I've interviewed so many people over the years that I often wish I'd kept a list from day 1. When I was doing local news, day in and day out, it was hard to even remember who I'd interviewed the day before. But it seems the interviews I do remember are the ones I dreaded.
Enter Jay Howard and 2010 Indy 500 Bump Day. After qualifying for the race earlier in the day, Jay was put “on the bubble” by Takuma Sato during the final hour. Paul Tracy was sitting 32nd and his car was withdrawn in an attempt to post a safer speed. With two minutes left, Sarah Fisher Racing decided to also withdraw Jay, but he couldn't get enough speed out of his car in his final try and failed to make the field. Asking him for an interview the second he stepped out of the car is not my idea of fun. He agreed to talk, and we have since laughed about it, but he doesn't laugh about what happened minutes before that interview. He says he will never forget it and will never be OK with it.
Two years prior, Jay was set to drive for Marty Roth and spent the month in the car. But the morning of qualifying, dressed and ready to get in the car, Jay was replaced by John Andretti, who had a sponsor. Jay didn't. Fast forward to 2011 and Jay hopes the third time is a charm. “Everyone tells me you need a little bit of luck,” he says, “and I tell them I should have triple the luck and win that race by a full lap!”
I talked to Jay Monday afternoon as he sat in his motor home watching timing & scoring while every other driver ran practice laps. He is on the partial-month program, which means he gets 26 sets of tires instead of 33, and 800 engine miles versus 1200. “I'm not even concerned, though,” states Howard (shown at left in practice on Saturday). “I know the car is fast and I'm with a team that is knowledgeable and the people I've got around me are really, really good.”
Those people include Sam Schmidt, Bobby Rahal, and Tim Neff. The latter was Jay's engineer when he won the Firestone Indy Lights championship in 2006 with Schmidt.
Jay says he feels lucky to be trying to make the field with the Schmidt/Rahal Letterman Lanigan entry, and says, “After everything I've done in my career, I deserve to be in this race.” His teammate at RLLR is Bertrand Baguette, who he affectionately calls “Goldmember.” “We're completely different, but we get along well. In fact, when we both stepped out of the cars on the first practice day, we said the exact same things.”
On the entry sheet, Jay is listed as a rookie, but because of his prior experience at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he didn't have to go through Rookie Orientation Practice this year. James Hinchcliffe (Newman/Haas Racing) did, and says it reminded him of high school.
“Getting to drive an IndyCar around the Speedway for the first time is like getting asked to prom by the prettiest girl in school,” says the Canadian who has impressed many this season with his pace and maturity in his first year in the IZOD IndyCar Series. “It's something you dream about but never think will happen. Then when it does, you're just in awe. Speechless. I imagine most rookies have a similar feeling.”
Hinch has at least driven the “big car” in some races. Pippa Mann, by contrast, had one day of experience (at a test at Texas Motor Speedway with her 500 team, Conquest Racing) before taking her rookie test at the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“We got through ROP in just two runs and our first run at speed in the first practice session had us in the middle of the pack,” said the Briton who last year scored an Indy Lights win at Kentucky Speedway for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. “Having said that, obviously it's still very early and I think I'm only just starting to realize how much there is to learn about an IndyCar.”
JR Hildebrand, top of the rookies in the opening day, told me something similar: “It's pretty awesome, but at the same time, it can be daunting.” And this is from the rookie who might have the most going for him in terms of he and the team's collective Gasoline Alley experience. He's driving for Panther Racing (a team that's finished second the last three years straight), he's the most recent Indy Lights champ in the group (2009), he's driven in two Freedom 100s at the Speedway, and he has former 500 winner Buddy Rice as a teammate (that's them at right). “I definitely feel like I've got the people and the resources around me to overcome some of the typical nerves one might have from being a rookie, but as we all know, anything can happen at Indy.”
The other rookies are Scott Speed (Dragon Racing), James Jakes (Dale Coyne Racing), Ho-Pin Tung (Schmidt/Dragon Racing), and Charlie Kimball (Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing). Ho-Pin's driver coach Jeff Andretti – brother of Michael – is trying to help the rookie become the 500's first Chinese driver.
A lot of people right now are talking about how the one-off veterans (Tomas Scheckter, John Andretti, Buddy Rice, etc.) will knock a season regular out of the field, but I think there's no reason one of these rookies won't be able to knock a veteran out of the lineup. Whatever happens this weekend, someone will suffer heartbreak at the last minute – and I'll add that person to my list of interviews I actually remember.
Watch it all unfold live on Versus this weekend. On Saturday (Pole Day), we're on from 11-2:30 E.T. and 4:30-6:30 ET. On Sunday (Bump Day and Armed Forces Day), we've got it covered 12-6:30 p.m. E.T.
And don't forget IndyCar Open Wheel Weekly is on this afternoon from 4-5 p.m. E.T. (with a re-air at 2 a.m. E.T.) and we are live from the Pagoda. Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser, Danica Patrick, Tomas Scheckter, Willy T. Ribbs and Chase Austin will join us, and we have a few special feature stories – John Andretti returns to high school, Ed Carpenter and Sarah Fisher do Laps for Literacy, and Randy Bernard takes a ride in a USAC 2-seater.