INDIANAPOLIS – What would it mean to Ryan Briscoe to win the Indy 500?
The veteran driver's eyes lit up like a child greeting a new puppy just thinking about it.
“It would be amazing. Each year you keep learning about this race. Each year the race means more to you. This place beats you down and builds you back up when the next year rolls around. It's a tough place. This year, with all that's happened ...”
“You never know what can happen.”
Briscoe faced the media spotlight on a cool, cloudy Thursday afternoon at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and darn glad to do it. A few weeks ago, he didn't have an IndyCar ride. Once a perennial contender with Team Penske, he had faded from racing relevance.
Except that he hadn't.
Briscoe was racing sports cars in the American Le Mans Series. The three crashes he'd had in the last five Indy 500s, including a pit road accident with Danica Patrick, were certainly contributing factors in his drop off, but the fact he'd raced in seven Indy 500s, with a pair of fifth-place finishes, won last year's Indy 500 pole, and had seven IndyCar wins overall, reflected his potential if everything came together.
Then Chip Ganassi, one of the most successful team owners in auto racing sports, was flying to an event with team manager Mike Hull. Briscoe's name came up.
“I asked, 'Where's Briscoe?'” Ganassi said.
“I don't think he's anywhere,” Hull said.
“What? Then we've got to get him.” Ganassi said. “We can't leave a guy like that. If he's available, we've got to get him.
“It took, like, five minutes.”
Actually, it took a couple of days to track Briscoe down and work out the arrangements. Ganassi already had cars and a crew available. He just needed the right driver. So he made Briscoe an offer he couldn't refuse.
“It didn't take me long to say yes,” Briscoe said.
It also didn't take him long to arrive in Indianapolis after driving in an American Le Mans Series race in California.
Briscoe is on a team with Dario Franchitti,the defending champion and a three-time Indy 500 winner with four IndyCar driving titles; and Scott Dixon, the 2008 Indy 500 winner and two-time racing champ, plus up-and-coming driver Charlie Kimball. He had once raced with Dixon during an earlier run with Ganassi.
“It's great to be on board again at Chip Ganassi Racing and team up with Scott again, and get to know Charlie and Dario,” Briscoe said. “The longevity in the sport has made this transition a lot easier. I know pretty much everyone on the team. It's been seamless.”
What will that mean for Sunday's race? Briscoe isn't sure, but does know what it takes to win it.
“So many times this race comes down to fuel at the end or a last lap lead change. You have to learn how to be there at the end. I've learned a couple of times with the inexperience of making early mistakes. Then you look over the race and see who you were racing against and think, (darn), maybe I just missed the opportunity of a lifetime to win this thing.
“You have to be there. You need to be smart. You can't count your chickens until it's over. I might not be the favorite, but I still think, if we do everything right, we can win it.
Briscoe didn't show it during qualifications. He nearly went into the wall during a practice run, was bumped once and struggled to a 23rd starting position on his third attempt. His speed of 225.265 mph was well behind that of pole winner Ed Carpenter (228.762).
“I think this was harder work than getting the pole last year,” he said. “Pole Day is every man for himself. We can't do anything about slowing the other cars down. It's just about trying to work hard, fine tune and find a bit more speed. We have more speed to squeeze out of the car.”
His Ganassi teammates also struggled during qualifying. Dixon was 16th in a time of 226.158. Franchitti was 17th at 226.069. Kimball was 19th at 225.880.
Briscoe will continue doing the American Le Mans Series. He has a race with Le Mans next month in France. He has a couple of other races in Australia in the fall.
Still, the hope is this can become permanent, at least for this season. Ganassi said the same thing. Nobody wants this to be a one-race deal if it works out.
“You have to be professional and do what you do best,” Briscoe said. “I feel I have a place in IndyCar.”