ST. PETERSBURG — Most IndyCar races have simple schedules. Drivers and teams usually practice Friday, qualify Saturday, race Sunday. Wave goodbye, leave town, repeat.
Then comes the Indianapolis 500.
Teams spend a week at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway turning hundreds of laps in practice around the famed 2.5-mile oval. That leads to qualifying, when drivers spend four hair-raising laps throwing their cars around at 225 mph or more using their absolute fastest (i.e. least stable) setup.
If your qualifying run is among the nine fastest? Great — go do it again in the pole shootout, which sets the first three rows for race day.
And those not among the 24 fastest cars clinching spots on Day 1 come back the next day for bump day, when the 33-car field is filled for the race — another week away.
For IndyCar drivers and St. Petersburg residents Sebastien Bourdais and Tristan Vautier, it's all part of the thrill, and grind, of competing in the world's most famous auto race. Both briefly came back to their adopted town this week to talk about it, part of a media blitz in which drivers get out of Indy for a day or two and go all over the country to promote the race.
"It's tiring," Bourdais said of the all-day practices. "It's a long week, there's a lot of sitting around and waiting. It's a place that can drive you crazy."
And this is a streamlined version of the Indy experience. When Bourdais drove his first Indy 500 in 2005 there were two weekends of qualifying and a third weekend for the race, which was the setup for decades.
At least Bourdais, who starts 15th in Sunday's 500 (on the outside of Row 5) only had to go through qualifying once, on Saturday. Vautier, his fellow Frenchman, tried to qualify then but failed to make the top 24. He got in comfortably Sunday.
"The qualifying was stressful, especially going back to bump day, because you really can only lose, in a way," said Vautier, who starts 28th, on the inside of Row 10. "You're fighting for 25th spot, but you really want to get in the show. It was good, it's just a totally different beast than any other race. I'm very happy because I wanted to be there for so long."
As for the length of the schedule at Indy, Vautier said: "It's harder because it's a longer effort but it requires as much attention as the rest. … It's just much busier outside of the car."
Even a drive at the Brickyard last year in the stepladder Indy Lights series didn't fully prepare Vautier, who says an IndyCar "is much more on the edge" than its less powerful cousin.
"It can, very early, get too late" in an IndyCar, he said.
Another adjustment is that Indy is the season's first oval track after four races on street or road courses.
"It's a totally different sport," Vautier said.
"Physically, the 500 is not hard," Bourdais said. "The problem is mentally. You've got to stay focused and concentrate for sometimes over three hours.
"You always have to look pretty far ahead (on the track) and just anticipate, and sometimes there's just nowhere to go (when something goes wrong)."
And even after all those days, all those laps in the lead-up to the big day, it's important to leave the best for the race.
"You always feel (after qualifying) like you've left out a couple of things that you want to try," Bourdais said. "And that's why you keep coming back."