Well, wasn't that something! As we prepared for the final round, and I was in the lounge with Tim as he stared at the computer data and made up his mind about his approach to the championship lap, he laughed a little and said "This is a weekend you won't forget, right?" I said "There's no doubt about it, but it's more than that."
I went on to explain that I certainly have my fair share, possibly more than my fair share, of great and vivid memories in this sport, including the amazing "double-up" win in Indy back in 2005, when Del ran the table and won every trophy and just about every dollar available. But, when you win races it all kind of happens all around you, at the speed of light, and it's only later that you look back and remember key moments or interesting omens from earlier in the day or weekend. This past weekend in Indy was all about our last-ditch effort to get into the Countdown, and the road to making that happen was a convoluted and difficult one. This time, when it all played out, what we saw was more like a movie we had written. We knew the script, I'd been thinking about it and analyzing it for weeks and months, so to see it actually come to life was very much like having written a screenplay and then getting to see it as a finished production. It was weird. It was also thrilling, stressful, exhilarating, and magical.
Of course, you add in the fact we had to all head back home and wait a week for it to finally happen just added to the surreal quality of the whole thing. Like I said, I've been thinking about it, writing about it, and analyzing it a hundred ways for many weeks, but having to leave Indy, go home, and then come back took it all out of that context and to a different level.
I flew in on Friday, which is weird enough to begin with, and when our approach into Indianapolis took us way to the east, possibly almost all the way to Ohio, and then back into the airport from that direction, I wasn't surprised to see dark clouds and streaks of lightning as we landed. There was a huge storm just north of the city, heading to the southeast, so I hustled to get my rental car and busted my way right toward it, hoping against reasonable hope that I might get to the hotel before the deluge hit. I almost made it.
The lightning was impressive, but the rain was torrential, and a downpour like that was exactly the last thing the track and its property needed after the prior weekend. It was pouring when I got to the hotel, but it had a portico so I put my car there while I got my room key and put my luggage in the lobby, and then I parked around by a side door to cut down the distance I had to negotiate through what looked like a waterfall coming out of the sky. It was pretty wild, and it soaked the race track again.
The next morning, I went out there around 8:00 a.m. but the first indication that things weren't going according to plan was the fact Gate 2 (the south gate that gives you access to the pits) was closed due to more flooding. When I got to the pit, Tim told me we were already delayed three hours, and all the sportsman racing they'd been wanting to do in the morning had been pushed back. The track was still nearly bare, and the Safety Safari had an enormous task to undertake to give us a surface we could race on. As per usual, they succeeded.
The whole day on Saturday was weird, like it was some kind of big test session or match race. Some teams had left and not come back, and a lot of sportsman teams had been swamped in their pits, so wherever there were holes in the pro pits they moved Top Alcohol teams into the spots to give them a dry place to work. The crowd wasn't big on Saturday (it was kind of like a decent Friday crowd) so the whole thing was just a little bit off. It was kind of startling, actually. Our pit spot didn't help the feelings of being somehow out of place either, since we had taken down the hospitality center last week and sent it home to Springfield. Our pit spot was still the same size, but we had a large open space between us and the Tasca team, where the hospitality center had been. It was all weird.
We didn't do much on the track on Saturday, but the two extra qualifying sessions succeeded in jumbling much of the ladder, so it had a totally different look than what we thought we were going to take on a week earlier. Now, we had Bob Tasca in round one.
So let's set the table, even though you know all this. We hadn't been in the top 10 all year. We came into Indy in 12th, with Matt Hagan in 11th, Tasca in 10th, and Jeff Arend in 9th. Two rounds were all that separated all of us.
From the get-go, we've been saying it would be the best if we all somehow lined up having to race each other, in a series of "winner take all" match races, with each winner staying alive for the playoffs and each loser knowing it was over. Well, it didn't quite work out that way, but our race against Bob in round one was straight from that script. Nothing was going to be settled completely for whoever won the lap, but the loser knew for certain that his playoff hopes were dead. Winner take almost all.
With all the other scenarios including a million possible outcomes against teams that had their own needs and desires, at least the Wilk / Tasca match-up was definitive and to the point. It didn't necessarily solve anything, but it was a black & white affair. As you know, Tim won on a hole-shot, and the emotion at the starting line, for our team, was real and vivid. It wasn't until after the round that I looked back and recalled how focused he'd been all morning and into the rain-delayed afternoon. His gaze was like a laser beam all day, and although he was his normal happy and funny self, there was a brewing intensity there. I think the hole-shot win (and the .051 reaction time) were directly related to that intensity.
With that round win in hand, we all raced back to the pit and high-fives were shared as the guys got back to work. Tim had chosen the eighth and final pairing on purpose, because the new "green" track was a mystery to everyone and he wanted the most time to analyze it and make his decision on lane choice, but that pick also leaves you with the shortest amount of time to prepare for the next round. It was a theme that continued basically all day, as our crew was continually faced with the minimum amount of time to service the car. Of course, they came through with flying colors...
We might have taken care of the first part of the equation, but both Hagan and Arend won their openers too, so that part of the maze to the playoffs stayed right where it was, as if the goal posts had been moved after a long gain.
Jeff had beaten Alexis DeJoria handily in his first-round race, so he was still two full rounds ahead of us, but it easily could've been three. Only through bonus points and qualifying slots did we keep the deficit under 40, and it was actually a 39-point spread going into eliminations. All year long, through qualifying and on race days, how easy it would it have been to pick up two tiny little points. If those two points had been earned, at any time, we would've been three rounds behind Jeff, instead of two. It's easy to dismiss opportunities that get away in February or March, but in September you realize how important every single point can be.
The good news, if you're a "get it done or go home" type, was the fact the ladder now aligned us with Jeff and his team, and we'd face them in the second round. Apparently, we were going to have to pick these guys off one by one. After the thrash of a service in the shortest amount of time, we got back up there to run and this one was over at the hit of the throttle. Wilk about duplicated his run from the first round, but Jeff's DHL car smoked the tires immediately, and we were on our way to the semifinals. Hagan won his round, as well, so although we picked up ground on Jeff we still needed to win another one to get by him and Hagan was still ahead of us. Two huge round wins, and we still weren't in the top 10. They moved those goalposts again! This was getting to be really hard work.
Interestingly, Matt moved into the top 10 after the first round, so for these two rounds he was in the playoffs after also not being eligible for the full year up until that last day of the regular season. We had his teammate Johnny Gray in our semifinal, and Matt had Mike Neff, so as difficult as this had all been up to that point, it wasn't getting any easier. We had to win against Johnny, or all the hoopla and celebrating to this point would've been for nothing, and in terms of the Ford Racing team it would've been a net-negative, actually. When we beat Bob Tasca in round one, we knocked a Ford out of the playoffs and the only way to make that palatable was for us to get in to replace him with another blue oval car. If we lost in the semifinal, to Johnny, we'd miss the dance by a round.
Once you get to the semifinal it's already been a good day, and at any other race you'd be happy, excited, and feeling good about it all. Here, the road had been narrow, winding, and difficult to follow, but a loss in the semi would be no better than a loss in the first round. To keep our hopes alive, we had to win. We had to. And, we did.
That celebration at the starting line was a little bit more effusive than the others leading it up to. After 17 races spread over more than seven months, we were finally in the top 10 and we did it when it mattered the most. As I typed on Twitter: Playoffs? Playoffs!!!
Seconds later, Zippy beat Hagan and not only were we in, we actually moved up to 9th, and Matt (the defending World Champion) was knocked back out of the playoffs after having been tentatively in for two rounds. Who could imagine that a month ago? Oh, but the story wasn't over yet.
Our weird "open pit" set up
The guys once again serviced the car perfectly, I filled out contingency forms, did my PR work, updated the stats, and did all the other little stuff that keeps me going 100 mph between rounds, and before you knew it we were pushing back to head up there for the fourth and final time on this beautiful day in Indiana. Not only had we miraculously overcome the heavily stacked odds to get into the post-season, now we had a chance to win the U.S. Nationals. As the Grateful Dead often sang, "What a long strange trip it's been..."
I was feeling really good about the final, because it just felt "right" that we'd cap this day off with a huge win at the biggest race of the year. It felt right.
As we pulled up toward the water boxes, it was impossible to miss the massive crowd that walked up behind Zippy's car, though. Almost every uniformed member of John Force Racing was up there to support their guy, like a massive crowd of acolytes. We had our crew, a couple of friends, and whoever else happened to be on our side of the track to watch the money round. Underdogs to the end!
Tim had told me, in the lounge prior to the run, that we weren't going to replicate Norwalk, where we put a bit of a safe tune-up in the car and Zippy just outran us in the final. As he said, "We're going to load it up, and if it goes we should win. If it smokes the tires, at least we weren't sissies." It went. Tim left on Zippy by a huge margin, and he was a car length ahead by the 330 timers, and at the 660 blocks. We were on our way, and then the motor gave up. Zippy edged around us in the lights, winning by a fender as we coasted across the stripe, and the JFR army went nuts. All we could do was shake our heads and wonder why... To be honest, though, it wasn't that deflating. It was frustrating, and disappointing, but we'd done so much in such an improbable way, it wasn't deflating.
Then, of course, we saw the Safety Safari roll their trucks to clean up after us, and word quickly got back to us that we'd been docked 10 points as a penalty. Have you ever been faced with the simplest possible arithmetic problem only to have your brain lock up and refuse to do the elementary subtraction? That was me... I had to sprint back to the lounge to update my spreadsheet and let it tell me that we were still in, by the narrowest of margins, despite the penalty. Whew... All those little points, earned all year long... After having "clinched" 9th place just an hour before, we were back in 10th, but at least we weren't 11th. It ended up like this:
9) Arend 838
10) Wilkerson 829
11) Hagan 822
12) Tasca 801
Not too long after all of that, I was at the Indy airport and on my way back to Spokane, arriving home at around midnight. It was hard to fathom, as I walked in the door from the garage, just what had occurred that day. It was a difficult path to begin with, and as the journey continued throughout the afternoon, those pesky goalposts kept moving farther away, but in the end we made it happen. Somehow, we made it happen.
It was a day I'll never forget.