Before Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, I talked to A.J. Foyt. He said, “When it’s your day here, it’s your day here. When it’s not your day, you’re not going to win the race no matter what happens.” Then he paused and said, “I should have won this race more times than I did.”
That thought crossed my mind when I crossed the finish line Sunday. It just wasn’t our day, but overall it was another incredible experience at Indy.
So let’s tell the tale of my experience in the 100th anniversary Indy 500, shall we?
It starts with driver introductions, and walking out to the grid at Indy is always special. Team owner Chip Ganassi traditionally leads a group that includes my teammate, Scott Dixon, and his wife, Emma, and Ashley and I.
There was extra electricity in the air this year. Everything leading up to the race felt bigger than before, and you could feel it in driver introductions.
Leading up to the race, I was nervous about the pace of my car. I felt we were missing a fraction of pace, but my engineer, Chris Simmons, and I had worked really hard on the balance of the car. Right up to the race, we were questioning springs and other parts of the setup. Turned out the car was very good.
We took off at the start, went from ninth to seventh in the first corner, and got into the top five pretty quickly. I was able to pass some of the guys on the track and with great stops by my Target boys in the pits too and get up into third and then second behind Scott and save some fuel. That allowed me to get an extra lap on that stint than most of the other cars, which was crucial.
Twice I entered the pits just as the yellow came out. Two seconds either way and I would have been right at the back of the back. I was very fortunate both times.
The track conditions were difficult with the heat and heavy wind, I brushed the wall once and got very close to the wall a couple of other times. I had several good slides through Turns 1 and 2. It was treacherous. Still, we made the decision that we had to trim out. On my own, I could only run 219 mph, which just wasn’t fast enough. I knew I was going to have to take downforce out.
Once we did, I was able to get the lap speeds back up to 222, which was quick enough to win the race. But then the guys on the stand made the fateful decision to make me pit on lap 164 right before the race went green, which put me at the back of the pack. What that then meant was we needed a yellow flag to save enough fuel to get to the finish.
It was a risky strategy. In hindsight, it was the wrong one.
Even with less downforce back in dirty air, I was able to make rapid progress through the field. But the yellow didn’t come and didn’t come, and then we had to start backing off. Then the guys gave me a fuel number to hit that was nearly impossible. Later they gave me another fuel number that was even more difficult. I had slowed to 200 mph averages to try to make the fuel I needed.
I came on the radio at that point and said, “Guys, you’re dreaming.”
I knew then we were in serious trouble. The cars we thought were going to be chasing us were passing us, and then we had to pit anyway because we didn’t have enough fuel to make it.
We’d split the strategies between Scott and I to try to help the team’s chances to win the race. But Scott’s guys didn’t get enough fuel in his car on his last stop, so he couldn’t run hard all the way to the finish. So he finished fifth and I finished 12th, and we both felt like we could have won.
A victory by Scott would have taken some of the bitterness away, but it didn’t happen.
But two of my former teammates, Dan Wheldon and Bryan Herta, won the race in an amazing finish, so that helped ease the disappointment. As frustrated as we were with our performance, both Scott and I enjoyed seeing Dan and Bryan win it.
Even if it didn’t shine on us, there was a glimmer of brightness at Indy.