ThatsRacin

In 2008, Will Power didn’t have a ride. He’s now the first N.C.-based Indy 500 winner.

Indy 500 winner Will Power brings Borg-Warner Trophy to Charlotte

Will Power, the 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner, brought the Borg-Warner Trophy, awarded each year to the race's winner, to uptown's Romare Bearden Park in June.
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Will Power, the 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner, brought the Borg-Warner Trophy, awarded each year to the race's winner, to uptown's Romare Bearden Park in June.

For the past 10 years, the pictures have sat on Will Power’s nightstand in a double frame.

On one side is the Astor Cup. On the other, the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Together, these two honors represent the pinnacle of IndyCar racing. The Astor Cup is a symbol of sustained success, awarded annually to IndyCar’s series champion. The Borg-Warner Trophy goes to the winner of the Indianapolis 500, the sport’s iconic race held every Memorial Day weekend.

Power has spent the past decade trying to win both of them. He finished second in total points for three consecutive seasons before finally winning the series championship — and an Astor — in 2014.

As for the Borg-Warner? Well, that’s why Power was in Charlotte, strolling through Romare Bearden Park in late June. He won the first Indy 500 of his career on May 27. It was a relief like no other for a driver who, at 37, has achieved virtually everything else.

Behind him, two Team Penske employees rolled the Borg-Warner — over 5 feet tall, 110 pounds and silver — toward the park fountains for a photo shoot. Power watched them, then began to reflect.

Power headshot
Will Power finally added an Indy 500 win to his impressive IndyCar career in May — and the work he'd put in for years beforehand made it that much sweeter. Reed Klass rklass@charlotteobserver.com

His victory was historic in other ways, too. He became the first driver living in North Carolina to win the Indy 500, as well as the first Australian-born driver to do so. He’s tied for eighth in IndyCar history with 34 career victories.

But Power’s path wasn’t a standard one. There were tough decisions, Christmases when he didn’t know what the next year held.

Liz Power, his wife, felt the pressure, too. They did it together — no, made it together.

That’s why the pictures of the Astor Cup and Borg-Warner Trophy are still by the bed, even though he’s now won both of them. They are a reminder of where they were, and where they now are.

Says Will: “When you think about where it started, and the situation I was in before …”

Then he trails off briefly, which makes sense because there’s a lot to talk about.

‘Worst-kept secret’

They both remember that day in 2006 vividly.

At the Walker Racing shops in Indianapolis, Liz Cannon was walking down a second-floor hallway with Derrick Walker, the team owner. She had sent out her resume and cover letter to some teams in the area, hoping to get a job in public relations. Walker had called back, so they met for a job interview.

One side of the hallway was nothing but windows that offered a full view of the garage below.

“I remember standing next to Derrick and looking out,” Liz said, “and Derrick saying, ‘That’s the driver. Don’t get any ideas.’”

On the first floor stood Will Power, talking to his engineer. He was preparing for his first year with Walker Racing, after spending the previous three in England and most of his life in Toowoomba, Australia. His hair was also shoulder length, a stark contrast from the tight crew cut he keeps nowadays.

“I remember the day she interviewed,” he said. “I actually was down in the shop. I was just starting and saw this blonde girl walk across.”

A post shared by Will Power (@12willpower) on

Liz got the job. Both she and Will knew about the rule at Walker Racing: drivers and PR people could not date each other. They became close friends, then started to date anyway, about halfway through the 2006 season.

“We were the worst-kept secret,” Liz said. “We thought we were being really sly, but apparently we weren’t. Everybody knew.”

The one person who didn’t figure it out? Walker. It wasn’t until the last race of the Champ Car World Series that year, in Mexico City, that he learned what was going on.

But Will finished third in the race — his best performance that season. And Walker made an exception.

For the next two years, Will and Liz were rarely apart. Then, ahead of the 2008 season, the Champ Car World Series merged with the Indy Racing League, creating the IndyCar Series of today.

Amid the change, Walker Racing lost Aussie Vineyards, its sponsor for Will’s car. He didn’t have a ride.

‘Couldn’t believe it’

Will was looking to break into the new unified IndyCar Series however he could. So when KV Racing Technology offered him a car, he couldn’t say no. Liz, however, was in limbo.

Walker had become a father figure to her, and gave her a chance in the world of racing PR. She was too loyal to leave.

So, during the 2008 season, Will and Liz worked separately — Will in the IndyCar Series, and Liz in a lower-level Atlantic series.

“That was a hard year for us, because you’re just kind of transitioning from what you’re used to,” Liz said. “It was a learning year — it was a trying year for our relationship, but it made us stronger, too.”

That fall, Will was once again looking for a ride.

When Helio Castroneves, a driver with Team Penske, was indicted on federal tax evasion charges that October, a spot opened up. Power interviewed with the team as a candidate to fill in for Castroneves, but he didn’t hear back for weeks.

By December, Will had given up on IndyCar racing for the next season. He’d booked a flight back to Australia and had a tentative spot in a low-level racing series arranged there.

The night before the flight, everything changed.

“It was kind of like, ‘Well, we’re going back to Australia. That’s it,’” Will said. “And (then) I’ve got a phone call. Hmm, that’s interesting. My wife was asleep on the couch, and I answer.”

A familiar voice boomed back at him: “Will, it’s Roger Penske.”

Powers and Penske
Roger Penske gave Will Power the IndyCar chance he needed in 2008. With his Indy 500 victory, Power has now won 31 races for Penske — the most of any driver in team history. A.J. Mast AP Photo

By this point, Liz was half-awake. When she heard Will assure Penske he wouldn’t let him down, she popped up in excitement. Will was going to temporarily replace Castroneves.

It was a part-time job, but he had his ride — the best Christmas present ever, she said. Will stayed calm on the phone, but once he hung up, he and Liz were jumping up and down.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “Amazing. I’ll never forget that phone call.”

‘Complete relief’

On the day of this year’s Indy 500, Liz woke up excited.

That was weird. She was never excited ahead of one of Will’s races. She was always nervous. But, for some reason, she found herself celebrating something that hadn’t even happened — her husband winning the trophy that had eluded him.

Since that 2009 call from Penske, a lot had changed. Will joined Team Penske as a full-time driver ahead of the 2010 season, even with Castroneves back.

Will and Liz moved into a Mooresville lake house, and got married in Hawaii later that year — “kind of like a middle ground between Australia and America,” Will said. Liz stayed in PR through 2012, then left so she could do more for her husband and the Penske team.

At Indianapolis in late May, something else was about to change.

Will started third, led for 59 laps during the three-hour race and took the lead for good with four laps to go. Liz had been watching the whole race from the pit, chewing on a water bottle to calm herself. She fell to her knees when Will crossed the finish line.

He took a victory lap in his Chevrolet, screaming in pure joy to nobody but himself.

There weren’t many words as Will hugged his wife and 18-month-old son, Beau, in Victory Lane — just a lot of smiles. He took a swig of milk, customary for the Indy 500 winner, even though his usual diet cuts out dairy. He kept screaming, even though he had little voice left.

“It was relief,” Liz said. “Complete relief. Really, just amazing.”

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At Romare Bearden Park, Will calls the victory a box he needed to check, and a final answer to years of questions about why he hadn’t won yet.

As for the trophies, they’ll remain framed by his bed — a lasting symbol of what he wanted to achieve, and what he finally did.

“I have to say, the way I made it in racing was a lot of hard work and heartbreak and wondering what was going to happen,” he said. “And it paid off.”

Chapel Fowler: 704-358-5612; @chapelfowler
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