If you talk to the fans around Indianapolis Motor Speedway, they'll tell you about all the things that set it apart from other tracks: the history, the traditions, the pageantry -- those types of things. If you talk to a driver about Indianapolis, you'll get a similar list of things that go along with competing in the biggest race in the world. But, you'll also hear about another side to the Speedway that can keep a driver awake at night; a side that includes mind games, torment and a daily battle to keep your focus in the pressure-cooker that is Indy.
When we started practice on May 9 at Indy, our four-car team at Andretti Green had a good plan. Tony and Dan were going to work on qualifying; Bryan and I were going to work on the race. Then, as Pole Day drew closer, we were all going to shift our focus to winning the pole last Saturday.
But, as everyone knows, the weather at Indianapolis can turn on a dime. And, just as the ArcaEx team turned its attention to qualifying, the rain came. We only got three runs in qualifying trim on Thursday and then Friday was a complete washout. You never want to be ill-prepared at any racetrack, but that sentiment is magnified at Indy.
When Saturday arrived, I obviously knew I hadn't gotten the number of laps that I would have liked, but I was determined to do a good job. Our practice sessions Saturday morning were delayed and shortened because of rain, which didn't help, and then the car was pretty evil. That led to a lot of frustration, but you have to channel that very quickly to work with your engineers to get the car right.
When qualifying finally started around 2 o'clock, we put it in line and got ready. Meanwhile, Bryan went out ahead of us and crashed hard. I knew that we had some similar setup characteristics on our car that he had on his, so I got pretty animated about getting those things off of there. That is a tough way to go into a 10-mile qualifying run at Indianapolis, to say the least.
When we finally took our run the car actually felt pretty good. We were doing 220s, but (general manager) Kyle Moyer decided he wanted to wave off and I was absolutely fine with that. I was just hoping the weather was going to hold with us, so we'd have another shot at it. I knew we could go faster because we had so much understeer in the car. The biggest challenge was just calming down after that first run because of all the adrenaline.
When we went back out again, the ArcaEx car was so much better. The only drawback was the fact we had some understeer in Turn 4 leading up to my first green lap, so I dropped some speed there because I had to lift. Then, I dropped some more speed in Turn 1 because I had to lift again, so my first lap was 220.7. For a moment I thought we'd made a mistake by waving off the first run. But then I made a couple of adjustments in the cockpit, the car was really good from that point. I saw a 221.7, a 221.8 and then I knew we were pretty good.
It's hard to explain the emotions after I got out of the car after that run. I was obviously very, very happy to have qualified on the outside of the front row. I knew Tony still had to make his run and I was hoping he would go on the pole even though that would knock me off the front row. I felt that was more important for Andretti Green to win the pole and whether I started third or fourth in that circumstance didn't really matter to me. But, when I saw that he wasn't going to be quick enough to win the pole, then I definitely didn't want him to knock me off the front row.
After the week we'd had leading up to that point, I couldn't have been much happier. I probably hadn't felt that good since my last CART victory in 2002. But, I was happy for everyone on the team. Dan and Tony also had great runs, Bryan was okay after his incident and Honda had the first seven spots in the field. That's pretty impressive.
But, it never stops there for a driver. When the day is over, you go home at night and start thinking that maybe if you'd had one more run that you could have challenged for the pole. That's just the way it goes after a roller-coaster day like that. To put it lightly, I was exhausted. But, for the right result on May 30th, it would all be worth it.
For a driver, "typical Indianapolis" is best described as thinking you've got it under control one minute and then feeling like you don't the next. It can change in an instant and it can happen day-after-day.
And just think -- we're only about halfway through the month.
Welcome to Indianapolis.
Dario Franchitti competes in the Indy Racing League IndyCar series for Andretti Green Racing. He is providing a diary to ESPN.com throughout the 2004 season.