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.