Some may assume that I'm cutting Power some slack because he's one of the top drivers, and I suppose there's some truth in that. I confess that when an ace like Power, Dixon, Dario Franchitti or Ryan Hunter-Reay screws up, I tend to think their previous record carries some weight. If a guy wins one race then crashes out of the next (think James Hinchcliffe at Iowa, then Pocono), I have a lot more sympathy than for the driver who never crashes but who's permanently two seconds off the pace and who will never break into the top 15. Equally, if a top driver in any category of the sport has his qualifying lap ruined by a clueless backmarker, I tend to care rather more than when roles are reversed. The difference between qualifying first and sixth on the grid is of greater import than the difference between 21st and 26th.
But the main reason I'll defend Power's honor is because I trust him and take him at his word. In eight years, I've not once known him to lie, not once heard him fail to own up to an error he's made either on the track or in the engineering room. Everything he's told me tallies with what I've subsequently found out from other sources, either within the team or outside of it. It cannot be emphasized enough how rare it is to find such total honesty in racing.
Sometimes Power will be initially reticent, or may preface his insights with, “Obviously you can't publish this…” but always he regards it as vital that the story is accurate – whether it's in his favor or not.
For example, back in 2010, during practice for the Indianapolis 500, Power had been getting a bit frustrated by the fact that he was regularly a little off the speeds turned by teammate Castroneves, and admitted that the No. 12 team could not find where that last mile-per-hour was bleeding away. Then, one day they thought they found the problem. “There's a slight manufacturing difference between Helio's rear wing and mine,” explained Power. “Just one of those quality control issues. Anyway, our wings are stalling out at different speeds, and I don't think on that track it's gonna be possible to make up the difference.”
From anyone else, this might have sounded like an unusual and inventive way for saying, “My teammate's got a better car than me, that's the only reason why he's going to beat me in qualifying.” But Power's not like that and never has been. The following morning, the phone rang again. “You know that thing I told you about the rear wing? I think it's bollocks, mate. Me and Rick [Mears] have just been going over the data again, and Helio's taking a slightly different line on the exit of Turn 2 and turning in at a different point in 3. I think that's where he's gaining.”
Power could have gone on letting me think Castroneves had a superior car, but no; once he found the truth, he corrected himself, corrected me, and gave credit where it was due.
He's also very good at separating judgment of his rivals' abilities from his personal opinions of them – again, a rare trait not only in racing but in life itself. For example, it's no secret that Power and Franchitti have a mutual distaste that seems as permanent as the Michael Andretti vs. Bobby Rahal rivalry. Certainly since Sonoma, their thin veneer of cordiality has been stripped away, maybe never to return. But Will's respect for Dario's talent is immense – he was well impressed with the four-time champ's pole lap at Long Beach this year, for example – and he does not seek to score off him nor blame him when it's not called for. It would have been easy for Power to stir the pot following his failed last-lap passing attempt on his old rival at Toronto this year, when Race Control initially sought to exclude Franchitti from third place. Instead, Will admitted that his move was 50/50, he'd outbraked himself given the bumpiness and dirt on the inside line, and that Dario had done nothing wrong.
You see, it's hard not to trust people like that. So when I ran into Power at Baltimore airport last Monday, and we spoke about Dixon, I took his sympathy as genuine. “That poor bastard,” he said. “He's been so quick recently. And he's been so unlucky over the past few years, too. I just never thought that one day I'd be the reason for one of his bad results.”
I attempted to throw him a lifeline, pointing out that some people were saying Dixon jumped the restart. “Huh, we all jumped it, I think!” came the retort. “Because of what happened there last year, everyone except Bourdais was hanging back and then getting on the power early to get a run on the guy in front. I mean, yeah, maybe Dixie got on it earlier than me, so that's why he was pulling up on me, but what he was doing to me was the same as what I was doing to Bourdais. In my opinion, IndyCar's restart procedure is kind of unfair on the leader who's a sitting duck, while we all hang back and then charge!”
A couple of days later, but just before he and Dixon finally chatted it through, Power was reflective. “I think Scott will see it wasn't intentional if he's watched the replay. I mean, I think the fact that there's about one second between when he pulls out to pass me and when I pull out to pass Bourdais sort of shows that I wasn't moving in reaction to him. If I'd been trying to block him, I'd have pulled out earlier. But like I said afterward, I just didn't think anyone would have a run on me like that, so I didn't check my mirrors.”
Given the bumpiness of the track at that point and the tiny little mirrors, could he have seen Dixon even if he'd looked?
“Oh yeah,” said Power. “If your right mirror's full of red, and he's not showing in your left mirror, you kind of know where he is. No excuses there.”
OK, I said, what about those who say you weren't moving to block him, and that you were waiting for him to get alongside and then giving him a Michael Schumacher-style squeeze, and to hell with the consequences?
“What? Who's saying that? No. No way! I would never do that,” said an appalled Power. “That's the worst thing you could do. It's dangerous and it's just…wrong. That is so outside my way of thinking. I'm not even in the championship. If you're in the championship fight, the last thing you want is some wanker who's not in the fight going and screwing with you. It's not fair. I hate that this has happened.”
Before you get the impression that Power is one of those guys who'll mentally and publicly torture himself AJ Allmendinger-style, think again.
“The way it happened is that I hurt the championship chances of the guy who's fighting my teammate for the championship,” he said, “but that's just coincidence. If any other car had jumped me, the same accident would have happened but it wouldn't be seen as such a major deal. I hate that it was Dixie – the only thing worse would have been if it had been Helio! Can you imagine?! But the actual mistake itself was a pretty small one. And if you go back and look, it's not like I have a history of this. When I've made mistakes, they've not involved other people, you know? It's not like I hurt other people's chances. They're usually spins in practice when I'm seeing where the limit is or trying something different or whatever.”
He paused, let out an expletive.
“You know what, it doesn't matter what I say, does it? There are people involved with Dixie or Chip or Mike Hull or Dario or whoever that are always gonna think – or are always gonna say they think – that I did it deliberately. But I know the truth. And if they thought about it logically, they'd realize that there's no way I would deliberately risk throwing away my own race. All I wanted to do was what I always want to do – win the race.
“Sure, I'm gonna help Helio if I can; I'd be prepared to let him through if he was behind me in the closing stages, but by that point in that race he'd had his own problems, I hadn't seen him, the team hadn't told me where he was so as far as I knew, there was nothing I could do. My job is to do what Roger Penske pays me for which is to win races, and I had a great shot in Baltimore. I think Bourdais was the only guy who had anything for us over the course of a whole race, so why would I risk that? It doesn't make any sense.”
No, it doesn't. Nor would it make sense to expect Power to back down or show any timidity at the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston next month. He was mortified by his mistake in Baltimore, because its championship repercussions were out of all proportion to the size of the error. But the longer this simmering tension between Ganassi and Penske continues, the more the three-time championship runner-up claims the moral high ground, because he's apologized publicly and privately to Dixon and there's nothing more he feels he can do now.
“I just want to think about the next three races and put all this crap behind us,” Will said on Wednesday. “My job, my loyalty is to Team Penske and I'm paid to race to win so I'm just going to keep my head down and focus on that.”
And would what happened in Baltimore adjust his outlook for Houston, maybe affect his determination?
“If you mean ‘make it stronger,' then yeah!” was the reply. “Seriously, I'm just sick of all this BS. I just want to go out and bury them all and that's what I'll be trying to do.”
And, like I say, take Will Power at his word.
David Malsher is the editor of RACER magazine