How the hell did we just qualify for this year's Indy 500? We've posted the 35th-fastest qualifying speed, we've been bumped not once, not twice, but three times – and couldn't have attempted to re-qualify because our driver Sebastian Saavedra is in the hospital for an MRI on his back and our car is a smoldering heap on the floor of our garage in Gasoline Alley.
Yet at one second after 6 p.m. EST, at the end of Bump Day qualifying, here I am at the end of pit lane, jumping around and yelling like a maniac with Bryan Herta Autosport co-owner Steve Newey and Colin Dyne, the CEO for our sponsor WilliamRast. We're in! The scene's surreal. And in the midst of our celebration I catch from the corner of my eye Paul Tracy stepping out of his car, unable to beat the clock and make a final attempt at getting in the race.
As happy as I am to have our car make the race for our first Indy 500, I wish it hadn't come at P.T.'s expense. Paul is a contemporary of mine, we've raced together many times and, over the years, I've truly grown to like and admire the guy. I consider him a friend, yet don't feel I really know him. I'm not sure anyone can peel back all the layers: Paul is an enigma. You can't argue with the stats – 31 career Indy car wins (some would argue for a 32nd in the 2002 Indy 500), 25 poles, 4,238 laps led – but that only tells half the story. Never one to back down from a challenge on the track or a little controversy off it, Paul is absolutely the guy I want to sit down with for this Racer2Racer.
BH: Shall we talk about your most recent experience?
PT: When your team bumped me out of the Indy 500?
BH: Hey, technically your team let us back in!
PT: Hmm….Yeah, I guess we bumped ourselves out which is the biggest mistake we could have made. I'd been sitting there on the timing stand figuring what we'd do, and for the longest time, no one was doing anything good – 219mph, 220mph. As the line formed to go for qualifying runs, we got in line, and all of a sudden, one of the Conquest cars, Romancini, posts a 224.7. So we thought, “Jeez, the track's picked up big time.” Sarah Fisher does 224.6, and we figure Sarah and Jay Howard have got to be close on setup, so he's capable of doing the same and bumping me. So I get strapped in, and I don't see what's going on, or the timing board.
BH: So you didn't know you were still in the race?
PT: No. There was a lot of yelling and screaming going on. Then, all of a sudden, the team says, “Go! You've got to qualify.” I assumed I'd been bumped. Well, the car just wasn't there; it was horrible. As soon as I'd get into Turn 3, heading for the white line, the tailwind would push the whole car into a slide. I stayed flat all four laps, but that wasn't enough.
BH: It actually broke my heart that you didn't get in…
PT: Yeah, sure it did!
BH: No, seriously. That was the most exciting run of the month. And I was impressed with how you handled the whole thing. Was that down to experience?
PT: Well, believe me, I was plenty mad when I got back to my bus, and since then I've had a few goes at Jimmy Vasser on the phone about it, but what can he do? He can only say, “I'm sorry, we didn't do a good enough job” so many times.
BH: So now you've got Watkins Glen and the two Canadian races locked in for this year, but you're looking around just like any other professional driver for a full-time ride in 2011.
PT: It's not easy. I wasn't able to make the jump when the Champ Car/IndyCar merger happened. I was under contract to Forsythe and couldn't get released, but he disappeared and I couldn't get out of the situation until it was too late to get a ride. So I sat out for most of 2008, and all I've been able to do since then is pick up onesy-twosy rides, which is frustrating.
BH: But you don't need to do this. You do it because you love it. You've already won 31 Indy car races, you can make a strong case for having won the Indy 500 and you won the CART title.
PT: It depends what you mean by “need.” I don't need to do it for financial reasons. But I need to race to keep my sanity. Whenever I'm not doing it, all I think about is doing it. I haven't been able to find anything that satisfies me like racing an Indy car…And believe me, I've tried a few things. I've raced trucks, I've got a 170mph boat, a 1300hp sand rail – all this crap that doesn't give me the same adrenaline rush. Driving racecars is what I've done my whole life and I'm not ready to turn it off yet.
The weird thing is, although I'm not racing full time, I'm more busy than when I was full time. But I don't get the same sense of accomplishment.
BH: I can relate to that. As a team owner, I don't think I've ever worked so hard in my life, but I guess I'm channeling that energy, and I'm enjoying the process. That's probably what's keeping me from going crazy.
PT: Exactly. People have asked me on Twitter why I don't start a team for myself, but I don't have that interest. Like you said, it's a full-time job.
BH: OK, well let's look back now. It was Road America 2001, the track was still damp from earlier rain, and for whatever reason, you and I had started near the back of the pack. We'd passed about eight cars already and you were right behind me, but there was still a river running across the track just after the kink. Max Wilson was just ahead, and he goes into this river but before he disappears into the spray, I see him check up, so I'm forced to as well.
Of course, you and I get together and spin – we're still doing about 170mph, but now you're facing me, about the same distance as we are on this couch, and we're sliding along the wall. We've got clear visors, we're looking at each other…and while we're still in the middle of the accident, with grass and mud flying everywhere, you give me the head-nod, – “Hey, whassup?” I'll never forget that! It was the craziest thing.
PT: That's pretty funny! What I recall of the accident was afterward, the pair of us trying to figure out how the hell to get back to the paddock. We were traipsing through the forest, up this long, muddy hill, and the rain had turned everything into a bog. We were covered in crap by the time we got back to civilization. Ah…Just another day with P.T.!