Saturday, May 09, 2009

Qualification Day, 8:00 am. Stress is High

I showed up at the track at 6:55 am, worried about parking, getting in, being stuck in line for 2 hours.

I could have stayed in bed for another hour, because it turns out the place is pretty empty. But this is not something I'd want to miss, so the time has been well spent.

I've made contact with three different teams to talk to the drivers, and none of them are giving interviews until after the race. That's perfectly understandable.

Having been in athletics in high school and college, I understand the nerves and stress before a game. I spent many sleepless nights before a bike race, and remember the adrenaline shakes before a college soccer game. What I'll never experience is the high-pressure these people are going through.

For many of these drivers, it's a win-or-go-home week. There are 41 entrants in the race this year, 8 of them are TBAs (To Be Announced). Some teams, like AJ Foyt Enterprises, Sarah Fisher Racing and Vision Racing have a TBA spot. That means, they're putting in a car, but they don't have a driver. Or it's a second chance for a driver who might have gotten bumped on Bump Day (Sunday, May 17 this year). Or a chance for drivers like Bruno Junqueira to pick up a ride in the last minutes before Race Day.

Getting in the 500 is a big payday for some of these teams. Winning enough money at the 500 can make an entire IndyCar season. You just don't get the big bucks with a win in Milwaukee. There are big money sponsors to keep happy (teams live on sponsorship money), people whose very livelihoods depend on how well their driver does, how well they keep the engine tuned, whether they have a good pit. For some of these teams, the tiniest mistake on Opening Day could cause a downward spiral that comes to an abrupt end on Bump Day, ending their entire season.

In the two days I've been here, I've seen smiles and heard joking from some of the teams. No one's smiling this morning. It's go time, and no one is going to feel safe until they're in the top 20 and safe from the bump.


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