“As a kid, I grew up every Memorial day with my dad watching the Indy 500 on TV,” said the breathless Mike Goulian in the Media Center after a highly emotional day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I am an open wheel guy… knowing all the names, all the people, all the tradition… I never thought that I would kiss the bricks.”
Only a mere 20 minutes after that statement, the exhausted American pilot sat on the front straightaway of the most iconic racetrack in the world with his hands over his eyes. Were those beads of sweat or tears? Maybe both.
A departure from their regular motorsports programming, IMS has hosted the Red Bull Air Race series for the last couple of seasons. The league boasts eight events across three continents with competitors from around the world. The only two races in North America this year are in Indianapolis, IN and Fort Worth, TX to end the 2018 championship campaign.
All races are run on slalom- style courses set roughly 83 feet above the ground. Outlined by large white and red mesh pylons, the pilots regularly fly over cityscapes, oceanic coasts or in this case – a permanent speedway. Pilots try their hand one by one on the makeshift track in search of the best time. Penalties such as flying too low, too high or even at the wrong angle result in added time.
“They want to go as fast as they can, but they have to fly our rules,” says Head Judge and Race Director Sergio Pla Merino. “There are cameras and sensors all over the plane and we can see it all here (In Race Control.)”
Last year Yoshihide Muroya of Japan won both the race and the championship in one carefully maneuvered swoop. Rain and high winds plagued the pilots on race day and it was a hard fought-battle against difficult weather and dancing pylons.
In thick Midwest humidity, the hangar (paddock) was quiet and laid back race morning this time around. The two days of practice gave no indication as to who was going to end the day on top. The finicky Indiana heat stumped mechanics and pilots alike and many complained of frustrating engines temperaments caused by the wet air.
Preparing their birds for battle, mechanics busied themselves in taping up every possible seam to make their planes that much more aerodynamic.
“I don’t know how much this really helps,” chuckled Goulian’s mechanic, “but I don’t want it to be the reason why we don’t win.” The strategy, no matter how miniscule, seemed to have worked.
Mike Goulian was one of the first to take flight in the final round of the day. Set up elimination style, pilots are pitted against each other in seven heats. The fastest of the pair moves on to the next round as well as the ‘fastest loser’ of the initial phase. The field is paired to eight pilots, then down to a final four.
“We knew that if I flew cleanly in the round of eight, we could pull it off,” explained Goulian after the fact. “Pablo, my mechanic stuck his head in the cockpit just before I went out and told me ‘don’t go crazy, just be good.’”
Goulian and team waited in painful anticipation as the three other finalists took their shot at the win. In a particularly tense moment, Canadian, Pete McCleod cut loose with a wicked fast lap, but couldn’t knock Goulian off the top spot. “It is difficult to sit there and watch guys like Pete try to hunt you down,” grinned Goulian.
It had been ten years since an American had won on American soil in this series. Veteran Kirby Chambliss was the last to do it in Detroit in 2008. Upon hearing this, Goulian was hit with another wave of sentimental realization.
“The emotion of one of these days is so high and so low and so high again. My legs almost gave out underneath me there when I found out that we won. It’s special for your family and for you to know that hey- (my team) today just completed a little history in a place that wreaks of history.”