De Ferran won '03 Indy 500
Gil de Ferran was trackside Monday, back at the site of his greatest racing triumph. This time he wasn't behind the wheel of a race car, though. Instead, he was waving the green flag to start practice for the Indianapolis 500.
"It was funny driving in this morning and thinking, 'Well, it's been about a year now,"' he said. "I must admit, I was a bit touched."
In last year's Indy 500, de Ferran beat teammate and two-time defending champion Helio Castroneves in a tight, one-on-one race to the checkered flag.
De Ferran won by less than a third of a second, the third-closest finish in the race's storied history.
He retired as a driver at the end of the season, yielding his spot with the elite Team Penske to two-time IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. Castroneves and Hornish are among the favorites heading to this year's race May 30, and de Ferran will be there, too, as a race analyst for ESPN.
"It feels good, mainly because it was my decision to stop driving," de Ferran said.
"I thought it was a mature decision I made, and I guess the proof is in the pudding. So far I haven't missed driving. Being here the whole month is going to be the ultimate test, but my predictions are good. I think driving is out of my system."
Daily practice continues through Friday; Saturday's pole qualifying is the first of three days of time trials. Castroneves, who started from the pole last year, was first on the track Monday, his 29th birthday.
So he was the first driver to see de Ferran's green flag.
"It wasn't planned at all," de Ferran said. "I thought it was very fitting, actually, to see one of the Penske cars come by. It was a funny sensation. I never waved a flag before in my life, so that was a bit weird."
De Ferran couldn't help but reflect on the significance of his only victory at Indianapolis, especially because it was his first race since he breaking his back at Phoenix two months earlier.
"I experienced probably the lowest of the low, the worst the sport has to offer," he recalled. "Then winning here, probably the most sought-after prize in auto racing, the highest challenge, something every driver dreams of -- it was a huge contrast to me."
He's ready for a new challenge, now.
That's where his TV gig comes in.
"I think it's going to be hilarious," Castroneves said. "He's a fun guy. He knows the technical terms, but at the same time, he can put a little spice into it. He'll do very well.
"I hope he says good things about me," he added, laughing.
De Ferran said he wasn't ready to call himself a broadcaster, yet.
"They asked me to help them analyze what goes on here," he said. "It's one thing having a reasonable understanding of what happens out there; the other thing is being able to talk about it, and that's going to be a big challenge. We'll see how it goes."
De Ferran was in the broadcast booth for the IRL season opener at Homestead, Fla.
"We'd been in contact with Gil, and as reigning Indy 500 champion it seemed like he would be a perfect fit," ESPN coordinating producer Jill Frederickson said. "He's extremely enthusiastic about it, and we fully expect he's going to be great on the air."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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