People ask me all the time how I came up with the idea to climb the fence after winning a race. I tell them honestly just exactly what it was. A misunderstanding.
Yes, it originated from a big blunder. I missed Victory Lane after my first Indy car win at Belle Isle, Detroit, and didn't know what to do. It was a blur after that, but I somehow ended up climbing the fence. The rest, as they say, is history.
Honestly, I never planned to do something like that. It came totally from the heart. It was 2000, and I was in my first year with Team Penske, and we'd been trying so hard but hadn't won a race. We'd come close a couple of times, but we hadn't quite grabbed that victory. Then it happened. There I was, crossing the finish line first in Detroit, thrilled beyond belief.
And that's when I missed the pits. I was so busy screaming and waving and crying that I forgot to come into the pits to go to Victory Lane. All I wanted to do at that point was get out of the car. I stopped right in front of the main straightaway at the finish line. When I looked over, the crowd was going nuts. I didn't see anybody out on the track, nobody waiting for me – no TV, no team, no officials. I thought, “Where is everybody?”
That's when I looked to my left and the celebration was so huge that I thought I had to go join the fans. I knew I wasn't supposed to be stopped there on the frontstraight, but I wanted out of the car and I wanted to share in the joy of the fans. Plus, I thought if I could do something crazy, it might cover up the fact that I forgot to go to Victory Lane.
So, I got out of the car and climbed the fence. People have asked me since then, “Why did you choose to climb the fence at that moment?” Honestly, I don't know. I was just so excited. I just climbed up there and started shaking the fence. As soon as I did that, I could see them going even crazier, so I just kept doing it. I actually thought at the time, “What the heck am I doing?” Then I looked behind me and I saw all of my guys coming toward me. It was awesome.
At the time, Bobby Rahal was CART president. Afterward, I thought I was going to be in trouble for climbing the fence when Bobby came up to me and said, “What was the deal with the fence?” I said, “I'm so sorry. I don't know what came over me.” He said, “It was awesome! That's exactly what we need! That's what the sport needs: more personality and excitement.”
From that moment, it's been all good. It's a gesture from the heart, an expression of joy, and people love it. It's a genuine expression. When I win a race, I am thrilled, and I want to share that with the fans. So I run over and get right in front of them and scream and pump my fist. It's my way of letting them in and thanking them at the same time. I mean, what is this sport without fans? We need to thank them when we win. We need to let them share in the joy.
That's something I've always tried to do – draw people into racing. What we do involves them in a different way than most other sports. We're openly available to fans in a way that few other sports allow. We meet them and talk to them and sign autographs for them. Without people buying the tickets, watching on TV or buying the sponsors' products, we can't race. I've always felt like we need to thank them again and again, and that's part of what the fence-climb is all about.
But it's also about something else: showmanship. This is just a personal opinion, but a racer should never be boring. Be crazy, be aggressive, be funny…but never, ever be boring. Our sport is exciting and daring, and we should be exciting and daring, too. When we win races, we should be thrilled, and when we're thrilled, we should express that emotion.
As you probably know, I can't hide my emotions. When I'm sad, I cry. When I'm happy, I smile and cry. I'm not able to cover up my feelings. That's what climbing the fence is all about to me. I'm thrilled, and I'm going to show it. It's just a natural, normal communication of joy. It started as a completely spontaneous gesture, but after all the times I've done it, climbing the fence still seems spontaneous and carefree. It still seems like I'm doing it for the first time.
People ask me if I'm bothered that people like my fellow RACER columnist Tony Stewart have copied it. Not at all. I'm flattered when other people climb the fence. It makes me feel like I started something. It's expressing an emotion. We're all here trying to achieve the same goal. When you achieve it, you might as well show your emotions in a good way.
I've got to say that climbing the fence is not getting any easier. The older I get, the more difficult it becomes. Most fences are inclined toward the track, so you end up hanging at an angle. Gravity takes over at that point. I'm finding out my limits with it.
I never dreamed that day in Detroit would turn into a trademark, signature move. I never dreamed it would become a way that people identify me and what I'm known for. I never thought it would be something I do after each and every victory, but I'm so glad it came to that.
Ten years later, and it's still a hit. You've got to love that.