When you walk down Gasoline Alley, with fans screaming your name and your heart pounding harder than a punch from Floyd Mayweather, you know you are walking in the steps of champions. As you emerge onto pit lane and witness 400,000 people surrounding the speedway, there is only one thing on your mind: "This is it -- I'm about to start the Indianapolis 500!"
The whole day has been a blur of sponsor engagements and obligations. Your cheeks ache from the forced smiles and your palms sweaty from the endless handshakes. All you really wanted to do was curl up in an air-conditioned corner and just be one with your thoughts. But this is Indy. You don't get that luxury.
After driver introductions, you're hit with a twinge of pride when your name echos among the crowd. The American flag flies, and after Jim Nabors warbles "Back Home Again in Indiana," finally, you get the call - "All drivers to your cars." The helmet goes on, the belts get tightened and you are at last in your office.
As the engine fires, Mayweather vanishes. Things go calm and you find yourself with an intense focus unlike anything you have ever experienced. A driver changes beyond recognition when the visor goes down.
The green flag flies. With the first corner comes the accordion effect, when 33 cars try to squeeze through the narrow turn. Now is the time to be patient. All too often you see guys ruin a month's worth of hard work and handshakes by getting too aggressive on the start. You have 500 miles to secure that first position -- now is not the time to get over-excited and stupid.
You're running more than 220 mph, but at no moment are you ever afraid. As drivers we have the unique ability to shut off that part of the brain. There are no "what ifs" allowed to enter your thoughts.
The aim for the first half of the race: Look after your car, make no mistakes and get in position by lap 100 of the 200 total laps. Now, the race truly begins. Some of the early protagonists will have self-destructed and have their quiet time back in the air conditioning. Teams will have enough data about the cars' performance and their current track position to build a strategy for the final laps. You try to keep yourself under control and calm — be patient.
Every pit stop brings another set of tweaks to your car. You may adjust the tire pressures, increase or decrease wing angles and communicate with your engineer what you need from the car to have a chance of tasting that ice-cold bottle of 2-percent milk.
You have a weightjacker on your steering wheel and roll bar adjustments in the cockpit to fight handling imbalances. You feel these shudders, and have to be in tune with them, constantly adjusting them, staying on top of the car during the long run between stops.
With 50 laps to go you shed the security blanket calmly reminding you that to finish first, you must first finish. Aggression builds with every pit stop, and before the last one you have to be in position to win. Leaving pit lane for the last time, you wager you can kiss the bricks instead of the wall.
You drive the last few laps with every bit of talent and bravery you can muster. You fight for every position. Your arms are sore, your mind fried from the concentration necessary to race for over three hours. Despite the fatigue, your body finds an extra gear and you get in a rhythm unlike anything you will have experienced in any other race.
This is Indy. It's what careers are made of and it is why you began racing in the first place. It is everything. You live for these laps.
When you cross the finish line, your body relaxes. You breathe for what feels like the first time in hours. You come to a stop, greet your team and say a big thanks for all the late nights they have put in to get you to this point. The winner goes to a bath of flashbulbs and TV lights that lasts a month. All others return to the garage, and the happiest know they and their team wrung everything they could from the car, and vow to come back.
This Sunday, the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500 will induct another 33 racers into the club of those who have tacked the greatest spectacle in racing. Those who stay cool and channel their experience will be there at the end and those who can't handle the heat will spend the last laps in their garage, dreaming of next year. The toughest afternoons belong to those who wonder what might have been with just a little more luck. No matter the result, 33 drivers can say they are a part of racing history
And that is something that will stay with you forever.