Ithe Brickyard:/I Bliss Hoping To Put It All Together At Indy
August 2, 2000 | 12:00 A.M. EST
If it's early August, it must be Indianapolis. It's been that way for Mike Bliss for years.
Bliss has spent plenty of past summers in town, running any number of open-wheel cars at Indianapolis Raceway Park. And he's also run there in the NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series and the Busch Series. Having won the USAC Silver Crown championship back in 1993, he's proven in any variety of vehicle that he knows his way around Indianapolis.
Now he gets to show what he can do at the big track in town: Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Winston Cup rookie will be racing there for the first time this week, in the Viagra-sponsored Eel River Racing Pontiac.
As has been the case all year, it will be another in what seems like a never-ending series of adjustments for the 35-year-old Milwaukie, Ore., native. In all, it's been a bit more than Bliss expected after winning seven times in five years in the truck series.
"It does burst your bubble a little bit when you do come over here from another series that you're used to running. We come here and you're worried more about getting in the race than maybe racing," said Bliss, who opened the year with A.J. Foyt's team before being released and quickly hired by Barry Dodson. "Getting in the race is real tough."
It will be a battle for teams simply to make the race at Indy, as well. Bliss' team is one of five out of provisionals, meaning he has to be in the top 36 after Friday's second round of qualifying. He'd like to go there worrying about race setups, but that's just not possible until after a starting spot has been secured.
Bliss says he sees things getting better as far as qualifying is concerned, whether because of what he's learning or what the team's gaining as time goes by.
"Maybe it's just me trying (to learn) to run one lap, and we go out and do it in practice for two hours," he said. "You're running one lap at a time, one lap at a time and you're trying to adjust. Everything is just an adjustment. In the trucks you worry about the race setup the whole time you're there in practice. Here you worry about qualifying.
"Then when you get in the race you've only got an hour to work on race setup. We've never tested some of these tracks and I've never been there, so it's hard to adapt right away. Not knowing what happens to a track during the race -- if it tightens up, loosens up -- that's a big adjustment. You've just got to really keep your head and just say, 'I've won races before. I know I can do it.' It's not going to happen overnight, but you've got to be confident and just keep yourself up because you can really get yourself down and it'll pull you down pretty hard."
Bliss was especially hard on himself early in the year, when he failed to qualify for three races in a row with Foyt's team. But when veteran Rick Mast also had a hard time making the show after taking over the ride, it was evident Bliss was in a no-win situation to open the season.
Foyt's team was starting from scratch and the owner eventually changed the team manager and crew chief in addition to the driver. Only recently has that team begun showing the potential Foyt thought was there when he released Bliss.
Dodson was quick to hire a driver who almost came to work for him last year. But when Eel River was without a sponsor, Bliss opted to go with Foyt, who had a sponsor in place.
Bliss and Dodson were a successful combination in the truck series, so Dodson knows the talent is there. He also knows it's going to take time for Bliss to come into his own at
"Mike has pretty much matured," Dodson said. "I think he has to mature a different way in Winston Cup cars. He has to have a new respect for them. He's been the type of kid to get in anything and drive it. This has been his biggest challenge and we've had to sometimes slow down to be better."
It doesn't make sense on the surface, but more often than not, it's true that drivers go faster by slowing down. Just as a pitcher throws harder by easing up on his delivery, a driver finds speed by relaxing behind the wheel. Dodson said it's happened on more than one occasion with Bliss.
The team struggled in first-round qualifying at Michigan and Sears Point, then easily made the show in the second round, running times what would have been good enough for the first round less than 24 hours earlier.
"We came back and were two seconds quicker (at Sears Point), just from going home, talking about what we did -- not touching the race car, but just coming back and running it again the next day. That is maturity that he's still gaining and learning."
Having run a number of shorter tracks in the truck series, Bliss has quickly adapted to some of the circuits Winston Cup visits. Dodson, though, knows there's still room for improvement -- especially where tracks 1.5 miles and longer are concerned. But if their second visit to Pocono is any indication, improvement will be evident as the year winds down.
Bliss said seeing tracks a second time will be a huge benefit.
"We went back (to Pocono) with what we thought was a better car, everything was better and I knew the track and how I ran in the race last time," he said. "We took a better car but we weren't happy with it even. We felt like we were off in some corners, so we're improving every time that we do run. It just takes time to get these things better and learn to see what our Pontiacs like and what I like in a race car.
"Our motors are getting better, but we just don't have the resources that we can go to like the other teams to find out what we need to do. We've just got to learn it ourselves. Now going back a second time I know what to expect. I have my own notes in my head with what happens to this track during the race."
Bliss, though, will only have a test session to fall back on at the Brickyard, so he knows things won't be easy. Often a dominant truck the past five years, adjusting to the competitiveness throughout the field in Winston Cup hasn't always been easy.
"I never thought it would be this tough. You've got to be pretty dang close when you roll off the trailer for qualifying," he said. "You don't have a lot of time and laps to g