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St. Pete residents ready for boom of Indy 500

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Published:   |   Updated: May 22, 2013 at 12:27 PM
TAMPA -

Both men were born in France. Both live in St. Petersburg. This Sunday, they'll wake up in the middle of America.

“You hear that cannon,” Sébastien Bourdais said.

“The boom,” Tristan Vautier.

As in the past, an explosive will sound the opening of the gates at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, just another tradition in a place made of them.

Jim Nabors will still sing “Back Home Again in Indiana.” There will still be milk for the winner. And there will be nearly half a million people there. Men and machines will fly between the front straightaway grandstands, that canyon of humanity. They will go for 500 miles, or try.

“You kind of feel like a gladiator on that particular day,” Bourdais said. “The buildup, the number of people there, you're surrounded left and right. Emotionally, it's very loading. There's nothing like it anywhere.”

Bourdais will start his third Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, driving the No. 7 car for Dragon Racing. Vautier, a 500 rookie, will be in the No. 55 for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

They were in Tampa on Monday, a media tour, Indy drivers fanning out across the nation to hawk the race. Bourdais and Vautier, two good drivers, two very good sports, returned home.

And home this really is.

Bourdais, 34, was born in Le Mans, France, home of the famed endurance race, but he fell in love with this area after racing here in 2003. His wife graduated from South Florida. They built a home in St. Petersburg and live there with their two children. Vautier, 23, moved here three years ago and owns an apartment in downtown St. Pete.

“Fourth Avenue South, right near the Publix,” he said. “I love the Publix.”

“The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” has lost some shine, but it remains certifiable Americana.

Take it from two Frenchmen who wouldn't know Jim Nabors if he Gomer Pyled into their rear fenders. But they know a spectacle when they see and feel one.

“There's nothing like this,” said Bourdais, who has driven all over the planet, including at Le Mans and in this weekend's other signature race, the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Monaco. Bourdais grinned. “You couldn't fit (half a million) people in all of Monaco.”

“Monaco is more of a more snobbish event, jet set,” Vautier said. “Indianapolis is for the regular people.”

Bourdais, a four-time champion in the Champ Car series, is still trying to win a race in the IndyCar Series. Vautier has won championships on lower racing rungs and earned a scholarship to take a 2013 shot in the IndyCar Series.

“I'm going for it,” he said.

Sunday is gladiator day. They'll be going 230 mph down a straightaway and head into a turn knowing that if the wrong thing happens at the wrong time around the wrong people, well, anything can happen.

“When you're in the middle of the pack and your tires start to go, it's pretty sketchy,” Bourdais said. “It's not very forgiving. You're just hanging on sometimes. The fans don't see it. You can't even really explain it.”

Bourdais took it nice and easy on the way to the 500. He drove to Indianapolis in a recently purchased motor home.

“It was actually a very nice drive,” he said. “Atlanta, Nashville, very nice.”

“I drove to Indianapolis one year,” Vautier said. “I went through, what's the name of the city, Choo Choo?”

Chattanooga?

“Yes. It was very nice.”

Sunday, the middle of America will again be the center of the racing world. Sébastien Bourdais and Tristan Vautier will be on the starting grid. Think of them while you're in beach traffic. In the middle of America, the speedway opens early. Everyone will hear the boom. There's nothing like it anywhere.

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