In the 31 times I’ve attended the Indy 500, I had never made it to the winner’s photo opportunity the morning following the race.
Race day for me has always been a ritual, whether as a media member, a part of the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network or as a fan attending for so many years. The post-race rituals typically consisted of the same traditions: showering off the sweat and film from a month’s worth of passion fit into a day, followed by watching the race replay that night while dozing in and out from the couch.
Each year the activity became a fuel strategy of my own, trying to save enough in the tank to watch Victory Lane and the swig of milk on TV as the clock inched closer to Memorial Day. With each year, I’ve managed to be more Alexander Rossi than Robby Gordon, conserving just enough to make it to the finish. This year was no exception – with one new wrinkle – my weekend guests wanted to see the photo shoot on the yard of bricks some eight hours after the replay sign-off. My catch-up sleep would have to wait another day.
Will Power looked as fatigued as me, though he had justification for his fatigue. His Sunday was slightly more accomplished than mine, yet there he was, taking the photos and turning the sponsor "hat dance” into a well-choreographed ballet. It was an honor to be allowed so close, and it was a picture-perfect ending to another weekend of memories.
No time to savor the May experience, however. Three days later, I was off to Detroit. That’s the challenge of the Verizon IndyCar Series.
So much energy goes into Indy. So much anticipation, so much strategy, so much preparation. I thought about all of it as I drove up I-69 to the Motor City for this past weekend’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear. I could only imagine the arduous tasks presented to mechanics, strategists, engineers, let alone the drivers in making the same turnaround from one week to the next. It’s a beautiful part of the demands placed in competing in the most versatile test of open-wheel racing.
Belle Isle is a physical race course, even if traveled by the most well-rested of competitors. The Indy 500 Victory Celebration, the meet-and-greets and the commitments of the month behind them, it’s up to the drivers to make sure all that goes in to the rear-view mirror.
Scott Dixon did just that in Saturday’s race, which began with as much green as the majestic fields lining the shores of Belle Isle. I was anticipating an early caution. It never happened, which I think speaks volumes to the skill, focus and physical and mental shape of INDYCAR drivers. The hours of training performed in the dead of winter is for more than just Instagram selfies. It’s that lab work that pays off when you have three exams on back-to-back weekends, the first being a 500-miler.
Dixon’s 42nd career win tied him for third on the all-time Indy car wins list, matching the feat of the man who owns the car that took Sunday’s back end of the Detroit doubleheader. Michael Andretti watched Ryan Hunter-Reay end a winless streak of – wait for it – 42 races, a win not guaranteed until Rossi missed a late turn and sought refuge in the runoff area. I don’t know if it was a mechanical or mental breakdown that caused Rossi to err. I tend to think the former, although the latter is both understandable and excusable. It came at a time that was the true test of one’s limit.
Hunter Reay’s win came with noticeable and genuine joy. His jump into the Scott fountain was the equivalent of Power’s emotional exuberance at Indy just a week before. Ryan’s euphoria was well earned; one of the best drivers of his era plugged through his fair share of bad luck during his drought.
I couldn’t help but smile while thinking of Hunter-Reay’s former teammate Justin Wilson during Sunday’s celebration. Hunter-Reay’s last series victory was void of euphoria, as it came in the race where Wilson was tragically lost, at Pocono in 2015. Seeing Hunter-Reay’s euphoria – at the same track Wilson had won 10 years earlier – would have made Justin smile. A gesture from the Brit which was as frequently displayed as his undeniable talent.
The shower in the Belle Isle fountain was surely a quick one for Hunter-Reay, as there must be enough fuel to strap back into the cockpit Saturday night at high-banked Texas Motor Speedway for the DXC Technology 600. How will the 2018 car perform at a track where side-by-side racing has become an open-wheel staple? Will Chevy flex the same muscle of speed we saw at Indy, or will Honda, like at Belle Isle, be faster off the corners? It will be fascinating to watch unfold.
Almost as intriguing, when will we all catch up on sleep? It’s a secondary concern at this point, as the rigors of the May and June schedule are one of the biggest reasons I admire the men and women that compete in the series.
When you’re going for a win or a championship, your focus is on just that – and answering the bell no matter how often it is rung.
It’s a thrill to be witness to it, even if you barely have time to stop and take a picture. Or wake up early to watch someone else do so.
(Veteran broadcaster Jake Query is a member of the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network team and offers his musings regularly on IndyCar.com.)