When I try to win both the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 this Sunday, I'll be depending on my own ability, plus two cars, two pit crews, one doctor — and a time machine.
I've been asked many times this month what the most difficult part of racing a combined 1,100 miles at Indy and Charlotte will be for me. Since this is the third consecutive year I've done the ''double,'' I have the benefit of experience. A lot of challenges are ahead, but I don't think there's one problem that's more daunting than another.
Really, it's a matter of preparation, figuring out in advance what the issues are and dealing with each of them well before Indy's green flag waves at noon (EDT). I'm fortunate to have some very good people working with me to coordinate all the details. That's what allows me to concentrate on my job, driving the Meijer Dallara-Chevrolet at Indy, and then the Cingular Wireless Chevy at Charlotte.
Two practical considerations, however, are transportation and physical endurance.
Traveling the 600 miles from Indianapolis to Charlotte for the 5:30 p.m. start will be my biggest race against the clock. That's where what I call the ''time machine'' comes into play — Textron has loaned me a Citation X jet for the trip. I'll take a helicopter from the Indy infield to the local airport and another one from the Concord, N.C., airport to Lowe's Motor Speedway. With a little help from air traffic controllers, we're hoping to go from track-to-track in about two hours.
I've discovered that doing the ''double'' is more mental than physical, at least for me. There's no doubt, though, the effects of 3.5 G-loads in the turns at Indy and a humid night in Charlotte will strain my 35-year-old body.
Dr. Jay Golding, Richard Childress Racing's team physician, will make the trip with me and administer IV fluids en route to Charlotte while I relax. For years my pre-race ritual has been to eat a turkey sandwich, but on Sunday morning, I plan instead to drink plenty of liquids. There's so much wind rushing around in an open-cockpit Indy car that you don't have the same sense of heat buildup and dehydration as in a fully enclosed stock car. Two years ago, I got severe stomach cramps during the Coca-Cola 600 because I'd lost more body fluids than I realized. I won't let that happen again.
As for the two races, I'm optimistic. That's my nature.
Qualifying 18th at Indianapolis was a disappointment, but a crash and rain put our team in a hole. Within 15 minutes, I was thinking about how to make the car good for the race.
After qualifications, I made it a point to practice in traffic, so I could feel how the turbulence created by other machines would affect my handling. The winner almost always has a great handling car, and that's especially important if it's a sunny, hot day because that makes the track slick. Trust me: An unstable car is not a fast car — and not fun to drive!
New rules have reduced horsepower and so the pole speed of 222 mph is almost 10 mph slower than last year. I've spoken with some people who believe that means Indy cars are now easier to drive. Not true. The ''sweet spot'' — a near-perfect chassis setup — is harder to find with this revised aerodynamic and engine package. The numerous turn-one accidents we've seen this month tells me I'm not the only driver with that opinion.
The start is always a tense moment as all 33 cars are tightly bunched. I'll be cautious, but not conservative. I can't afford to be. I'm starting mid-pack, on the outside of row six, and since I expect the leaders to set a fast pace and passing to be difficult, I want to pick off as many positions in the early laps as safely possible. Another key will be pit stops. The tank capacity has been reduced by five gallons to 30, which means more refueling. I've told my crew to practice a lot this week, because seconds saved in the pits could gain us several spots on the track.
I expect Charlotte will be the tougher race, for several reasons. It's longer, obviously, and a stock car is almost 2,000 pounds heavier than an Indy car. I won't arrive in time for the drivers' meeting and the penalty for that will force me to start 43rd — last. The level of competition in NASCAR right now is so high there probably will be 25 cars capable of winning verses 12 to 15 at Indianapolis.
I'm sure Indy fans assume I want to win the 500 more than Charlotte, while NASCAR fans think the opposite because my full-time job is in that series. I don't look at it that way. Yes, winning Indy would fulfill my boyhood dream, but I also know how fortunate I am to be racing for Richard Childress in one of America's most popular sports and how huge the Cup championship has become in this country.
So, if I'm lucky enough to turn into Victory Lane at Indianapolis, I'll proudly drink from the traditional bottle of milk — then immediately race off to Charlotte and try my absolute best to do it again.