INDIANAPOLIS—Greetings from the Circle City where, once again, I find myself puzzling over another discrepancy between what I’m seeing and what I’m experiencing. The calendar says it’s May, yet I feel like it’s Christmas. Why? Because we’re a day away from the Indianapolis 500!
This year, you could say I got to open one of my presents early, on Friday, Carburetion Day. For those of you who are reading this and might not be familiar, Carburetion Day (or Carb Day, as it’s known around here) is the final practice session before the Indy 500. It’s called Carb Day because back when the racecar engines had carburetors in them—which was 1963 (well before I was born, for the record!)—that was the last day you could tune them for competition. Even though the technology has changed, the tradition has endured. And this one is like our Christmas Eve.
Now that we’re up to speed, let me tell you about this gift: Every year at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, on Carb Day, we have a pit stop competition—basically, a race to see which team can service the car most precisely and, of course, most quickly. And this year my Team Penske crew—the seven-man gang that changes the tires, adjusts the balance and tops off my No. 3 Shell V-Power Nitro+ Chevrolet—turned back all challengers. I am super proud of these guys and so honored to be on the same team with them.
A lot of times, racing can make it seem like it’s all about the driver—especially when we win. But believe me when I tell you that I wouldn’t be nearly as good on race day without Travis Law, my chief mechanic and right front tire changer; Joel Svensson, my left front changer; Keenan Watson, my right rear changer; Trevor Lacasse, my left rear changer, Patrick Stewart, my fueler (not to be confused with the captain of the USS Enterprise); Gary Yingst, my air jack man; and John Turpin, my sign board man. I’ve always said that my guys are the best in the business. It was such a thrill to go out and prove it.
We faced some stiff competition, going head-to-head with Graham Rahal at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Ryan Briscoe at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Charlie Kimball at Chip Ganassi Racing and, our own teammates, Will Power and his crew. To be honest, we were lucky that our two other Team Penske gangs, led by Juan Pablo Montoya and Simon Pagenaud, didn’t jump in there because it would’ve been an incredible fight.
That’s not to say the battles we had lacked intensity. I knew for fact that Will and his crew, who we faced in the semifinal heat, were going to be especially tough to beat. Team Penske crews hold themselves to the highest standard, after all. Back at our race shop in Charlotte, these guys are constantly working on something: their fitness, their technique—which they’re able to perfect by running through a full-scale replica of a pit stall that uses an electronic car to simulate stops. They’re an incredibly cohesive group, and yet very competitive with one another too.
To beat the Penske’s No. 1 team we knew we had to dig deep. As soon as we got past Power’s bunch, in the blink of an eye—0.159 seconds—I was like, OK, now we have a very, very good opportunity here to do something big. Next came our finals duel with Charlie’s crew, and it too went down to the wire. Kimball’s stop was 13.017 seconds. Ours was 12.561 seconds. Even though the margin of victory is razor-thin, just .456 seconds, that’s basically the difference between winning the Indy 500 and losing it by half a car length.
Like I said—and don’t mind repeating, again and again—I know my crew is the best. But to have it confirmed, beyond a doubt, right before the biggest race of the season? That’s way more valuable to us that $50,000 first prize check—though, don’t get me wrong: we’ll certainly take it. This victory just shows that we are prepared, especially to go up against a strong team like Ganassi. Everybody thinks it’s going to come down to either us at Penske or them. But truthfully, we don’t know who it’s going to be in the end. The only thing I can say for certain is that when I need my guys the most, they’ll be there for me.
They had my back here when I won in 2001. It was me and my teammate, Gil de Ferran. He was in front of me, and we were able to pass him in the pits. They had my back here again when I won in 2002. We had some issues in the pits with idling, but my crew never, ever gave up. And they had my back here yet again when I won here in 2009. On the last pit stop, they put me right in front. I was running third or fourth, and they pushed me up to second place. I made one more pass on the track and never looked back.
Without my crew, I wouldn't be sitting here today as a three-time winner with a chance to become the fourth driver in history, and the only Brazilian ever, to conquer the Brickyard four times. The pit stop competition is an incredibly good omen. Not only has the winning team gone on to capture the checkered flag on Sunday six times, but two of those times, it was my teams that had come out on top the Friday before. We couldn’t ask for stronger momentum going into the race, especially after a weird week of qualifying way where my entire world was turned upside down and the things I was feeling inside the car didn’t make sense.
Now we have a good car, a consistent car—which we need to stay ahead of this pack. I expect to see a pace like the one we saw last year, which means not many yellow flags, which means it’s going to be really important to save fuel. I think. We’ll have our strategy meeting today and look over all the possibilities one more time. I can promise you this, though: I’ll be ready. These other drivers don’t want to mess with me. I want this race bad, and I’ll do whatever it takes to win, within reason.
If the favorable conditions hold, and it appears they will, I know we’re going to be in a great spot. And if we’re not, I know my crew won’t stop grinding until they get me there. They’re the gift that keeps on giving.
Helio Castroneves is the only man in history to have won the Indy 500 three times and Dancing with the Stars at least once. Check out his website, www.heliocastroneves.com, and follow him on Twitter, @h3lio.