Right now, there are 33 men and women in Indianapolis, Indiana, hoping to accomplish the same goal on Sunday. Only one will succeed in winning the 99th running of the Indy 500, arguably the greatest spectacle in American sports. Only one driver will prompt the first waving of the checkered flag signaling him or her as the winner as the car crosses the finish line.
On Thursday, I spoke with some of the IndyCar drivers at media day. I arrived at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and walked through an underground tunnel to get to the pavilion where all of the drivers were waiting for the media to interview them.
My media escorts took me around to the drivers so I could learn more about them, and this is where the fun — and the learning — began!
Ryan Hunter-Reay, 2014 Indy 500 winner, said it would mean everything to him to win the race again this year. “If you are there at the end of the race and you have a chance to win, then it’s a go,” he explained, “but until then I don’t think about winning back-to-back.”
He said that the Indy 500 is mentally exhausting, and after his win last year, he looked forward to pulling his car into Victory Lane and seeing his family and team members.
This year, there has been a lot of talk about the alterations to the cars to prevent them from going airborne during the race, which occurred several times during practice runs. Driver Helio Castroneves explained, “They basically have more downforce for the race, which makes the cars more stuck to the ground.”
When asked if the prospect of going airborne makes him nervous, he said, “When you go that high it makes me nervous. Being 10 feet from the ground makes anybody nervous.”
Simona De Silvestro, who hails from Switzerland and is one of two women racing in this year’s 500, would love to win. She said the first thing she would do is to run toward her dad and mom and take them into her arms because she couldn’t have done it without them.
No woman has ever won the 500 — and Danica Patrick has been the only woman to crack the top 10 in the last 30 years — so a win by De Silvestro would be one for the history books.
Charlie Kimball stands out in the crowd because of his specially equipped car that helps him manage his diabetes. “I have a sensor on my body and it transmits to a display that actually plugs into my car’s data system,” he said. “So I have speed, lap time, oil pressure, blood sugar, and water temperature.” His car and body data are all displayed together.
Sage Karam, 20, took me on a tour of his garage. He started driving a dirt bike at four years old. It wasn’t long before he moved up to a go-kart.
We talked about what he learned from last year’s Indy 500, his first. He said the most important lesson is to be patient. “For me there were times that were really rough,” he said of his journey to the 500. “There were times you think you want to quit and everything is giving you a reason to quit, and you can’t. You gotta keep going and pushing. If it is your dream, you gotta follow it.”
For good luck, Karam does everything from the right side first on race day. He puts his right glove on first, his right shoe on first, and he gets in and out on the right side of the car.
It was my first time being around racecar drivers, so I decided to have a little fun with some of the questions. Castroneves, the last driver to win back-to-back races in 2001 and ’02, had an energetic spirit as he spoke about his years in racing. He also mentioned his favorite food is chicken potpie.
Simon Pagenaud said sushi was his favorite, and Josef Newgarden, who just won his first race at the Honda Indy Grand Prix, smiled as talked about how much he likes grilled cheese.
Kimball loves grilling a steak at home with some potatoes. He even chars up some fruit. Bryan Clauson is happy with a plate of chicken and noodles in front of him!
Castroneves counts science as his favorite subject in school, even though he said he was not good at it. Other drivers who loved science in school include Hunter-Reay, J.R Hildebrand, and Charlie Kimball.
Hildebrand focuses much of his attention on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and how it relates to racing on and off the track.
I asked him if being good in science and math makes him a better driver, and he responded enthusiastically. “It can for sure,” said the 27-year-old driver. “Here at the track a big part of going faster is making the car better, and a big part of that is the driver being able to communicate what the car needs to do better to the race engineer.”
He continued, “Having a strong math and science background as a driver allows you to understand what is going on at the track and gives you a vocabulary to discuss it.”
I posed one very important and pressing question to the drivers: What do you do if you have to go to the bathroom during the race?
I received a variety of answers. Kimball said, “You either hold it or you just go. You have to be focused on the job at hand of going really fast and you really can’t think of anything else.”
Karam said, “You just have to go in the car. It is dangerous to drive with a full bladder because if you crash your bladder could explode. You sweat most of it out in your car anyway.”
James Jakes believes you just have to go with it and let Mother Nature do her thing.
I asked several drivers the difference between driving a minivan and an Indycar. De Silvestro said she drives a minivan, and it is much easier parallel parking an IndyCar. Newgarden said the minivan has more features and is more comfortable. (Obvious if you take a look at those racecars they drive.)
Overall, media day for the Indy 500 was an excellent experience. Each driver in this diverse group drove a different path in their lives to get here, but they all have the same goal of walking away with an Indy 500 victory. Watch this exciting event to find out who will receive the trophy in Victory Lane.
Coverage begins at noon ET on ABC.
Photos: Matt Collins