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At Indy, The Track Decides

Sebastien Bourdais during practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. © [Andy Clary / Spacesuit Media]

Sebastien Bourdais during practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. © [Andy Clary / Spacesuit Media]

by Allan Brewer

Skill. Heart. Nerves.

There’s a certain feeling, an energy, that you can feel the moment you come into Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It demands respect. It’s the cumulative weight of one hundred-plus years of courage, blood, sweat and sudden change of fortune.

It’s also destiny. If you win, you feel like a super-hero, and you become a legend. You don’t race comfortably here. You feel every mile per hour, the wind blasting past your head, the car almost out of control, right at the limit of its capabilities.

You just hope nothing goes wrong, because there’s very little time to react, and when you make a mistake in an IndyCar it hurts. Don’t think about “If I crash what will happen to me?” It’s something you just have to accept, to put your life on the line, to put it all out there and win.

The winner is the guy (or girl) who takes the most risk and is willing to do what it takes in order to get to the front. After all, the Indy 500 is on the line.

The traditional eleven rows of three parade before the massive crowd, building speed and creating an angry crescendo of engine noise, then roar past the yard of bricks and begin a brutally fast, green flag first-lap. If you didn’t have respect for it, if you didn’t feel nervous before, you certainly feel it now sitting alone charging full-throttle ahead while nearly blinded by the dust and exhaust engulfing you.

If you are lucky, the car is set up perfectly and powerfully by the team. It cuts through the air like a blade. There is remarkable stability as the turns add up, four to a lap, becoming two and half miles, then ten, and then a hundred. And still the race is only beginning, when the best car you have ever driven in your life turns into a thrashing beast, an animal trying to kill you.

It’s not just the car that wants to defy the driver. It’s the concrete wall that surrounds the racing surface, three feet tall in measure but ostensibly ten stories high when you hit it hard. It’s the heat that on Indiana Memorial Day can be stifling, exhausting and life-threatening to drivers and crowd alike. It’s oil on the track, crosswinds and sprinkles of rain.

It doesn’t matter much how experienced a driver may be at Indianapolis. Veterans have won here, multiple times. And rookies have won here as well, confounding anyone’s most studied handicapping of the competition. Sure bets break, and fail to finish. Beloved favorites grab the lead, late in the race, only to run themselves to exhaustion of their fuel within sight of the checkered flag.

The driver has the skill, the desire, the will and the patience to conquer almost anything on this day. But the racetrack has years of tricks up its sleeve, and many more not yet revealed, to frustrate even the best driver in the best car having the best day ever. How else to explain the bizarre race-ending finishes that are relative common here, where a clearly obvious race-winner crashes or rolls to a stop to relinquish a certain victory at Indianapolis to another man.

A former winner once quipped, “We drivers don’t really win this race; it’s the track that decides.”

Racers don’t race for the nostalgia. They race to win. In exchange for enduring glory they offer their energies, their bodies, and their lives to win. Three-time winners don’t race because they want mention in the same sentence as Foyt, Unser and Mears. They race because they want to win, to win every time they race, and to win this race the most of all.

On Memorial Day millions around the world and hundreds of thousands at Indianapolis will learn who has the skillfulness to rocket 500 incident-free miles, the fortitude to endure misfortune mechanical and mortal; and the mentality to choose winning tactics in the face of confusion and menacing death.

For the 102nd time, the track will declare who of the 33 has skill, heart and nerves enough for it to embrace as a champion.

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Allan Brewer covers IndyCar and other racing series for RacingNation.com. Allan is a fixture at the race track, armed with keyboard and camera, eager to take you inside open-wheel sport where the news is being made. He comes to RacingNation.com with multiple professional awards from the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association (AWWRBA). He began his motorsports writing career at FastMachines.com; and solely published IndyProRacer.com and A1GP.com, two award-winning websites for open-wheel racing’s junior leagues, prior to becoming IndyCar correspondent at Motorsport.com. He has also covered Formula 1, NASCAR, Formula E, the Indy Lights Series and its predecessor Indy Pro Series, NHRA events and major auto shows. His major interest outside of competition is automotive technology and its application to the cars we drive every day on the public highways.