EXCLUSIVE: Will Power’s Carb Day Diary

Will Power. Image: Penske Entertainment

The Indianapolis 500 is an event like no other in motorsport. Nearly 400,000 people descend on the famous speedway for the annual race, to watch 33 drivers fight it out at more than 350km/h.

But amid the sea of people, all clamouring to get close to their racing heroes, what is it like for the drivers to prepare for this epic event?

Speedcafe was given exclusive access to find out, shadowing Penske Racing’s Will Power throughout Carb Day, the final on-track practice day ahead of the race.

Official business begins for Will with a driver’s meeting at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) museum. Will is already at the track, because like most drivers he stays in a motorhome onsite at each race. It’s especially helpful for this race, with Will and the rest of the IndyCar field at IMS for more than two weeks because of the Indianapolis Grand Prix and then practice and qualifying for the 500.

Will Power and Rick Mears at a Penske Q&A session with supporters Pic: Stephen Ottley

Will heads to the Penske hospitality area for Q&A session with former team driver and four-time Indy 500 winner, Rick Mears.

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Will is getting energy up for the practice running, eating a plate of plain white rice and a protein shake.

The laid-back demeanour of both the drivers speaks to their comfort level with these events. This is because Will is now a fixture of Team Penske, having joined the team back in 2009.

The pair field questions from Penske supporters and guests. When asked about how he drives on the road, Will admits he’s not much of a ‘car guy’ off the track: “I have a Porsche 911 GT2 RS. But it just sits in my garage.”

He explains that the thrill and challenge of driving an IndyCar on its limit makes driving on the road a very boring activity for him. He admits he drives so slowly his wife can get frustrated at times.

He moves to the Penske Racing pit bunker for an engineering briefing ahead of the final two-hours of on-track running ahead of the race.

10:45am – Heads to the pit lane ahead of final practice.

Will Power preparing for final practice on Carb Day Pic: Stephen Ottley

Will gets his helmet and HANS on and climbs aboard the car well ahead of time.

Will and his team calmly chat through the final plans for practice. Even though they’ve been talking via the radio, Will still does a routine radio check to make sure every box is ticked.

11:00am The track goes green and several teams immediately peel out of their pit boxes and hit the track – but not Will. The #12 team waits patiently in their pit stall, sticking to their carefully planned out strategy.

“There’s something leaking out of one of those cars,” Power says almost immediately.

Sure enough, one of the cars has leaked fluid onto the track and the session is immediately yellow flagged so the fluid can be cleared.

The Penske crew fires up the Chevrolet engine and Will leaves the pits for the first time, running an installation lap to check the car is in working order.

Will heads out again and spends the next few minutes scuffing tyres – running an out lap and straight back in again to remove the shiny, slick layer on the surface of the Firestone tyres.

Will jumps to second fastest on the times as he now settles into his first long run of this final practice session to fine tune the car for the race.

Will pits for a mid-session discussion on where the car is, agreeing to some minor set-up changes with his engineering team. He then heads back out for another long run.

It’s here that you get a real sense of what makes Power and his #12 team the reigning IndyCar series champions. Every member of the team – from the chief engineer down to the guy looking after the tyres – executes their job (and any other job that needs doing) with efficiency and focus.

Will is back out on track and runs through the rest of his program until the final minutes of the session.

With just a few minutes to go, Will and the team begin practice pit stops, getting three attempts before the chequered flag waves to finish up the two weeks of practice for the race.

Will and Liz Power walk down pit lane after Carb Day practice with the ‘100 Days to Indy’ crew filming them Will Power preparing for final practice on Carb Day Pic: Stephen Ottley

Will briefly runs through his initial thoughts on the session with his engineer before they’ll dive into in more detail bank in the Penske Racing garage.

On the way back to the pits Will (walking with his wife Liz, who has become a celebrity in her own right thanks to her now-famous water bottle-torturing support of Will) is swamped by fans of all ages. He’s happy to sign as many autographs and take as many selfies as he can allow, but ultimately he has to drag himself away into the garage to get his work done.

It’s worth noting that despite the professionalism of Penske Racing (which has a great media relations team that helps us get this story together), Will doesn’t have a team of people around him pushing him to his next event or pulling him away from the fans as has become common in other motorsports.

Apart from Liz, who supports him at most races, Will’s only assistance comes from his bus/golf cart drive, Dave.

It’s a refreshing attitude from both the team and driver and explains why fans are so drawn to IndyCar racing in general and drivers like Will in particular. Unlike Formula 1, where the drivers and teams are segregated from the fans and work in almost complete isolation aside from well-paying visitors, IndyCar allows its fans to get up close and personal with its drivers and teams. The garage and even the pit lane are open to paying punters, allowing the fans to get right up next to their favourite drivers.

Father and son, Steve and Christian, are a great example of this. The pair were able to buy tickets on Carb Day morning that could get them access to the pit lane, literally standing just a few feet from Will’s Verizon-backed Dallara during the practice session.

Christian speaks passionately about his support for Will, explaining he’s amazed by his speed (as Will is now the record holder for the most pole positions in IndyCar history) and his personality; Christian mentions Will’s infamous ‘double birds’ moment as a highlight.

Will walks with Liz back to the Penske garage for an in-depth post-session debrief with his engineer and team-mate Scott McLaughlin.

After analysing the session Will is able to head back to his motorhome for a short rest and catch-up with Liz and son Beau before he needs to get ready for the day’s next event.

Will Power finished second in the Pit Stop Challenge to Kiwi veteran Scott Dixon Pic: Stephen Ottley

Will is back in pit lane with his #12 crew, but this time he’s not the star – the team is. A pit stop challenge is another Indy 500 staple, pitting the crews against each other in a series of head-to-head contests to determine the fastest (wheel)gun slingers.

Despite the obvious pressure on the team to uphold Penske honours and win the event, Will is clearly relaxed and enjoying the party-like atmosphere of the pit stop contest. A DJ is pumping out music as the crowd is allowed onto the main straight, as well as the packed pit lane grandstand, to create a really exciting venue for this showdown.

As Will sings along to Bon Jovi as it’s played over the PA system, his #12 crew methodically go about their preparation.

The preparation pays off, with the #12 team winning their first-round contest against the Dreyer & Reinbold crew of Graham Rahal. And then their quarter-final match-up against the Dreyer & Reinbold team of Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Will and the #12 crew beat Jack Harvey’s Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team in their semi-final to make it through to the final.

The pit stop challenge final is a best-of-three contest that sees Will and the #12 Penske team up against the #9 Ganassi Racing team of Scott Dixon. This Australian-New Zealand showdown goes down to the wire, with Dixon winning the first run, Will hitting back in the second and then Dixon managing a decisive victory in the third to take the prize.

While the win may have eluded the Penske team on this occasion, Will isn’t worried about losing at IMS on Friday if it means winning on Sunday instead.

Will Power signs autographs for IndyCar fans Pic: Stephen Ottley

Will is able to head back to his bus, signing more autographs and taking countless selfies along the way.

Despite all the many demands of a modern racing driver, a key reason for IndyCar’s success is the availability of the drivers. Will is careful to make sure Dave slows down his golf cart so he can sign for any kids. He’ll make Dave wait so he can sign a few more autographs or stop to give a fan a selfie.

The volume of fans flocking to Will is a testament to his time in the sport. While he lacks the profile of a Mark Webber or Daniel Ricciardo, there’s no argument that Will Power is one of Australia’s greatest four-wheel motorsport exports.

He’s a two-time IndyCar champion, an Indy 500 winner, the all-time pole king and fifth on the all-time winners list. That puts his name in the same company as Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Al Unser – undisputed legends of the sport.

Will Power does a photoshoot with sponsors Pic: Stephen Ottley

Once again back in his motorhome, Will is finally able to change out of his race suit and into his other Team Penske uniform – a team polo and sensible black slacks. But there’s no time to rest, he needs to head to a photoshoot at the Chevrolet trackside display.

This means another run in the golf cart through the hordes of fans, more autographs and more selfies.

Photos taken, it’s back to the bus to finally have a short breather. Will is able to relax and we discuss his enthusiasm for IndyCar racing and his confidence in its future. Despite the dramatic increase in popularity of F1 in the US, IndyCar – and particularly the Indy 500 – has a huge and loyal following.

Having spent more than a decade with Team Penske and nearly 20 years racing in the USA, Power is clearly at home in this scene and believes the sport has never been healthier than it is now.

Will Power and Scott McLaughlin sign at the Team Penske merchandise trailer Pic: Stephen Ottley

After finishing a cup of tea, it’s time to head to the Team Penske merchandise unit for a signing alongside McLaughlin and fellow team-mate, Josef Newgarden. Immediately after this, it’s time to actually leave the track and head into downtown Indianapolis to attend a Firestone event. Only once that finishes at 7:15pm can Will head back to the track and call it a day in his motorhome.

Shadowing Power for the day provides a rare insight into the demands of the modern racing driver. Of course on-track performance is the key but that’s only a small part of the day’s work. Drivers need to be disciplined to ensure all the performance work is done – the engineering sessions and preparation – but also they need to be mindful and open to take time for the fans – without whom the Indianapolis 500 wouldn’t be the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing.’

The 107th Indianapolis 500 race start is scheduled for Sunday May 28 12:45 ET/Monday May 29 02:45 AEST.

Australian viewers can watch live and ad-free on Stan Sport from 01:00 AEST.

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