Q: So…onto 2009 then. Obviously Helio had his problems with his court case. He came back at Long Beach, and that was all about the relief and exultation of him getting a chance to get back to doing his real job. Was he completely focused again come Indy?
RR: Well, you've got to remember he'd gotten cleared on something very serious that could have ended his career, so maybe the right word to choose would be “rejuvenated.” So, yes, I think it played a big role through that Month of May for him. Anybody might think, “Oh, look at Helio, he's all excited, he's jumping up and down, can't stop smiling,” but I can tell you it's not an act: he's like that all the time! He only has one direction: drive hard and be positive. He could have a bad car, and he'll still be on the radio cracking jokes because he's doing what he loves to do. When he did Dancing With the Stars, I remember judges telling him he sometimes needs to be serious, and I was like, “Yeah right! Helio's gonna get serious? I don't think so!” The phrase “happy-go-lucky” would sum him up.
Q: He didn't dominate that 2009 race. It looked like the Ganassi boys had an edge. Did Helio have something in hand?
RR: Well, no, we were not the fastest car on the track. Helio was comfortable with where he was at, but it was our pit crew that I was most proud of. Both Franchitti and Dixon had problems in the pits, and we were in a position to take advantage, because we made no mistakes on the track, no strategy mistakes – Tim Cindric did a great job of calling the race – and no mistakes from the pit crew. Keep getting all three of those right, and you'll win a few, even if you're not quite the fastest. You can take advantage of other people's miscues. It was a close, hard-fought race.
Q: Yeah, it was one of those classic Indy 500s where two great teams try to reach the same goal but end up using different methods: One has the faster car but less slick pit stops; the other gets everything operationally right, but is slightly off the other one's pace. Interestingly, those roles between Penske and Ganassi were reversed last year.
RR: Yeah, that's right. We had a strong Month of May last year, getting 1-2 on the grid and winning the pit stop competition. And something that we strive for in the race is to not have mistakes in the pits but if you're there 20 years, one of them isn't going to be your best, and unfortunately, we had some miscues – a loose tire, stalling the car and so on. But it makes you even more aware of the things that can happen, and I can assure you that will make us stronger this year. Things can go wrong in a hurry, so you need to be prepared to correct them. A year on and we still talk about it and that's because we always plan to fix any mistakes.
Q: Ganassi seem to be kings of turning their cars' performance around. For example, last year at Homestead, the test on the Monday beforehand, Penske looks like everything is under control, but come qualifying, Ganassi are half a mile-an-hour quicker and sweep the front row. And Indy last year was another example: Helio and Will Power are first and second on the grid, and Franchitti has to be ridiculously brave to join them on the front row. But come race day, he's on the same pace and, combined with perfect pit stops by the No. 10 crew, he's gone. It's as if Penske set the bar at a certain height and prompt quite unbelievable performances from Ganassi.
RR: I think that's true, yes, because I know when it's reversed, and Ganassi is on top on the day, night or week before a race, we try and figure out why and a lot of times, we can go out and completely turn things around. That's the nature of our competition.
I thought that of our three cars last year, Will was the fastest on race day. He was dicing with Dario but then, boom, he had the problem in the pits. It was just like with the Ganassi cars the year before. Indy is a very strange place, a sacred ground, and boy, things can go bad in a hurry, or things can turn positive in a hurry.
Q: I remember Will saying at one point he radioed the pits because his car was so fast he was convinced his push-to-pass was jammed on, and that he was therefore using too much fuel.
RR: Yeah, and it was sad it went wrong for him. But, you know, his performance last year was still a big step forward mentally. A lot of people believe Will could have won that race, and he too has that confidence now. Instead of just thinking he might be able to win, he can come to the Speedway each day now truly knowing he can win it and knowing his team believes he can win it. I think you'll see very good things from him this year.
Q: Final question: can Helio put behind him the troubles he's had at the start of this season? Does the Month of May give him a complete mental do-over?
RR: Ab-so-lutely! In the 1980s and early '90s, this was Rick Mears' race to win or lose, and the guy right now who has a similar handle on this place is Helio. He has all the confidence in the world here, and he knows the team has that confidence in him. If he runs the race he's capable of running, he can be the engine of the Penske train, and it's up to him and the people around him to get the job done. I believe this will be his back-in-the-ballgame race.
Q: OK, so that wasn't the final question. This is: If Helio does get a fourth win, do you think he's worthy of joining Rick Mears, Al Unser and AJ Foyt in that exclusive club?
RR: Oh yes. He's got three now, but if you dissect all the races, he could easily have five – getting caught behind Foyt IV in '03 cost him a win, and we were maybe as little as a minute from winning Indy in '07, when it rained on us. Franchitti would have had to come in for fuel in a lap-and-a-half. Unfortunately, the sky opened up a minute or so before that happened. So, back to your question, is Helio up there with those guys? Yeah. Indy is one of a kind, and to win here puts you in a different class. But to compete and consistently be in a position to win here, as Helio has been these past 10 years, means you're up there with a Mears, Foyt or Unser.