INDIANAPOLIS, April 21, 1998 -- Stan Wattles is a man who doesn't give up easily. Completing his rookie test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on April 18 was just the latest example of his perseverance against unlikely odds. In the past, he has overcome dyslexia, dysgraphia and discouragement to become a multitalented athlete. And now he is preparing to go for the biggest success of his varied sports career -- qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. Last week at the Rookie Orientation Program, it seemed he wouldn't get through his test while others were breezing through theirs. By Friday night, when ROP and a two-day practice session for veterans had concluded, Wattles still was struggling to complete his test. A restricted tire test was scheduled for April 18, but Brian Barnhart, director of racing operations for the Pep Boys Indy Racing League, decided to allow Wattles one final opportunity to run through the last phase of the rookie exam. Wattles completed the first three phases April 14. This time the new Metro Racing Systems Riley & Scott car performed the way it was supposed to, and so did Wattles. The only problem was that the media that attended the four-day session all had departed. When an excited Wattles came into the media center, he found only one person interested in interviewing him. This didn't dampen his enthusiasm. He said it was the happiest moment of his racing career. "I tell you, it really is," he said with a big grin. "It's a big relief. It really is a highlight. We're a new team, and I'm an owner/driver and a lot of times the driver takes over and gets frustrated. The owner has to say, 'Cool it, pal.' We're a new team, we have a new chassis that's still being developed, and a lot of these ovals are a new experience for us. And it's been a couple of years since I've really run hard. "It's tough, it's tough. But in the overall scheme of things, it's part of the learning process as far as I'm concerned." Wattles, a former skier, cross-country runner and rock climber, worked his way through the first three phases of the test without difficulty. It was when he got to the final phase - completing 10 laps faster than 205 mph -- that he and his car encountered a difficult barrier. The car didn't feel right to him, so an engine change was made April 15, the day after he passed the first three phases. A bellhousing switch was done at the same time. The car then wanted to dart to the wall, not a favorable inclination for any driver. So for the next two days the Metro Racing Systems crew made various aerodynamic adjustments, none of which improved the situation. "Brian -- bless his heart -- Barnhart let us keep going through the week," Wattles said.
Finally, on Friday the original bellhousing was returned to the car. On the morning of April 18, the car immediately was back to where it was on the 14th. A couple of tweaks -- as Wattles put it -- and he ran through the remainder of the test without difficulty. Wattles, 36, tested April 20-21 at the Speedway before returning to his shop in Stuart, Fla. (30 miles north of Palm Beach) to begin fine-tuning his car for opening day of practice May 10 for the 82nd running of the 500. "We've got five goals," said Wattles, who also is only one test away from a black belt in Tang Soo Do. "The first goal was ROP. Boy, that one came hard. Next goal is to get the car up over 215 so we can feel safe with that … comfortable about going into practice and qualifying. The next is to come back for the week of the 10th and get comfortable running with everybody. Next goal, fourth goal, is to qualify for the race. The fifth goal is to finish the race. It's a step at a time." It's been a two-year process for Wattles to reach this level in his Pep Boys IRL career. In the inaugural IRL race at Orlando, Fla., in 1996 he was running third when he pulled what he called his rookie mistake. Exiting the pits after taking fuel and tires, he got on the throttle as the turbo was coming on and spun into the wall. Then at Phoenix in the next race, he crashed in practice and suffered an injury that forced him to miss that race and the Indianapolis 500. At Las Vegas late that year, he charged from 21st to seventh only to have a cut tire send him into the wall. This season he started 22nd at Orlando, but was knocked out in an accident after 64 laps. Then he was bumped out of the field at Phoenix by a tenth of a second. "That was a real surprise," he said. "It was the first time in my life I never qualified for a race." Wattles is pleased both with the development of the Riley & Scott car and his own team. "I can get in the driver mode now and leave all the owner stuff alone," he said. "I think the car is going to be a front-runner. The car has been telling me everything -- in time -- nicely without scaring me. I think with a little more development this car is going to be just as good as the G Force and Dallara."