INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, May 17, 2000 -- The Indianapolis Motor Speedway seems to bite driver Greg Ray every time he begins to smell the roses. The last two years, the energetic Texan has been extremely fast in practice almost...
INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, May 17, 2000 -- The Indianapolis Motor Speedway seems to bite driver Greg Ray every time he begins to smell the roses.
The last two years, the energetic Texan has been extremely fast in practice almost every practice day. Yet when that speed would pay off with the PPG Pole, Ray came up excruciatingly short and had to settle for second each time, first to Billy Boat in 1998 and then to Arie Luyendyk last year.
Then in the race, Ray led 18 laps in 1998 before a faulty gearbox did him in. Last year he led 32 laps and had just reassumed the front-running spot after Luyendyk crashed on Lap 117. Ray then made a pit stop on Lap 120 during the ensuing caution period, hit the throttle to charge away from his stall and collided with Mark Dismore.
"I really don't think about it that much, but when I see (1999 winner) Kenny Brack holding that big jug of milk, the wreath around his neck and the Borg-Warner Trophy in the background ..." Ray said, his voice trailing off.
"I think the world of Kenny Brack," Ray resumed. "He's a damn good driver, a great competitor. I enjoy him both off and on the racetrack. I miss him as part of our series. I enjoyed racing with him.
"But when I see that, it hurts inside. I know that we worked hard, and that could have been us. At the end of the day, this world is a funny place. I think life and God teach you to appreciate things, and it's only right at the right time.
"For me, it's been such an uphill struggle it's only going to make me appreciate it more when that day finally comes."
Ray then compared the lessons of hard work and patience learned at Indianapolis to those that a father or mother teaches their child.
"I feel like I have had to sacrifice a lot and work very hard and have been close, had the opportunity, but just couldn't capitalize or it wasn't my day," he said.
"You have to take the cards that are dealt to you. But I know before I leave this planet, I'd like to see Victory Lane at the Indianapolis MotorSpeedway, and for me that truly would be a dream come true."
The run for that elusive pole comes first on Saturday. Ray is a serious contender again driving the Team Conseco/Quaker State/Moen/Menards Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone. But he hasn't dominated practice like he did last year, when he was fastest during five of the seven days leading up to Pole Day. In fact, he hasn't led a single session since the track opened last Saturday.
On Opening Day, he turned only a shakedown speed of 208.885 mph. He drove both of his cars Sunday and was 10th and 11th fastest with speeds in the low 218's. He was up to third on Monday at 221.735 but was topped by his teammate Robby Gordon's 223.120 lap and Al Unser Jr.'s 221.861. On Tuesday, Ray was fourth fastest at 221.740 behind Scott Sharp's 223.936 and Target/Chip Ganassi teammates Juan Montoya and Jimmy Vasser.
Rain shortened Wednesday's practice. He checked in sixth at 219.674. Montoya topped the 33-minute practice with a 221.566.
Ray denies he is taking a lower profile approach to the Pole Day shootout.
Instead, he points out that going fast every day had nothing to do with his near-miss while under pressure last Pole Day. He said his primary machine that was so quick was disqualified for being below the ride-height allowance after clearing tech in the morning.
"That really hurt our chances," he said. "We qualified a backup car that wasn't really qualified-ready. We were still at 225, but that wasn't enough. We needed to go do our 227's and 226's to be securely on pole."
Part of the problem finding speed the past few days is the lack of good practice weather, limiting the time to sort out the new chassis, Ray said.
"Our main focus has not been speed, speed, speed; it's been getting the feel of the car the way we want the car to be," he said. "And getting consistency in the car, trying different setups. And occasionally if the weather is right, we've tried to go quick a couple of times."
Team Menard, headed by team manager Thomas Knapp and crew chief Chris Sumner, has not shown the qualifying potential of the car yet, Ray said.
"There's no doubt when Pole Day comes we will do our best, do our utmost and hold our breath as long as we can to see if we can put the car on pole," Ray said.
Last year after the distressing exit at Indy and a second place at Texas, Ray stepped back and concentrated on the future instead of questioning himself about the past and adding pressure. This resulted in a victory from the pole at Pikes Peak and two more victories to capture the Indy Racing Northern Light Series championship.
Ray is using the same philosophy this month at Indy.
"We have some very formidable competition starting in my own garage here with Robby Gordon, having Jimmy Vasser and Juan Montoya," he said. "I think this is great we have Richie Hearn here from the CART series, Memo Gidley from Formula Atlantic and CART, not to mention Buddy Lazier, Eddie Cheever, Scott Sharp, Mark Dismore and Jeff Ward. The list goes on and on and on. Billy Boat.
"There's some damn good drivers and some damn good teams. "I think if you look back through the '80s and through the '90s, and you look at the quality of teams, you look at the quality of drivers, you're probably looking at the best field the Indy 500 has ever seen.
"It's going to be so competitive on Pole Day. Come Sunday, Race Day, you're going to see an exciting, exciting race. I can't wait."