His fingers were stained reddish orange and his tongue was burning.
Three hours after crossing under the checkered flag in Monterey, California, on Sunday, newly crowned IndyCar champion Will Power's stomach was empty. Thanks to a quick assist from IndyCar photographer Chris Owens, who volunteered his favorite snack, the Australian was satiated, hastily munching his way through a bag of Flamin' Hot Cheetos in the media center before our interview. Moments later, he was frantically grasping for a bottle of water to douse the fire raging in his mouth.
The comical scene was a perfect encapsulation of IndyCar's most fascinating personality.
Gotta love the new and hungry champ, @12WillPower, who was sorted with flaming hot Cheetos by ace #IndyCar shooter @ChrisOwens500 before our interview. pic.twitter.com/MM6ah8sz4u— Marshall Pruett (@marshallpruett) September 12, 2022
Downright silly outside of the car and frequently overcome with ferocious intensity in it, Power has become one of the sport's most enduring gifts. While most major racing teams go to great lengths to tame their drivers' public personas, his Team Penske handlers surrendered, raising the white flag to that notion many moons ago.
Spend 15 minutes with IndyCar's 2022 champion, and you could get everything from jokes that can never be repeated, existential discussions about alien life, unwavering honesty -- occasionally at his team's expense -- explorations into the inner workings of his mind, reviews of YouTube documentaries he's recently discovered and debates on the world's greatest drummers.
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Power's eccentricities are where the magic is found. His mercurial talent also emanates from that place; his boundless curiosity and extroversion allows Power to stay fresh, continue searching for new limits to surpass with the throttle pedal and steering wheel.
At 41, Power hasn't softened with age. He took delight in humbling his younger teammates and the rest of the 24 full-time drivers who spent eight months and 17 races trying and failing to prevent him from earning his second IndyCar title.
Taken eight years after his first, Power's latest championship is a celebration of his hunger and staying power. It's also a reminder of how far he's come since leaving his hometown of Toowoomba nearly 20 years ago to pursue open-wheel glory. For every racing prodigy such as a Lewis Hamilton or a Jimmie Johnson, there's a Will Power, a guy who was never expected to reach the summit of the sport.
As efforts to ascend to Formula One stalled in Europe, an opportunity in the U.S. emerged toward the end of 2005: Power would represent a group of homespun sponsors through Team Australia in the former Champ Car series. Glimpses of brilliance could be seen in two wins and a handful of poles, but there was nothing to suggest he was ready to become the fastest driver in the series' history.
Out of work following an unremarkable debut in the IndyCar Series in 2008, Power went into the offseason with his career at a crossroads. Thanks to the Internal Revenue Service, his life would be forever changed.
Drafted in as a short-term substitute by Roger Penske while his double Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves was on trial for tax evasion, Power got a shot to drive for IndyCar's best. From six races, Power stood on the podium three times and gave The Captain a win in Canada.
Taking the series by storm, Power turned an unexpected audition into his home of 13 years and counting.
"He just showed us what he had, bang, right out of the box," Penske told ESPN. But it was the next phase of Power's career that is most relevant to the season that just wrapped at legendary Laguna Seca.
Vaulting into a full-time drive for Penske in 2010, Power tore through the series in the next three seasons, amassing 14 wins and 21 poles -- more than any other driver over that span. He also generated more mistakes and crashes than the rest of the championship contenders combined. Three consecutive runner-up finishes in the drivers' standings spoke to his feast-or-famine approach to racing.
Power lost to Chip Ganassi Racing's Dario Franchitti in 2010 and 2011 as the Scot used a careful strategy of consistency to render Power helpless by the end of each season. Franchitti won when possible, accepted defeat when it wasn't, and watched as his points lead over Power became insurmountable. Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay applied the same formula in 2012 and was duly crowned.
Intentional or not, there was too much Ricky Bobby in Power. If he wasn't first, he'd often try a risky move or push his car too hard and end up somewhere close to last -- as the "Talladega Nights" character says, "If you ain't first, you're last."
The flaw in Power's approach was further reinforced when Castroneves supplanted him as Penske's best driver in 2013. Power reached victory lane three times while Castroneves had a solitary win to his credit, but it was the Brazilian's efficient scoring at the other rounds -- just like Franchitti and Hunter-Reay previously -- that mattered. Placing fourth in the championship, two spots behind Castroneves, was the long-awaited wakeup call Power needed.
Embracing the points-first formula that had been wielded to such great effect against him, Power returned with a different look in 2014. He'd capture three wins and four poles, but that wasn't the important part: Power made peace with finishing second or third or fourth and ran away to clinch his first title by a wide margin over Castroneves.
The code had finally been cracked and it seemed certain that Power would be unstoppable, marching to two or three more championships in succession. That didn't happen.
His fleeting grasp of the formula gave way to untimely errors, crashes, mechanical failures and general misfortune from 2015 through 2020. Even worse, new teammates Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden won three championships for Penske during that stretch as Power fluctuated from second to fifth in the standings.
The misery reached its crescendo in 2021 as Power earned a single win and pole and placed ninth in the championship -- the worst season in his then-12-year Penske career. Watching a 24-year-old IndyCar sophomore from Spain by the name of Alex Palou romp to the title reminded Power of what needed to be done if he wanted to avoid spending the rest of his days as a one-and-done champion.
"That sounds surreal."— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) September 13, 2022
Listen to the radio communication from @Team_Penske as @12WillPower secured the championship at @WeatherTechRcwy.#INDYCAR // #FirestoneGP pic.twitter.com/mOsvwo37UW
"In '21, I just thought when I watched Palou win that championship, 'You've just got to accept you're not gonna win every race, you're not gonna get every pole, and not dwell on it,'" Power said. "And that is a significant change for me. It actually made me a happier person."
Dedicating himself to consistently scoring points worked wonders for Power in 2014, and for whatever reason, Palou triggered a return to that mindset Power lost in the intervening years. A quick glance at his body of work in 2022 reads like an homage to Castroneves -- now a four-time Indy 500 winner -- with one win and a remarkable nine podiums to his credit.
"This year was way more consistent than '14, actually," Power said with pride.
He also snared five pole positions, with the fifth coming in Monterey, where he broke a tie with the GOAT, Mario Andretti, and moved into first place on IndyCar's all-time pole record with 68. Fast as ever, with the smarts and championship accolades to prove it, an old rival stopped to give Power his flowers after the Sunday race.
"Dario [Franchitti] said to me, 'You're doing to the young guys what I was doing to you,'" Power continued. "The good thing is I've still got the speed, still able to get poles, still able to be extremely fast. We've added the consistency in there, which is a great combination.
"I still have to dig deep these days. That's the thing you lose. You get older, you lose a little bit of that fire in the belly. That's the thing that can make you slow. That's the thing you've got to dig deep to keep. But maybe just getting older has just toned me down a bit."
The last note from Power might be the key to everything he just achieved.
Spending all those years trying to reacquire the winning mindset from 2014 led to frustrating and fruitless pursuits. Rather than continue the fight to rediscover what he once was, Power, now one of IndyCar's most senior drivers, has accepted who he's become -- and that's good enough to be a two-time champion.
"It's just been something that evolves over a long time," he said. "And that's exactly where I am right now through all those experiences. If you don't learn from them, you'll never get better. You just won't. There's been drivers who spent their whole careers crashing, and it blows your mind, they never learned not to.
"They've never reflected on, 'What is the area in my mind that I get into where I can't back off?' And that is something that happens. You feel it in yourself at times. Like, 'Why did I do that?' You must reflect and then go back to the [right] mindset. I've have enough of those situations."
Longing for celebratory beers with his Team Penske pit crew, Power finished his bag of Cheetos and put his newfound status as an older and wiser champion in terms that would make musician Dave Grohl proud.
"It's tremendously satisfying," he said. "Definitely not as big of a relief I would say in '14, where I hadn't won one yet, but it's funny. You get older and you're just enjoying the journey way more. You just enjoy the whole process of what you did, enjoy the racing, and that's the fun part of it. And what came out of it was the championship. I'm not sitting here elated.
"I'm just extremely satisfied, worked hard at something and extracted the most out of it and left nothing on the table all year, extracted the most out of every race. It's like drumming when you learn a song and you really nail it. It's just the craft. The craft is what I love."