My first trip to Indy was different than many people's, I think – different and fantastic. At Andretti Green Racing in 2003, I had Michael Andretti as a teammate and look at his stats there: everything except crossing the line first. So when I got to see his thought processes on not just the race but the whole Month of May, I learned so much. Then I also had Dario; he wasn't part of my first Indy because he got injured, but he was still around. And there was Tony Kanaan, Bryan Herta and Robby Gordon. So I was thrown in at the deep end with those guys, and although it was daunting, it meant I also had immense respect for the track and every lap that you do on it. Yeah, “daunting” and “respect” are the two words I think of when I remember my initial 500.
Oh, and “fast!” As the rookie of the team, I got the role of doing the qualifying sims with Tino Belli as my engineer and Barry Green working in my pit. We tended to take all the glory by doing a qualifying sim in the morning and again in the afternoon, while the experienced guys did all the race setup work.
Michael was drumming into me how the car changes in traffic, and that was something I worked on a lot once we were through qualifying. However much they told me about it, though, actually feeling the dirty air and the draft was mind-blowing. They instilled in me that throughout the race, I need to constantly strive to improve the car. Even when you feel it's good, you've got to read the track, read the temperature, and see if you can make the car stronger toward the end of a stint. It's all about making sure the rear of the car is under you for the whole stint and I remember just working on that. In my radio – he wasn't talking to me – but all I could hear from Michael's radio was “rear grip”.
I was fortunate: I never dropped too far back in the pack; I was always in the top 10. During the race, you're constantly thinking and at the end of a long, long month, it's a mental challenge. Of the rookies in the past 5-10 years, I probably had the best preparation, given the team I was in, the teammates I had and the association with Honda. It was difficult, but they'd prepared me for those circumstances. We were doing about 230mph in qualifying with new tires on, and in the race too, the fastest lap was near that figure when we were in the draft.
The accident came on a restart. I think I was running fifth or sixth, which was quite good for my first Indy, and I was a bit frustrated at Sam Hornish, because he dropped back to get a run on me for the green flag. So having seen what he'd done, out of frustration I defended quite vigorously when we got the green. I was still relatively new and, looking back, I was too hard. Going into Turn 3 behind (I think) Tora Takagi, I went in and tried to hold the nose down tight to keep clean air on my front wing. And it was too much; the rear snapped around on me, and although it didn't feel that hard, the air got under the car and flipped it over.
As I was sliding along on my head, I remember feeling disappointed for everybody in the team because it had been such a strong effort up to that point, and that's always the last thing everyone remembers. But I was disappointed in myself. Didn't think about the danger so much. I already had huge respect for the track; the accident didn't make much difference one way or another. I always knew it could bite. I mean, just for the sake of other drivers out there, you can never lose concentration or even just take it for granted. What it did was teach me what I could or couldn't get away with. That year's lesson, if you like, was don't hold such a tight line when you're in the dirty air of three or four cars. You learn and move on.
Next year, the AGR cars finished 2-3-4 and I led 30 laps. I can remember all these races so well. I led early on, and in the middle, before Tony took over at the front. We all had fantastic cars, but toward the end, Buddy Rice got the two of us. He was really fast, and was quick over a long stint. I always leave the track learning from everything that's gone on, and I think that year I think maybe I should have been just a little more aggressive with the amount of downforce I ran. I could have run less. But you also don't want to come back the next year thinking, “I had a little too much last year so I'll trim it out more this year.” That isn't how it necessarily works. It's dependent on the balance of your racecar.
So I was frustrated that I didn't win, but it was still a good year: I thought I did a good job with the package I had, I thought the team did a good job, but it wasn't quite meant to be. Would we have won if it hadn't rained and been stopped early? I don't know. Same as last year, really: if we didn't get a yellow, would Dario have made it on his fuel? Ah, I never think like that because it's just a waste of time; it didn't happen that way, so it doesn't matter.
Starting position matters less at Indy than anywhere, because it's a long race, and starting 16th like we did in 2005 didn't bother me. It made it hugely entertaining, actually. I had won a lot of races coming into the Month of May that year, and I had huge confidence. My engineer and I were just nailing it. Even when we made decisions that weren't correct, they somehow turned out to be the right decisions to make! It was crazy. We were phenomenally quick for the first part of that month, and so were my teammates: we just seemed to have a ton of speed.
Honda has always been fabulous to me, and they're such a great group to be part of. If you have a problem, they're always very open-minded. They don't just give you one direct answer; everyone in that group put their knowledge and experience together and they'll try and help you by offering you different alternatives. So when we changed engines for qualifying, and we were slow, I knew it wasn't the engine. We just couldn't figure it out. I went out on qualifying day and I was 2mph off what I had done before. It was 2:30 p.m. and my engineer said, “That's it, I can't figure it out – we're done for the day.” And then I just lost it. Absolutely lost it. I was yelling, "I am not getting out of this racecar until we've figured out the problem. The car is quick, the engine's good, you're doing a good job, I'm doing a good job – there's something that we haven't thought of and I'm not going into race week with a slow car.” He was still saying, “Get out,” and I said, "I will sit in this car until 6 o'clock, I swear I will.”
This went back and forth, but he could tell in my voice I was serious. So everyone put their heads together and we basically figured out what was wrong. It wouldn't have been quite good enough for pole; it would have put me second on the grid. Unfortunately, we didn't have enough time to get in line to prove it, so we were qualified 16th but, from that quick lap, I knew we would be good for the race. It felt so strong and comfortable, I wasn't bothered we were down in 16th. In some ways, because it was the first tough experience I had at Andretti Green and we'd got our heads together and figured it out, that put more positive energy through the No. 26 group than if it had all gone smooth.
So, sure enough, come race week, the car was phenomenal, I could put it anywhere I wanted. I worked on the race setup because I knew I was starting low, so the way the car handled in traffic just became more and more refined. And John Anderson, well, he was just superb; I miss him so much. I just knew between him, Eddie Jones and the boys on the car that we were going to have a phenomenal race and we did it.
And of course the next year, at Chip Ganassi Racing was the total opposite: we led three quarters of the race and wound up fourth…That was devastating. I remember Chip calling me two or three days later and I don't think even he had realized how disappointed I still was. It probably affected me for a couple of weeks.
We'd been quite quick in qualifying trim but we'd been a little bit off, so I didn't really focus on going for pole but we still ended up third, and in race trim we were terrible up until the last afternoon of practice. I was working closely with Andy Brown – he figured out what I needed and it was transformed. It was ridiculous, actually: I've never had a car like that which would click off quicker laps in dirty air. OK, I wasn't around traffic that much because I led so much, but every backmarker I came across, I could use the draft and continue to stay flat out. It was nuts. Chip was on the radio saying, “You're 19 seconds ahead of everyone and pulling away. Slow down.” And I was saying, “Dude, I'm not putting it on the edge. It feels so comfortable.”
And then I picked up the puncture just before my stop. I think it dropped me to ninth and I had to come back through to fourth. Hornish won that year, but just before my stop I had been about to lap him! So that made it an incredibly difficult pill to swallow.
Different situations make you handle the media in a different way. Some of the things that have gone on the past couple of years, I've been forced to stay away from the media. In that particular circumstance it was just sheer disappointment, and I think it was then that a lot of the media started to realize how much I loved that race. There was so much disappointment in my voice. You've got to move on. That year, I ended up tying with Sam for the championship points but he'd gotten more wins, and a lot of people would have been frustrated at that too, but we gave away so many points. I remember leading Texas comfortably but at a pit stop one of the guys dropped a wheelnut. But everyone makes mistakes. I was leading at Kentucky and I came in and overshot the pits. It was just one of those years where things didn't quite come together but we were fastest car for most of that year.
Second places people sometimes assume are disappointing, and I always say, “Well, it depends on the circumstances.” In 2009 at Panther (BELOW), I honestly think we got everything out of that race we possibly could; it was quick but not Castroneves-quick because we didn't have the balance I'd have needed to take downforce out and match his speed. I thought everyone executed their jobs perfectly that day and I look back on that and I don't think we could have done any more; we extracted everything we could that year. The last three or four laps, that car was so loose, I was holding my breath through the turns…but I was not going to let Danica by me, no way! I was new to the team, and they were figuring out exactly what I like, and felt we could come back and be stronger in 2010. And we were.
Looking back to 2003, then, I remember it as intense, but I got to enjoy the experience, too – working with those guys instilled in me the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the true value of racing in the 500. I just love it. As the championship gets more competitive, I think it's gaining in importance – what Dario's achieved is amazing – but my passion specifically for the 500 is just immense.
That month is so tiring because you never stop thinking about it. In your motor coach, you're either going over data or watching old videos of Indy. You'll be having dinner with your wife and she'll stop what she's talking about and suddenly say, “You're thinking about your car, right?” She sees the signs. It just never stops. Winning once just makes you more determined to win again.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway is just a great place with a lot of history – like the Monaco or British Formula 1 grands prix, you just get that extra sense of pride winning there. It's got an extra energy because it's become a national and international institution. It's not just the die-hard dedicated fans turning up at Indy. You've got families coming out, all generations, because it's an event. It's so much more than just a race.
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