I actually slept really well the morning before the Indianapolis 500, unlike in previous years, because I was really confident in my race car this year. This year was the first year I’d gone into the race with a car that I felt like I could race with. In 2012, we crashed qualifying so we kind of had to cobble together a car and last year I fought an evil race car from day one. It was the first time I’d gone to bed really happy with the car I was going to drive on Sunday.
I fell asleep at about 9 o’clock before the race. I think a lot of the reason for that was just because I was relaxed about the car we had. You wake up a few times throughout the night and the bomb actually wakes you up at five or six in the morning and signifies that the gates have opened.
Lauren and I woke up and we kind of had a few hours to ourselves. I was too excited really to go back to sleep so I just kind of laid there and watched TV. You try and stay as level as you can at that point because you still have five hours until the race.
Things start to kind of kick off at 8:30 or 9 with interviews and things like that. The thing about Indy is that especially on race day, once you get out and about, your day gets hectic pretty fast. It’s hard to put into words really what that amount of people in one area is like. It’s pretty crazy but at the same time as a race car driver it’s pretty neat. It’s always hectic even if you’re just trying to get from the motor-home lot to the garage.
I did some TV stuff around 9-9:30 and you have about an hour after that to grab lunch, prepare and relax. It seems like a long time but by the time you are done eating and getting changed you have to leave yourself about 20-30 minutes to get to the green room. Before the race we do a team strategy meeting and we kind of go over things.
Calm before the storm
Once you are strapped in you have a couple of minutes before we actually take off. There is a three or four minute gap there when you are doing your radio check with your spotters and team engineer. You do system checks and go through all of your pages on your steering wheel. Obviously your steering wheel is a huge tool for us drivers. You just kind of go through everything and make sure everything is okay.
Mentally, you just kind of prepare yourself for the race. Five-hundred miles is a long race so you just try to remember what helped you in practice. You take a mental picture of who’s around you. Obviously when you practice for eight or nine days there are guys who put you in bad spots and there are guys who are a little bit more intelligent so you survey the situation and take in everything that you can.
You try to make sure you don’t stall when it comes time to take off because there are 300,000 people watching you. You take off and on that first lap we’re instructed to stay three-wide so at that point it’s really the only time you look around and go “Holy crap!” You see people in the infield down the back straightaway and see people on both sides of the track. For me really it’s the swarm of people in the infield that’s the craziest as you kind of roll around there. It’s unlike anything.
After the first pace-lap you settle in and fan out. You’re warming your tires a little bit harder than when you are on the three-wide lap.
Even on the pace laps you’re already thinking about saving fuel. You’re in sixth gear. We have different fuel maps so you are in the yellow flag map and you’re already thinking about 1/10th of a gallon of fuel because that could be a big deal down the road. If (Alexander) Rossi would have run out 1/10th of a gallon sooner who knows what would have happened.
The all-important start
As soon as you start that fan out process you just keep warming up your tires and trying to do everything you need to be ready to do on the start and thinking about fuel and trying to be easy on the gas.
On the third and final pace lap we form back up. Your engineer reminds you to make sure that your sway bars are in the right spots. You test your weight jacker and make sure that it’s moving back and forth for you and that’s when you get to about turn-three and then it’s go time.
A lot of how aggressive you are on the start is dictated by where you are at. This year I was on the inside. I tend to think that if you’re on the inside row you’re almost forced to be a little conservative because it takes a lot of effort to come across two lanes of traffic, get up and carry the momentum. If you watch the middle to back of the pack you’ll notice that cars on the outside tend to be more aggressive. Some of it is out of necessity and some it is because everyone funnels down into turn-one.
I started down so I was forced to kind of funnel down and we gave up a couple of spots on the start because of it. We actually got a really good start and got to turn-one in good shape but I was kind of pinned down. From there I just tried to settle into the race.
You spend most of the week practicing in 10-12 car groups but starting where we were we ended up in a train of 30 cars. The air is very disruptive and your car’s balance is certainly effected a lot more than you are used to. It’s hard to have the perfect race car so you’re trying to use your sway bars and weight jackers to find a nice balance throughout the race.
Early in the race we took some stabs at moving forward and then kind of settled in. We were fighting a bit of a tight condition. In terms of setup we had erred that way because from past experience you don’t want to be free, especially in traffic. We fought being tight early in the race and we were able to hang in there with the lead pack.
We had a green flag pit stop and put some weight to the car and made it a little better. It’s crazy how much you can do inside those race cars. You’re working with your front bar. As you’re in traffic you’re softening your front bar and moving weight to the left to help your car turn. As you make a pass you now have a little bit bigger gap so you have more air on the nose so now you click the weight jacker back to try to tighten your car back up until you get to the next group of cars.
It’s a real learning process. Early in the race I probably wasn’t aggressive enough with it but as we began to work with it a lot more. In my first couple of years at Indy I never really had the opportunity to go and mix it up with the other racers so I was learning that as the race went along.
We spent a lot of the early portion of the race trying to dial some tightness out of our car with air pressure and wing adjustments. We got it as close as we could but we over-stepped on setup before the race so we were just kind of stuck with a tight race car.
The cars this year were a little bit different than last year. There was a lot of the same aero pieces but the underbodies were a little bit different. It had a different effect on the car. I felt like you either needed a lot of downforce or you needed to be low on downforce. The cars cut a pretty big hole in the air so you are able to draft up but our car seemed to be kind of stuck in that middle range where we had enough to run fairly close to people but not enough to get a run from about three or four cars back. We fought that all day but we were able to make some passes.
Playing some strategy
On one of the earlier yellows we had pitted when some of the leaders hadn’t. On lap 99 there was a yellow and everybody pitted but we were able to stay out to try and stretch out fuel mileage because it looked like it was going to be kind of a long yellow. We didn’t really know things were going to play out like it did but we ended up finding ourselves leading the race on lap 100.
In the moment you’re just trying to take it all in. You’re kind of focused on what you’re doing and making sure that you’re doing all of the right things inside of the car still. I really wanted to drive to the front and lead those laps but at the same time it’s the Indianapolis 500 and we were able to take advantage of an opportunity and lead some laps.
Obviously with it being the 100th running of the race it’s hard to put into words what leading it means. I was looking for the rain clouds. It was a really cool moment. You spend your whole career racing for moments like that. It was special.
The racer in you thinks, “Well, we just stayed out to lead those laps” and when you’re in the moment you forget how special the moment is not only to lead those laps but just to be there running the Indianapolis 500 and being competitive. You spend so much time, especially for me on short tracks trying to win and you kind of get used to it so it’s easy to forget how special even just leading a lap at Indy is. In the moment you try to keep composed and think about different ways that you can keep the lead. Looking back on it though it’s probably one of the coolest moments of my career.
I was happy with my first 100 laps. I felt like we were fairly comfortable. I knew at that point we were going to struggle to get much further up through the field due to the tightness of our race car and where we were at.
We were fighting tight and kind of in that no man’s land of downforce I spoke of earlier. We needed either more or less. So we tried to make the best of it and we actually had a pretty fast car so we were able to stay in the mix and found ourselves running 18th or 19th when we had a yellow around lap 145-150.
The yellow came out at the worst possible time for me because we were getting ready to pit. We stayed out for a lap but we were out of fuel at that point so we had to pit. During that pit stop we ended up having a miscommunication. The plan was to get a splash and go, we’d get enough fuel to get us fueled up but not so much that we wouldn’t beat the pace car out so we could stay on the lead lap and then fuel up when the pits opened. Unfortunately my fuel man’s radio had come unplugged, he filled the car completely up and the pace car beat us into turn-one. As a result what I’m writing is called 199 laps in May instead of 200.
At that point we were trapped a lap down. We had an opportunity later in the race to stay out and get our lap back but unfortunately one car stayed out and killed that opportunity. It was frustrating to be trapped a lap down because my goal going into the day was to run 500 miles and finish in the top 20. The group we ran with all day long finished in the 15th-18th range so I feel pretty confident that without that hiccup on pit lane we would have reached our goals.
At the same time, though, it was still a day to be proud of. It was my first 500-mile race that I finished. Obviously I wish I could go back and change some of the decisions we made. A lot of that comes with experience. I was proud of how we ran and how competitive we were all day. Obviously everybody goes there to win the race but realistically I’m still pretty raw in these cars so to be out there and mix it up all day was great.
We were put in some good situations and we were put in some bad situations. It was a big learning day for us and I finally feel like I’m in a situation where we can go back there next year and start at square three or four instead of square one.
During the last few laps of the race I was just trying to bring the car home. We were trapped a lap down so we were really focused on making good laps. We actually had a late race, green flag pit stop so we tried our hardest to make that our best in and out. It didn’t matter because the person we were racing with was a lap ahead of us but we came in together and we beat him off of pit road so we were able to have a small victory that no one will ever write home about but was part of our learning process.
In addition to me our pit crew was raw. It was kind of a group we threw together and they didn’t get there until Carb Day so they didn’t have a lot of reps. For us, it was some of those small victories like the one on pit road that made the day special.
Mad dash to Kokomo
I wasn’t done after Indy though. Later that night I competed in a sprint car race at Kokomo Speedway. It was something that we dreamt up last year. Kokomo is a place that’s really special to me. I grew up racing sprint cars there and that’s kind of the short track mecca for Indiana sprint car racing.
It was important and special to me to be able to go up to Kokomo and celebrate a good day at the Speedway with the people that have supported me through everything and that are closest to me and 99% of them were at Kokomo Speedway that night.
We fought some traffic but my fiancé Lauren did a great job negotiating our way there. We went one way and our road was blocked and they said they were not going to open the road for an hour and a half. So Lauren negotiated with some cars to get back across, hang a U turn and we got up to Kokomo right before hot laps.
Getting back in the sprint car is a little bit different after running the Indycar. In some ways it slows things down for me but at the same time it allows me to get into trouble because I feel like I’m going slower and I forget that the cars slide as far as they do. That night went how you dream them up, you have a good day on Sunday and then go over to Kokomo celebrate with everybody. I can’t wait for next year!
The Drivers Project is a media collective devoted to North American open-wheel racing.