I don’t remember anything from that five-week block. There’s just nothing there. I went to my friend Albert and Hillary’s wedding in Portland a couple of weeks before the accident, and that’s really the last thing I remember. I can recall bits and pieces of friends, family and guys from the team visiting me in the hospital, but not much. It’s basically just a big black hole.
I don’t remember the accident at all, either. I watched it once, by mistake — I don’t like watching accidents — but people who were there have filled me in on the details.
It was the final lap of the 2013 IndyCar Grand Prix of Houston. A car in front of me broke in Turn 5 and I went airborne. I went up into the fence and my car destroyed itself. I spun around in the air a couple of times before landing back on the track. Part of the front half of my car was gone.
It happened that quickly. When you’re traveling at these kinds of speeds, accidents always catch you by surprise. One second everything’s going fine, and then, Boom … your life is changed. It’s literally the blink of an eye.
I had a broken back and a broken ankle. I had to wear a carbon-fiber body brace that went from my hips to my neck. I was also dealing with a pretty sizable concussion, so when Dr. Olvey gave his opinion that I should stop racing, it didn’t really register. My head had just taken another big shock — I had endured various head injuries in my racing career — so I didn’t really have the mental capacity to understand it all at the time. It wasn’t some big dramatic scene. I wasn’t devastated or anything. Besides, my sole focus was on getting better. I just wanted to be able to live my life normally again.
The moment it really hit me that my racing career was over was when I had to call my team owner, Chip Ganassi, and the guys on the team and tell them I wasn’t driving anymore. That’s when it became real.
At no point did I have any sort of massive “woe is me” breakdown or anything. I just kind of got on with it, and I decided I was going to go with the attitude of the glass being half full. How lucky was I to get to do this for as many years as I did? I really enjoyed it and I was fortunate enough to be successful at it. I got to win a lot of races I never thought I’d get to win and I made a lot of great friends along the way. I was probably going to stop racing IndyCars in the next couple of years anyway because of my age — I was 40 at the time of the accident — so my career didn’t get cut too short. That’s the way I look at it.
It wasn’t until about five or six months after the accident that I was able to walk around again. That’s when I felt it was time for me to get back out to the track, even if I couldn’t drive anymore. Just because I was done racing didn’t mean I was done with racing.
When Chip and I had the discussion about me retiring, I told him I’d still love to be a part of the team, so we decided pretty quickly that I would come to the races and tests and work with the team — the drivers, the engineers, everyone — and basically use my experience to help however I could. Tony Kanaan was joining the team that year, so my number one job was to help him become part of the team. He’d been a fantastic driver for a long time and one of my best friends for over 15 years — he’d been driving as long as I had — so I didn’t have to teach him anything. I just had to help him become a part of the organization and bring him into the family. But aside from that, my job was to sit back, listen, watch how the team was working and make suggestions wherever I saw fit.
It was the perfect way for me to transition. For that first year out of the car, I got to just hang around the team and do whatever I could to help make the drivers better and the cars go faster.
When you’re a driver, everything’s about you. The team is molded around you. You’ve got staff in every area to support everything you do. You’re the focus. Now, I’m part of that support system. It’s not about me anymore — it’s about making the four drivers on the team and the four cars as successful as possible. It’s a lot of fun, it’s just different, so that first year of getting acclimated to being on the other side was very important. It prepared me to move into my role this season, the role of full-time advisor and mentor.
Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon have been unbelievably successful in their careers, and I still sit with them occasionally and make suggestions, but my primary job in 2015 is to work with our two younger drivers, Sage Karam and Charlie Kimball. And while I work with Charlie to help him get the most out of himself — he’s been very receptive, working hard and making great strides — he’s been racing IndyCars for a few years while Sage is brand new to IndyCar racing at just 20 years old. He has very little IndyCar experience, but a lot of talent. Mostly, I’m using my experience to help Sage shortcut the pitfalls and growing pains of being an IndyCar driver. We talk a lot about the details of making the car faster — all the small details — and we’ll walk the track and I’ll talk him through certain corners and certain tricks that I would have used.
There are pitfalls off the track, too, and we talk about those as well. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to to put myself in the mindset of a 20-year-old — that was half my life ago — but I do my best. It’s like an older brother kind of relationship. Hopefully, for him, it’s a relationship of trust.
I was making mistakes up until the day my career ended. Any time you push the limit like we do racing at these speeds, you’re going to make mistakes. I do whatever I can to help Charlie and Sage minimize those mistakes, and I think it helps that I can speak from experience to them.
That’s the reason I’m still here. I love being a part of racing and I really enjoy my job now as an advisor and mentor. I get a real buzz when I see that something’s clicked and that I’ve managed to help one of the drivers in some way go faster or be more competitive in a race. That’s what it’s about.
I recently woke up one morning in New Orleans, looked out the window and saw it was raining outside. My first thought was, Ugh… I’ve got to drive in this, and I got that feeling in my chest. I started thinking about the track conditions and how tough and potentially dangerous it was going to be to drive. It was going to be a long day.
Then I realized, Oh, it’s OK. I’m not driving anymore.
A year and a half after the accident, my first thought in the morning is occasionally still about getting in the car. It’s just an old habit. When I was racing, I focused 100 percent on what I did. It was the first thing I thought about when I woke up. It was all I thought about. You’re just so focused on what you’re doing — if you want to be successful, you have to be. When I was a driver, everything that other drivers and I did felt so normal — the training involved, the attention to detail, the complete dedication, the fact of driving a car at that sort of speed, the intensity level, the risks.
Now I sit back and watch these other guys do it, and I think,Wow, maybe that’s not so normal…
The question I get the most from either fans or the media is whether or not I miss racing, and it’s a bit complicated. Sometimes I’ll be at the track and I’ll really miss driving a car, but only occasionally. There have really only been a couple of times when I’ve been at the track and I really wished I was driving.
When I was racing, I loved what I did, but now that it’s over, it’s nice that I can chill out a bit more. There’s a level of intensity that goes along with being a driver and there’s an attitude of almost going to war when you’re doing it. Since I stopped, my mindset has changed and I don’t have that attitude or level of intensity anymore. I like this more relaxed state of mind I’m in.
Whether I’m inside the car or not, I love being a part of the IndyCar series. Racing has given me so much. It’s given me the opportunity to make unbelievable friends. It’s given me a lot of things financially that I never dreamed I would have and a level of success beyond what I ever thought possible. I won the IndyCar series four times and won the Indy 500 three times. As much as it pains me to not have another chance at that fourth Indy 500 win, I consider myself lucky to have had such success. And after all racing has given me, it’s nice that with all I’m doing with Charlie, Sage, Scott and Tony, I’m able to still be part of the team.
I still have some problems with my ankle and there are still some side effects from the various head injuries I’ve had, but generally, I’m in great health. With some of the accidents I’ve endured, I’m lucky to be alive, so I don’t complain. Even though I won’t be putting on the firesuit and getting behind the wheel again, I’m very much at peace with my new role in racing, and I still have a lot of weekends at the track ahead of me, and for that, I’m very thankful.