INDIANAPOLIS – Ryan Briscoe hopes for a peaceful night's sleep tonight. Hope and reality don't always mesh.
This is the Indianapolis 500, the most important race an IndyCar Series driver can win. Briscoe sits on the pole, the optimum spot from which to win the race. He drives for Team Penske, which is the Yankees, Celtics and Steelers of racing all wrapped into one. So there's a little pressure building here.
Briscoe might find complete rest elusive.
“This race brings the butterflies and it's one of the harder ones to sleep the night before,” Briscoe said in a phone interview this week. “It's even more being on the pole. But, with experience, I've learned to calm the nerves a little bit.”
Maybe he can fall asleep counting cars, like the 32 others who'll start the race behind him at noon Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“Certainly, I've been on the front row before and it helps a lot with having the No.1 spot,” he said. “I love having that clear track in front of me. Certainly, you can control your own destiny.”
Briscoe's opportunity to win from the pole position gives him a chance to break free from the weight and pressure that comes with driving for Team Penske. His teammates have won all four IZOD IndyCar Series races this season: Will Power with three, Helio Castroneves with one. Castroneves is a three-time winner of the Indy 500, the closest Penske driver to follow in the footsteps of team legend Rick Mears.
Briscoe, 30, has been a solid driver, and Penske only hires the best. He has won six IndyCar races in his career and had a high points finish of third in 2009. Winning at Indy, however, sets drivers apart from the field. This is the race that, no matter how little attention the rest of the series attracts, boosts an IndyCar driver's profile and career opportunities (endorsements, etc.) off the track.
The pressure is high for all drivers on all teams, including the famous names of the Indy 500, such as Andretti, Rahal and the drivers for Ganassi.
Yet there's little question the Penske name brings the most pressure.
“Probably,” Briscoe said, “because there are high expectations from everybody, on the team and off. It's a great opportunity to have a shot at winning. That's a great feeling. I can't think of a better team to be with at Indianapolis.”
There's a chance, of course, that Briscoe could end up in a run for the checkered flag against Power and Castroneves. It's not as awkward as it sounds, because the drivers do work as part of the same organization. When one thrives, they all seem to thrive.
“The great thing between the three of us is that we have 100 percent transparency through practice and qualifying and getting ready for the race,” Briscoe said. “We have an understanding of each other and we've grown to be a good trio."
Race day brings a little more direct competition. Briscoe is seventh in the points standings this season, with two Top 10 finishes.
“You always want to be on top and be the best,” Briscoe said. “When we're out there racing, there are times you definitely need to look after your teammates, too. But at the end of the day, you want to be in that No.1 spot, and that means beating your teammates.”
This year's race brings a little bit of unknown, with the weather forecast calling for temperatures in the mid to high 90s. It was in the mid-80s on Pole Day, so the jump will be significant in terms of the race setup the teams will employ and the necessity for mental toughness on the part of drivers.
Briscoe has driven in several Indy 500s, so he knows the stamina needed to drive 500 miles, especially in extreme heat.
And, as Briscoe said on Pole Day, it's hard to beat the benefits of driving for Team Penske.
“I think it's the experience, over 600 years of experience on the team,” Briscoe said last weekend. “That's a quote from Roger. I haven't done that tally. But it adds up. All of these guys with all of this experience, and Roger's own experience. Helio's experience, Rick Mears' experience, all of these guys, all of our mechanics are so experienced. I think that helps us once we get here to do things methodically, not get ahead of ourselves, never get overconfident and just keep working hard. But it all starts with the preparation.”
Most of the preparation is done. Now it's a matter of pace. Briscoe has been on the go, from Indianapolis to New York City to Charlotte, N.C., to Chicago to Indianapolis. He has talked about this race, and his chance at the pole, to the point where there's nothing else to say.
Sleep. That's what he needs tonight.
If all goes well, he wakes up Sunday and starts a day that could change his career forever.