Bald John looked giddy, which confused me as I pulled into the pits after our first practice for the Indy 500. He didn't speak, but helped me out of the car with a wide, goofy grin and unusually fumbling fingers.
Also confusing was my best friend, manager, and PR person, Holly Wilson, climbing over the low pit wall with a towel and a bottle of water—normally a crew member's job. I saw the stern look on her face and fear clenched my insides.
I shouted to be heard through my helmet. "What's wrong?" She shook her head. "Everyone's fine. No one's hurt. I have good news and bad news. Bad news first."
"Do we have to do this again? Now?"
I yanked off my gloves, helmet, balaclava, and earplugs. I wiped my face with the cold, wet towel she'd brought and looked up and down the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's pit lane, seeing thirty-three other drivers talking with their engineers.
"Why am I not doing the same?"
I drank down half the water. As a babble of voices erupted from my Beermeier Racing team pit box, Holly glanced over her shoulder, worried.
My sense of unease increased. "Tell me."
"The bad news." She hesitated. "This is only the first practice. Where you are in the finishing order doesn't matter, because teams are playing with car setup. Position doesn't mean anything."
"I get it. I was last in this practice last year, but finished seventeenth in the race." I relived the overwhelmed feeling I'd had the year before, my first time driving at IMS and my first time attempting to qualify for one of the biggest races in the world. I'd nearly stopped breathing during the rookie test, when I proved I could handle speeds over 220 mph around the two and a half mile oval. The first full practice had been equally stunning, as I learned to deal with other cars on the massive track. In contrast, the practice a year later had felt good. I'd felt relatively comfortable with a car on the edge. I'd had fun.
"What's the problem?" I asked.
"Keep the bad news in mind."
I waved Holly on, bored of whatever this was. I wanted to talk to my engineer, though I saw he was busy with a small crowd of people—press?
Holly put a hand on my shoulder. "The good news." She broke into a smile. "Kate, you were the fastest in that session."
Her words didn't register. "What?"
She pointed at the scoring pylon, the tall, electronic tower that soared over the track displaying the running or finishing order. Sure enough, my number was at the top.
I blinked twice, but the digits didn't change. I sank down on the pit wall, unable to feel my legs. "Holy shit," I whispered.
"It's a damn good start." She laughed, then sobered. "But don't let it go to your head. Stay calm when you talk with the media."
I glanced at the group in the pits again and finally understood what was happening.
"You can be pleased," she went on, "but don't get cocky. The other teams—"
I grinned at her. "It doesn't mean anything for qualifying or the race. But it's sure as hell a better way to start than last place."
I turned back to the scoring pylon and the start/finish line of the legendary track. Position one: the number 82 car. Me.
"Maybe this will be my year at the 500..."
I had ten seconds to fantasize about drinking the traditional milk in the victory lane before my crew descended on me with back-slaps and hugs. After a few minutes of answering questions for the reporters going live on the PA or radio, I spent time talking with Nolan Oshiro, the genius engineer who made decisions about race strategy and technical details for me. But before we were done, a rep for the IndyCar Series, which I was driving in full-time that year, arrived to take me to the media center to talk with the press.
I hadn't ever been called to the ground-floor interview room of the media building—a shorter, longer structure next to the Speedway's famous pagoda tower—so I hadn't known the drill. As a result, the other top finishers had come and gone, and I faced a couple dozen journalists alone.