ST. PETERSBURG — The Indianapolis 500 isn’t just known as the Greatest Spectacle in Racing for fans.
Drivers feel it, too.
“There’s nothing that quite compares on the schedule,” said Sebastien Bourdais, the St. Petersburg resident who will start seventh Sunday.
Here are five reasons the race is so special for its competitors, according to Bourdais and Dale Coyne Racing teammate James Davison:
1. The history is rich.
The previous 102 years of tragedies and triumphs are baked into the event, from the speedway’s museum to the famous race-day traditions, like the champion’s celebratory milk.
Drivers are cognizant of that history. They know they’re racing on the same track and in the same event as legends like Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Emerson Fittipaldi.
“It’s incredible to know that some of those names are watching you,” Davison said. “They know who you are, which is something that’s, like, beyond your wildest childhood dream.
“Basically the flag or the torch gets passed onto your generation to be racing at Indy. That’s what would make it just so sweet, as well, to win the race —to think that you’d be in that group of drivers that are just so untouchable.”
2. The fans’ passion is unmatched.
This year’s race probably won’t touch the estimated 350,000 fans who attended in 2016, but the crowd at the colossal speedway is enormous. “When you show up on Sunday, the whole place is buzzing like a bee,” Bourdais said. “It’s filled with people. It looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before.”
The passion from fans shows up long before the race, too, when drivers begin arriving at Indianapolis for the month-long festivities.
“You get to the airport, and it’s pretty rare that there’s not someone who recognizes you right away,” Bourdais said. “That doesn’t happen anywhere else.”
3. The stakes are extremely high.
Because the 500 remains one of the crown jewels of racing, existing teams expand and others join in just to try to get into the 33-car field.
“There’s so much effort, money, passion thrown at it,” Bourdais said.
That’s because the potential payoff is huge. Last year’s champion, Will Power, won $2.5 million, plus the worldwide publicity for himself, his team and his sponsors.
But that’s just the initial boost. The honor of winning the 500 never fades.
“It gives you racing immortality, essentially,” Davison said. “You’ll never be forgotten if you win the Indy 500. We keep coming back and trying to fulfill that dream.”
4. Everyone wants to win, but just getting there is an accomplishment.
Davison has been dreaming about the Indy 500 since he flipped through his family’s coffee-table book on its history as a kid in Australia. He thought he was on the cusp of racing in it after finishing second in the Indy Lights feeder series in 2009, but his break didn’t come.
“There were many times I thought it just wasn’t going to happen,” Davison said.
And that’s what made it so special for Davison when it finally did happen in 2014. The reality hit him on race day when Jim Nabors sang the traditional (Back Home Again in) Indiana.
“You knew that the dream was real when you’re on the grid,” Davison said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, I’m here. I’m a part of that history.’”
5. It’s an emotional experience.
Add everything up —the history, the passion and pageantry, the stakes and the lifelong journey to the starting grid —and it’s a powerful experience before the green flag drops.
“You strap in that race car on Sunday, it feels like no other,” Bourdais said. “Sometimes it feels like you’re a bit of a gladiator.
“There’s the whole ceremony. All the songs, all the history kind of jump at you. It gets pretty emotional. It’s not my first rodeo, but I still feel it.”
Contact Matt Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.