Will Power’s IndyCar Series championship last year was a lifetime in the making.
Power, a native of Australia and the son of an open-wheel driver, never really had any other plan.
“That’s all I ever wanted to be,” he said. “If you had asked me when I was a little kid just 5 years old, I would have said I wanted to be a racecar driver. I just followed my dream.”
The road to the Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana this weekend started in Power’s backyard in Toowoomba, Queensland, a sports-mad city (soccer, cricket, you name it) with a population of a little more than 100,000 when he was growing up and about 150,000 now. Power, the second youngest of four brothers, enjoyed jumping bikes right outside his house as soon as he turned school age.
“I was a little bit of a daredevil,” he said. “I did big jumps. There was always a competition (among the brothers) as to who could jump the highest and who could jump the farthest.”
From there, he graduated to Go-Karts, motor bikes and eventually racecars, driving first in Australia, competing in Europe in 2003 and moving to the United States in 2006. Still, his path to the pinnacle of his sport was fraught with heartbreak as well as some broken bones. After joining the IndyCar Series in 2008, he finished second in the points standings from 2010 through 2012. Each time, he entered the last completed race in first place in the overall standings, but for varying reasons, he came up empty, placing no higher than 19th in any of them.
Fractured vertebrae were his other challenge. He was 14 the first time it happened, in a motor bike race in Australia. Much more seriously, his 2009 IndyCar season ended with a violent crash at Sonoma that left him in the hospital with four broken bones in his back.
Two years later, he was part of the 15-car crash that killed fellow driver Dan Wheldon in the season finale at Las Vegas. The race was abandoned, ending his shot to claim the championship after losing his points lead the previous week, and he needed four weeks to recover from his injury. The accidents affected his mindset less than you might think.
“It is crazy to actually get back in the car when you break your back as badly as I did in 2009, but I don’t worry about anything,” he said. “I recovered each time, and it didn’t really affect me too badly. It wasn’t a problem.”
More wearing was the mental toll of his oh-so-close brushes with the championship, but that’s not a problem anymore, either. After a “down” year in 2013 when he finished fourth in the standings, he claimed the top spot on the podium last season, securing the title by placing five spots ahead of primary competitor Helio Castroneves at the final race in Fontana, California.
The quest was over, giving him a different feeling entering 2015, where he finished second to Team Penske teammate Juan Pablo Montoya at the opening race in St. Petersburg, Florida.
“It’s just a huge sense of satisfaction,” he said. “I’m relaxed, comfortable, and happy at the same time but still as intense and motivated as ever. This is what I’ve worked for the last 15 years, and I finally pulled it off.”
Fellow driver Tony Kanaan, who bagged his only series championship in 2004, understands Power’s relief.
“How many drivers are never going to win a championship?” Kanaan said. “It doesn’t matter how many years it took. What matters is that you have one in the tank. (Power is) always going to be a championship contender. The guy can pull a lap in qualifying that’s unbelievable, and then in the race he’s still very fast. I don’t see any weaknesses on him.”
A road-course master, Power is one of the favorites to win at Nola Motorsports Park on Sunday. The next big step for him is triumphing at the Indianapolis 500, easily the marquee event on the IndyCar circuit.
Oval tracks used to be his Kryptonite. He had no experience on them until he came to the U.S. His best result in seven tries at the Indianapolis 500 was fifth place in 2009, but he won Milwaukee on an oval last season and said he has learned to love them.
Ever the competitor, he pointed out some bad luck contributed to his disappointing results in Indianapolis. In 2009, he thought he was in position to win going into the last pit stop when he dropped a wheel nut and lost any chance.
In 2010, he was leading going into the first pit stop when a hose mishap forced him back into the pack.
With a little better fortune, he anticipates a different outcome.
“Winning the (Indy) 500 is my number one goal,” he said. “I’m definitely thinking about it a lot more this year. After you win a championship, you really start focusing on the 500. It is time to get it right. It is.”
At age 34, Power is in the prime of his career, and his team, Penske, took four of the top five spots in St. Petersburg. An electric drum aficionado in his spare time, he has everything in place to continue beating the IndyCar field.
“I’m not any faster than I was before, but I’m just way more complete and way more understanding,” he said. “I know when to (go full out) and am smarter about it. There’s a lot more information in my computer — my computer being my head.”