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.
• For more of RACER's Centenary Special, check out the May 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.
• For tickets to the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 2011, CLICK HERE.
To get up close to racing history, visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Hall of Fame Museum. Find out more HERE.