Indy 500 rituals anything but routine

INDIANAPOLIS – What do the fear of peanuts, green cars and $50 bills have to do with today's IndyCar drivers? Not much, it seems.

Superstitions have played a legendary role in auto racing over the years, with some drivers swearing that such things as peanuts in a shell or green cars or $50 bills were to be avoided like the plague. While many of these irrational fears or beliefs had murky beginnings, their traditions have endured … until now. Either that, or a lot of drivers are in denial.

A poll of 20 of the 33 drivers scheduled to start Sunday's 92nd running of the Indianapolis 500 uncovered many who admit to having certain routines, such as getting in their cars on the same side every time or putting on their helmets and ear plugs a certain way. And, yes, a few admitted to wearing "lucky" underwear or socks. But all were hesitant to call them superstitions. Instead, they preferred to talk about the importance of mental and physical preparation and doing their best to remove all unnecessary distractions – including superstitions – from the equation.

For them, it's not about fear as much as it is about knowledge. And performance.

"My uncle (Mario Andretti) said he's too religious to be superstitious," explained John Andretti, who will start Sunday's race on the seventh row. "It makes a lot of sense. The No. 13? What do I care? Is a number or peanuts or a green car going to keep me from victory lane? That's stupid."

Darren Manning, who will start from the middle of the fifth row, takes an almost clinical approach to the sport.

"If you're prepared, you're not thinking it's something I did (if there's a problem). It's a science project to find out what failed," Manning said. "It takes a lot of guesswork out of it.

"Not knowing is tough. Now … it's all about knowing. I think it's a huge thing (knowing yourself as much as the car)."

Oriol Servia agreed.

"Racing is not just going fast," Servia said. "It's a mental fight and how you approach a race. Everybody has problems, so it's about who gets over them better."

Some drivers, such as Sarah Fisher and Bruno Junqueira, use visualization to aid in their mental preparations. Hideki Mutoh takes a nap to clear his mind of negative thoughts. And Scott Dixon, who will start on the pole this Sunday, always eats pancakes before a race.

"You try to think about things that have happened in the past and how you're going to deal with them," Fisher said. "You go over situations in a planned way."

Junqueira, who will start on the outside of the fifth row, takes a similar approach.

"Mentally, I have a pre-race routine where I try to visualize the race … moving in traffic, pit stops, stuff like that, so that during the race I'm more prepared," Junqueira said. "You need to have a very high standard to compete at a high level."

Buddy Lazier described it a little differently.

"This sport is about focus," Lazier said. "I have certain routines that allow me to get in maximum psychological position. I have a sophisticated routine now. There's a huge mental side to this sport … depth perceptions, capacity to focus over such a long period of time."

Apparently it works for Lazier, who won the Indianapolis 500 in 1996.

"Everything you do in racing is the mind," Vitor Meira said. "Physical is important only to keep focus. When you're tired you lose concentration and focus. Your head is like a computer … the more programs you open, the slower it gets. If you have only one program open – going fast – you perform better."

However, there's no denying the physical demands of auto racing … the high g-forces, insane speeds in traffic, the absence of power steering that makes driving a race car akin to swimming in molasses. Do that for 500 miles and you're exhausted.

As a result, all the drivers say they participate in physical activities of one sort or another off the track … and the results are evident. You'll find no Body Mass Index casualties in this bunch.

"It's a demanding sport … physically demanding," Junqueira said. "The guy that's more prepared physically wins. It's 99 percent physical, the rest mental. You have to push hard every lap."

Junqueira, like many others, has a routine that includes aerobic exercises such as cycling and swimming. He complements that with weight training, targeting the upper body muscles that must endure so much strain during a race.

"I'm very passionate about my body," he said. "I read up on things so I know what my body needs to be ready for racing."

Other drivers participate in such activities as boxing, running, surfing and basketball. Tony Kanaan plays video games to improve his reflexes.

Even Meira, who puts such an emphasis on the mental aspects of the sport, admits to the importance of physical conditioning.

"What I like to do is bike and run," he said. "I also have to build my upper body strength, so I lift weights three days a week and work out two days a week."

While some are passionate about their physical conditioning, others are more casual.

"I'm not a guy who trains, trains, trains," Enrique Bernoldi said. "Some drivers are obsessed about it. I've had lots of trainers. I try to combine the best from each by myself."

Still, Bernoldi obviously is more fit than your average fan.

Whatever the routine, one thing is clear … they all believe in their own unique routines, whether it's for the purpose of mental preparation or physical conditioning or both. And if that involves a few activities that some would call superstitions, well, is that so bad?

"We believe in whatever we can control, not that doing things a certain way can make a difference," Jeff Simmons said. "But when you've done things a certain way, you think 'just in case.' "

Or, as Will Power said without a hint of irony: "I've eradicated all superstitions because your mind is in the wrong place. But I do wear the same socks."