That got your attention, right? Well I’m not kidding. I have a way better, stronger car relative to the opposition than I did in 2002 when we won. (Yeah, that’s right, suckers, we won that.) Back then, Team Green had a mediocre, mid-pack car, but the team played it smart on strategy, and I put a few moves on people and we mixed it up and made it happen. Now I reckon that between us, KV Racing and myself have this GEICO No. 15 car looking good in a straight fight.
You’ll have noticed a big turnaround from my mood last night, when I was howling at the moon because there was no one to blame for our situation. We have a restricted tire allocation and engine lease, and although we have to suck it up, sucking things up makes me choke some times. Last night was one of those times. But now we’ve stuck ourselves firmly on the fifth row – and we’re looking really good in race trim.
Just to rewind a moment, I still wasn’t happy this morning. We ran great in practice, getting a 223.2mph on the first lap, but we couldn’t match it in our first qualifying run. I mean, we started on a 223.2 again, but it started falling off really bad and we averaged at a 222.6mph. It started really pushing, and I couldn’t keep up with it on the weight-jacker. Afterward, I went through all the media, and I wasn’t very happy, and I just told them that this is where we were at. I was pretty miserable. The way things were looking, given that the track conditions were good, I thought we’d slip back to 17th or 18th.
Anyway, getting back from the media center, I thought it was time for us to go and do a long run. But the car was just coming back from tech, and my engineer John Dick walked in and said, “OK, do you want to go and do that again? We’re gonna put exactly the same setup as Mario [Moraes, my teammate] had on.” I asked if we had the tires to do it, and he said, “Well, yeah, we held a couple of extra sets back for the race, just in case…” Well, I like nice surprises. Then Jimmy V walked in and said, “Hmmm, well, I don’t know. Maybe we don’t want to do that yet, let’s see how other guys run. It’s a risk,” and so on.
Then a couple of guys bumped us down, I think, but the deciding factor was when Ed Carpenter bumped us down to 17th. The way things turn here at Indy, I could see us winding up on the seventh row, down in the danger zone. So I called Kevin K, and said, “Hey, we want to take another run at this because we think we can run 223s,” and he told us to go for it. Then Doug Barnette, my agent, text-messaged the CEO of GEICO, and he came back with a message saying, “Hey, we’re watching the show on TV. If you reckon you’ve got the speed, you go for it. We’d love to see the car back out on track.”
So, we went out for a practice run and ran 223.2s and on the slow-down lap, I radioed in and said, “OK, let’s roll it into tech. The car’s perfect, let’s do it.” So off we went. I think my first lap was a 223.4, and then it did start dropping off but nowhere near as quick as before, and I was able to correct it with the jacker, and stay close enough to produce an average of 223.111. Bang! We were in at 13th, beaten only by Matos, and we wouldn’t get knocked off that spot for the rest of the day.
I’m not only happy about being second quickest on the day. Looking at the bigger picture, I’m checking out the grid now and the only cars quicker than us are from Penske, Ganassi and AGR, plus a kinda Penske (Matos) and my teammate, who has an unlimited engine/tire deal. I think that’s as good as we could have expected to be. We’re even ahead of one of the AGR cars, Hideki Mutoh’s, and we know he’s not a slouch on ovals – and we’ve beaten good drivers and packages like Justin Wilson at Dale’s team, and Dan Wheldon’s Panther car. Kevin and Jimmy and Mark Johnson [team manager] are happy, the sponsors are happy, and now we can focus on what lies ahead.
For that reason, our next move after doing our second qualifying run was to go back out in race trim and do a longer run. We did a 15-lap run and the car was just great, and I was able to run 220mph laps, wide open for the whole run. KV have given me a car that’s really good in race trim, and I’m also pleased to say the Firestones hold up, too. Once you put on race-level downforce, and put the race springs on, they’re fine. When you’re on a knife-edge in qualifying, the tires are sliding, and that’s why they lose their bite. You have to almost go slow on the warmup lap so you’ve still got grip for laps three and four of a qualy run.
I don’t know if they showed my race simulation run on Versus, but anyone who saw it either on TV or at the track can see how different a driver’s lines are between qualifying and race mode. Once you get these cars trimmed out for qualifying, you’re using the full width of the track, to let the car run free. You don’t see guys threatening the white line at the bottom of the track at all, because you can’t turn the car that sharply because it’s so nervous on corner-entry. That’s why you have to have the tires up to temperature, that’s why the cars are so affected by gusts of crosswind, and that’s why you’ve seen a bunch of accidents the last few days. There’s no rear wing to keep you pinned down, so the rear end is sliding around and you’ve got to take the line that requires the least amount of steering input. But with race downforce on, you have more options open to you.
I’m not driving for the whole week, now: our engine program’s out of miles, and we have our tires for the race set aside. So I’ll go home for a few days and see the kids, and step up my training program even more, too. It’s been hectic the last few days. I’ve been packing my time with media interviews, trying to show Tony George that I’m of value to his series. It seems like between every run, I’ve been doing media stuff. People have wanted to talk to me about everything.
So now I’ll exercise and relax, exercise and relax and make a real routine of that while also getting my head in race mode. Then I’ll come back Friday night, to watch my other teammate, Townsend Bell. He’ll be practicing Thursday and Friday, and then we’ll watch him qualify on Saturday and Sunday.
I’ll give you a few updates this week. Stay tuned. And thank you to everyone who’s keeping the faith in me, KV Racing and the GEICO car. It means a lot. The way our car has felt and the speed we had in that race simulation means I think we’ve got a good shot at this race. If we just stay out of trouble, make slick pit stops and sensible adjustments, and avoid any of the screwy things that can happen at Indy, I think we have a good chance to win the 2009 Indy 500. And I’m a realist: I wouldn’t be saying that if I didn’t mean it.
P.T.[Subscribe to RACER before May 26 in order to start your subscription with the July issue, which includes an exclusive, no-holds-barred Paul Tracy interview. - Ed.]