On a warm day in central Indiana, George Seymour smiles from underneath his weathered baseball cap and starts telling it like it is. "I would go through withdrawal symptoms if May came around and I didn't hear the noise of the race cars," he confesses.
George and I are hanging out on his front porch this sunny afternoon. It's a cozy, working-class bungalow just across the street from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway - literally in the shadow of the towering grandstands that line Turn Four. The place looks as if it's been overrun by a band of carnival vendors. There's a guy from Michigan selling corn dogs and Italian sausage in the front yard, a guy next to him hawking fried dough. Someone else is peddling steak sandwiches, and another is selling T-shirts and bumper stickers under a big red tent.
"It's like this every year," George shrugs. Every year during race week, that is, when he rents out his front yard to a few vendors from out of town. George tells me he has lived within a few hundred feet of this spot for most of his 65 years.
"I grew up right over there," he says, gesturing towards the house next door. He points to a big tree in the front yard. "I used to climb up there to watch the race when I was a kid." Then he points to a garage two doors down. "That's where Clint Brawner built the car Mario Andretti drove when he won the 500 in 1969."
George is rattling off tales about the way things used to be, telling me one story after another. He's describing how today's 220-mph race cars seem almost quiet compared with the 140-mph roadsters they raced during the 1950s. How there used to be a wooden fence surrounding the speedway, before they tore it down and installed a chain-link monster a few decades back. How he used to sit on the old wooden fence while his dogs hunted for rabbits in the tall grass that grew where the towering grandstands are now. George steps inside the house for a moment, and re-emerges clutching a faded black-and-white picture of a gangly teenage boy holding two rabbit pelts. "See, that's me," he says. "And you can see the wood fence there in the background."
Staring across the street towards the speedway, I can almost picture the scene the way George remembers it. The rickety fence. The brave drivers racing those clunky roadsters that look like wind-up soapbox derby cars. The whole place feeling more TheWaltons, less ESPN. Then George starts telling me why he thinks the Indianapolis 500 is going to hell in a handbasket.
Nowadays, there's too much expensive hardware, he declares, and not enough real racing. With all those onboard computers and advanced carbon-fibre composites - the machines are driving the men now, instead of the other way around! George remembers how you could outfit an entire team for around US$30,000 (£20,000) back in the late 1940s. "Driver, race car, tyres, pit crew - the whole works," he says. "Thirty thousand bucks." But today it takes £4.5 million just to be competitive. Even worse, George thinks the young guys driving those high-tech cars today probably couldn't race their way out of a paper bag. So, instead of letting them qualify for the 500 on the smooth asphalt of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, maybe these young drivers should be required to prove what they're really worth. At the Indiana State Fairgrounds. Out on the dirt track. In sprint cars. Make 'em fight it out, wheel to wheel.
Maybe that way, George says, he'd get to see more good, old-fashioned racing. And maybe that way there would be more Americans on the starting grid of this year's Indianapolis 500. Because, as George explains it, "I don't want anyone to win whose name I can't pronounce."
Now, don't get me wrong. George Seymour is a good-natured guy, and he certainly has a lot more perspective on the Indy 500 than I do. And while it might be easy to write him off as just a nostalgia-plagued old-timer, that wouldn't be fair. Because when you get right down to it, George is arguing that the Indy 500 is about more than just fast cars driving round and round an oval race track for hours on end. He's saying that there's also an element of romance involved, of heroism, and that he likes his heroes to be people he can relate to. Heroes of flesh and blood, and not some little black box managing a million-dollar race car that's practically running on autopilot.
There's no denying that the Indy 500 has become a lot more complex since George was a kid. Back then, the race was more like a giant Indiana block party than a world-class sporting event. And while plenty of that down-home feeling lingers today, the 500 has evolved into the world's largest single-day sporting event - a gigantic festival of American technoculture - sort of like Mardi Gras, the World Series, Woodstock, the Fourth of July, the Super Bowl, a NASA space launch, the Kentucky Derby, and Comdex all rolled into one.
Each year, some 400,000 race fans and revellers descend upon the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the last Sunday in May like swarms of Middle American pilgrims completing the hajj to the mecca of motorsports. The fans come from all over the country - selling out hotels and motels all over town, parking their motor homes bumper-to-bumper in the American Legion field just down the street from George Seymour's house, and creating long lines that zigzag out the front doors of liquor stores for hours. Ask a group of them why they've come to Indy and you're likely to hear the same answer shouted back at you time after time: "It's the need for speed!" - as if the answer is so self-evident that you might as well have asked why bears shit in the woods.
Speed is what they come for. Gut-rumbling speed! Neck-snapping, eye-popping, ear-ringing speed! Exhilarating speed that stretches the laws of physics and pushes the interface of man and machine to its wildest, most intimate, outermost extreme. Speed so haunting that the speedway seems to echo with it, even during the off-season when the track sits idle, awaiting the race cars' return.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a veritable temple of speed - an unimaginably huge, two-and-a-half-mile rectangular oval comprised of four quarter-mile turns, two long straightaways five-eighths of a mile each, and two one-eighth mile "short chutes" that bridge the turns. On a hot day, the far ends of the track dissolve into shimmering ponds of heat that disappear somewhere just over the horizon. And yet, despite those incredible speeds, the straights are only 50 feet wide and the turns are banked at a paltry 9 degrees. Put it all together, line both sides of the track with canyons of grandstands, and you end up with a something that resembles a cross between a Roman amphitheatre and an asphalt-paved particle accelerator.
While the layout of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has remained the same over the years, the cars that race here have mutated dramatically. Gradually, the front-engine, rear-wheel-drive roadsters of George Seymour's youth have evolved into taut wundercars that look more like cruise missiles than purebred cousins of the family four-door.
The transformation began during the mid-1960s, when race-car designers figured out that they could reposition the engine to concentrate the mass near the vehicle's centre. This made the cars more stable and helped push lap speeds beyond the 160-mph mark. During the early 1970s, these mid-engined cars sprouted wings that work like inverted airfoils, increasing traction by generating gravitational downforce to press the cars towards the pavement. Lap speeds shot into the 190-mph range. Then, during the early 1980s, the 200-mph barrier fell as designers began working with "ground effects" - venturi air ducts carved into the underside of the vehicle - to create a low-pressure area that literally sucks the car to the pavement. Taken together, these aerodynamic advances enable an Indy car to generate more than 3 Gs of downforce - enough to make the car stick to the ceiling if you could turn the Indianapolis Motor Speedway upside down.
In the meantime, yet another technological revolution has been sweeping through Indy racing - one invisible from trackside, but easy to grasp when you realise that lap speeds have climbed to dizzying new heights during the 1990s. In the past decade, the Indianapolis 500 has gone digital.
Peel away the slick, carbon-fibre skin of an Indy car these days, and you'll find yourself staring at a sophisticated nervous system of serpentine wires, precision sensors, LCDs, electronic black boxes, and spread-spectrum wireless communications equipment. Today's Indy cars take to the track equipped with two-way voice-communications systems and all the hardware needed to transmit reams of real-time performance telemetry back to pit row, where a new breed of race-crew technicians known as DAGs - short for "Data Acquisition Geeks" - use laptop computers to monitor the pulse of an 800-horsepower data terminal by remote control as it zips around the racetrack at more than 220 mph.
No wonder poor George Seymour worries that all the new technology is turning the Indianapolis 500 into a big slot-car race. And no wonder he doesn't feel affinity for the young drivers of those digitised racing machines. But George's mind might be put at ease if he got to know these newcomers a little better - even though their names don't quite roll off his Indiana tongue.
Take Jacques Villeneuve, for example. At 24, Jacques is the youngest driver in the starting field of the Indianapolis 500 this year - just as he was in 1994, when he finished in second place and scooped up Rookie of the Year honours. That's pretty impressive for a racer of Jacques's age. So impressive, in fact, that many people are already wondering whether he will continue to race in the IndyCar series next year, or allow himself to be recruited by some of the heavyweight Formula One teams that are already sniffing around his team's garage. As Ned Wicker, the editor-in-chief of Indy Car Racing magazine, explained to me, "Jacques Villeneuve has an incredible, innate ability to drive."
Indeed, he was bred to go fast. Jacques's father was the late Gilles Villeneuve, a successful and charismatic Formula One driver killed in 1982 while trying to qualify for a race in Zolder, Belgium. Jacques was 11 years old at the time - young enough, he says, to be left with few memories of the tragedy. But he insists that even then, he already knew he was destined to become a race-car driver, and his father's death did nothing to dissuade him from that calling. "Racing isn't like a gene that gets passed along," Jacques says. "But when you come from a family of racers, you learn at an early age to get used to speed."
Jacques Villeneuve has shiny blue eyes, a friendly lopsided smile, and shoulders that are slightly stooped, as if his whole body has permanently adapted itself to the act of clutching a small steering wheel inside a narrow cockpit. Or maybe his posture comes from all those hours spent hunched over a keyboard, programming, or playing games like Doom, Heretic, and - you guessed it - IndyCar.
Early one evening in his team's garage on Gasoline Alley, just off pit row, Jacques and I get to talking about the interplay of man and machine. It's only three days before the 1995 Indianapolis 500, and the garage is empty except for a few stacks of fat black tyres and Jacques's silent, gleaming race car. The car is fully primed and ready for competition - slung low to the ground and emblazoned on all sides with the light-blue logo of Player's Ltd., the marketing subsidiary of a popular Canadian cigarette brand. The race car looks like a single-seat jet fighter mated to a billboard on roller states, and I want to know what it's like to pilot the thing at 220 mph.
"The car becomes a part of you," Jacques says in his twangy French-Canadian accent. "You forget that it's a separate thing. You feel everything. You feel what is happening to the car through the steering wheel, your hands, your feet, your butt, and your back. It all happens in a way that is very fast and very powerful. But once you get used to it, it feels natural, just like anything else. It's like walking when you're a kid - awkward until you get used to it."
And what about the proliferation of silicon in the rubber-on-asphalt world of Indy racing?
"Well, sometimes I feel like we're putting too much electronics into the car," Jacques admits. "But I'm glad the regulations in place now don't permit electronic drivers' aids. Things like anti-locking brakes, active suspension systems, electronic throttle control, or electronic gearboxes - I don't want any of these in a race car. I don't want anything helping me drive, or working on the car while I'm driving it. "Overall, I'd say the most important instrument a driver has is a clear head," he adds with a big smile on his face. "That ... and maybe also a very numb right foot that stays pushed to the floor."
Race Day dawns on May 28, 1995; it's damp and over-cast. Jacques has spent the night at his manager's house, in a suburb just north of Indianapolis. He wakes in a good mood, gobbles down a bowl of cereal and a big plate of bacon and eggs, and makes his way over to the speedway behind an escort of Indiana State Police. Torrential rains rolled through town last night, soaking the bacchanalian hordes who'd camped out in their trailers across the street from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The crowds begin streaming through the speedway gates at 5 a.m.; gradually, the grandstands and sprawling bleachers fill up with a pixelated mass of cooler-toting humanity. As the morning wears on, the rain tapers off, the clouds thin out, and the diffuse glow of sunlight radiates from the Indiana heavens. "You see!" one race fan slurs with a buzzed-out grin after I park my rented Pontiac on the infield grass. "Even God wants this race to take place!"
Down on the front straightaway, the 33 cars due to race in the 79th Indianapolis 500 are being pushed into their starting positions. They're arranged in a grid eleven rows deep and three abreast, and lined up from fastest to slowest, based on the average speed each has attained during the four-lap qualifying trial. Collectively, the average qualifying speed is 226.912 mph - a new speedway record.
Conspicuously absent from the lineup are the red-and-white Marlboro-sponsored cars of Team Penske. For as long as most people care to remember, the cars fielded by Roger Penske (the Bill Gates of racing) were the ones to beat, but this year, the machines he issued to drivers Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr., both past Indy winners, were absolute dogs - too slow to qualify. It's the first Indy 500 since 1968 without a Team Penske car. But for every race fan lamenting his absence, there's one chuckling smugly at the thought that even a garage full of proprietary technology couldn't buy millionaire Roger Penske a spot in the 1995 Indy 500.
Hundreds of VIPs swarm around the cars on the grid. Drawn from the motorsports élite, the buzzing throng includes Nomex-clad drivers and mechanics in freshly cleaned uniforms. There are solemn team owners and glib team sponsors; nerdy journalists and in-your-face photographers; and nomadic TV crews scavenging for interviews while lugging around an awkward-looking array of umbilical wiring, headsets, cameras, antennae, and boom microphones.
Jacques Villeneuve's qualifying speed of 228.397 mph - fifth fastest in the field - has earned him a comfortable spot in the middle of the second row. Amid all the pre-race bustle along the front straightaway, he hovers close to his race car, talking with team owner Barry Green, and holding hands with his girlfriend, Sandrine Gros d'Aillon. Normally a lively couple, the two now seem quiet and meditative. Meanwhile, the rest of the Team Green pit crew forms a loose cordon around the car to keep back the onlookers. One of the team's DAGs pops open a laptop and jacks it into a chrome-plated data port just behind the driver's headrest. Scrolling through screens of data, he makes a few final checks on the setup of the race car.
In the highly competitive world of Indy racing, the idiosyncrasies of each car's setup can make all the difference between a smooth trip to the Winner's Circle and a frustrating battle to avoid a collision somewhere near the back of the pack. In contrast with European Formula One racing, where each team competes with one-of-a-kind cars built from the ground up using custom-built engines and chassis, most Indy cars are constructed using "off the shelf" racing components. Indy's shrink-wrapped race cars may lack the proprietary sizzle of the their Formula One counterparts, but they also make Indy racing extremely competitive. After all, when each car is more or less the same, drivers and pit technicians can gain competitive advantage only by attempting to fine-tune their machine to the outer margins of the performance envelope.
Many of the components used in Indy cars today are built by a small fraternity of suppliers located within a few miles of one another in Britain. While components such as the £265,000 monocoque chassis are purchased outright from British manufacturers such as Reynard Racing Cars in Biceter, or Lola Cars based in Cambridgeshire, others are leased under highly restrictive terms that leave individual teams little room for custom modification. In the case of the Ford-Cosworth V-8 engines that power 23 of the 33 cars on the Indy starting grid this year, for example, the terms of the lease prohibit team mechanics from so much as unscrewing the engine-valve covers to peek at the precision workings of the car's powerplant. The engines are simply bolted onto the car straight out of the box, leaving the mechanics free to tinker with the other components over which they have some measure of technical control.
That's where setup comes into play. Setup is where the sciences of mechanical engineering and data analysis rise to the level of an interpretive art form, as drivers and team engineers work to perfectly balance the car's weight, aerodynamic downforce, and handling characteristics within the context of a constantly changing race-course environment. If the car is too "loose," it suffers from a condition known as oversteer: the rear end has a tendency to swing outward during cornering, potentially throwing the car into a white-knuckle spin. On the other hand, if the car exhibits an understeer "push," the front wheels may suddenly lose grip while diving into the curves, sending the car careening towards the outside wall in a fearsome straight-line vector.
During pre-race practice sessions, Jacques Villeneuve and the Team Green pit crew strove to find an optimal handling setup that would keep their Reynard/Ford-Cosworth machine evenly balanced on the track. To precisely understand how the car is performing, the engineers rely on a combination of driver feedback and real-time telemetry collected from the 20 or so sensors sprinkled throughout the car's chassis - sensors that can precisely measure key variables such as shock-absorber travel, steering wheel position, brake pressure, vehicle-ride height, rotational speeds of each wheel, and aerodynamic downforce on each corner of the chassis. After comparing the data collected from these sensors with Jacques's firsthand impressions of how the car is behaving, the pit crew can then make a potentially limitless combination of subtle adjustments to the shock absorbers, springs, wings, tyre pressure, and wheel camber in the hope of finding a setup that enhances the performance of the car. It's a thin line that separates chaos from control - and as one laptop-wielding engineer admits, "In the end, it's still a process of trial-and-error. A lot of the time, we don't really understand exactly why an action leads to a particular result."
Down on the front straight, Jacques gives Sandrine one final kiss, slips a fireproof mask over his face, straps on his helmet, and eases his compact 5-foot-6-inch frame into the cramped confines of his cockpit. The cheerless security sentries blow their whistles with emphatic vigilance, and before long, all the VIPs and their miscellaneous hangers-on evacuate the starting grid, leaving only the cars, their drivers and pit crews, and an odd assortment of Indy officials on the front straight.
It's half past 10 - almost time for the race to begin. But first some ceremonious rites must be performed before the assembled crowd of the Indy 500 faithful.
At 10:42 a.m., Florence Henderson of The Brady Bunch fame steps up to the microphone to sing the National Anthem over the speedway's tinny PA system. Next up is Rev. Daniel M. Buechlein, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Indianapolis, who sanctifies the race with an invocation: "Lord, protect and bless these dear drivers, their mechanics and crews, and all of us, to make us safe. And please hold back the rain." Then Jim Nabors - a k a Gomer Pyle, the loveable but blundering character in the '60s sitcom - comes forward to sing "Back Home Again in Indiana." Looking trim despite a recent liver transplant, Nabors is making his 25th appearance at the track to sing the pre-race song. At the moment he begins belting out the tune, a golden beam of sunshine pierces through the clouds - warming my face, shining in my eyes, and convincing me that God really does get pumped up for the Indianapolis 500.
Last to perform her duty is Mary Fendrich Hulman, the aging grande dame of the Hulman family, owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1945. Wheeled up to the microphone, she utters the famous words that have long marked the beginning of the race (although the phrase was slightly modified to reflect the presence of driver Lyn St. James in the 10th row of the starting lineup): "Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!"
Instantaneously, 33 fine-tuned racing machines snap to life in a crackling, roaring, rumbling, and revving explosion of acoustic energy. The giddy crowd erupts into whoops of approval, and within minutes, all 33 cars are thundering behind the purple-and-white Corvette pace car for two parade laps.
The racers look like a formation of warrior insects clad in designer ski clothing. At the front of the procession are two fluorescent-coloured cars sponsored by Menards, a Midwestern chain of home-improvement stores. Deeper in the pack are the brewers' specials - a red-and-white car sponsored by Budweiser, a black-and-gold car representing Miller Genuine Draft, and a red-and-green car touting Tecate. There are cars advertising motor oil - green for Quaker State, yellow for Pennzoil, and red, white, and blue for Valvoline. There are cars pitching tobacco - Player's, Copenhagen, and a Brazilian brand called Hollywood. A green-and-white car is sponsored by Herdez, the Mexican salsa manufacturer. All told, it's an international fashion show of four-wheeled sports marketing, supported by sponsors who have each paid up to £6.5 million per car for the privilege of advertising their wares before a live audience of 400,000 hypnotised race fans not to mention the millions upon millions of TV viewers worldwide.
With the green flag waving from the starting tower, the pace car ducks into pit row just as the field heads down the front straight after the second parade lap. The cars start swerving madly, side by side, three abreast, buzzing like hornets as they charge past the finish line in a 150-mph running start. Flat out, battling wheel to wheel, the speeds climb to almost 200 mph; the breathless spectators stand on their seats to catch a glimpse as the cars dive into Turn One. Locked in combat, front wings nuzzling rear wings, the racers fight for position like charged particles skittering round an oval nucleus, and then - all of a sudden - something snaps. Something goes horribly, terribly wrong; one of the cars gets loose and ricochets wildly towards the outside wall.
It's Stan Fox, in car 91. His vehicle veers to the right, slamming sideways into another car, driven by Eddie Cheever, and an ugly fountain of auto parts shoots into the sky. At 165 mph, Fox's front end collides with the concrete retaining wall, just as his tail becomes enmeshed in the wreckage of Cheever's crippled machine. With 60 Gs of impact, Fox is squeezed between the wall and the other spinning vehicle, causing the nose of his car to snap clean off. Fox's legs are left dangling helplessly from the front of his cockpit as his car cartwheels. Spewing flames, smoke, wheels, suspension parts, and splintered shards of carbon-fibre bodywork, the two shattered race cars cling together in a kinetic heap, crashing, bouncing, and bumping through the short chute, until finally both spin to a halt just inside the entrance to Turn Two.
Emergency crews rush onto the track, and Fox is pulled from the scant remains of his vehicle, unconscious but alive, having suffered a closed head injury - the violent, twisting force of the accident sent his brain rattling around inside his skull.
The wreck and its aftermath leave six cars too badly damaged to continue the race, and the yellow caution flag comes out while several cleanup crews scramble to remove the grisly wreckage from the track. The surviving cars follow neatly along in single file behind the pace car, lined up according to their position when the yellow flag was raised.
Jacques Villeneuve is sixth in the column. As the pace car ducks into the pits going into lap 9, the green flag comes out again. The lead pack once again charges down the straight and accelerates into Turn One. And, once again, an otherworldly rumble sweeps over the grandstands, cresting in a chest-pounding shock wave as the cars rush around the track.
The drivers with the hottest shoes and the fastest cars quickly pull away, hoping to put an unconquerable distance between themselves and the rest of the field. Jacques hovers almost half a lap behind. With more than 225 laps still to go, he's in no hurry to dominate.
"We'll spend most of the race watching our car and watching the other engines and other drivers," Jacques hinted during a press conference held before the race. "As the race goes along, we'll begin to get a better sense of how our car behaves in traffic. You're always in the race as long as you're not a lap behind. We just hope to be in good position near the end so that we can be aggressive for the finish."
With 30 laps completed, the race leaders begin making their first scheduled pit stops for fuel and fresh tyres. One by one, the cars at the front of the pack duck into pit row to be part of a meticulously choreographed dance that requires seven mechanics to replace four tyres and add a 40-gallon load of fuel - all in roughly 14 seconds. But Jacques stays on the track, hoping to gain a competitive advantage by squeezing a few extra miles before each fill-up. Through a careful fuel-management strategy supervised from pit row but implemented by Jacques from the car - a strategy that includes dialing back the car's air-fuel mix to make it more "lean," and gain 10 per cent in fuel efficiency - Team Green plans to make one less pit stop than the rest of the pack over the course of the 500-mile race.
After the first- and second-place cars pull into the pits on lap 35, Jacques takes the lead, although neither he nor his team realises it. Nobody's bothered to look at the small black-and-white monitor that displays up-to-the-minute race information generated by the speedway's computerised scoring system. Instead, they're too busy watching the car's fuel supply, which is beginning to fall perilously low. The engineers down on pit row nervously watch as their laptops compile and analyse fuel consumption telemetry to project total consumption and estimate range given the existing supply. Data reveals the car's almost running on fumes.
Amid all the commotion of preparing for Jacques to make his first pit stop, nobody from the team tells the driver he's leading the race. Inauspiciously, at that moment, the yellow flag comes out to allow maintenance crews to remove stray debris from the track at Turn One.
According to the rules, it's the race leader's responsibility to fall in behind the pace car when the yellow flag comes out. In addition, during caution situations, no cars may enter pit row until the entire field is properly assembled behind the race leader. But Jacques still has no idea he's leading the race. Thus, the yellow flag stays out long after the debris is cleared, and the pace car circles the track six times looking for the race leader. Jacques breezes past the pace car twice, each time wondering why it's taking so long for the pack to line up behind the leader and for the pits to open up again.
The misunderstanding is finally cleared up when the spotter in the pace car wildly gesticulates for Jacques to slow down just as he prepares to pass again. Obligingly, Jacques falls in behind the pace car, and dives into the pits. Running out of fuel, he coasts to a stop in front of his crew. The panic has clearly rattled him; seconds later, he tries to leave with the fuel hose still attached to his car. The car stalls, further slowing his return to the race course and providing proof of an axiom that Jacques articulated during a pre-race conversation. "When you get hyper, your foot isn't attached to your brain anymore. That's when you stop using your head, and you make really stupid mistakes."
Frustration. Anger. Disappointment. Fury. Jacques squeals out of the pits and back onto the track in third place. But there's more bad news to come: word is handed down from the tower that Jacques Villeneuve has been assessed a two-lap penalty for passing the pace car under a yellow flag. It's a harsh penalty - with a wave of the chief steward's hand, Jacques plummets from 3rd place to 24th.
No one facing a two-lap deficit has ever gone on to win Indy. At this point, the situation looks pretty grim. But with almost 150 laps remaining, there's still time for Jacques to recover.
Through a combination of careful fuel management, well-timed pit stops, and pure aggression, he begins to make up ground. By lap 66, Jacques has overcome the first of his two penalty laps. By lap 80, he's climbed to 20th; by lap 110, he's 16th. He's charging ahead, steady and fast, keeping himself poised on the edge, and tuning in to the voice bouncing around inside his helmet.
"I talk to myself a lot," says Jacques of staying focused in the cockpit. "I don't know if my voice speaks to my subconscious or vice versa, but when I have to push, or get a little more aggressive, I'll say things like, ÔOK, that's it, now's the time to get by him.' Those are the times I'll talk to myself, and I'll usually react to what I'm telling myself."
Shortly after lap 112, Jacques turns the fastest lap of the race so far, devouring the 2.5-mile oval at 220.919 mph. He's pushing to the outer limits, and I suspect even George Seymour is pleasantly surprised.
"Sometimes, you're really going for it and you'll do anything to get by someone," Jacques had told me earlier. "When you get in that kind of mood, sometimes things work even when you know they probably shouldn't. There's a lot of aggression while you're in the car. You're there to win. You're constantly fighting. But on the other hand, it's also important to keep your head. Your brain is the engine of the body, basically. It's what controls everything. And even if you're reaching for the utmost aggressiveness, you still need to keep your head, because the mind is the thing that must always remain clear and sober."
By lap 120, Jacques is back on the lead lap, and once again in contention. He has made the rebound from his 5-mile penalty seem effortless, and after more than 300 miles of wheel-to-wheel racing, the field has winnowed to just 24 cars. Of those, less than half remain on the lead lap with leader Scott Goodyear. Back in the game once again, Jacques patiently bides his time, trying to gain a few spots on the race leaders so he'll be in a good position when the sprint to the finish finally begins.
With 32 laps to go, Jacques's odds grow a little longer. The first three cars are battling it out for position, while Jacques trails in fourth, several carlengths behind. But then, one by one, the three drivers ahead of him begin knocking themselves out of contention.
First to go is Jimmy Vassar, high into Turn Three, skidding helplessly into the outside wall. That moves Jacques into third place - although he's still trailing significantly behind the first- and second-place cars. The fight to the finish continues: leader Scott Goodyear blisters through at speeds near 224 mph on lap 183 while Scott Pruett, his second-place rival, trails only 0.1 second behind. Jacques seems to be holding his position, neither gaining nor losing much distance from the top two contenders as they fight for the lead. It's a discouraging sight, as it seems unlikely Jacques will be able to make up sufficient ground to enter the competition for the checkered flag in the 17 laps remaining.
Going into lap 184, Goodyear narrowly extends his lead over Pruett. Then, as the two cars enter Turn Two, a sudden gust of wind causes Pruett to lose control. As the crowd gasps, the right rear wheel of Pruett's Firestone-sponsored car taps the wall, sending the front end slamming against the barrier. For a split second, Pruett seems to recover, but slides sideways, skittering madly against the grain of the track. Veering backwards, he heads to the infield and collides engine-first into the infield guard rail. There's a momentary burst of flames as the rear half of the car is sheared off, the rear wing and back wheels tumbling through the air, and the driver's cockpit coming to rest on the infield grass. Luckily, Pruett emerges uninjured, but the accident turns his million-dollar car into a twisted pile of scrap.
Jacques has avoided the fray for 20 laps, holding his position while two of the top-three cars self-destructed in their lust for the lead. Even during yellow-flag caution periods, Jacques has seemed to hang back, as if excusing himself from the fight. But as track crews hurry to cart away the two halves of Pruett's machine, Jacques suddenly asserts himself again.
For five laps the pack trails behind the Corvette pace car, with Scott Goodyear in first place and Jacques in second. Goodyear crawls along, putting some distance between himself and the pace car so there's room to accelerate when the race goes green again.
Jacques rides close behind, revving his engine and swerving from side to side, hovering in Goodyear's mirrors like an angry wasp looking for a place to strike. Occasionally, Jacques falls back momentarily, only to spring back seconds later with a stomp on the gas and a reckless burst of acceleration. Finally, as they charge round the track one last time in anticipation of the green flag, Jacques begins shadowing Goodyear, mimicking his every movement and dogging him closely from behind.
As the two enter Turn Three in preparation for the dash to the finish, the pace car is already almost a half-mile ahead. Suddenly, Goodyear stomps on the gas, sending his car rushing forward in an explosive burst of speed. Jacques seems unable to keep up, and the distance between the two cars grows dramatically. But as Goodyear rushes ahead, he practically blows the doors off the pace car as the Corvette rounds Turn Four. The yellow flag is still out, and Jacques falls neatly into place behind the pace car until it turns down pit lane. Then, he too begins his charge down the front straight.
Goodyear is clearly rattled: he has just jumped the gun, passing the pace car before the green flag is waved. It seems Jacques's wild, erratic posturing - harnessed to a cold, calculated bluff - paid off, unnerving his opponent before the final, 10-lap sprint to the checkered flag.
It's lap 193, and word comes from the tower that Goodyear has been assessed a black flag "stop-and-go" penalty for passing the pace car during the restart. There's a disorienting moment of confusion as the weight of the decision sinks in. With fewer than seven laps remaining, Goodyear must enter pit lane and come to a momentary halt at his team's pit position before accelerating back onto the track. Scott Goodyear's Indy victory evaporates.
In stunned anger, Goodyear refuses to acknowledge the black flag penalty. Instead he keeps charging around the track, with Jacques still following several carlengths behind. On lap 195, the judges up the ante. Goodyear is given a one-lap penalty, Jacques is officially installed as the new race leader, and, with only five laps remaining, the youngest driver in the starting field of the 1995 Indianapolis 500 heads home to victory.
With calm perfection, Jacques completes the remaining laps. The white flag comes out, signalling one lap left to complete; he rounds the oval one more time. Turn One. The short chute. Turn Two. The crowd cheers and waves him on. The back straightaway. Turn Three. Spectator's arms gesticulate wildly. Turn Four. Jacques Villeneuve crosses the finish line and takes the checkered flag - 3 hours and 15 minutes after the race began - the record books showing that after his two-lap penalty, Jacques Villeneuve is the first person ever to win the 500-mile race by completing 505 miles.
Jacques circles the course in his track-splattered race car one final time, savouring the victory lap and waving to the cheering crowd. Euphoria. Rapture. He brings the race car to a halt on the checkerboard surface of the Winner's Circle, where he's greeted by a scurrying mob of reporters, race officials, television crews, and ecstatic team members. He steps from the car and removes his helmet; a wreath is placed over his shoulder, a navy-blue Goodyear Tyre cap slapped on his head, and Jacques is handed a jug of milk - the ritual drink given to Indy 500 winners in commemoration of Indiana's dairy heritage. Jacques hoists the jug and the milk comes flowing out, pouring into his mouth, dripping down his chin and onto the front of his firesuit just as the horde of camera crews arrive. Flushed with victory, he manages to answer a few inane questions on live television for all the folks watching at home, and a fleeting look of relief sweeps across his face as the interview comes to an end.
Jacques is ushered towards a white convertible for yet another victory lap - this time with Sandrine. The young couple circle the track, smiling, looking slightly embarrassed, sitting parade-style on the top of the car's back seat. When the lap is completed, Jacques returns to pit row to be whisked into a press conference.
After the conference, he emerges from the press room and is greeted by crowds of journalists and autograph seekers, each of them wanting to catch a glimpse, ask a question, get a signature from their new hero. Jacques shuffles over to Gasoline Alley for yet another press conference.
Hustling over to the Team Green garage, he submits to a round of one-on-one interviews. French-Canadian TV. Brazilian TV. Japanese TV. Someone fits his finger for his diamond-studded victory ring. The autograph seekers are barely restrained by flimsy metal barricades. Jacques spots a group of his young friends smiling patiently off to the side, and he winks, "Hey, that was fun."
The two metal doors of the Team Green garage roll shut to keep out the crowd of well-wishers still milling around outside, and for the first time since he left the garage that morning, Jacques has a chance to unwind. The intense bundle of mental concentration he's nurtured all day is gradually beginning to loosen up, and in its place obvious waves of blissed-out euphoria creep across his face.
Jacques is smiling, weaving his way through the garage with a glassy twinkle in his eye. His hair is matted, and he's still wearing the dirty Nomex fireproof long johns and driving suit he raced in during the day. But he remains poised, wandering around the garage, laughing and shaking hands with his teammates, his sponsors, the publicists, and an assortment of friends from all over the globe.
I'm standing off to the side, trying to be invisible. Give him a break, I think. The guy just won the fucking Indianapolis 500 - the epic ritual of man and machine - and he's already spoken to an unhealthy number of journalists today. But Jacques spots me, lets loose one of his smiles, and lunges towards my hiding place.
I extend my hand: "Congratulations."
"Thanks," he nods warmly.
Then he looks straight at me with his cool blue eyes and says, "You see, the human part is still what counts most."
It's a surprising comment - thoughtful and direct, yet strangely acontextual. It's as if Jacques is addressing George Seymour, the old-schooler who lives just across the street. But the two have never spoken. Never so much as stopped for a moment to sit down on George's porch and talk about the good old days and what the Indy 500 is really all about.
Postscript: Following his victory in Indianapolis, Jacques Villeneuve went on to win two more races in the IndyCar series - on a road course at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, and on a temporary street circuit set up at Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland, Ohio. With just two races remaining in the season at the time of going to press, Jacques commands a comfortable lead in points in the 1995 IndyCar championship standings.
But we already know that he won't be returning to Indy next year. In early August, Jacques flew to England for a three-day test session at Silverstone with the Williams-Renault Formula One team. True to form, he passed with flying colours - almost equalling the times set by Damon Hill, the lead driver of the Williams team, even though Jacques had never driven a Formula One car before. A few weeks later, Jacques announced that he would be joining the Williams team in Formula One next year.
Todd Lappin (email@example.com) drives a 1987 Chevy truck.