Tony Kanaan looks on at Indianapolis. (Penske Entertainment/Chris Owens Photo)

‘It Was Surreal’: Drivers Reflect On Magnitude Of Indy 500

Some of the biggest moments in a person’s life can almost feel out-of-body or surreal. The exuberance of getting married, graduating from college or the birth of a child are some of these items that come quickly to mind.

Along the same lines, a racer’s memories of competing in the Indianapolis 500 at the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway are moments they’ll never forget. 

SPEED SPORT spoke with drivers from past and present about moments from the speedway that are ingrained in their minds and help describe the significance the Greatest Spectacle in Racing has on competitors. 

Tony Kanaan, 21 Indy 500 Starts, One Win (2013)

“So, you guys are gonna think I’m gonna go all nostalgic about it,” Kanaan told SPEED SPORT. “But I was watching, which I don’t do very often, but somebody was showing me the race in 2013. And actually, Roger Penske and his group had told me that they changed the podium procedure after my win because it was a mayhem. 

“I remember a little bit because actually, I had to pour milk twice over my head because somebody gave me the bottle too early. 

“But I was watching the other day, and the amount of people that I had hugged at the podium that I don’t know who they were, and I still don’t, it was unbelievable. So that is probably something that I feel bad for, like, ‘Who are these people?’ So it was just fans, I guess.”

Danica Patrick, Eight Indy 500 Starts

I suppose the ones that stick out the most from each would be, for me, it all felt very good, for Indy especially, showing up to rookie orientation,” Patrick said. “I had never worn nail polish, but for some reason, I think it was because it was so early in the month and I was flying there from Arizona where I lived, and that was the very beginning of the month.

“That was when we had a whole month there, and I had pink nail polish on, and there’s one of my favorite photos other than right after the race in 2005 hugging my dad. 

“There’s a picture of me putting my HANS device on with my pink nail polish, and I just have just such fond memories of that first time at the track and rookie orientation and pulling into the pits every single time after I made a run and there being just 10 or 20 photographers right in front of the car.

“It was just, welcome to Indy. It was like, this is a big deal, and you felt like it was.”

James Hinchcliffe, Nine Indy 500 Starts, One Pole (2016)

“For me, it’s interesting. Mine is a little different, I think, because when you come here as a rookie, everything is overwhelming,” Hinchcliffe said. “You’re just so floored that you’re really here and you’re really doing it, and you go through all the things that you go through in May for the first time and you go through qualifying and you go through the parade on Saturday, then you have driver intros, then you do the whole ceremony at the start with the anthem and ‘Taps’ and ‘Back Home Again’ and all those things, and they’re all so special.

“You just sort of are kind of wide-eyed and trying to take it all in.

“But for me, the real weight of the Indy 500 and the true meaning of it really hit me was when I crashed out of the race about half distance,” Hinchcliffe continued. “I crashed out, and I had gone out of races before in IndyCar and lots of times in your career as a kid, whatever. I’ve never had a feeling like that.

“It felt so much worse, and you were almost like pleading with some higher power to just hit the reset button and go back 30 seconds so you could do something different and make a different decision. 

“In that moment I just felt a way for all of my team and my sponsors and my family and just everybody that I had never felt with any other kind of DNF or anything like that or any kind of mistake.

“I think that’s the moment that it really struck me. It was when it all sort of disappeared, all got taken away in that moment, and it was very powerful. I never forgot that.”

Al Unser Jr., 19 Indy 500 Starts, Two Wins (1992 & 1994)

“For me, watching the Indy 500 since I was a kid with dad (Al Unser Sr.) and Uncle Bobby (Unser) in the race, and the success that they had,” Unser said. “It was a dream of mine since I was like, eight years old, to come and be a part of the Indy 500. 

​​”So that happened for me, my very first year in 1983. So, a lot of dreams came true that year. First off, driving an Indy car on the race track, qualifying for the race and then starting the race. All those were just dreams come true from childhood. It was a very positive thing to happen for me.”

Townsend Bell, 10 Indy 500 Starts

“I think one of the lasting memories from my first Indy 500 was strapping my helmet on as I stood next to my race car about to climb in for my first 500 in 2006,” Bell said. “For whatever reason, glancing up into the grandstands at the approximate location of where I sat 20 years prior, exactly 20 years prior as an 11-year-old boy watching my first Indy 500 in 1986 and realizing the achievement of just being there.

“It was surreal. Some of you might know my story; I didn’t have two nickels to rub together when I decided to drop out of college and pursue becoming a racing driver, and it just was an enormously powerful realization of that journey. 

“I’ll always remember that, how special it was to be on the other side of the fence, and to almost see that 11-year-old boy in the grandstands was powerful.”

Conor Daly, Nine Indy 500 Starts

“It was when I hit a wall. That was the welcome. That was the ‘ouch’ at the welcome point,” Daly said with a laugh. “But honestly, it’s just driver intros. The driver intros, I think for this event are so special and they feel cool. 

“They should feel cool, because it’s literally the most incredible event on the planet, like over any other event I think, and I’ve watched all the major sporting events. It’s the sheer magnitude of what you feel when you walk out there. All the spotlights are on you. It’s the coolest thing in the world.”

Ed Carpenter, 19 Indy 500 Starts, Three Poles

“I think the first one is always a big one,” Carpenter said. “You don’t know what to expect the whole way through the qualifying format and through the race. My first one was tough (2004), we had a rain delay in the middle of it, which I didn’t last too long after the rain delay. 

“So, it’s great to get the first one out of the way. You learn things the whole way through, still learning. But, the first one’s the biggest one to get it out of the way.”

Simon Pagenaud, 11 Indy 500 Starts, One Win (2019)

“I think the driver introductions are always kind of intimidating for any drivers, even experienced drivers,” Pagenaud said. “In a way, it’s a blessing because it’s such a big event and everybody’s gathered around this arena for this one event. It’s the biggest sporting event in the world on that day. 

“Then you’re in the middle of it, you’re one of the actors. So if you’re very relevant in your sport, which is a blessing. It’s a curse because you got to maintain your emotion to a decent level without it getting to you.

“My first few years were difficult. Surprisingly, it’s still difficult but in different ways,” Pagenaud continued. “It’s just because of the impact of the events that it can have on you. It gets you a little stressed out, but it’s a fun game to play with yourself, balancing your emotions out. I hate it and I love it at the same time.”