Rubens Barrichello was a Formula 1 rookie in 1993 when he decided to take a trip to Indianapolis for the 500. It made an indelible impression upon him.
"It was fantastic," Barrichello said. "I've always thought maybe one day, who knows, I would at least like to try that."
He'll get that chance this Sunday at the 96th Indianapolis 500.
The Brazilian had the longest career in F1 history, 322 starts in 19 seasons, but found himself without an offer for this season. So IndyCar veteran Tony Kanaan, his countryman and long-time friend, arranged for a test in late January with his team, KV Racing Technology, at Sebring, Fla. There, Barrichello realized he had the passion to continue driving, even if it meant tackling a new frontier: oval racing.
But before he could join KV, Barrichello needed to find sponsorship. One of the most popular Brazilians to ever race in F1, it took him only a month to put together a multi-million dollar package.
Part of Barrichello's appeal is that he's gregarious and not aloof, as many F1 drivers of his stature become. Barrichello's personality has helped him make an easy transition into the IZOD IndyCar Series, which he's running full-time this season.
Barrichello once promised his wife he wouldn't race on ovals because he didn't expect to continue his career beyond F1.
"One day we were watching an oval race and she [his wife, Silvana] looked at me and, said, 'You're never going to do this, are you?'" Barrichello said. "I said, 'Well I don't plan to because I will be racing Formula 1 forever and then probably stop.'
"But in the back of my mind, I always wanted to know what is the experience. What goes through the mind of the driver at such a speed?"
Barrichello, with the help of his children, was able to sell his wife on moving to the IndyCar series. He's driven four races, all on road and street courses, and finished eighth at Barber Motorsports Park, ninth at Long Beach, 10th at Sao Paulo and 17th at St. Petersburg.
"I haven't had the results I wish I had, but they're coming," Barrichello said. "I've got to be happy with the situation."
KV has brought Barrichello along patiently in practice. But on Indy 500 Pole Day, with the downforce level reduced on his Dallara DW12-Chevrolet, Barrichello put together his fastest four laps in qualifying, averaging 224.264 miles per hour to take 10th, the inside of the fourth row.
"I am really happy," Barrichello said after qualifying. "It's been one heck of a day and I can't tell you what my emotions were for the two hours before I got back in the car after [Pole Day morning] practice.
"I want to thank everyone at KV Racing Technology for putting me through the process of learning every stage carefully. I think today we conquered something and to have qualified in the top-10 at my first Indianapolis 500 makes me feel very privileged."
Barrichello is the biggest F1 star to come to IndyCar since 1993, when reigning world champion Nigel Mansell arrived. In his 19 seasons in F1, he won 11 races, including the 2002 U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis. Barrichello had nine of his F1 victories with Ferrari between 2000 and 2005, and was second to Michael Schumacher in the championship in 2002 and 2004. He had two wins and was third in the points in 2009 with Ross Brawn's team.
Indianapolis has had a steady stream of Brazilian drivers since Emerson Fittipaldi arrived in 1984. Fittipaldi was also the trailblazer for Brazilians in F1, winning the world championship in 1972 and 1974. Fittipaldi won the Indianapolis 500 in 1989, declaring in the post-race interview, "Today I am an IndyCar driver," and again in 1993.
Brazilians Helio Castroneves (2001, '02, '09) and Gil de Ferran (2003) have also won at Indianapolis. Barrichello would become the fourth with a win in Sunday's 96th running.
Throughout the transition, Barrichello has been able to lean on Kanaan, his teammate, and other drivers for advice.
"It's cool," Kanaan said. "Finally after 21 years of friendship, I can teach him something because it was always the other way around. I get a kick out of that. Sometimes it's fun. Sometimes we have our moments between each other, as well. It's been a different experience. I think at this point in our careers, if you had asked both of us if this would be happening, we would have said, 'No way.'
"Obviously, there is a lot of pressure on our team now. We grew quite fast between the names, the sponsors and everybody is expecting a lot of things. So do we. We're working on it."
Barrichello likes running at Indianapolis, where he's tallying the highest speeds he's ever run.
"I'm enjoying it," he said. "I'm better every day I run. Every day there's something you learn more."
The Indy 500 that Barrichello saw in 1993 had one of the most exciting finishes in history. Fittiipaldi passed Mansell, a rookie at Indy, on a restart with 16 laps to go and went on to win his second 500. Fittipaldi went on to call it "the greatest drive of my career."
It's little wonder that it inspired Barrichello to return to Indianapolis for the 500. His chance in the greatest race in the world arrives Sunday.