By Kirby Arnold, Staff Writer
INDIANAPOLIS – Inside the garage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, nearly a dozen engineers and mechanics hovered over a project that looked like a complex erector set and hardly the sleek race car it would become. Nearby, body panels lay in the Indiana sun – an engine cover here and sidepods there, with the undertray and wings not far away.
Incomplete as it was, Don Cusick and his wife Carolyn stood outside admiring the creation like it was the most gorgeous newborn ever.
“I get a tear in my eye every time I step onto this property,” said Don Cusick, a southern California entrepreneur and owner of the Cusick Motorsports entry that Stefan Wilson will drive in the May 29 Indianapolis 500. “Carol is a golfer, so for her this is like Augusta. You get these goosebumps and a special feeling that’s really hard to describe. It’s emotional. You can feel all the history, and it touches your heart.”
It will be Cusick’s second go-round in the 500, this time in a partnership with DragonSpeed, led by team principal Elton Julian. Cusick combined with Andretti Autosport for the car Wilson drove last year to a 33rd-place finish after a pit-lane crash.
This year’s entry wasn’t certain a month ago.
Cusick and DragonSpeed were committed in their partnership, but the quest to secure a chassis and engine didn’t yield anything concrete until they landed a car from A.J. Foyt Racing and power from Chevrolet.
The entry was announced May 5.
Practice for the May 29 race begins on Tuesday, and it will have taken some serious thrashing to get the No. 25 car on the track.
Tatiana Calderon drove that car to 15th place in the GMR Grand Prix on a rainy Saturday on the IMS road course, where she drove a clean race in wet conditions that caused several spins and accidents. Neither Cusick nor Julian were in Indianapolis that day, but both watched nervously on TV, knowing their Indy 500 car was one mishap away from creating some major work to get it ready.
“We were sweating,” said Julian, whose IMSA sports car team was at Mid-Ohio, where they won the LMP2 class Sunday at the Lexus Grand Prix. “Tatiana did brilliantly. It’s probably her best performance of the year and it shows that she has the European experience as well because the track suited her. I was really proud of her.”
What few people knew is that Julian also watched anxiously two weeks earlier as Calderon drove in the Honda IndyCar Grand Prix of Alabama, knowing the Indy 500 deal already had come together although it wasn’t announced until later that week.
“I had a couple of race weekends where I’d been very attentive of how she was getting on,” Julian said.
On Monday, the DragonSpeed crew worked smoothly to convert the car from road course setup to the high speed oval, showing no hint of the long hours they’d already worked getting to this point.
“Elton and DragonSpeed were at Mid-Ohio winning their race Sunday, and they drove through the night to get here to convert this car,” Cusick said. “They worked through the night. Hats off to them; these are real hardcore race guys.”
Julian downplayed the long hours and overnight work, saying, “We kept parachuting in, but now everybody is here and it’s normal.”
He said it like it’s not a big deal, yet it is. This is the Indy 500.
“It is,” he said. “But when you have a job in front of you, you lose sight of all that. You focus on what you have to do and take it step by step. The Foyt guys have been incredibly helpful.”
DragonSpeed personnel worked with the Foyt team last week to get familiar with the car and build some pieces that would be installed after the road course race.
“And after the (Saturday) race, the Foyt guys covered for us on Sunday morning – put the new motor in and started bolting on some of the bits that had been put together back at the shop.”
Will they be ready when the green flag falls for the beginning of Indy 500 practice Tuesday? Julian wasn’t certain.
“Let’s hope so,” he said. “But while it looks very complete, there’s a lot of little looms and pieces that are still coming in. There’s a lot of new components going on the car, and it’s not like you can go to Wal-Mart and just get everything. We’re waiting for boxes, but there’s stuff that is out of our control that could potentially push us back. We have a couple of guys standing around right now, but their parts aren’t here now. But that’s par for the course in racing right now.”
Cusick, meanwhile, is soaking in the experience, challenges and all.
“This is the second time I’ve been here,” he said. “The first time, I think I was so totally overwhelmed by all of it that it didn’t really sink in. This time it’s like, OK, I have a little bit more of an expectation about what’s going to happen. But I still have that butterfly-in-my-stomach feeling. It’s pretty cool.”
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