The author, driving the #19 Dale Coyne Racing Dallara Honda, leads a pack of cars during final practice on Carb Day for the 95th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 27, 2011. Photo credit Getty Images

You’ve never felt nerves like those on the morning of the Indianapolis 500.

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It’s tough to eat; tough, even, to sip your morning coffee. To say you get “butterflies” is a gross understatement. Racing in the Indy 500 is like filling your stomach with a school of flesh-eating piranhas.

It’s been 105 races since the first 500, an event won by Ray Harroun. Back in 2011, I competed in my fourth straight race at the Brickyard, coming off a fourth place finish the year before. 2011 was precisely 100 years after Harroun’s victory—part of the race’s “Centennial Era”—and a historic event to take part in as driver. This weekend marks the race’s 100th running.

By race morning you’ve already spent two weeks navigating the 2.5-mile racetrack. In fact, during my first two 500s—2008 and 2009—we spent three weeks testing and qualifying.

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Back then, this upped the pressure significantly, mostly because it was another week of preparation, stress and occasional peril to deal with prior to the big day. In a sick kind of way, I loved that.

Your alarm goes off early. If you’re staying at the track in a motorhome, the 6 a.m. cannon, signifying the gates are now open to the public, will be your wake-up call whether you like it or not. If you’re staying in a hotel or at home, you’ll be up as the sun starts to peek in order to meet a 7am police escort into the track, helping avoid the notorious traffic. In truth, the likelihood of you sleeping at all the night before is pretty slim.

If I drove to the track, typically I’d close my eyes for an hour in the parking lot prior to heading to the garage, thinking about the day ahead. At this point you just want to get in the race car, get going, skewer these retched fish eating away at your insides and be done with it all. The waiting is the worst.

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It’s worth it, though; there’s nothing like driving at Indy. I’ve driven thousands of laps at the Speedway, most of which averaged over 220 mph. No matter how many times you do it, you will always enter turn one by taking a deep breath and saying to yourself, “Alright, hold on…” You never feel comfortable. You’re never certain you’ll make it out the other side. It’s like being on a rollercoaster, only you’re in control. Imagine being on the Kingda Ka—one the fastest and tallest rides in the world—where if you turn in a fraction of a second too late you fall off the rails and plummet to a fiery death. That’s kind of what it feels like every lap at Indy.

If I have one regret in my career, it’s that I never stopped to savor the moment. The bag pipes playing throughout the paddock in the morning; the grandstands and grass banks filling to a blur of color, 400,000 strong. The releasing of the balloons; the earthshaking flyover; Jim Nabors’s bellowing voice (how we miss him); the national anthem, et cetera.

As a driver, during the festivities before the start, you’re stood by the car’s rear wing. Your team lines up alongside, game face engaged. Thousands of people are milling around, shaking your hand, clearly in awe of the spectacle. It’s a remarkable thing, and yet I always found myself trying to block it out. The reason was simple. I was nervous; I didn’t want to embrace what was happening and make the pressure that much greater. You want to treat it like any other race, even though it isn’t. Mentally this helps.

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The downside to that strategy is, after the fact, I never once stood there and said, “Holy crap, this is awesome! I’m racing in the Indy 500!” And I wish I had. I wish I’d soaked up the feeling, basked in it, drowned in it, knowing that this extraordinary sensation had a limited shelf life.

The author again in decidedly pink garb, driving the #99 Chip Ganassi Sam Schmidt Racing Dallara Honda as he poses for his qualifying photo during qualifying for the IRL IndyCar Series 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 8, 2009. Photo credit Getty Images

During the race, though, you’ve no time to take in your unique surroundings. The concentration required is intense. Turn in too early, you’ll run out of road on the exit and crash. Too late and you’ll be in the slippery marbles and crash. Lift mid corner and the back-end will loop around and you’ll crash. Position your car incorrectly when following a fellow racer and the disturbed air will cause you to crash.

Basically, racing at Indy involves hundreds of tiny decisions per second, and one small error in judgment will result in—you guessed it—an exceedingly painful crash.

It’s hard to even see where you’re going at 230 mph, such is the buffeting and warped visuals. And yet you must hit these minute patches of tarmac at turn-in without fail. Further, you have a spotter shouting in your ear that someone’s “three back and gaining!” and the wake from the cars in front is trying to rip your head from off your shoulders. The vibrations are awful, the engine noise piercing, and the wall of color from the spectators feels ever closer—almost as if you could reach out and touch them. You probably don’t want to try that, however. If you did, your arm would likely break clean off.

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Back when I last raced the 500, downforce levels were lower, which meant the cars couldn’t follow as closely and were more on edge. It was incredibly challenging, without doubt the toughest thing I’ve ever done. Often you’re altering the weight-jacker or adjusting the front and rear roll bars multiple times per lap, trying to keep on top of the car’s ever-changing balance or the subtle fluctuations in wind direction. You’re trying to hit fuel numbers provided by your engineer, without getting passed. You’re navigating traffic, managing your tires, focusing on a strategy to be patient and position yourself for the end of the race—all while clipping these precise marks at 230 mph, and all while not crashing.

If, somehow, you manage to do all this and not crash, crossing the finish line after 500 miles of racing is about the most electric feeling you can imagine. Finally, after weeks of stress, you relax and bask in the moment.

It’s magical.

The day I finished fourth (actually I was third, until an out-of-gas Andretti protested after the race) was perhaps the greatest sensation I’ve felt, outside of the birth of my children (which, incidentally, almost occurred during the 2009 Indy 500—a double whammy of awesomeness, if you will).

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It was the best result ever for Dale Coyne Racing—a small team with an even smaller budget—and for me, it was a result I so desperately needed, proof that I could win the biggest race in the world given the right opportunity. Just knowing that fact, knowing you were in the hunt, is something special.

Those last few laps, passing Ganassis and Penskes like David slaying Goliath, on route to fourth (third!), is something I’ll never forget. And I’ll never forget the giant bucket of ice-cold water being poured over my head, our diminutive team celebrating as if we’d won the Super Bowl.

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More than anything, though, it starts to sink in that you’re part of something remarkable—something that’s far more than the sum of its teams and drivers. You’ve entered into an elite club; a bond between gladiators that can never be broken, or truly explained. It’s only now, five years after the fact, that I truly appreciate what I did. At the time it all felt, somehow, normal.

Truth be told, no longer being a part of the 500 is an unpleasant feeling, and one day I vow to be back. Because it grabs ahold of you, by the scruff of your neck, and it never lets go. You don’t want it to, either.

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Like the piranhas feasting upon your innards, it’s a part of what makes Indy, well, Indy.


@Alex_Lloyd is Head of Content at Beepi, a radically transparent and easy way to buy, sell and lease cars online. A racing driver who competed in the Rolex 24 at Daytona twice and the Indianapolis 500 four times, his column Three Wide is about the culture of speed.