INDIANAPOLIS – When sizing up the field for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, there are so many factors to consider.
Who has the fastest car? Who will choose the right strategy? Will a driver benefit from having superior fuel mileage? Can a series of perfect pit stops make the difference? Can a leader hold off a pack on a late restart? What’s the best place to make an all-important pass for glory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
What about desire? Is it possible that a driver wants to win this race more than anyone else?
Let the debate begin.
“I know I want it the most,” Simon Pagenaud said Thursday. “I don’t care what they want. I really don’t care how much they want it. I just know what I’m doing and what I’m trying to do. That’s all I can look at. I’ve just got to be the best I can be.”
As the Team Penske driver made his bold statement, teammate Helio Castroneves was standing about 10 yards away and answering an endless series of questions about what it would mean to finally celebrate a fourth Indy 500 victory.
Pagenaud has put himself in an ideal position to win by capturing the pole position, and he’s a proven 2016 NTT IndyCar Series champion. But can anybody really tell Castroneves that they have more desire than him? The Brazilian says he’s learned in 18 previous Indy 500 starts that winning requires more than will.
“You can have desire, but if you don’t have the team, you don’t have the synergy or if you don’t have the track that’s going to pick you, it doesn’t matter,” Castroneves said. “Talk about Michael Andretti (who never won as a driver), he has a pretty good story to talk about desire, especially with the family tradition. It’s always about being in the right place at the right time. You’ve got to read between the lines about when you’re in that position.”
Five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, who won the 2008 Indy 500, also dismisses the notion that desire determines the outcome.
“Desire has a lot to do with it, but I think everybody at this level has the same desire, at least the people racing for the win,” Dixon said. “You don’t get to this point without having dedication, desire or the ultimate wanting to win.”
Not so fast, says Graham Rahal. The son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal grew up with a profound appreciation for this race. He’s wanted nothing more than to win.
When told of Pagenaud’s statement and comparing that to how badly Castroneves wants his fourth victory, Rahal respectfully disagreed with Dixon’s assessment.
“There’s certain people that this place has a lot of meaning to. You have to have the desire,” Rahal said. “I have no doubt Helio does (have more). I know Simon would say the opposite, but Helio can join an elite club. Winning is an elite club. But winning four, to be one of only four at that time to do it? That’s pretty special. Hopefully he’d retire after.”
Fair enough, but could it also be said that nobody wants to win this race more than Rahal?
“I think that’s true,” he said. “I’ve lived this thing. I’ve lived it my whole life. We work hard for this. I hope at some point it happens. It seems so elusive, but hopefully it works out.”
Ed Carpenter finished second to Will Power last year in his best Indianapolis 500 finish to date. He’s won the pole three times and will start his 16th Indy 500 from the middle of the front row Sunday. He grew up in the shadow of IMS and has reiterated throughout his career how much the 500 means more than anything.
But Carpenter, like Dixon, is known for being level-headed about how emotion can come into play. He agrees with Dixon.
“It’s not for me to say what another person’s desire is,” Carpenter said. “We’ve all worked hard to get here. That’s a great thing about opinions, we all have ‘em.
“You’re never going to get a room full of drivers to agree on anything. It’s impossible.”
Carpenter suggests that if a driver didn’t possess that desire to win this race, he or she wouldn’t be motivated to “put in the work and put out the risk” required to succeed.
Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden, who leads the NTT IndyCar Series points after the first five races of the 2019 season, is also trying to win his first Indy 500.
“I think it’s innate in all of these drivers,” he said. “I don’t see how you could want it more. We all want it. We’re all selfish. We all want to win every race and not leave any scrap for anyone else. That’s just how you are. It sounds terrible, but as a competitor, that’s where you have to be.”
He mentioned how Castroneves was reminded it’s the 10th anniversary of his third win. That it’s been a decade can lead to some good-natured teasing. But Newgarden knows Castroneves, at 44, could still pull it off.
“Look, Helio is just as capable as anyone,” Newgarden said. “Clearly, he’s got probably the best credentials of anyone in the field.”
And Castroneves certainly has the desire.
“Yes, he does, just like all of us,” Newgarden said. “I’ve got a lot of desire to beat Helio, and he’s got a lot of desire to beat me.”
Coverage of the 103rd Indianapolis 500 begins with a prerace show at 9 a.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN, followed by NBC’s race coverage at 11 a.m. NBCSN carries a postrace show at 4 p.m.
The Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network goes live with its coverage at 11 a.m.
The INDYCAR Mobile app powered by NTT DATA is the ultimate second-screen experience, providing timing and scoring, team radio communications and select in-car cameras. It is available for free on all carriers.