I’ve been around IndyCar racing long enough to have witnessed:
Jim Hurtubise refuse to give up on his beloved roadsters; Johnny Rutherford’s rise from crasher to three-time Indy winner; Mike Mosley’s decision to keep driving hard even though he didn’t like racing anymore; Phil Krueger keep getting knocked down before becoming the best story of the 1988 Indianapolis 500; Dario Franchitti go from being apathetic about Indianapolis to embracing the race and its history like few Indy winners before him; watch Scott Dixon blossom as a racer but also go from a boring, two-word quote to one of the best sound bites in all of motorsports.
And I recall how much Will Power despised ovals but now he loves them.
This past season we got to watch Power exorcise his Indy demons and finally become comfortable in his own skin. Or, as my RACER compatriot Marshall Pruett put it so perfectly: “Will is now at peace with himself.”
Now, it’s hard to imagine how a racer with 33 victories and 54 pole positions who’s led 3,870 laps could be anything but cocky or at the very least, satisfied. In his 10 years with Roger Penske, he’s become The Captain’s all-time winner — ahead of Donohue, Bettenhausen, Mears, Sneva, Sullivan, Tracy, Castroneves, Montoya, Pagenaud, Fittipaldi and the Unser family. That in itself is a major accomplishment and badge of honor.
But none of that really mattered to Power because he hadn’t won Indy. It was the only race that really matters to Penske and, therefore, the only race that truly mattered to Willy P.
Finally earning that first IndyCar championship in 2014 eased some of his anguish but losing Indy by 0.1 of a second to Montoya the next May almost neutralized that accomplishment.
“You come so close and fall a fraction short and you wonder if you’ll ever be in that position again,” said Power the other evening at the unveiling of his likeness on the Borg-Warner Trophy. “I can’t tell you how many times I replayed that last lap in 2015 and Turn 2 when I was trying to pass Montoya and pushed and had to lift.
“You start wondering, did I blow my chance? Will I have another one? It gets harder and harder as you get older.”
Nobody can beat Power on the IMS road course (he’s won three of the five contested) but those Indy triumphs meant little or nothing compared to the reason May is special. And as crazy as it sounds, despite all that success in the past decade, it’s like his career was incomplete.
“That’s true, that’s how I felt,” he responded. “Roger has 17 Indy wins and pretty much every one of his drivers had won Indy except myself, (Ryan) Briscoe, Simon (Pagenaud) and Josef (Newgarden).
“I put a lot of pressure on myself and to have won so many races and a championship but not the 500 was weighing on me. If you don’t win the Speedway, all those other wins don’t mean so much.
“It meant so much to me and that’s why I was so excited in Victory Lane.”
A number of people seemed to think the 37-year-old Aussie was kind of aloof or unemotional before his celebration last May. But there’s no finer person in the IndyCar paddock and Power made a lot of new fans because it was so obvious this was the greatest day of his racing life and the joy radiated for 20 minutes. The road racer who used to hate turning left wanted to savor the moment — and his emotions were as real and raw as they come.
And a guy who can always pull out a pole lap on a street or road course when qualifying is winding down now embraces a shocking reality, if you knew him back in 2008.
“My oval game is now better than my road course game,” he declared. “ I love them and it’s so satisfying when you get them right.”
Especially that last Sunday in May.