Like you say, the following years we didn't come back and weren't able to prove that hey, that was a fluke. So it was great that when we did return in 2001, we went straight to Victory Lane. That was a little bit of redemption and a proud day for us. We'd gotten back to where we wanted to be and needed to be, and showed that's where we belonged.
Q: Considering you were racing Reynard-Honda turbos in CART full time in 2001, how much of a culture shock were the IRL IndyCars?
RR: There was a lot of work over the previous winter, and then remember we did the IRL Phoenix race. That was a good test for us; Helio's engine let go and Gil got hit from behind as he was coming into the pits and crashed, but it was a big learning race for the team. We discovered a lot of things that we could improve upon, and I believe it played a big part in us winning the race. I'd say we were better suited than most teams for dealing with a new chassis. You've got to remember, we used to get a new car every year back then and if our own Penske didn't work as well as we'd like, we'd use another manufacturer's chassis, so we were able to cope with a totally different car. And in terms of reliability, I think as a team, we made that happen; we made changes that we thought would make it safer for the driver, better for the durability of the car, and we still do that in the cars we have today, whether it's padding, or reinforcing an area.
Q: You had worked with Helio since he arrived, so how well did you two relate?
RR: He was almost like a son to me. After a while, I could tell you everything he was going to do, everything he was going to say, how he'd react, I could predict situations he'd get himself into – and predict if he'd get himself out of them! As I said, the first few races of the season, I've been listening to Briscoe as his spotter, and of course he speaks pretty good English, but for me he's different. It's not that he's hard to understand, but it's hard to interpret what he's saying. But 10 years with Helio, he didn't speak as good English as Ryan, obviously, but I knew what he meant. I knew what he wanted. He could be saying one thing, but I knew he meant something else! That's what happens with familiarity over the years. I knew when he was happy, when he was mad, when he needed something, when the car was just right. It was a pretty good open dialogue that we had.
Q: There's a lot of controversy surrounding his 2002 Indy 500 victory, but were you pretty confident that Team Penske had that thing won, even before the court case?
RR: Yeah. We knew what we had, and right afterward people said we ran out of fuel and that wasn't the case. First thing we did was go through tech and drain the fuel out, and we had plenty left. It was a situation where Helio got caught up in the yellow. If there hadn't had been that yellow, there's no way Paul Tracy would pass him on the outside of Turns 3 or 4. We were pretty confident. It was an unfortunate situation, but it was a W for Team Penske.
Q: I hate to keep bring you back to another one that got away for you, but 2003 – you're part of a Penske 1-2, but how do you describe the feeling of being happy for your teammates but losing it by such a minuscule amount?
RR: Oh well, I remember that like it happened earlier today, too! I was happy for Gil, for sure, but I don't know if we – and I mean our half of the team – gave Helio enough information. He was in the lead, and it was tough to pass there that year, but I saw A.J. Foyt IV going into Turn 1 and he wasn't going very quick, and of course Helio's flying. He wasn't ready to suddenly encounter him, he had to lift, and of course Gil was in a position far enough behind him to see everything that was going on and, boom! He never lifted, went down low, and away he went. So yeah, we finished 1-2, and like I say, I was happy for Gil and his crew, but boy, it would have been special to get three in a row.
Q: That was an unusual year in that you went to grid with Helio in the Dallara, Gil in the G-Force. Were there significant differences in those cars' strengths and weaknesses, or was it just down to driver feel?
RR: Just driver feel; we left it very much up to them. Both performed well. If one had had a significant speed over the other, then Roger would have made the decision for them to take the faster one, obviously. But each driver was up to speed, so at that point it became a mental comfort zone, and they were allowed to choose whichever suited them better. And it paid off with a 1-2!
Q: So fast forward a little. It amazes me that engineers keep finding these tiny details that improve what effectively are now 8-year-old designs. If Helio got in his winner from 2003 and then his winner from '09, I assume there would be a night-and-day difference above and beyond the engines, obviously. Is that accurate?
RR: If he drove them in a back-to-back session, yes. But if he got in the older car and we worked on it for two or three days, and got that comfort level and the same feeling as he has in the newer car, he''d be just as fast. The thing is, Helio drives these things around Indy by the seat of his pants; some of the poles that he's had have been incredible.
In the first one, in 2003, he was over 231mph, even though the wind was blowing so hard you could barely stand up in pit lane! He just has a gift for this place. Some guys learn something about a certain track that none of their rivals know. I felt the same way about Al Unser Jr. at Long Beach, for example. I'm not sure if it was the lines he took to corners, or where he was braking, but he had that circuit mastered like no one else.
And I think you've got to remember that Helio has had some help from Rick Mears; it's not like Rick doesn't know this place! You can sit and listen to Rick explain to Helio what he needs to do here or there, or what he needs to do in this situation or that situation, and it's amazing the information that's shared between them. So you can understand why Helio takes Indy poles a lot; he's had a hell of a teacher.