COLUMN: Best name in racing shows willpower to win Indy 500
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — William Stephen Power was named after his great-grandfather, an Australian motorbike racer who “set records from Toowoomba to Brisbane” and sparked a love of motorsports passed down three generations.
Legendary drag racer John Force called it the greatest name in motorsports.
Now it will forever be linked to “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Five years after pledging to improve on ovals, Power won on the biggest one in the world and took one of Roger Penske’s cars to victory in the Indianapolis 500. The Indy win was the 17th for Penske, elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame just last week, and made Power the winningest IndyCar driver in Team Penske history.
He’s won 31 times for Penske, but Sunday’s victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was just his seventh triumph on an oval. His specialty is winning on road and street courses, and no one has been more consistent at those venues than Power over the last decade.
The road to improvement started in 2013, the year after Power coughed up another championship, and he turned his focus toward mastering those vexing ovals on the schedule. When he won that season’s finale in California, he declared himself fit to consistently challenge for wins.
He conquered the Milwaukee Mile the next year, the year he became a champion, and has since won twice at Pocono, once at Texas and now on the grandest stage in motorsports.
“I just got better and better and better at ovals. Just absolutely love them now,” Power said Monday. “Understand them so well. I know exactly what I want, exactly how the car should feel, know how to drive them, know when to take risks. That just took time. Now I would race them every week if I could.”
Yes, his path to this life-changing Indy 500 victory began five years ago with an attitude change.
The extra push he needed came a month ago, at an NHRA event at Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina.
Power had the weekend off, and having never been to the drag races, he figured an afternoon in a different environment might do some good. The first four races of the IndyCar season had not gone his way: He’d been in two race-ending accidents and was seventh in the championship standings.
That day at zMax Dragway, watching NHRA drivers race four-wide down the strip, helped turn Power’s season around.
He was stopped everywhere he went in the paddock and given an in-depth tour of the cars, engines and setup from Funny Car driver Ron Capps. Courtney Force, who is married to IndyCar regular Graham Rahal, took a selfie with Power to show “at least one IndyCar driver came to see me on their weekend off,” because her husband had a prior engagement.
Then Power saw Courtney Force’s father, 16-time champion John Force and one of the most powerful personalities in motorsports. Power broke free from his group, raced over to Force and was entertained for 30 minutes by racing stories told in Force’s bold, embellishing style.
As Power made his way out of the paddock, he was randomly stopped by the father of seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, who recognized Power in passing and told him what he fan he was of the driver.
When the day ended and Power and his wife headed home, his demeanor had changed. He had that swagger back, admitting the afternoon was a massive confidence-booster before heading to Indy.
Power got to the great gray speedway nestled in a neighborhood and won on the road course, the warmup to the Indy 500. His toddler son took his first steps while the family was in Indianapolis. He didn’t make a mistake the entire month of May and parlayed that into the biggest win of his career.
“It was kind of the turning point. I went down there and had a really good time,” Power said of the trip to the drag races. “We were joking around a lot. That’s like, the happiest times in your life, when you are around friends and you are totally in the moment, joking around, trying to be funny, and not thinking about the past or the future. That was a day like that.”
A relaxing day. The kind of day that a guy who is driven — in his own quirky way — can use as a reset in trying times.
Power arrived in Indianapolis so much looser than ever before. He knew Penske had given him a fast Chevrolet, and if everything went right, he had a shot at winning. And when he did, the victory celebration was like few before.
Power didn’t cry, but he couldn’t stop screaming. He’s not even sure what he said in that hectic celebration. He maintains a dairy-free diet, so he took just one sip from the celebratory milk — “It was whole cream,” he said, because he couldn’t choose chocolate — and decided to shower it through the winner’s circle “NASCAR-style.” He wound up drenching Indianapolis festival princess Natalie Murdock.
Mortified once his wife pointed out Murdock, who had milk covering her eyeglasses and running down her face, Power could not have been more apologetic.
In truth, that might have been William Stephen Power’s only slip-up all month.
“It was better to just be in the moment. I don’t regret anything I did,” he insisted. “I don’t care what people say. I do not care. I was in the moment, and that’s how I’ve been lately. I could not care less what people think about me. I am going to be myself. I like it, and that’s basically it.”
More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org