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Howard's Hustle Pays Off with Fast Return To Indy after Six-Year Wait

There were too many moments of despair in the past six years, when Jay Howard was forced to confront his greatest fear.

Maybe he wasn’t destined to return to the Indianapolis 500.

His wife, Courtney, refused to let him give up. They were married in 2011, five months after Howard drove in his only Indy 500.

It would have been too easy to accept a series of setbacks and just fade into obscurity. But Howard, a 36-year-old from Great Britain, personifies determination.

“This is my first love,” Howard said on his first day back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last week. “I just didn’t want to give up on the dream.”

Because of what he endured to persevere, it’s fair to say nobody cares more than Howard about being in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on Sunday, May 28.

His path of pitfalls began in 2008, when he passed the Rookie Orientation Program but was replaced by John Andretti. In 2010, Howard’s qualifying time was withdrawn, and he was unable to find the speed to requalify. In 2012, his team was unable to secure an engine lease. Then two years ago, after an Indy 500 ride was announced with Bryan Herta Autosport, the sponsor withdrew.

“There were times where I was like, ‘Is this worth all the heartache after getting so close every year?’” Howard said. “I just couldn’t let it go. I just have such a love for this place and what it’s all about, the event.”

Worth it? Fast forward to Thursday, when Howard couldn’t have been more ecstatic. His No. 77 Lucas Oil/Team One Cure Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda had the top practice speed of 226.744 mph.

“This is kind of like a fairy tale,” he said, blinking in disbelief.

This wasn’t just a decent practice lap with a strong tow. He had worked too hard for too long to get here.

“This is like a dream right now,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m going to wake up tomorrow, and it’s all gone.

“I still can’t believe we’re on top of the charts. It feels good.”

Howard’s previous “500” was a joint Rahal Letterman Lanigan/Sam Schmidt Motorsports entry. He qualified 20th, ran as high as seventh but finished 30th after encountering a tire issue and crashing out after 60 laps in Turn 1.

Because Howard won a 2006 Indy Lights title with Schmidt, he kept in touch with the Verizon IndyCar Series owner. Each year, they would discuss potential opportunities. Each time, the dream seemed farther away. But Courtney would continually remind him to keep the faith.

“She’s been such a major part in helping me get back here,” he said. “She believed in me.”

Schmidt never gave up on Howard, either.

“Jay is one of those drivers I categorize as he definitely gets an ‘A’ for effort,” Schmidt said. “He never gives up. He’s constantly working the deal. Some people think all it takes is a little bit of talent to get to this place. The rest of us know it takes a hell of a lot of hard work. If you aren’t blessed with a family with a seven-digit estate, you’ve got to go out and work this thing.

“He’s never stopped. He’s tried working on deals every year. I know what that’s like. It’s what I had to do to get here. You always encourage, and you always try to help. After so many solid years of trying, he was finally able to put together a deal. I’m glad to have him.”

If anyone can relate to not giving up on a dream, it’s Schmidt. His driving career ended in 2000, when he was paralyzed from the neck down in a test crash. A year later, he was involved in the series as a team owner for five drivers at different races. He’s backed an Indy 500 car every year since 2001. Two of those cars have won the pole, Alex Tagliani in 2011 and James Hinchcliffe last year.

“I live it every day,” Schmidt said. “I’ve got a reason to get up and go through the process. That’s why we are here.”

Howard’s return became even more special with two-time Brickyard 400 winner and three-time NASCAR series champion Tony Stewart as a sponsor.

“He comes in the garage, I should give him my race suit and helmet and let him take it for a spin,” Howard said of Hoosier hero Stewart. “We’ll see if we can slide him out.”

Stewart just happened to be visiting for Thursday’s practice session. Howard suggested his good-luck charm needs to stick around.

“I’m going to chain him up in the garage,” Howard said of “Smoke.” “He ain’t going nowhere.”

If anyone can recognize the passion in a racer, it’s Stewart.

Howard asserts he’s grown a lot since trying to break into the series. In 13 career starts, his best finish was 13th in the 2008 Indy Japan 300 while driving for Roth Racing. In his six years away, he created a Formula 4 team and has concentrated more on helping young drivers. A little more than a year ago, he and Courtney welcomed a son, Hudson.

“I’ve matured, I’m older, I’m married, and I’m a dad,” Howard said, adding that his sizable son looks like he’s more suited to become an Indianapolis Colts lineman than a racer.

Because it’s been awhile since he drove an Indy car, Howard looked to knock off some rust in an April test in St. Louis. He said he needed about 10 laps to go flat out.

As he looks ahead, he also can’t help but think back.

“The first time I drove in the ‘500’ here, it was amazing,” he said. “I remember those three pace laps. The first one, in particular, I said, ‘Let’s have a little look around.’ Normally, you don’t get to kind of take that kind of stuff in. You’re in, you’re out, you’re racing, and you’re busy. You look up in the stands and see all the fans, and it’s unbelievable. There’s no words to describe it. The second and third laps, ‘All right, let’s get on with my job now. Stop focusing on the crowd.’”

Now, finally, he’s on the verge of experiencing that again.

“This place is just as magical as it was the last time I was here,” he said.

Visit IMS.com to purchase tickets for the 101st Indianapolis 500 Presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on Sunday, May 28, and for more information on the complete Month or May schedule at IMS.

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