JEFF GORDON, OFFICIAL PACE CAR DRIVER FOR THE 99TH RUNNING OF THE INDIANAPOLIS 500, met with members of the media prior to leading the field to the green flag. Below is the press conference transcript:
THE MODERATOR: Chevrolet has a long history at this track, dating back to 1911 when a guy named Louis Chevrolet raced a race here. Chevrolet also has a long history of pacing races here, 26 times dating back to 1948. The Corvette Z06 which will be the pace car for this year's race, is the 13th Corvette to pace the field here.
More than up to the task, its LT4 supercharged V8 engine produces 650 horsepower.
Our pace car driver, too, is more than up to the task. He has five Brickyard 400 victories here, including one in the first stockcar race ever held on these grounds, four NASCAR championships, 92 victories, Jeff Gordon.
Jeff, welcome to Indianapolis.
JEFF GORDON: Thank you. What a thrill it is to be here on race day. I certainly have had plenty of opportunities to make laps around this track before, but never have I had the experience like I'm having here today, to be honored as being the pace car driver, to get the chance to drive that amazing Corvette Z06.
I've had a chance to make a couple laps around the track a week ago. It's certainly up to the task. I get to hang out with my buddy Johnny Rutherford. I got a chance to meet my all-time hero, Rick Mears, earlier today. It has been a thrill already and I can't wait to get out there and get behind the wheel.
My family is with me as well experiencing this. It's already a great start to the day. Can't wait to pace them to the green flag, hopefully do everything right that Johnny tells me to do.
The hardest thing is going to be getting out of the driver's seat of that car. It's such a great car. I want to take it home with me. It's going to be hard to leave the Indy 500. But certainly have a lot to do in Charlotte as well this evening.
THE MODERATOR: What was your reaction when you first heard you had this opportunity?
JEFF GORDON: My stepdad called me, John Bickford, who handles a lot of my business affairs. He said, I hope you're sitting down, I've got one that's pretty big for you.
I said, Oh, what's that?
He said, I got a call from Chevrolet in Indianapolis, they want you to drive the pace car for the Indy 500.
I was floored. I didn't believe it. I was like, Me? Me?
Knowing this race, its history, as a kid growing up watching this race, seeing that pace car pace the field, knowing there was always somebody very special behind the wheel, I never pictured myself as being one of those individuals.
Immediately after that, my thought went to, how do I make this happen? How do we make sure this happens?
Luckily with a lot of hard work and cooperation from our sponsors, Rick Hendrick and everybody, we were able to make it work.
I'm so glad I did. I would not have wanted to miss this for anything.
THE MODERATOR: In your career, you have almost 80 poles, which means you've started a lot of races directly behind the pace car driver. What have you learned being on that side of the pace car driver that you're going to try to apply today?
JEFF GORDON: Being on the front row that many times, I've seen some bad pace car drivers (laughter). I want to make sure I'm certainly not one of those.
The biggest thing for me, stock cars have a certain pace, a certain type of transmission that we're able to run any speed fairly easily, slower speeds.
These cars, from what I understand, are not quite like that. They're more temperamental when it comes to their clutch and the transmission in pace laps. For me, the biggest thing for me is going to make sure I get them up to speed properly, keep them at that speed, maintain that speed, then accelerate at the right time to make sure I build enough of a gap as they come around turn four, but not too much where I'm still in the photo when they go by (laughter).
THE MODERATOR: Questions for Jeff Gordon.
Q. Sitting now in the pace car, did you have a talk with the front row drivers, what's important for them? Also, how do you beat this logistical challenge to get from here to Charlotte in time?
JEFF GORDON: I'm going to talk to some of the drivers when I see them before driver intros to see if there's anything special they want. Johnny Rutherford is a pro. He does this all the time. I'll be turning it over to him after I get out. So he'll walk me through it.
The thing is, I drove the car. The car is such an amazing, fun car to drive, I feel very confident in the driving aspect of things. I'm pretty good at following the rules most of the time.
As far as getting back to Charlotte, we've seen guys compete in this race and still make it to Charlotte. Now, you give up your starting position, which I certainly didn't want to do.
I'll probably watch a couple laps. Like I mentioned, I have my wife and kids here. I want to see them see how fast these cars go through the corner. I actually took my son to Pocono a couple years ago. He got to see some IndyCars at the hotel when we checked in. He's all excited about that. I want them to see at least a few laps. Unfortunately, we can't stay any longer. We'll head to the airport, take off, make it in plenty of time to make the drivers' meeting.
Q. Jeff, how have you gotten this far in your career and not met Rick Mears before?
JEFF GORDON: No, I met him. I got to hang out with him on race day at the Indy 500. I think that's a little cooler than just meeting him.
Q. Every bit as cool as he seems to the rest of us?
JEFF GORDON: Oh, my gosh. What I love, there's nothing better than when you look at somebody through a TV or from reading about them, and you decide that they're going to be your hero. Then when you meet them, they live up to those expectations and even exceed them. Rick is one of those kind of guys.
Q. Jeff, I know you've said as a boy growing up in Pittsboro, your dream was to start the Indianapolis 500. In some ways, do you feel this is starting the Indianapolis 500?
JEFF GORDON: I guess in a way, yes. In some ways it's even greater. To be honored as the pace car driver, again, it's just kind of blowing me away right now that this whole experience is happening.
This whole year has just been incredible from the fan interaction, racetracks, this phone call, this moment. This is a very, very special year.
I mean, there's no doubt in my mind that one thing that maybe I feel like I've accomplished more than I ever expected or hoped to in racing, but the one thing that did kind of feel like allude me and we pursued - I say 'we', my dad, my mom, and myself - when we were trying to go to the next level, was getting a chance to race here in the Indianapolis 500.
I've said this many times, I still believe it. Winning the inaugural Brickyard 400, to me, fulfilled that dream. Now I've had a chance to win it four more times. This is a special place for me. I love getting a chance to race here.
Would I have liked to have at least run one Indy 500, know what it's like? Sure, I would have. It won't be happening, but I would have liked to have known what that was like.
But as far as being honored to a whole 'nother level, this today is it.
Q. What about next year?
JEFF GORDON: I'll be in the FOX booth next year (laughter). I'm so glad that deal worked out because I wouldn't have a better excuse for you.
Q. Jeff, you've talked about you're not going to be driving next year full-time. Have you picked the races you might drive part-time and would Indianapolis be one of them?
JEFF GORDON: The way I set that up is because I've known too many drivers that I respect and have raced with that, you know, said, Okay, I'm retiring, stepping away, then they come back. I'm not quite ready, want to run a few more races.
That's why I didn't say this is my final year of ever competing at a single event. But it really, truly is. It really is. As I get further into the year, as things come together, I don't see myself doing any races. If I do a race, maybe a Martinsville or a short track.
There's so much that goes into preparing a car and a team at Hendrick Motorsports, which is the only car I would ever do it with, and team, that would take away from their performance. Why would I really be doing it? I'll be in the booth.
I'm going to fulfill my desire to be a part of the sport by being in the booth. I can go do some racing with my kids hopefully, some other ways.
I don't plan on doing any racing. I have no set plans to do any after Homestead.
Q. Have you ever driven an IndyCar in any fashion? What intrigues you about an IndyCar?
JEFF GORDON: I drove the Formula One car here, which is probably the closest thing. I remember when I was living in Indiana pursuing other types of racing, IndyCar was on the radar, I drove a Super Vee out at IRP on the road course. I went to several IndyCar races to be introduced to car owners, drivers, try to get my foot in the door there.
NASCAR was meant to be for me. It just was. I knocked on a lot of doors. It didn't happen within IndyCar. I went down south and things immediately started to happen. It just was meant to be.
Q. What intrigued you about these cars?
JEFF GORDON: They're cool, they're fast, the grip level that they have, the speed that they carry through the corners. When you think of ultimate in racecars, you think of Formula One cars and IndyCars.
NASCAR, we put on a great show. The cars are fun. They're very powerful. I love driving them on the high-bank ovals that we race on, but it's completely different than what driving that Formula One car was certainly like.
Q. You mentioned the Formula One car, driving that, doing that with Juan Pablo Montoya. You've done a lot here. How does Indianapolis stack up with everything you've done, driving that car, going that fast?
JEFF GORDON: As far as the experience of just driving a car, I don't even know if I really put it into perspective. I drive racecars all the time, but it's more for the competition, it's not for the thrill of what the car can do, the speed, the grip level.
That day I drove that Formula One car, that's what it was all about. I got to feel the ultimate in what a car is capable of doing, which blew my mind. I didn't think a car was capable of doing what that car did, because I've never driven anything like that. Slowed down that fast, accelerated that fast, stuck in the corners like that, gave you the feedback in the wheel that that car gave.
Honestly I've said ever since then, I've never experienced the thrill of a car in any other experience like I did that day.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, Jeff. Enjoy your day and good luck tonight in Charlotte.
JEFF GORDON: Thank you.
JEFF GORDON, OFFICIAL PACE CAR DRIVER FOR THE 99TH RUNNING OF THE INDIANAPOLIS 500:
WAS THAT AS SPECIAL AS YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE?
“It sure was. To come down that front straightaway the first time and hear that crowd cheering for the cars, the drivers and this amazing event...to be able to hear that from inside the pace car with the windows down is just amazing. Not to mention that the pace car has to get after it pretty good out here because that last lap is 100 mph and through the corners, maintaining that is something. So that was definitely cool. A huge thrill and a huge honor.”
IS THAT GOING TO BE AN INSPIRATION IN GOING TO CHARLOTTE FOR THE RACE TONIGHT?
“To me, if every time I could attend something like the Indianapolis 500 and then go to my own race – it would definitely be motivating.”