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It Never Ends

May 15 2018
Photo by
AJ Mast/The Players' Tribune
Photo by
AJ Mast/The Players' Tribune
May 15 2018
T

The first time I ever raced at Indy, I remember walking up to Al Unser Jr. in the lot where we all park our buses and asking for advice. As a two-time Indy 500 winner and just a genuinely great person, there aren’t many people who are better suited to offer wisdom.

He was really open and generous with his time, and the overall message he gave me is, “It’s never over.”

We’re talking about a race where so many things can and will happen, so if something is going right or wrong, you can never assume it’ll stay that way for very long. Al’s advice ended up being particularly useful during that first run at Indy, where I stalled it in the pits, had my front wing come off and faced a couple of instances where I went to the back and had to make my way to the front. That entire 2005 race, I was off-strategy, but I could have won. Contrast that with 2009, where I was on-strategy with a lot of things going right and probably should have won. Ultimately, the one thing both races had in common was that my car was really fast. If you have that going for you on this track, really anything can happen.

Heading into my final race, the idea that “it’s never over” has taken on a somewhat different meaning. It speaks to a wider view of how I’m going to approach life after racing. There’s still so much more I want to accomplish.

I’ve had quite a few people ask me about what my emotions will be heading into my final race. That’s a question that’s really difficult to answer, but it’s also something that I haven’t put a ton of thought into. I’ve been doing this since I was a little kid. It’s a strong passion I’ve had my entire life. So when it truly hits me that racing is over, I’m sure I’m going to feel some kind of way. I mean, there was a reason I cried at my press conference when I announced I’d be retiring. To me there’s not a ton of mystery surrounding how I’ll feel on race day.

What I’ve put a lot more thought into is how I’ll feel three months later, or a year later, when I’ve really had some time to sit with it. For as long as I can remember, my life has moved really fast. I have no shortage of businesses and obligations to pour myself into, but of course, I understand things won’t quite be the same when racing is out of the picture. With that comes some fear, but also excitement.

Before I can really embrace all of that, I have some business to attend to.

STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

I’m not doing this as a novelty act.

I didn’t decide to make this my final race so that I could stay at the back and wave at the fans.

One of the things that pushed me toward competing in this race is that I knew I had time to prepare. Just the knowledge that I’d be able to really focus on this and put everything I had into it was what made it feel right. Even though the idea of competing at the Indy 500 appealed to me, I knew the process of being truly ready for it would be a huge challenge.

I’ll admit, a couple of weeks ago I was really, really nervous before I got in the car for the first time. Not nervous about any one thing in particular, but really everything. It had been a while since I’d driven an open-wheel car — something that at one point was so natural to me it was almost second nature. So naturally I went into that first run wondering if I still had it. Just sitting in the car, I was filled with so many thoughts: Is this going to come naturally? Is it going to be like holy shit, what did I get myself into? Will I wonder why I hadn’t done this earlier? Will I wonder why I decided to do this in the first place?

All of those questions can only been answered once you start driving — and I’m not going to sugarcoat it — that first day on the track was bad. When I got in the car, everything felt so uncomfortable. Before we could even really get going there was a water temperature issue with the car, so we wasted an hour of time getting that fixed up in the garage. I had to do a certain number of laps in a certain amount of time, but everything felt a little off. With about 30 minutes left, I still had 20 laps to log for IndyCar.

Knowing we were short on time, I said we could finish the first segment and just do the next one tomorrow. That’s when Ed Carpenter, the team owner and a racer himself, came on the radio — and I could tell he felt bad saying this — but he told me, “I don’t want to add pressure to the situation, but if you don’t do these laps then you can’t practice tomorrow.”

It’s funny because I had so many mental boxes that I had wanted to check going into the run, but I think hearing that from Ed really helped because I had been almost too methodical. I needed to stop worrying so much about how I felt and just GO! I ended up completing 22 laps in the remaining time and finished with five minutes left. I went into the day hoping to take things slow, and it ended up becoming a stressful experience, but I guess you could say it was a good kind of stress.

Like I said, you’re only as good as your car, and the next day Ed and his team made some great changes and the GoDaddy Chevy felt better. From Lap 2 on, I was going flat out and that was much better than what had happened the day before — like much better. We were on a conservative program. It wasn’t like I was using boost and trying out some of the other things that other teams were practicing, but still, I finally felt comfortable. Yeah it was difficult and it was stressful, but I was competitive. I left the track without any remaining questions about whether this was the right thing for me to do.

I knew I was going to be ready.

AJ Mast/The Players' Tribune

My history with this race stretches way beyond the first time I was in the field.

Growing up in the Midwest, race day at Indy is almost like a holiday. My dad used to attend every year back in the 70s, when there was a snake pit and mud baths in the infield. When I was a teenager, the race represented an opportunity for me. My dad would take me around the track so we could meet with different people and see if somebody would put me in a race car. There’s still a picture from when I was 13 or 14 of my family and I sitting in a suite on the front straightaway playing Indian poker (you know the one where you stick the card on your forehead?) during a rain delay.  

Heading into this final race, Indy still represents opportunity. It’s the opportunity to leave this sport on my terms, not by just making an announcement, but going out there and leaving everything on the track. I get one more opportunity to head into the defining racing venue of my career with a single, achievable goal: Win.

It’s funny, the other day I almost had déjà vu when I arrived at the test and ran into Al Unser Jr. near the bus lot. I walked up to him and brought up the encounter we’d had all those years ago. I told him I’m going to need some advice again, since what he had told me before ended up being so true.

It never ends.