Stories are told about how drivers change when the helmet goes on, the visor slams shut and the engines roar to life. Some say the "nice guy" demeanor is replaced by a wild, savage creature desperate for success, no matter the consequences.
But what really goes through the mind when you're embarking on a voyage filled with excitement, expectation, stress, immense speed and of course, ultimate danger?
This is what it's like to spend over three hours traveling in excess of 200 mph at the famed Indianapolis 500.
The 500 is a race unlike any other, and emotions are heightened due to the vast amount of pressure. The average lap speed is well north of 220 mph, and the cars are on a knife's edge the entire time. The large wings produce incredible turbulence, and when you add 33 speeding bullets, the wake created makes you feel like you are driving through a vicious Japanese earthquake.
The pre-race is, of course, intense. I've never felt nerves like before the 500, but at the same time a feeling of serenity washes over you. I'd like to say it's all mental, and I'm controlling my emotions through mind power, but in reality, it just sort of happens. Perhaps because the sensations are so incredibly great, that one simply could not cope without the brain intervening.
When the signal comes to strap in, a feeling of relief ensues. Finally, it's time to get to business. When the engine fires (personally) my persona does not shift. I experience a level of concentration unlike anything I could ever explain, and a ruthless focus on the task at hand, but I don't change into a different person.
A savage-like demeanor may actually be a hindrance in a race like the 500, as patience is imperative. On a road course, you can allow a little more viciousness to seep into your veins, but this is not a road course. This is Indianapolis, one of the most challenging and dangerous racetracks in the world.
When circulating for the obligatory pace laps, you are in constant communication with your team. Your engineer will say things like, "Warm your tires," and "Select fuel mixture eight. Save me some fuel, please." The race hasn't even started and already we are thinking strategy.
As a driver, you must also be thinking about the car's handling for the initial few laps. I mentioned the turbulence already: Well, when the green flag flies, it will feel like your helmet is going to rip your head clean off. The buffeting will ensure vision is impossible, made worse by the dust thrown from the other machines onto your visor, making looking through like peering out of the window of an old dilapidated shack.
Your tire temperatures will be cold and the conditions likely different from the last time you drove the car. If you want to come out of the blocks fast, you need to be on top of your machine.
In IndyCar, drivers can alter the setup on the fly. To the left of the cockpit are your roll bar adjusters, with around five settings that modify stiffness for both the front and rear. On the steering wheel you have the weightjacker, which allows you to transfer load to either the left front wheel, or the right rear. By moving a few clicks to the right (equating to around 15 lbs.), this will help secure the backend. Adding a little understeer by moving the front bar to its stiffest position complements the package, enabling you to start the race with a safe handling car, building confidence on cold tires, before bringing the settings back to neutralize the balance.
While doing this, your spotter will be keeping you abreast of the starting procedure, what direction the wind is blowing (this can drastically impact the car's behavior), and some last-minute strategies.
By the time it goes green, nerves are non-existent. You don't even comprehend how incredible it is to be racing in front of 400,000 cheering fans, such is the concentration required.
The first few laps are all about finding space and getting into a rhythm. You begin to analyze the car. How is it on cold tires, in traffic, and when the fuel load starts to drop? Inevitably the car will change during the run, as the tires wear and the weight drops. Every few laps (or even corners, in some cases) you must adjust your tools to keep on top of any handling imbalances that may creep in.
As pit stops fly by, the race continues to unfold. Only at about half distance do you even pay attention to your position. Patience has been the key so far.
At this point, strategy becomes the focus. Primarily, saving fuel. Saving fuel is tough because you mustn't lose pace with the guys in front. Lapping in sixth gear instead of fifth will save a valuable fraction of an MPG (average MPG per lap is around 3.00), as will lifting early towards the end of the straights. Of course, when doing this, you are opening yourself up to an attack from behind, but the engineers will be screaming at you to continue saving fuel. "We need you to run 3.15 MPG," they'll say. "You MUST slow it down. Oh, and don't get passed."
Passing and defending, therefore, is crucial. In IndyCar, you can't block, but defending is far more strategic than simply closing a door. You must analyze where the following driver is faster, and where he is slower. How can you manipulate his pace? For instance, if he is getting a run into turn one, try slowing early into three, backing him up, making him lift due to the increased turbulence, and then powering through three and four to build a cushion prior to one.
Listen to your spotter. He will be telling you where the other driver is strong and what line he prefers based upon their bird's eye view. If the following driver likes to run high, position your car high, taking his clean air, forcing him to run the low line.
If you are passing, you must lift early into turns one or three to ensure you maintain enough of a gap (avoiding the downforce loss associated with following too closely) to maintain full power through corners two or four, enabling you to catch the draft and make the pass. If you lift at the exit, you're toast. Not only will you not pass the car in front, but you will likely be freight-trained by a swarm of oncoming racers, as well.
Race craft is like playing a game of chess against Garry Kasparov. You must weigh up your strengths and weaknesses and play to them. Think of the car in front (or behind) and imagine how your line and speed will impact them. Plan a move many laps in advance. Set them up.
These tactical games often engulf the driver, but you must not forget about maintaining the car's handling with your cockpit controls, communicating with the engineer, and saving fuel. Pay close attention to the windsock on the scoring pylon. Has it changed direction? How will the wind affect the car's balance? What must you do to compensate?
As the race progresses, you begin to adjust your style. Patience turns to aggression. Calm turns into attack. But all the while, you must not be reckless. Aggression must always be controlled and measured.
To have a chance, you must be in position by the final pit stop. Your strategy will be in place and cards on the table. Now it's time to race.
By this point, you hope to have perfected the car's handling. During every one of the roughly seven pit stops you will have communicated changes to the engineer for the mechanics to implement. This could be adjusting downforce front or rear, or modifying the tire pressures. And, of course, you should be on top of your cockpit controls too.
Hopefully you'll find yourself in the hunt for victory. If not, you must never give up. The 500 is always unpredictable, and the key is to be there at the end. If you can't avoid the wall, obviously, you will never sip the milk.
You may have noticed that, through all of this, I have not once mentioned the inherent danger of lapping 500 miles at 225 mph, inches apart from the other cars, with a rock-solid wall just feet away. If you think about the consequences, it's over. It simply should never cross your mind.
Not only do you not feel scared, but you don't feel emotion whatsoever, or even get excited. During a race, the sensations felt before merely channel into focus. It's like being in an alternate world. Reality is incomprehensible. Victory is all that matters, and you work in a meticulous, methodical fashion, analyzing numbers and situations. When it's all said and done, then you can revel in what happened. And then the emotions return.
The good drivers don't turn into wild savages. They turn into Garry Kasparov, only with an incessant appetite for speed.
About the author: @Alex_Lloyd began racing in the U.S. in 2006. He won the Indy Lights championship in 2007. He's competed in the Daytona 24-hour twice and the Indianapolis 500 four times — placing fourth in 2010. The native of MADchester, UK began racing karts at age 8, open-wheel race cars at 16 and finished second to Formula One World Champion - and close friend - Lewis Hamilton, in the 2003 British Formula Renault Championship, followed by a stint representing Great Britain in A1GP and winning races in Formula 3000. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife Samantha (also from England) and three young "Hoosier" children. He also enjoys racing in triathlons and is rather partial to a good old English cup of tea. But not crumpets.
Photo Credit: Getty Images, AP Images