Drivers Much Busier In Cars This Year, Have To Also Balance Indy 500 Hype Too

INDIANAPOLIS – No matter where you live, it’s extremely frowned upon to be texting while driving your everyday vehicle. Heck, in some states, it’s illegal to even be messing with electronic devices while in the drivers seat. Well, imagine not only driving at speeds in excess of 220 mph, but also be doing so when pulling more g-forces in each of the four corners on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval than the space shuttle or a rocket and also having to do so while adjusting tools on your steering wheel, talking to your crew, listening to your spotter and driving around 32 of your closest friends. Oh, try doing this in front of 300,000+ spectators in a race that could change your life forever if you win.

Sounds simple right?

Well, for 33 Verizon IndyCar Series drivers, when they strap into their cars on Sunday for the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET/ABC/INDYCAR Radio Network) they’re going to have to be doing all the above and more.

Blocking Out The Aura Around the Indy 500 To Start The Race

“I feel like when you’re really in the moment, you actually forget that it’s the ‘500 and the significance of it,” Will Power told me on fending off the magnitude of this race. “I guess I forget that as soon as I start. I just kind of get into a race car driver mode and go through the race. If you think of the event, the size of the event, you’re thinking of winning and that sort of thing, you’re not going to do well. You really have to focus at the job at hand. It does take a few laps to settle in and understand where the cars at and adjustments you need to make. The first couple of laps you’re very tense and feeling every little movement of the car because you don’t know. You need to really feel the car and trust the rear that you’re not going to lose it, then you can relax in the seat a little bit. It changes over a whole stint.”

Power’s Team Penske teammate Josef Newgarden agrees.

“I think (it takes) a lap or so, as soon as you get going and you’re already a lap or two laps in, it’s just another race,” said the defending series champion. “It’s good and that’s kind of the mind frame you need to be in for succeed.

Their other teammate Simon Pagenaud says that for him, it’s a month long commitment to not get too hyped for this race.

“Yeah I think it’s the case for the whole two weeks really,” Pagenaud told me. “You don’t want to get too impressed by anything because you don’t want to have your emotions go up. It’s a long race too. It feels like the 24 Hours of LeMans at times. You have to be really steady in your head without thinking too much and not get too in touch with your emotions and get too high by the event which is incredible.”

What about the last two Indy 500 champions? Takuma Sato says that he feels the same but it is also hard to block out the magnitude of this event too. Alexander Rossi uses a page from his favorite the NFL team New England Patriots for moments like this.

“I think at the end of the day, we try to equalize every single event,” said the defending ‘500 champion, Sato. “There’s no back off right. We have to be 100-percent pushing at all times. However, the Indy 500 is the exception. The scale of this race is nothing like it. For the drivers it should be treated exactly the same as any other race, but you just cannot get past it. You have to enjoy this moment. You have extra pressure by yourself. It’s a big commitment.”

“It’s not,” Rossi said on if it’s hard to block out. “It’s what we’re hired to do here. In the words of the Patriots, you’re here to do your job. It doesn’t change for me no matter what kind of stage we’re on in this world. I’m sure you get excited Sunday morning but once you get in the car it’s a race track and you have four wheels and you have to make sure your four wheels go around the race track better than anyone else.”

Don’t want to take their words for it? How about an Andretti or two Indiana drivers that were born and raised with this race etched in their brains at an early age. Marco Andretti, Ed Carpenter and Conor Daly all say that while this race is huge for them, they also have to channel their emotions to make this another race for them.

“I’m there,” Andretti said about blocking it out. “It’s my 13th time doing it. I always say that if there’s elevated pressure, you’re playing for something right. It’s a good thing.”

What about the pole sitter and Butler grad Carpenter?

“I think leading into is and through all the pre race ceremonies or what not, it could definitely be harder to stay focused just because there’s a lot of anxiety and emotions and there’s a whole lot of people here watching, but when you get in the car and the engines fire things get back to normal pretty quick,” Carpenter told me. “I think my first couple of ‘500’s I didn’t really take in my surroundings but now on the first parade lap I do a quick crowd check for Doug Boles and IMS, but once the green flag drops all that other stuff and the people and the colors disappears and you focused on the task in front of you.”

Daly says the same thing.

“I mean it’s always there because I think it’s just cool,” said Daly. “I always like it. I mean I don’t like at it like it’s some crazy mythical race, I mean it is just a race, but I just love the whole aura around it but realistically you just got out and do your job like it’s any other race. You go out and suit up and put your helmet on and do your job.”

Out of all the drivers I talked to, only one said that he still gets wrapped in the moment. Tony Kanaan said that no matter how hard you try, the magnitude of this race won’t leave your mind alone.

“I’ve been doing this for too long, this is just not another race.,” Kanaan told me. “This is the Indy 500. There’s no way you can block that out. As much as you try to fool your mind and fool yourself, come Saturday night, you can’t sleep. On Sunday morning your as nervous as ever. I’ve talked to Dario (Franchitti) about this many times and it’s an elusion out of my first Indy 500 that it’s going to get better ever year but it actually only gets worse. You go through so many scenarios that then you’re thinking about this all the time. You’re constantly thinking about scenarios on what you could have done. I can’t block it out. I’m still nervous and this is a sign. The day that I don’t think it’s a big deal, I don’t need to be a part of this race.”

End Of The Race Pressure

The start of the race is one thing, what about the end? When do thoughts creep in your mind that this could change your life forever in a good way.

“I remember when I was fighting Juan (Montoya) I almost forgot where we were,” Power said about his late race battle with Montoya in 2015. “I was 100-percent focused on racing. It was the best feeling that you could ever I have. I knew it was the ‘500 coming to the line and he was right there but before that, you have to stay focused.”

Newgarden though said that it’s hard to not have those feelings.

“It’s impossible to not have those thoughts. I remember in ’16 that was my best chance to win the race so far and it’s hard to not think about it. It’s impossible. So, you may let a little bit of information slip in, but you can’t let it overcome what you’re doing. You have to think about the race and you have to finish before anything can happen.”

Last year’s duel between Sato and Helio Castroneves was one for the ages. Did the allure of the Indy 500 and a win come into their minds? Sato, was looking for redemption for 2012, Castroneves his record trying fourth ‘500 crown?

“It was tough obviously,” Sato said. “Mentally and physically it’s a tough part. You have to try to make sure no mistakes. You have to commit 100-percent or Helio (Castroneves) bites you. It was a very intense battle. But, I knew in terms of experience from 2012, how to do it. How not to be could have should have and those sort of scenarios. I was actually quite calm and quite confident and it was an enjoyable experience.”

Castroneves told me that the thoughts of a fourth don’t enter his mind in that situation and that in order to get win No. 4, you have to remain calm so you can make the potential winning pass.

Difficulty Of The Car

So while blocking out all those moments, you also have to race the car as much as the track and competitors. This year, this car is much different than in years past. In order to make a pass, you have to use your tools on your steering wheel accordingly. But, you also have to have the mindset to turn them back the other way after or you could be in a whole heap of trouble.

“Definitely, even in qualy, when the wind is shifting you have to pay attention to the wind all the time because the car is very sensitive to the wind and very sensitive to traffic,” said Pagenaud. “You constantly have to balance the car for each corner. Sometimes you make a pass and while you’re making a pass, you have to readjust your tools especially if you’re in the lead because all the sudden you get all this air on the front wing and the car could get loose. You have to be on your toes.”

“It’s a constant change,” Kanaan said. “You have a car that you’re going to run in traffic and a car that you’re going to be on your own. It’s a lot more difficult and a lot more work. It’s definitely a lot more work as in years past.”

Daly says that not only do you have it tougher in the car, passing is harder and that he thinks everyone is going to hate each other by Lap 20.

“It certainly seems like it yeah. The tools and passing are a lot harder. By Lap 20, everybody’s going to hate each other through the end of the race. The moves that are happening are super late.”

So, can you block out all this attention from the ‘500 and make the necessarily adjustments to your car all while driving at speeds in excess of 220 mph?

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