INDIANAPOLIS - With four Indianapolis 500 championships on his resume, Rick Mears should know what it takes to win the biggest race in the world. This year, he thinks it will maybe take more horsepower, more perfect pit stops and just plain more luck than it has in the past.
"This field looks extremely close, so it should produce a very tight race," Mears said yesterday on the eve of the 89th running of the 500.
"We have seen some cars running a bit quicker than others, but it hasn't always been the same people running the same speeds. We've seen some movement up and down, and I think we have the makings of a pretty close field. It should make for a great race, and one that's very hard to call."
Tony Kanaan sits on the pole, and has consistently been one of the fastest drivers in practice, but the defending IndyCar Series champion cautiously evaluates what all that is worth. Kanaan is trying desperately to give Andretti Green Racing team owner Michael Andretti the Indy 500 championship that eluded Andretti during his long and otherwise successful career as a driver.
"You still have to go out and run the 500 miles, keep your car on the track, and stay out of trouble to win this race," Kanaan said. "You have to do everything right, and have a few breaks go your way. You can't win this race without a little help. I want to win it very much, for Michael, but I need to race smart and be patient to accomplish that."
Sam Hornish Jr., who starts next to Kanaan on the front row, said that after a month of testing and practice and qualifying at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he is ready to run the race.
"This is a very long month for all of the teams, and when you get to this point, you feel like all of the preparations have been done and you are just ready to go racing," Hornish said. "We're happy with the Marlboro Team Penske car. We spent the final practice session making sure the car is mechanically sound. The race is a lot about execution on pit stops, and if we do well in those two areas we should be in good shape."
Helio Castroneves, Hornish's teammate with Penske and a two-time winner of this race, said the teams have to spend the final hours before the race clearing their minds after a hectic and sometimes frantic month at the storied track.
"This isn't the time to think about what you could have done, or talk about making any changes with the primary car," Castroneves said. "Our focus is on making sure everything is working well on the car and taking care of any minor adjustments. The team has worked so hard this month, and I feel we've done everything we can to make sure we're ready. Now we just need to stay focused and execute on race day."
The pre-race pressure has been weighing heavily on Rahal Letterman Racing rookie Danica Patrick, the only woman in the 33-car field and only the fourth woman in history to qualify for the Indy 500. Patrick said she has worked hard to ready herself for the race, and not let the buzz surrounding her success in qualifying and practice be a distraction.
"I think I have a great team with a fast car, and I think that's the first hurdle you have to clear as a rookie. I feel like I've done that," Patrick said. "I'm up there in the front of the starting grid, and I thank the team for that. As far as a driver, I don't have the experience that others have, no doubt.
"There's tons of things that I have to learn and I will go through on race morning, organizing everything in my head. Those things that you have to keep in mind when you start, when the race gets under way, when you come in for a pit stop. It's a rhythm. There's a lot of stuff going on that you guys probably don't even know inside the car, so you have to keep your mind clear so that you can focus on the things that you have to do that day."
Patrick said she intends to pace herself and not try to surge in front and win the race too early. She also hinted that she is anxious to get the Indy 500 started and close the book on at least this chapter of her new-found celebrity.
"I'm here because of what I've done so far in my career, and how I've been, how I've acted and conducted myself and the mental attitude I have," Patrick said. "I always do my best, and I feel like it's gone pretty good here, so I don't change and I don't do anything different just because all the media and the fans are all watching me. I would try just as hard to win this race if you guys weren't even here. That's just me."