Jay Drake laughs when he hears the question, laughs, shakes his head and smiles.
He's heard the question for almost a year now, but he still doesn't know how to answer it. When talk comes around to his monster 2000 season-and it always does-he is asked how you follow up such an extraordinary year.
He thinks about 2001, and the trials and setbacks he has faced this season, and he laughs again, staring intently at the questioner. His eyes twinkle and he answers.
"I guess I don't," he says honestly, referring to the fact that 2001 has been only, well, good. Not spectacular.
It is an honest assessment, and the perfect answer. It fits the question, it fits the situation, it fits Jay Drake. Honest, laid-back, unassuming and down to earth.
Coming into this season, Drake knew it was going to be difficult to top his 2000 season. He won 26 feature events, giving him a winning percentage of almost 30 percent. He won midget races, he won sprint car races. He won with USAC, and he won with SCRA.
He was a sensation. For a season, he captured the imagination of open wheel fans throughout the country as they pondered a number that seemed to grow each week: 8, 11, 15, 18, 20, 22, and finally, 26.
And then, the season was over. He was honored as the Open Wheel Driver of the Year in the non-winged sprint category, and received numerous other honors.
He had all winter to think about his follow-up. He now says when racing resumed for the 2001 season, he simply didn't know what to expect.
Indianapolis people have seen them roll into town throughout the years, coming in by car or bus or train or plane. They bring a little bit of clothing, their experience and a load of hope and enthusiasm. They have raced elsewhere, and they believe the time has come to move on to the Mecca, which for open wheel racing is usually the west side of Indianapolis.
Drake grew up around racing in California, watching his dad Mike race TQs in California. Drake began racing quarter-midgets when he was 8 years old, and in just a few years you could find his name near the top of the results from TQ and midget events in the area. His dream, however, was to perform on a bigger stage.
He won the 1996 USAC Western midget title, and in 1997 got a break. He was invited to move to Columbus, Indiana, to race Pete Willoughby's midget in USAC competition. Suddenly, the dream was coming true. Suddenly, he had a decision to make.
Looking back, he admits the decision wasn't as easy as some might think.
"I had a really good job at the time, working for a company that remodeled grocery stores," he says. "I did a lot of CAD (computer-aided design) work, and oversaw the shipping and purchasing departments. It was shaping up to be a good career.
"But it wasn't just the job issue that made it a tough decision. The hardest part, I guess, was leaving my family. My son (Nicholas) was about two years old then, and I was going to be moving really, really far away. That was a very hard thing to accept.
"But ever since I was a little boy, I dreamed of making my living as a race driver. And there I was, being presented with that chance. I would have regretted it if I hadn't at least tried it."
So Drake, who is single, moved to Columbus. It was a new life with new surroundings and the beginning of a strong friendship with both Willoughby and his mechanic Keith Kunz.
"At first I stayed with Pete and his wife Jennifer, and lived in their basement," he says. And then he smiles.
"They called me 'the Troll,' because I lived in the basement. They're just great people, and it was a really good period in my life, living there."