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Insider’s View: Robby Gordon
As told to Dave Rodman, Turner Sports Interactive May 31, 2003
4:25 PM EDT (2025 GMT)


DOVER, DEL. — Looking back on doing the Memorial Day double between Indianapolis and Charlotte, as far as smoothness, schedules working out, the organization between race teams and the driver and how everything went — I thought it just went too good, because up until race day it was like a non-issue.



Robby Gordon

I don’t remember one tiny drama, even when they banned helicopter flights into and out of the two venues, that wasn’t a real big deal because it just became a matter of organizing everything, putting the plan into place and then executing it.

Once I arrived at the track on race morning, I met with the Archipelago, Motorola and Budweiser guests in the hospitality area, and then went back to the garage to meet with my crew chief and engineer to discuss race strategy one more time. Then, we were ready for driver introductions.

At driver introductions we met some guest celebrities such as Andrew Firestone and Jen from "The Bachelor", Gomer Pyle — I know, Jim Nabors — Florence Henderson and former president Bill Clinton.

I did the Double Duty Tour for the fans that flew between Charlotte and Indy, and all of it was flawless.

Until we got to the race, that is.

Once the race started, in my opinion, we forgot everything we learned all month long. Andretti Green is a great race team, and they have very well prepared race cars.

From the very first week we were there, my job was full tank 35-lap race runs. At the end of every run, our fuel was empty and our tires were worn to the cords on the right front and right rear.

Then, when the race started the team said we were going to do a fuel strategy race. So I started turning down my fuel mixture control at lap three, which gives you better fuel mileage, but less power.

The first caution came out 10 laps into the race and my crew decided we were going to pit for fuel only and no tires. The part we forgot about was that we needed to put tires on the car as well. They looked at it like we only had 10 laps on the tires and it was no big deal.

We ran three more laps before another caution came out. All the leaders pitted and we stayed out and got our track position back. But we had 15 more laps on our tires than they did, and three or four less laps of fuel.

That would not be a problem if we had a short run of green laps but we had a long green run and at lap 35, which was a normal run for tires, we still had 12 gallons of fuel left.

I went from running laps at 225 miles per hour to hanging on for my life at about 200, because I had no rubber left on my tires — I could see cords showing on the right front tire and about one inch of cord around the inside of the right rear.

That took us from a top-five car back to 27th by the time we could pit because you just can’t go very fast on cords, and we almost got ourselves lapped by lap 45.

After a normal pit stop we had the fastest car on the race track and drove all the way back up to ninth place before our next stop on about lap 75.

Our third stop is where we really started to have our problems. Getting stuck in pit lane when the caution came out, which cost us a lap wasn’t the only thing.

We did another normal stop for four tires and fuel with no adjustments. But as I went to leave, I stalled the car. After restarting, when I put the car in gear it went in but banged hard.

Losing that lap in the pits was one of the biggest things that affected the rest of the day. The way it works in Indy cars, when you come out of the pits you’re behind the leaders, and when they pit, you’re behind the pace car.

Before they restart, they wave all the lapped cars by, which puts you back on the lead lap, but at the back of the field. I was back in 27th again, but we were able to get back to the lead group before the next stop, and again I was running ninth and we were fortunate to catch a caution to bunch us up again, on lap 123.

Our goal was to get past halfway and then we’d pull the wicker out of the rear wing to start trimming out the car to go faster. When I came down pit lane, I told them to pull the wicker, take three turns out of the front wing, put on four tires and fill the fuel.

We left pit lane in seventh. We still had a good race car and everything was going good. I was congratulating the guys on a great stop, and they came on the radio and said "hold that thought."

They told me they took the turns out of the front wing but they forgot to pull the wicker. That would make the car undriveable, because it would push badly, and we probably would have gotten lapped pretty quickly.

We had picked up a problem with the car not wanting to idle properly, and when I came down pit lane to pull the wicker out, when I tried to leave I dropped it in gear at about 5,000 RPMs and it went ‘clink.’ And it stalled again.

First gear felt a little raunchy leaving pit lane, but I went back out, took the green and I’m running in 23rd place again. I charged back through the pack again and got all the way back to 11th or 12th place right before our last pit stop, at about lap 168.

I came down pit road and made the stop, and when I put it into first gear to leave, "bang" — first gear broke. I stalled the car, so they restarted me. When I went into third gear leaving pit road that broke as well.

I finally got it into sixth gear, but I was only able to run a couple more laps and the gearbox just exploded.

It was very disappointing because we had one of the best cars all day long. When I looked at race winner Gil de Ferran’s best race lap, he was only three-tenths of a mile an hour faster than our best.

I know that when I go back to Indy next year, I’m going to run full throttle all day long and not worry about any fuel mileage.

If we win the race, in the end it will be because of raw speed, not because of strategy — because strategy has bitten me twice there, now, as it did in 1999 when we ran out of fuel while we were leading with less than two laps to go.

For the Coca-Cola 600, we did something that I think a lot of people didn’t understand. It was great strategy on the part of my Cingular Chevrolet crew chief, Kevin Hamlin. From the start of practice, we concentrated on race runs, because we knew we couldn’t make it back for the Winston Cup drivers’ meeting and we were going to have to go to the back anyway.

At the very end of practice before qualifying, we put what we thought would be a qualifying set-up on it; but the bottom line is you can’t qualify with these guys if you don’t put that set-up on the car from the beginning and really tune on it.

We missed it qualifying, but we knew we had a good race car because we came out for Saturday’s final practices and were 11th in the morning, which was the session that really mattered for our Cingular team and me.

On Sunday evening, we ran into something that has bothered us for the last month or so. We end up the final race practice pretty decent, but when the race starts we’re really, really tight before the first pit stop and we end up getting lapped.

That was exactly what happened again in the 600. Even despite that, like I told Richard Childress and our team manager, Bobby Hutchens on Tuesday, I felt like we had a top-10 car. We were just a lap down, unfortunately.

We came close to getting our lap back a couple times and I think as the track got cooler the No. 31 Cingular Wireless Chevrolet was definitely getting faster and we were coming toward the front.

Unfortunately, before our last pit stop we got together with my teammate, Kevin Harvick and it knocked our fender in. Kevin (Hamlin) didn’t want to come in and fix it, but I looked at 150 laps left on the board and I thought there was no way that NASCAR would call the race.

I knew we had to fix the fender so we’d be good later on. We came in, they called the race and we would have been in ninth place if we hadn’t pitted.

Even at that, despite finishing 17th, Kevin and the guys were working on the race car and getting it faster and I think we would have got our lap back eventually.

What can you say — we finished 17th, scored some points and moved up a spot in the championship, to 12th. Man, we’ve got a great race team, but at Charlotte and Indy it seemed like nothing worked.

I can’t wait until next year to do it again. We proved we could be a frontrunner at the speedway again, despite not running an Indy car for a year. It was pretty cool.

I’ve already started the Indy 500 discussions for next year. I know what I want to do and I’m not going to let ourselves get in the position we did this year, waiting so long for something to happen.

Next year I want to test and practice as much as we can. Hopefully when the month is all said and done we’ll be the fastest car of the month and we will have won the Indianapolis 500.

I enjoyed working with Michael Andretti and his guys and we had some awesome sponsors like Archipelago, Motorola and Budweiser that were a lot of fun to be around. It was a very pleasurable experience but the result was just not what any of us wanted.

I’ve already talked to two sponsors for next year, because we obviously want to make sure we have all the tools necessary to go Indy and try to win.

The Penske Group owns the speedway and proved once again they are the most organized, and maybe the most sophisticated race team out there with their 1-2 finish.