In the aftermath, did you feel that people were sympathetic?
JRH: Hmmm… Well, I didn't really ask for anyone's sympathy so I didn't expect that to happen. I know I was a rookie, but it was pretty clear to me right afterward what had happened: I decided to go for a lapping maneuver that didn't work and so I came home in second instead of first. You know, I've played competitive sports for a long time and I've always been a sports fan and, as an athlete, if I don't do something well, the perception will be that I screwed up and so I expect to get reprimanded. That's just how sports work: it's about winning. That's my view.
This was a more complicated issue than just failing to hit a ball that was thrown to you as it has been done in practice a million times before. This was a one-time circumstance that you can't possibly replicate in practice or in previous races. And whether it was because people understood that or they understood that things just don't go your way sometimes, or they respected how we dealt with the disappointment of it, or respected my description of it, it was really cool and quite refreshing that people did sympathize with me; it's something that doesn't happen often in sports.
I was prepared to deal with ridicule or accusations of having choked, but instead, I got the impression that people really understood everything. They got it – they got why I made the decisions I did and what I was feeling right now, and all of that certainly made the enormity of what had happened easier to handle.
At what point did you realize that, in the Centennial Indy 500, you'd contributed to one of the most exciting, crazy, amazing finishes in the race's 95-race history?
JRH: I think I realized quite soon. They always say, “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst,” and I was prepared for a major situation. Even before the car had come to a stop, I knew I was going to have a bunch of microphones shoved in my face and I wouldn't be able to just bat them away. I thought, “I'm going to have to stand up and own up.” If you watch sports, you understand well enough how this deal works, and realize that it's going to have a fairly massive impact on what people think of you for the rest of your career. So yeah, I assumed it would be a big deal, and that helped me not to be caught off-guard.
So…do you go back to the Speedway with a sense of pride? The fact is, you're a rookie who finished second in his first-ever Indy 500, and there aren't too many of them. Or do you head back with a sense of – excuse the tired old phrase – unfinished business?
JRH: There are a lot of races that come down to your car being fast all day and making the right calls on strategy and whether you've got a good enough car that you can make things happen at the end of the race. And that is how I'd describe our situation last year; if we'd followed everyone else's strategy, we'd have gotten fifth or something like that, so although we weren't the very quickest, we were quick but we maximized that by playing it smart: the team's strategy put us in a position to win, sure, but it wasn't like we were only a 15th-place car that got a lucky break. We were in the mix. So, am I proud of how we performed as a team? Damn straight!
But I don't look at it as unfinished business, to be honest. Having an attitude like that just gets in the way of being smart and objective about what's happening in the here and now. If you sit there saying, “We're gonna win this thing!” that's just a stupid approach and doesn't work.
However, I think that we probably do return with more confidence. Last year in qualifying, the priority was to just get ourselves solidly in the field, and some of that approach was because we saw the big picture – the race is the important part of the month of May – but definitely another reason for that approach was because I was a rookie. The team thought there was no real need to risk the car in qualifying when we were confident we'd be in the top 15 anyway. So with hindsight, I'd say we could have been on the front row, had we put ourselves on the same downforce settings as Ganassi and Schmidt. No B.S., I think we had that speed.
So there are things like that which make we think that we are much more prepared for this year's race. There are a lot of things involved in being fast at Indianapolis, but I have to say, the guys at Panther have a lot of that figured out already, and I learned a lot from just driving their car last year. So how we ran last year gives us a lot of positive anticipation for this year's race. There are a lot of developments that went into having a quick racecar at the big ovals last year that can be used for this year's DW12. I'm confident of our chances, yeah.
David Malsher's interview with JR is taken from a feature article appearing in the current issue of RACER magazine about first-time experiences at the Indianapolis 500, which also includes the remembrances of A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford and Helio Castroneves. The June RACER explores the conception of heroism in motorsports in a series of recollections by racers of their heroes, as well as analysis of how and why our sport's icons have gained their unique places in history.
Those icons also include cars, of course, and what could be more of an all-American hero than the Corvette C6.R Le Mans racer, our In Focus photo subject this month? Don't miss it – CLICK HERE to subscribe today at a special 30% discount rate!