There's so much that's unique to the beginning of that race, even down to the fact that you grid up on the race track rather than pit lane so I couldn't run the procedures through my head in advance. There's an amount of preparation that you just can't do as a rookie at that event.
You were on the fourth row, but even from where you are, is it a head-rush going down into Turn 1 on lap 1 with a tunnel of people on either side of the track and with 32 other cars around you.
JRH: It was weird coming back to IMS for that test with the new car a few weeks ago because, yeah, I really noticed how empty the grandstands were compared to the race last year. But on race day last May, I only felt the energy from the crowd pre-race. Once we got the green, it was the increased number of cars on track that caught my attention, not the increased sense of occasion.
Funnily enough, I actually got caught out, because the rows of three are further apart than the rows of two at the start of our other races, and it took me – and I think the other fourth-row guys [Takuma Sato and Vitor Meira] – a while to realize the green flag had flown. The third row had gone: Suddenly it was like, “Oh s***, we better get going!”
And in an instant, I was ultra-zoned in. I was on the outside of the row, but I knew that before all the marbles are down, the car would stick there, so I just wanted to get through the first couple of corners. I certainly didn't have the mentality of, “I'm going to try and pull a Tony Kanaan here!” I wanted to make it to the end of the race, and I knew we had a good car and I could pick up a couple of places.
OK, so fast forward to the end of the race. As you were grinding along the wall, did you realize Dan Wheldon had passed you?
JRH: I was aware that cars were going by, but I couldn't see out of my mirror and, to be honest, I was just focused on damage control to ensure the best possible finish. I knew Dan's No. 98 car was the next car back, but I didn't know where anyone else was, so as soon as I hit the wall, I assumed I was going to be passed, but I didn't know by how many cars or if they were lapped cars. Like I say, at that point I was focused on at least reaching the finish line, however many wheels were attached.
I'd love to know what speed you were doing along the wall…
JRH: Yeah, it couldn't have been slow because I still had my foot in the gas pretty good!
So having been able to zone out the 300,000 people during the race, when you exited the wrecked car at Turn 1 at the end of the race, did it then hit you how many people you'd been performing in front of? I remember you gave a kind of wave of acknowledgment to them…
JRH: Hmmm… [pause] As I was careening toward the Turn 1 wall with hardly any steering, my mind was working so quick, and I remember there was a definite rush of emotion. Over the last 500 yards, thoughts were racing through my brain faster than I could comprehend, going through all the things that had just happened, all the things that went on earlier in the race and then all the people I've got to deal with meeting in the next few minutes. It's all just slamming through my head so fast. Then, as the car eventually stops and I'm getting out, I don't even know what to focus on next – from the Panther team, to the National Guard guys, to the last corner… And for sure, the fact that there are 300,000 people actually watching you go through this mental process is yet another thing that went through my mind! For a moment I couldn't focus on just one thing and get my head straight.
Then, as I calmed down, it became a priority to come to grips with what had just happened, and I knew I didn't have very long to get through the process of figuring it out for myself. Then it became very specific what was on my mind: to get back to the team a.s.a.p..