Ryan Briscoe was interviewing for a job that wasn't even open. More than 200,000 people were watching. And anyone this boss brought in was going to be scrutinized.
So in last year's Indianapolis 500, Briscoe put on his best suit — in this case canary yellow, fireproof Nomex — practiced his interview for a month and nailed it. Seven months later he had the job.
Today he makes his first Indy 500 start for Team Penske, which has won open-wheel racing's greatest event a record 14 times.
Like everyone else, Briscoe, 26, had heard rumors that Sam Hornish, Indy Racing League's career leader in wins (19) and championships (three), would switch from Penske's ultrasuccessful open-wheel program to its NASCAR operation. An open-wheel vagrant since Ganassi Racing ignominiously dumped him as he recuperated from broken clavicles and a bruised lung in his rookie season of 2005, Briscoe had driven in five international series looking for the next opportunity.
It came in late 2006 when Penske hired Briscoe to drive its Porsches in the American Le Mans series, putting him into the conversation when team owner Roger Penske's son, Jay, decided to field an Indy 500-only program for his part-time Luczo Dragon team. It was practically a third Team Penske endeavor.
"I had kept my eye on the prize, I guess, but no one knew what Sam was going to do. But I knew it was going to be important to have a real good solid run there,'' Briscoe said of the extended job interview last year. "I didn't want to mess that up."
Briscoe, who had raced just four times in the IRL since a crash split his car in half Sept. 11, 2005 at Chicagoland Speedway, started seventh and finished fifth.
With Hornish driving Penske's No. 77 Dodge in the Sprint Cup series, Briscoe prepares for his first official Indy 500 for the team from the front row, in third.
Penske president Tim Cindric first noticed Briscoe outdriving now teammate Helio Castroneves at a 2005 Sebring test and was reminded of his availability in 2006 by sports car driver Wayne Taylor.
Briscoe competed in four IRL races, two Champ Car races, A1GP, Grand Am, V-8 super car (Australian NASCAR, sort of) and endurance racing that season. He unknowingly responded, just as Cindric began tracking his career, by finishing a career-best third for underfunded Dreyer & Reinbold at Watkins Glen. Cindric established a relationship with Briscoe and was convinced the driver was technically gifted but said "we had to teach him patience" after he crashed out of seven of 15 races in 2005.
"At that point we had won Indy with Hornish, so I knew there was a good chance that at some point when the moons aligned that Hornish would take a chance at NASCAR," Cindric said, "so we looked at how we would position Ryan or at least see if he fit or not."
Briscoe wrecked in his first two IRL starts this season (though one was not his fault) then finished ninth and seventh in the next two events.
The Australian said he understands why Ganassi released him. Replacing him with 2005 Indy and IRL champ Dan Wheldon made sense, he said. He just wanted a little more forthrightness. Briscoe was rehabilitating in Italy in November 2005 when the call came. He said Ganassi ultimately offered him a ride in the Grand Am series, a departure from their earlier agreement.
"I had a lot of accidents in 2005 and it's understandable, the situation,'' Briscoe said. "He wanted to go back to a two-car team, and Wheldon came along with some pretty good Honda backing. (But) I could have been given a bit more notice because I felt as though I was being promised a ride the following year and then all of a sudden I found out Wheldon was signed."
Cindric said he'd "love to help (Briscoe) go from the bottom to the top" but has made it clear that results matter most. Briscoe is racing on a one-year deal.
"He's gone through his season of rookie mistakes. He's gone through the 'I'll-drive-for-food' program,'' Cindric said. "He's been through appreciating what you've got and hoping you get another chance-type situation. He's been through the sportscar (series) at the highest level and now, from our standpoint, the timing's right."
Brant James can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.