It's easy to see why Mears was one of Vasser's heroes. They both preach analysis of the car while driving at 220mph. “There's a big difference between what I'm telling them for Indy, and what I'm telling them for the high-banked ovals,” states Rick. “The flatness of Indy means there's a lot more work with the engineer in trying to find the optimum setup. It's not so much of a pattern-driven track. When the short line is the quick way around the track, you don't have as much leeway to tune the car and change the balance or where you put it, as you do at Indy. Around there, you lift, maybe angle the car so you back the corner up, and roll in easier so you can get on the throttle sooner in order to lengthen your straightaway, that kind of thing.”
If lapping Indy is different from any other circuit, then racing it is something else again. Says Rutherford: “Handling in traffic is something you just have to learn through practice and in the races. One of the most critical times in the Indy 500 is the start, when everyone is bunched together and you've really got to be focused and heads-up and be alert to anything that might cause you problems.”
But once you're out of the 33-car pack, getting the handling tuned for dealing with traffic becomes the priority. Rutherford observes: “Most drivers brought up as road racers like to have the car understeer on an oval, because it helps them feel like they've got more control of it, but the quick way around Indianapolis is to have it neutral. Sometimes, drivers can't do that: They've got to have that feeling that it's pushing going into the corner, but the problem that they encounter then is that's all they've got. You can't combat it. These current cars don't have the power to neutralize understeer with the throttle, so you have to take a certain trajectory through the corner and if a backmarker interrupts that, you have to back right off to accommodate him. On the other hand, if you've got your car neutral, you can take it up a foot or down a foot and it will still behave faithfully.”
By the time you're passing backmarkers in the Indy 500, the actual driving of the racecar should be coming naturally, freeing you up to coolly analyze everything that's going on around you. Mears, for example, believes there is a tendency for drivers to become over-reliant on their spotters.
“Your spotter is just a back-up,” he states firmly. “As a driver, you should already know what's going on. If you're aware, then you can make moves that you wouldn't be able to if you waited on someone to tell you. I never had a spotter – and you should see the look on these kids' faces when I tell them that. Well, I think they should be able to do without a spotter if they're doing everything else the way they should be.”
Vasser concurs. “Mario [Moraes] was bloody quick last year at Indy, but what happened? An accident at the first corner. We at KV say Marco [Andretti] took him out – Marco had no business on the outside of that turn, on Mario's right rear. He's still a kid himself, and I'm sure his grandpa and his dad told him that on the first lap of a 500-mile race, you don't go to the outside of a guy that you've recently claimed to be a danger!
“But the other side of it is that Mario didn't have his eye on that mirror to know that Marco was there. So he wasn't visualizing and anticipating the way someone like Paul Tracy will. Paul may be KV's best bet for the 500 just from his huge experience alone. Experience on an oval is immensely important. You don't see a lot of rookies run up front straight away at Indy.”
But if there's one saying that should ring in the ears of all 33 drivers – rookies and veterans alike – who take the green at Indy on Sunday May 30, it should be the advice that Rutherford passes on to all young racers. “If you only think you can, don't!”