INDIANAPOLIS – More than anything, memories of racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway provide motivation for team owner Dale Coyne and driver Sebastien Bourdais as they prepare for the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday.
Coyne sounds more sentimental than Bourdais about being back – quite understandable considering Bourdais’ Turn 2 qualifying crash in 2017 that sidelined him with pelvis and hip fractures for nine races. That kind of painful experience is never forgotten.
As much as the four-time Indy car champion can’t block it out – he shrugs when asked and repeats, “It happened” – the memory of that crash doesn’t slow him. His No. 18 SealMaster Dale Coyne with Vasser-Sullivan Honda will start seventh, on the inside of Row 3.
If the 40-year-old Frenchman has learned anything, it’s that there’s only so much energy that can be expended and significance attached to “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
“It’s a huge deal, but there’s only so much you can do,” Bourdais said. “You’re going to give your best, no matter what the circumstances are or how big the race is.
“For me, of course I want to win the 500. Who wouldn’t? But the energy I spend on the rest of the season is the same that I spend on the 500. I try to make sure I don’t leave any stones unturned and that I give it my very best shot. What else can you do? There’s only so much you can do, and as I’ve learned, trying too hard at Indy can also be a problem.”
When Coyne drives through the tunnel to enter IMS, he thinks about all the years he’s raced at this historic venue. Neither he nor Bourdais have ever won here, and 2017 might have been their best chance.
“You think of all the times you’ve gotten beat down there,” Coyne said. “There was the year we came here and crashed three cars, and we showed up at Milwaukee with two cars and everybody thought we were out of business.”
His train of thought shifts from his small team to the best in NTT IndyCar Series history.
“You think about (owner) Roger Penske going home without anyone qualifying for this race (in 1995),” Coyne said. “It all makes you want to come back and conquer it even more. It keeps you coming back, for sure.”
Bourdais lamented a couple of errors this year during qualifying weekend. The first on Saturday was ironic. Just like two years ago, he had a problem on his third lap. This time, he lifted off the accelerator in Turn 1, then had to do the same again in Turn 2.
That cost him a drop-off of about 4 mph on the lap, but more importantly, history didn't repeat itself. He didn’t end up in that wall again.
“Ultimately, I knew what happened before,” he said of the 2017 crash. “A driver who has been exposed to something and understood what happened will be better prepared. I won’t make that same mistake again.”
He knew conditions for Sunday’s Fast Nine Shootout would be tricky and didn’t expect to win the pole against the Chevrolet-powered cars of Ed Carpenter Racing and Team Penske.
“The higher you start, the better it is,” Bourdais said. “We should’ve been a little faster if I had downshifted like I was supposed to, but not a huge deal.”
Bourdais will be making his eighth Indy 500 start. He has finished in the top 10 just twice, placing seventh in 2014 for KV Racing Technology and ninth for KVSH Racing in 2016. He crashed out in 28th last year.
Like most teams, Coyne reiterates that Indy is always considered the No. 1 priority each season.
“It means everything,” he said. “We love coming back. It’s what we do. It’s the center of what we do.
“We’ve been working on Indy since the day it ended last year. All winter, you spend your efforts working on Indy stuff. It’s where you want to be strong. You’re in the wind tunnel, a lot of simulator work. We’ve been one of the fastest Hondas there, so we hope we can do that again and give the Chevys a run for their money.”
Bourdais, who enters eighth in the points, is adamant about what the Indy 500 means compared to a series championship.
“If you have a great 500, it’s huge, but it doesn’t make the season,” he said. “It can salvage it, but it doesn’t make a season. It makes your year. You win the 500, and that one is going to be marked the special one. The championship is a season-long effort, and it’s a different goal. You can pretend all sorts of things if you have a great 500 and suck the rest of the year, but it’s not going to make your season.”
Coyne offers a different perspective.
“Every driver here, if you asked them if they would rather win the Indy 500 or a championship, they’d pick the Indy 500,” he said.
Every driver, that is, expect possibly Bourdais. But perhaps that would change if he won on Sunday.
“I can’t tell you the difference between winning the 500 and winning a championship because I’ve never won the 500,” Bourdais said. “I’m sure it’s an incredible feeling and an incredible experience and changes you as a person and as a driver because you’re going to be in a very small group.
“Bottom line, you do the best you can and try to figure it out at the end.”
Coverage of the 103rd Indianapolis 500 begins at 11 a.m. ET Sunday on NBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.