INDIANAPOLIS — As Scott Dixon walked away from the public drivers' meeting Saturday morning, he found the waiting arms of 2-year-old daughter Tilly. He picked her up as the crowd surrounded them, then stopped to talk about the demands and pressure on drivers in the final 24 hours before the Indianapolis 500.
"The kids help with that, actually," Dixon told USA TODAY Sports. "They divert your mind a little bit. For me, the biggest part is getting that hour or so of quiet time before the race. The day is eaten up with chaos and mayhem, but when I get a chance to take a break, I take it. I'll sit and read or watch TV to just chill out and get away from it. That's about all you can do."
For much of the on-track activity at Indianapolis Motor Speedway the past three weeks, Dixon has driven back and forth to the track from his Indianapolis home. But Saturday night the three-time and reigning IndyCar champion will stay with his wife, Emma Davies Dixon, and daughters Poppy, 4, and Tilly in a customized motorcoach in the infield.
"It's good to get away from the track for part of it, anyway," Dixon said. "But even when you're staying here at the track, you spend so much time in the engineering truck that it's nice to have the bus to get away from it all."
All 33 drivers in Sunday's Indy 500 encounter varying levels of responsibilities, appearances and social functions in the hours leading up to the race. As Dixon and the other drivers left the Saturday drivers' meeting — a ceremonial introduction of the starting field to fans — they packed into a caravan of buses for the 6-mile ride downtown to take part in the 500 Festival Parade.
One strategy employed by race veterans to alleviate pressure is to embrace the pageantry. It starts long before the race, with Saturday's autograph session, drivers' meeting and parade, then Sunday's responsibilities: pre-race interviews, TV appearances, presentations to sponsors, engineering meetings and other pre-race preparation.
In many ways, the day before the 500 is the fun part, the perfect opportunity to enjoy the tradition and pomp of the race before racing flat out for 500 miles.
"I use today to enjoy the festivities," Tony Kanaan, the defending Indy 500 winner, told USA TODAY Sports. "This is part of the enjoyment of the 500. I won't think about the race until later tonight.
"The best way to approach the night before is to watch a movie and spend time with my wife (Lauren). I just try not to think about it. There's not much you can do. The work has been done. You know what you've got. Good or bad, you know what you've got."
Dario Franchitti, the three-time Indy 500 winner who was forced to retire last year after he suffered a concussion and a broken back and ankle in a crash in Houston, knows the pressure well. He'll drive the pace car Sunday under considerably less stress than he faced at Indy in the past.
"The pressure a driver is under at this race — from the start of the month until the end — is extraordinary," Franchitti said. "It really is. You see these guys, and they all look gaunt, and they can get short-tempered during the month. I certainly did. But the pressure they're under is intense.
"I'm not under that pressure anymore. I went for my pace-car medical yesterday and my blood pressure was considerably lower than it used to be when I raced here. That's not due to lifestyle, trust me."
Some drivers — notably Helio Castroneves — employ a different strategy to de-stress. Instead of living in the bus lot near Gasoline Alley, Castroneves, a three-time 500 winner, prefers the quiet comfort of a downtown hotel with girlfriend Adriana Henao and their 4-year-old daughter, Mikaella.
Kanaan, Castroneves' longtime friend, goes with the stay-put strategy.
"I like to be here, and I think that helps me," Kanaan said. "I would be freaking out thinking about what time I need to be at the track tomorrow. I'd need a police escort to get through all the traffic. That stresses me so much."
Like most people who stay in the infield overnight, Kanaan is awakened on race day by a small explosive device that is detonated on the infield at 6 a.m., signifying the opening of the track for the day.
"I go back to bed after the bomb goes off and then wake up an hour later or so," Kanaan said. "Then I'm ready to go."