News & Media

Caraviello: At Brickyard, journey as important as destination

July 30, 2011, David Caraviello,

INDIANAPOLIS -- The only NASCAR driver to win consecutive races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was once so bad here it bordered on embarrassment. There was the time he failed to make the event on speed. There was the time a long pit stop and a spin ruined what had been a second-place run. There was the epically bad weekend when he didn't get to qualify because his car failed inspection, took a penalty after the catch-can was left on during a pit stop, and had to be helped out by his crew after a hard hit ignited a fire under the hood.

Johnson barely remembers that latter episode, his bell had been rung so severely, and the resulting image -- the driver slumped against the pit wall, his mind cloudy and his car smoldering -- accurately summed up his frustrations at the sport's most difficult race track. For years, he came to Indianapolis and doubted his own ability to compete on a layout that stood as a major road block between him and a championship in NASCAR's premier series. The place, he said then, was "an emotional disaster" waiting to happen.

Brickyard 400

Race Lineup
2.Kasey KahneToyota
3.Jimmie JohnsonChevrolet
4.Kurt BuschDodge
5.Brad KeselowskiDodge

And then, almost overnight, something clicked. There are few transformations in modern NASCAR history as dramatic as Johnson's at the Brickyard 400, where the despair of that 2005 experience gave way to a trip to Victory Lane the next season, and two more titles to come. If there was one moment responsible for uncorking all the power and potential bottled up within the best driver in NASCAR today, it was that 2006 victory at Indianapolis in which Johnson laid waste to the field -- a singular achievement that propelled him to not just his first gold brick trophy, but also to the first of what would become five consecutive series championships.

"When we came back here in '06, won here the first time, something was different from the first lap on track," Johnson remembered. "I went around and put together a lap. It was top of the board. At that point, whoa, OK. I made some small changes in how to drive the track, and it equaled a lot of speed. Anytime you have a long straightaway, a small mistake leading onto that straightaway compounds and adds up to so much time. At that point, the light switch went on and I was like -- oh, that's how you drive this place."

Indianapolis is that kind of track, its rectangular, straightforward appearance belying a degree of difficulty that can mystify even someone like Jimmie Johnson, and play a part in unlocking the greatness within him. Eight times the champion of the Brickyard 400 has gone on to win the series title, a sweep claimed most recently by Johnson two years ago. Almost every winner has come from the absolute upper echelon of Sprint Cup drivers. The field for Sunday's race will contain only six past champions, a testament to not only the relatively brief history of the event, but also how hard it is to win here.

And it is hard, deceptively so. The four 90-degree corners all look the same, but they're not. The turns are so sharp, the straightaways so long, that Indianapolis demands a blend of handling and horsepower not seen at other facilities. It's very fast, very tight, and allows very little room for error, a combination that may sometimes make the competition less than dazzling, but also presents drivers and teams with a challenge unlike anything else.

"I don't want to say it's a hairy race track, but it keeps you on edge," Ryan Newman said. "Speeds are up. The dirty air part of it, because of the speeds, lack of banking, keeps you on edge. I like it. It's fun to drive it. I've always said, if you look at it from the air, all four corners look the same. But that's not true. It's just full of things like the wind here, [which] has a huge effect on balance, traffic, things like that. It's a place you really got to be on top of it."

There are no cheat sheets, no way for competitors to really prepare for the Brickyard until they're on it with a steering wheel in their hands. The way you drive Indianapolis applies to Indianapolis and nowhere else. Even Johnson still has to work on it, fighting his natural tendencies to navigate a relatively flat track with square corners and little banking, and this is a guy who's won here three times. If he can still struggle with the place -- and he can, as last season's 22nd-place finish readily attests -- anyone can.

"My driving style hasn't worked here," Johnson said. "I have to focus really hard on the way to drive this race track. I think that happens to a lot of people. When you get off to a slow start, don't qualify well, it's so difficult to make up positions on the track, [so] starting up front is important. Although I say that, and the first one I won here, we got a flat and had to come back through the field. It's tough to pass. You get sucked into the mistakes others are making on the track. You almost have to race the race track almost in a Darlington manner, not because the track is going to reach up and bite you and you'll crash the car, but you'll go a half second slower if you don't drive the track the right way. That's why this track is so difficult."

Every driver who competes at Indianapolis remembers that moment when they realize they're riding a monster. Brad Keselowski's first laps around Indianapolis were at a Goodyear tire test following a 2008 Brickyard that was marred by tire failures. He still has a photo of one of the tires pulled off his car that day -- a carcass of shredded and bubbled rubber eaten right down to the cords. That's what he thinks of each time he slides behind the wheel at Indianapolis.

"It was very interesting. It was jaw-dropping fast," Keselowski remembers of that test three years ago. "It was, oh my God. The thing about Indy, you're just going down the straightaway, and ... the engine is just pulling. You're motoring and you're motoring and you're motoring, and you look off in the distance and you're like -- wait a minute. There's a wall, and I'm going head-on for it. You just hope the steering wheel doesn't fall off or a tire doesn't blow or any of those things, because it's going to really, really, hurt. I think that was my first thought thinking about this place."

In a series where drivers are more accustomed to turns that are sweeping and high-banked, the abrupt corners of Indianapolis present a jarring change. The track is exceedingly fast, but those long straightaways empty into hard lefts that demand much heavier braking than other ovals of comparable size. A car's performance at Indy can be undermined by a driving style that just doesn't fit what the track requires, as Johnson so vividly discovered his first several times here. Keselowski experienced the opposite effect -- Indy was one of the first venues he circled in a Cup car, so he had to unlearn habits he picked up at the Brickyard when he went to other tracks.

"You have to be very aggressive, but don't overdrive it," said Casey Mears, who's made seven starts at Indy. "Some tracks you can really float it in, and take it easy and still make a pretty good lap time. Martinsville, you just absolutely charge the corners. At Indianapolis, you charge the corners, but if you charge them too hard, it will really mess up your lap. If you drive in a little too easy, it will really mess up your lap. And then you have the weather to contend with. If you get a cloud, or you don't get a cloud, it really changes how the car wants to handle. There's a lot of things to take into consideration when you make a lap around this track."

Indianapolis offers a learning curve that never really flattens out, its history and mystique masking a narrow rectangle of gray asphalt that can kick anyone in the teeth. It's mean and unforgiving and difficult enough that even years of experience offer no guarantees of staying off the wall. But it also offers rewards nearly unrivaled in motorsports, golden bricks and jugs of milk and names added to a list of immortals. Drivers typically have to go through one to get to the other, and Johnson -- who qualified third, and will be one of the favorites to win the race Sunday -- is proof of just how arduous and fruitful that progression can ultimately be. Like a scenic car trip, the journey at the Brickyard is as important as the destination.

"This track is one of a kind, and it's so tough to stay on top of it," Johnson said. "I watched the [Indy] 500, the month of it, everybody's here for that, and the best in the business struggle with it. They come here and experience the same thing, too. All the years of racing here now have helped me, so I run the right line, so we're adjusting the car to the right line. My first four or five shots coming here, I just wasn't driving the place right, so we were setting the car up to the wrong line and the wrong style. That led to long days then. But now I have a good idea of where I need to be."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.