Long may it reign

We’re heading for the month of May, And here IN the USA that means only one thing in motor racing terms – the Indianapolis 500.

OK, we no longer have three solid weeks of qualifying, but this is still by far the biggest race in North America and, if you think about the Brazilians who have won in recent years, probably the biggest in South America too. The Indy 500 is huge, up there with Monaco and Le Mans. Jim Clark and Graham Hill are remembered here as Indy winners, not for their Grand Prix success. And Mario Andretti is known as an Indy winner rather than an F1 World Champion.

I guess that’s a reflection of most Americans’ lack of awareness of what’s happening beyond the States…

For any driver who wins at Indy you can divide his career into two parts – before he won the 500 and after. Once you win at Indy it’s almost as if anything you did prior to that is insignificant. And afterwards you will forever be introduced as an Indy 500 winner. It’s a life-changing thing, something you can sell – and it increases your ability to negotiate your pay. It raises your importance tenfold, I’d say, and it goes on to affect your earning ability way after you’ve stopped racing. An Indy win follows you for life.

You can only understand the scope of all this once you’ve won the race. Winning it can create a career, and not winning it can destroy one – that’s the level of impact this race has.

To experience Indy is unbelievable. No other circuit has the grandstand capacity that Indianapolis has. As you drive in you’re shocked at the size of the place. It can be quite intimidating. We used to practice all month long, day after day for weeks. You’d get around 100,000 people there on Carburation Day – and that’s gotta be the biggest misnomer ever, because there hasn’t been a carburettor there for about 40 years but the place still looked empty. When you first walk out into the pitlane on race day you hear this buzz, and you’re not sure what it is – then you realise it’s 300,000 people talking in normal voices, and it becomes a dull roar. Then all of a sudden it hits you. This is the big day, and this day will either crown a king, or it won’t. And of course it’s Memorial Day, so there’s all the marching bands, the flyovers, the military parades and the razzamatazz. It’s overwhelming. No matter where you’ve been before nothing can compare with walking out onto the grid for the 500 – it’s a unique experience.

You’ve been there all month, pounding round and round, and there’s a definite skill in setting up a car for the 500. You’re out there for three hours, the track changes, the groove moves, the grip levels change, and the car is sensitive to all of this. So you need to be able to adapt yourself and the car to every scenario. There’s three days between Carburation Day and the race itself when you don’t drive, so when you come to the main event you’re never quite sure what you’ve got to race on.

The Indy 500 hardly ever goes to the guy who’s fastest; it goes to the guy whose car is the fastest on average. The year I won, Rick Mears and I led most of the way, but my car was not as good as his on full tanks. Then as the load lightened my car got better. You need to find that sweet spot and make the best of it.

I will never forget winning for Jim Trueman in 1986. He was my mentor, he made my career possible in so many ways, and he died just 10 days after the race. It was kind of bittersweet as we weren’t able to celebrate as we might have done had Jim not been so ill. Winning for Jim and Truesports was such an emotional thing, and when I went over the finish line it was just a huge flood of emotions – relief it was over mixed with pride, happiness and appreciation for the team. We all wanted to win it for Jim, and no longer would I have to answer the question ‘when are you going to win the Indy 500?’. We’d done it. And then, in 2004, I won with my own team and that was something special again. No other race can compare with the Indianapolis 500.