Finally, my favorite month is here! I tell you, there's no greater thrill for me than coming back to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway each May -- it's one of my favorite places on earth. I'm really looking forward to this year's race because I think we have a real chance to win again. I won here in my first two attempts in 2001 and 2002 and I finished second last year to my former teammate Gil de Ferran, so my luck at the Brickyard has been pretty good so far.
Hopefully, we'll be able to maintain our winning ways. This year, my new teammate Sam Hornish Jr. and I will be going for Marlboro Team Penske's fourth consecutive win -- something no other team has done in the event's 87-year history. I think we've got a great shot -- our team has an unparalleled record at Indy with 12 poles and 13 wins, and has led over 33-percent of the total laps run in the past three years. It'll be very interesting to see what happens come race day and if the team can make history yet again.
There are actually two races in the month of May: the race for the pole and then the actual race. We spend our first week working on the qualifying set-up so that come Pole Day (this Saturday) we're ready to go. Last year, it was one of the most stressful yet most rewarding days of my career.
The weather was terrible -- it was really cold and extremely windy. We went out for morning practice and couldn't seem to get the car over 200 mph. More importantly, I wasn't comfortable with the handling of the car and I was beginning to lose my confidence. The team decided that rather than qualify at our designated time, we would pull out of the qualifying line and continue to practice until I was more comfortable.
As the day went on, the weather got worse. My friend, Tony Kanaan, went out late in the day and put together four strong laps and he took the provisional pole with a four-lap average of 231.006 mph. I looked at my guys and said, listen; I can't take the pressure any more, if we're going to go let's just go for it.
One of the most important things about qualifying is that you stay as consistent as possible. You've got to string together four perfect laps to get the highest average speed possible. Because the weather was so bad that day, Brian Barnhardt, VP of Operations for the Indy Racing League, gave everyone an extra warm-up lap. By the time I took the green flag the car was feeling pretty good and I was a bit surprised when I looked at my dash and saw that my first lap was over 230 mph! I was working my car the whole way around the track trying to make the adjustments to accommodate the changing conditions and strong winds.
My second lap was even quicker and I began to realize that I had a shot at the pole. The next two laps were probably two of the most important laps of my career. By the time I took the checkered flag I realized I had captured my first pole at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and I was overcome with emotion.
(Castroneves captured Team Penske's record 12th pole with a four-lap average speed of 231.725 mph).
I tell you there is something about this track that makes any accomplishment feel twice as special. I don't know if it's the history of the Speedway; the racing legends who have been successful here; or its significance in the world of motorsports; but it's a magical place and there is nowhere like it in the world.
In a couple of days, I'll have the chance to go for it again. I hope the weather is better but I hope the results are the same.
Helio Castroneves drives for Marlboro Team Penske in the Indy Racing League. He is providing a diary to ESPN.com throughout the 2004 season. Castroneves' Web site can be found at www.heliocastroneves.com.br/.