as he and Juan Montoya concluded the season tied atop the points standings for the first time in CART’s 21-year history. Although Montoya claimed the Championship on a tie-breaker, that did nothing to detract from a spectacular season for Franchitti which included victories at Toronto, Detroit and Australia; a series high 11 podium finishes and pole positions at Mid-Ohio in Australia. Dario scored points in 16 of 20 starts including 9 of the last 10 and scored a series high 128 points on road or street courses. He is finished on the podium in 15 of his last 26 FedEx Championship Series starts dating to his first career victory at Road America in 1998. He recorded only the 7th 200-point season since the current scoring system went into effect in 1983 and finished second in the FedEx Championship Series with 212 points. Dario joins us today in the final stages of his recovery from a fractured pelvis and brain contusions sustained in a February 9th testing accident during CART spring training at Homestead Miami Speedway. He has been cleared to drive by CART’s Director of Medical Affairs and is expected to test at Nazareth Speedway Sunday and Monday after which a determination will be made on his status for the season opening event at Homestead. Although the team test will be closed to public and media, Team KOOL Green will provide daily reports of Dario’s progress. We will open the call for questions for Dario. Q. You are in Austria right now doing your fitness program with your trainer? DARIO FRANCHITTI: Actually I came back to Scotland yesterday for two days of rest before I head back for the test. So I finished that yesterday afternoon. Q. You were over there for how many days and what kind of activity did you get up to? DARIO FRANCHITTI: Lots of activity. Five days. I left straight from Miami from the brain scan and everything. And I went over there. Basically when I arrived there, I was walking off crutches for the first time. That was on my third day off the crutches and we started off by just working on the movement of the leg, really, just getting the leg — used to the movement again; stretching — muscle was laxed, the ligaments, stretching all that. Then we started working on getting the heart rate up a bit; getting all the systems working again and the body getting used to that kind of exercise. Then we worked on, really, leg strength, for a lot of the time we had sets of stairs that are in the village that we were working on, one set 165 steps sort of 1 and 2 grade and the other stairs, 300 something stairs and slightly less grade. We worked first of all, walking on the 300 stairs. I think the first day we did 1,500 stairs. By the end of the week we managed to get up to 1,600 stairs, up running, and 1,600 walking down, so we are pretty happy with that. Q. You are obviously feeling — DARIO FRANCHITTI: Feeling good, thank you. Good to be out there up in the hills and we went walking up the mountains, pretty much straight up the mountains with sticks and stuff, so I am really feeling strong. The left leg is a lot better. The muscles are not 100% yet, but I think other than that, my body has been probably the best shape it has ever been. Q. Is there going to be any tension on your part getting back into the cockpit after a wreck like that? DARIO FRANCHITTI: I don’t remember anything about it, so it’s going to be different getting back in the car, I think. I don’t know. It is question I will be able to answer after Sunday, after the first run in the car. But not remembering anything about the wreck, I don’t see why there should be a problem. Q. Do you kind of feel like you are stepping into this from behind because of all the testing you missed? DARIO FRANCHITTI: I am sure I am at a slight disadvantage, but I generally have not been a person that takes a lot of testing to get up to speed. I generally get in the car and get on with it. Paul has been doing a great job. He has been shouldering the brunt of the work, really, and the development work with the engineers at Team KOOL Green have done a great job. So although I do not have the mileage myself, the team has got development mileage. Hopefully, I will be able to get back in there as if I hadn’t left. I don’t have any other way of looking at it. I can’t start the season thinking, oh, I am behind, I haven’t had testing because I am already looking for excuses; I am not looking for excuses, I am looking to win races. Q. What compels a guy to get back into a car after a crash like that? What is it that drives you guys that is a little bit different maybe from what you’d call normal people? I don’t know if you could address — DARIO FRANCHITTI: I think it just a love of what I do; a love of driving race cars; driving Champ Cars and a love of winning races. That is why I think everybody puts the effort they do; certainly why I put the effort in it because I want to go out there and win. Q. What are your impressions of Michael Andretti, if you had to sum him up to someone, what he has been like competing against him and what does he kind of bring to the table that is different? DARIO FRANCHITTI: Michael is the most experienced of the drivers out there. He is a guy that has been in the series for a long time and every year he comes back as strong, if not stronger than the year before. So there is never any loss of motivation which you have got to look at and say he is pretty special. And he is a pretty special character. When you look at his father, it was the same thing, Mario’s career, I don’t think there was ever a point where you would say, he is not trying. I think with Michael it’s the same. And he is a great guy to race with. I have never had any problems with him. I have some really good races with him. Q. Don Halliday moved over to Team Rahal. What are your impressions of Don, what did he bring to the table as far as engineering goes? What made him a little bit special? DARIO FRANCHITTI: I think as an engineer, Don is a great engineer. I think there is a lot of great engineers out there, but I there what happened with Don and I we clicked, our personalities clicked, so we read each other and worked well together and we just, as I said, we clicked. And he was one of the guys, when through my recuperation, he was on the phone: How is it going, anything-I-can-do-type-thing. That meant a lot – even if we are not working together anymore, I still think of Don as my friend and I think he is a bloody good engineer. I would much happier if he was at Team Green rather than at Team Rahal. But we have great engineers with Steve and Tino and Tony, these guys, I am pretty happy, but Don is a pretty special guy. Q. What was it like to run a Championship season like did you last year, where it is a 20-race grind and you get to the end and you are tied for the points, yet you don’t win the Championship because of the asterisk, I guess you want to call it, is it — does it get you even more for the last year? How would you describe that experience? DARIO FRANCHITTI: As you said before, everything was overshadowed by Greg’s accident and from that point I haven’t thought about it. I never — I haven’t paid too much attention to it. After we left the last race I just went away and start building on what I was hoping to do this year. Q. I know CART is looking at restructuring their schedule. Do you see problem with the existing schedule? Is there a need to have to maybe get some of your races earlier in the season so you can quit before football seasons kicks in this September? DARIO FRANCHITTI: I don’t know what to say about the schedule. I just do the races that are put in front of me, really. Pretty grueling months, but again I love racing every weekend. It tires you out a little bit, but there is not a lot of things I’d rather be doing apart from getting in the race car. Restricted the testing there which is a good thing, I think. Too much testing, I think it can be bad for the actual racing because the teams perfect everything so much. I think 20 races with less testing is actually a pretty good schedule. Q. I know that there was a lot of speculation in the press about or at least privately among us about what Ashley would say after your accident. Now the shoe will be on the other foot with her running in the celebrity race at Long Beach. How are you feeling about that? DARIO FRANCHITTI: I think it will be fun. Q. You are going to have any trepidation about it or are you giving her some pointers? DARIO FRANCHITTI: No trepidation at all. Q. She is a true race fan? DARIO FRANCHITTI: Yeah. Q. When all these changes that — teams have gone on these tremendous makeovers, it is almost like to the outsider, it is like looking at the winner of the Super Bowl, you know, throws out the coach and gets a whole new offense. What are we to make of that, these major changes that have occurred in so many of these teams, players, cars, motors, everything? DARIO FRANCHITTI: I think — I mean, if you start with the team that won the Championship, Chip, I think, Toyota’s program has come on tremendously and I think an engine that was not, certainly the least competitive engine in the Championship, you know, a couple of years ago, even as much as last year, I think they have done a lot of work with that. And it’s not a bad program there, I think. But I think there was a lot of dollars involved which helped reswitch it. I just think a lot of people have seen, you know, that they think the grass is greener. And over here at Team Green we were quite happy – partners with Honda and Reynard, I think these guys work, you know, I think they do a great job and they work so hard, everything they do is great. So if anybody comes up with something better, Honda and Reynard will push so hard that, again, we will be up at the front is how I feel. I have faith in the people I am working with. With Firestone, unfortunately, there is no competition for them just now so it is a little bit boring for their engineers, but they are still supplying great tires. Q. Even though there were so few cars on Goodyears last year, what effect will going to basically a spec tire have on the series this year? DARIO FRANCHITTI: I think the tires will be harder, probably see the cars sliding about a little bit more. I just think it is one area of competition you don’t have anymore which is kind of disappointing because Firestone loved to show off what great tires they have by winning races. Unfortunately when they win races now, they are only fighting against themselves. That is the downside to that. The downside to a tire wars we had before is that tires get softer and softer and corner speeds get higher and obviously the danger increases a little bit. But I tell you, there is nothing quite like a car with new Firestone Tires in a qualifying lap. When they are at their best, it is a great feeling. Maybe the tires are a bit harder this year and the grip won’t be quite as much. Q. This time last year you and I talked about the upcoming season and correct me if I am wrong, but I guaged you as being cautiously optimistic. How are you looking towards this year? More optimistic? More cautiously optimistic? Just going to get what you can get? DARIO FRANCHITTI: I don’t know. At the moment I don’t know. I have been focusing so hard on getting fit and getting ready to get back in the race car that I have really — I will be taking things one race at a time. The Championship is definitely out there to be had, as it were, and it’s out there to be won. Last year there was times that I didn’t do a good job. There was times the team didn’t do a good job. There were times that we just missed things; we had mechanical problems and yet we were still in there challenging for the Championship. So I think that with the guys at Team KOOL Green and, as I say, the Honda, Reynard, Firestone package, I expect it to be challenging. Q. After having to sit out – and I am not sure- is this the first time you have ever been forced out of a car due to an injury? DARIO FRANCHITTI: Yeah, it is. Q. Mentally does that change you and your attitude towards racing, and your attitude towards just life in general? DARIO FRANCHITTI: I have never been this — I think I am a pretty determined person, yet I don’t think I have ever been this hungry to do anything in my life and the effort that I put into my racing is high, but again, that has gone up another stage. Q. I have been away ever since spring training. Was there a cause for the crash ever found? DARIO FRANCHITTI: I believe it was the right rear spindle broke which holds the right rear wheel on so basically when I tried to turn into the corner, the right wheel fell off for want of a better word. Q. What is the last thing you remember? DARIO FRANCHITTI: Kind of strange, I remember lunchtime. I had a meeting over lunch which I remember very clearly. But I don’t remember driving the car in the morning nor in the afternoon. So I guess the end of my meeting at lunchtime time was probably the last thing I remember. Q. Have you talked to Steve recently? DARIO FRANCHITTI: I spoke to Steve after spring training. Q. I just wondered how he is doing right now. DARIO FRANCHITTI: He is doing really well. Talk about motivation, that guy is just incredible. He is fighting so hard everyday and you can see the improvement. You just watch the improvement. He has down at spring training and you watch the way he is working – he is going to be back very, very shortly and 100 percent and every day — I wish you could see it to believe the improvement that he is making. Q., hello, dario. DARIO FRANCHITTI: You are the guys that made the rumor about me retiring. That was not too nice. Q. We apologize for that. We don’t make them up. We get fed stuff and a lot of times it doesn’t turn out. DARIO FRANCHITTI: Where did you get it fed from? That was a joke. That is not the sort of thing you want the readers — it is like man gives birth to alien, it is ridiculous. I am there working my ass off to get back in the car; all of a sudden I am reading I am retiring because my girlfriend’s mother or something — it was a joke, anyway, sorry. Q. We will be more careful next time. DARIO FRANCHITTI: Thank you. Q. Has Ashley expressed any interest at all to you about maybe auditioning for the Champs movie? DARIO FRANCHITTI: You have to ask her that. I don’t want to — I don’t see that, you have to ask her about that one. Q. In light of your accident at Homestead, my understanding is Kirk Russell paid a visit yesterday to Antonio Ferrari’s shop where he has his new IPS safety barrier. I was just was wondering what your thoughts are on a barrier such as that on an oval and/or a road course to improve safety; are you pushing CART for it? Have you spoken to CART about doing something? DARIO FRANCHITTI: I haven’t spoken to CART about it. I have spoken to some of the other drivers about safety issues. Most of the guys that visited me in the hospital in fact chatted about it. I think whatever they can do they need to start working at it. That wall is awful hard and the speeds we are running around the ovals — you think about it, you look at Formula I track and the speeds they are running are nowhere near ours and yet they have all these big gravel traps and stuff and yet we run on an oval and we have these problems. We have to look at that seriously. I was talking to people like Gil and Christian and Max came to visit me, we were getting in that a little bit, but not too much. Q. On a scale of 0 to 100% where do you feel you will be at Homestead? DARIO FRANCHITTI: I feel I will be 100%. If you are comparing to last year, I think it will be higher than 100%. T.E. McHALE: We will take one final question for Dario before we let him go for the day and bring Juan out on the call. Q. Do you feel perhaps in a funny way that maybe– you were maybe better prepared for this season than in the past given that, you know, given that you are — given that you have had this kind of odd amount of time to kind of prepare mentally and at least physically from the waist up? DARIO FRANCHITTI: I think physically. From the waist up, certainly, I am a lot more prepared than I have ever been. Mentally, yeah, because I have been — I think I have been fighting pretty hard over the last month and that is certainly focuses you and gives you that extra what you need — that extra determination. I think, yeah, probably my left leg is at 65 to 70% of — it is just a number I am throwing out there — of its full strength, but that will be more than adequate for the first two races. By the time Long Beach comes, I will be back to 100% and working to improve that all the time. I am pretty happy with where I am just now. Q. Juan Montoya, you have raced against him some, even before you got into Champ Cars and I just wondered if you could kind of talk about him kind of like you talked about Michael Andretti a little while ago talk about what makes him Juan Montoya. DARIO FRANCHITTI: His accent. (laughs). No, I mean, Juan — I think the one thing is he tries pretty hard. I think last year to come from in his first year he didn’t make too many mistakes, but when he was poofed he did make them, but he is — he is fast. He is one of the fast ones. He keeps me honest, I would say is probably — he keeps me motivated and keeps me pushing because we had a pretty good battle last year. T.E. McHALE: Thanks, Dario, for spending some time with us this morning. Best of luck in your recovery. Best of luck in your test this weekend and throughout the 2000 FedEx Championship Series season. Looks like we are going to see you back soon and we are all very happy to see that. DARIO FRANCHITTI: Thanks, T.E.. End of FastScripts..