The Indianapolis 500 still has an aura and mystery for me, especially as we prepare for the 100th anniversary of the race.
It’s funny. Even though I’ve competed at Indy since 2002 and have won the race twice, I still go into the month of May with trepidation. The two weeks are such a difficult time. The more you do it, the more you realize how difficult it is. You realize that anything can happen. You realize that even if you had three months of practice to prepare for it, there still wouldn’t be enough time.
In Sao Paulo on Monday as we were tearing down after the Itaipava Sao Paulo Indy 300, everybody was talking about Indy. We’d had a good result – a fourth-place finish – but Indy is what we talked about on the way to the airport and on the flight back. It was the primary topic of conversation all the way home, and everybody was fired up about it.
So a week from Saturday we’ll start the preparations that will eventually lead us to the 100th anniversary Indy 500 on May 29. It’s an exciting time, but also a stressful time. We’re all trying to get our cars just exactly right, and we all have a chance to tweak it and fine-tune it. Sometimes you get the car right to that sweet spot and then adjust yourself right out of it. Sometimes you never quite find the sweet spot at all.
When you add to that the constantly changing weather and track conditions, you realize you have a constantly changing target. It’s a fascinating mix of science and sport. In Indiana in May, there’s rarely a day that’s just like the one before, so you’re always trying to chase the weather and figure out how it affects the condition of the track.
To make it even more difficult, you’re practicing for two different elements of the event – qualifying and the race – and neither of those elements calls for anything like the other. The car in qualifying trim is nothing like it is in race trim. It’s like driving two different cars. You have to manage how you practice, because you’re hardly ever doing the same thing twice.
Through all of that, you have to concern yourself with tire allotment and engine miles and other team management aspects of it. It’s not just one guy out there driving a race car. It’s a team of people calculating and monitoring and deciding. The whole thing is actually quite fascinating to watch, especially when it’s done just right.
And we always have activities away from the track – appearances and dinners and other race-related functions – so it makes for an extremely packed schedule for a couple of weeks. There’s very little time to goof off, but we manage to have fun when we can.
One of the more interesting aspects of Indy that most people don’t get to see is that the drivers have their own little city of motorcoaches in the infield. Basically we’re together all the time. When I get up in the morning, I might see Vitor Meira and Tony Kanaan headed out for a bike ride, or I might see Justin Wilson or Marco Andretti having a chat. Tony and I go out for dinner almost every free night we have, so we hang out together quite a bit.
It’s an unusual dynamic. These are your competitors and your friends at the same time. It’s an interesting balance we have, racing against each other during the day and being social afterward. Most of the time, we keep it together. Sometimes some very good friendships develop out of it. I’m sure a lot of my fellow racers will be lifelong friends. It’s nice that we can have that equilibrium.
A lot of people have been calling me one of the favorites to win this year’s race, based on the victories last year and in 2007, and on the three IZOD IndyCar Series championships. But I can tell you without a doubt that what has happened in the recent past has absolutely nothing to do with what’s going to happen on Memorial Day weekend.
As a group last year, we did a hell of a job. I’m very proud of the entire Target team, but that victory has no bearing on what’s going to happen this month. We’ve got to make all the right choices in order to win the race again. I think we can do it, and we have all the right tools, but there will be 32 other people on that grid who will have something to say about the outcome.
Sometimes it’s better not to talk about it. Sometimes it’s better to let your actions do the talking for you.