Okay. Here’s what I want you to do. Take out your iPhone (or Galaxy or whatever). Find the stopwatch app. Locate the Start button. Now, moving your finger as fast as you can, tap the screen twice — once to start the clock and once to stop it — to register the fastest time possible.
Go ahead, I’ll wait…
How’d you do? Was it 0.06 seconds or faster? If it was, congratulations. That’s fast. If it wasn’t, don’t feel bad. That’s literally a split second — the blink of an eye. There’s not a lot that can happen in that amount of time.
Unless you’re driving a car at 200-plus MPH. In that case, 0.06 seconds can change everything. It can be the difference between hitting the straightaway or hitting the wall.
And it can be the difference between winning and losing.
We were under caution with seven laps to go in last year’s Indy 500. I was in second place behind a fantastic driver in Ryan Hunter-Reay. When the race came out of caution, for those last few laps, we took turns leading the race.
With about five laps to go, I passed Ryan to take the lead. On the next lap, he made an aggressive move on the inside of Turn 3 and took it back. With two laps to go, I passed Ryan on the outside on the straightaway, and just as the white flag came out for the final lap, he made the same move and re-took the lead.
I had one more lap to make one last move for the win.
This was my 14th Indy 500, of which I’d won three — two back-to-back in my first two years racing IndyCars and a third in 2009. Only three drivers — A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears — have ever won the Indy 500 four times, and here I was, one lap and one move away from joining them.
I thought I was in a really good spot to make a move. I made my move on the outside as we approached the checkered flag, but the finish line just came too early for the move I was making. In the second-closest Indy 500 finish in history, I finished in second place, 0.06 seconds behind Ryan Hunter-Reay.
So close, but so far — closer than the time it takes for your finger to start and stop that stopwatch.
Afterward, I had a lot of positives to take away. You have to do a lot of things right to be in position to win a race, especially this one. Obviously, it was great for Ryan to win his first Indy 500, and it was great for the fans, too. This was a race that will be replayed over and over for years to come. It just didn’t turn out so well for me.
Yes, it was frustrating to lose by such a small margin after 500 miles, but it highlights just how little room for error there is when you’re traveling at these kinds of speeds. It’s easy to lose focus when you’re on an oval track doing the same thing over and over, but when 0.06 seconds can mean the difference between winning and losing — or hitting a straightaway and hitting the wall — you can’t lose focus for even a split second. On straightaways, we can reach up to 240 mph. You’re traveling fast enough to cover the length of a football field in less than a second. If you’re late on a turn by as little as a foot, it can be catastrophic.
Every race is difficult to win, but the Indy 500 is different. It’s not just one of the fastest races we run all year — it’s also one of the longest. Most of our races are around two hours, which sounds like a lot when you consider how physically and mentally demanding it is to drive one of these cars. When you get into a three-hour race like the Indy 500, it changes everything. Endurance becomes a crucial factor, both physically and mentally.
At Indianapolis, it’s not about the sprint. It’s about the strategy. With a longer race, you have 5-to-7 pit stops rather than the 2-to-4 you have on shorter tracks. This means you have to expect the unexpected. More room for strategy means more room for mistakes. The team that can juggle and anticipate and adjust most effectively is the team that’s going to come out with the best result.
I’ve been on the winning and losing end of some close Indy 500 finishes. In 2003, I came within 0.299 seconds of winning a third-straight Indy 500, something that’s never been done before. In 2009, I won my third Indy 500 by just 0.981 seconds. Though I’ve been asked about it a lot this week as I prepare for Sunday’s race, I don’t really think about last year’s race too much. I’ve been racing IndyCars for a long time now, so whether I win or lose, I just learn from each race and try to get better for the next one.
Obviously, to win my fourth Indy 500 would have a lot of meaning. Being a part of history and being a part of an elite group that only three guys have earned the right to be in would be special. The last driver to win a fourth Indy 500 was my friend and mentor Rick Mears in 1991. That was 24 years ago, so there is an entire generation that hasn’t seen a driver win the race four times. I’m very fortunate to be in this position, and it would be great to be able do this not only for myself, but for the fans and for the people that love racing.
A lot of people ask me what it’s going to feel like if (and hopefully when) I win my fourth Indy 500 Sunday. The truth is, I can’t say. I can only imagine and I can only dream that it will be one of the greatest feelings in the world. But I’m confident in myself, I’m confident in my team and I’m confident in my Shell V-Power Nitro+ Chevrolet.
Hopefully I’ll be able to explain that feeling after Sunday’s race.