INDIANAPOLIS — Nearly 800 people in the human existence have ever raced in the Indianapolis 500. Out of those near 800, only 73 of them have won it. It’s an exclusive club to be an Indy 500 winner. Not many people living can say that they’ve done it. That’s also why we’ve seen over the years the emotion that comes out of an Indianapolis 500 champion. I mean, it’s the only race on the NTT IndyCar Series schedule that labels the race winner as a “champion.”
It’s not just that the win that’s special. Don’t get me wrong, crossing the yard of bricks is enough to make a grown man weep of happy tears of joy. But, it’s also everything after it too. You’re forever lauded in racing lore when you get to cross the famed yard of bricks first. But, it’s also to what happens during the course of 500 miles to what makes winning here so damn special too.
In order to win Indy, you have to be damn near perfect. Literally. There’s no margin for error here. From on track, to pit road, to everything in between, you can’t slip up or a win will become out of reach in an instant.
Especially now. The field is just so deep, so talented. To beat drivers like this, you have to be perfect.
“It’s a package” said defending Indy 500 champion Simon Pagenaud. “Obviously, it’s not just the race car. You have to have luck that day. The stars have to align for you. You need to bring your A game. The entire crew, the strategist, everyone has to make the perfect execution.
“At the end of the day, you also have to have the right package that year on your car. Setup, engine, everything. It’s obviously to me, with the 24 Hours of LeMans, the toughest race of the year to win. There’s so many factors to get right, especially the outside factors beyond your control and you do need the outside factors need to go your way.”
It’s eerie that the guy that he beat in 2019 in Alexander Rossi, echoed the same thing as Pagenaud about an hour earlier in the day.
“Yeah everything has to go right,” said last year’s runner-up but also the 2016 champion in Rossi. “Who would have thought that the strategy that we defaulted to after pit stop problems in ’16 would have been the one to have won the race. There’s no predicting it.
“There’s 33 cars that have a full and equal part to win this thing on Sunday. Pit stops are going to be, I mean each year there’s a little bit more of a track position race over years past because the competition gets better and it gets hotter, that sort of thing.”
500 miles. Four turns per lap. 800 turns all day. The amount of precision, perfection and concentration is what makes that cold drink of milk after 3+ hours of a mentally taxing race so damn worth it.
But, once you win it, it’s something that you don’t ever want to give back either.
“I don’t want anyone to take it from me,” Pagenaud said.
Rossi has always felt the same. He knows that people questioned his love for the race following his 2016 win. It wasn’t that he didn’t love to win, he just didn’t know what to expect. That’s why he says you see even more emotion pouring out of series veterans that have never experienced a win here despite several tries. But, that emotion a second time, it would come out for Rossi.
“Everyone talks about like when Tony (Kanaan) won and Will (Power) won, they’ve been trying so long and that type of emotion came out and that is obviously a real thing,” Rossi said to me last year. “But, for the guys that have won and gotten a taste of it, you don’t know what you don’t know. Until you’ve won, you don’t realize how amazing it is. How special an event that this is to win. Every time that a year goes by and you know someone else will get to go do all that stuff that you get to go do, you just think ‘oh this sucks.’ So for sure it adds fuel to the fire every year that goes by.
When told about Rick Mears getting more and more emotional after each one of his win, Rossi said “oh for sure because you realize every year you come here, you realize how challenging it is to get it done. How all the pieces of the puzzle have to fall in place. Some are in your control and some aren’t. It’s a pretty magical part when it all happens.”
A prime example is finishing second to Pagenaud in 2019. Rossi notes that he thinks about that race more right now than his win in ’16 because of how close he was and how you can’t squander a race winning car here due to all the circumstances around it.
“To this day I still haven’t watched an Indy 500 from start to finish that I’ve competed in,” continued Rossi. “I mean, I still think about the 2019 finish more of the 2016 win because it’s more recent or maybe it’s because it sucks to finish second. It’s a horrible feeling especially when it’s a second place for when you know you got up there trying to do something wild.
“Like in 2016, if we finished second, that’s a total different emotion. To have a car to potentially win and you come up short is tough because it’s so hard around here that puts you in that position. It takes so many factors and elements that puts you up there to win the Indianapolis 500. You never know if you’re going to have it again. When you see that opportunity and it gets away from you, it’s hard to swallow.”
On May 29, another driver will go down in Indy lore. Only Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya and Takuma Sato have won this thing more than once, but even if either of them, the emotion will be just as joyful as the others.