-- Dan Wheldon was late for the Andretti Green Racing news conference Wednesday, so his three teammates -- Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Bryan Herta -- decided to engage in their favorite pastime: playing a joke on the 25-year-old.
They convinced the conference moderator to pretend like he was concluding the interview session upon Wheldon's arrival, so when Wheldon finally showed up, Franchitti, Kanaan and Herta got up and walked by him out the door.
After they had finished laughing and returned to the dais, Kanaan snatched Wheldon's Gatorade, spat in it, then offered it back to Wheldon with his ever-present grin. Not at all taken aback, Wheldon waved it off. Nothing new.
In the last year, Wheldon's teammates have stolen his rental car keys, made him come to dinner in a suit and tie when they were wearing T-shirts and jeans and stolen the right shoe from each of the four pairs he had in his hotel room. They were going to FedEx those shoes overseas but decided on "something that was much worse," Wheldon said. "But it's disgusting, so I'm not going to say."
At Wednesday's news conference, the foursome laughed, teased each other and described slamming pies into Herta's face during his recent radio interview. "It wasn't an original, but there were some cream pies available, so we took advantage of it," said Franchitti, who later that day repaid a Kanaan prank by hack-sawing through the crossbar of Kanaan's $3,500 bicycle.
The members of the Andretti Green Racing team seemed more like four wise-cracking teenage brothers than four of the world's top drivers -- three of whom (Wheldon, Franchitti and Kanaan) will start in the first five positions in Sunday's 88th Indianapolis 500.
But that genuine camaraderie, something rare in a highly competitive and egocentric sport, is what makes this unique arrangement successful. No other team at this year's Indy has more than three drivers.
"For whatever reason, we get along," said Herta, who is from California. "I think there's a very good atmosphere in the team because they know we're happy and enjoy what we're doing. And that kind of spreads down through the engineers and the crew guys and everybody."
Franchitti (from Scotland with Italian heritage) and Kanaan (Brazil) have been on the team since it was formed in December of 2002. Wheldon (England) was scheduled to come on full time when Michael Andretti retired after last year's Indy 500, but when Franchitti suffered an injury, Wheldon subbed for him. When Franchitti's injury kept him out longer than expected and Michael Andretti retired, the team brought on Herta, who won his third start with the team and later posted three straight top-three finishes.
"So we get to the end of the year, and Dario's coming back, Bryan's running awesome and we had a surplus of drivers," said Al Larsen, a representative for the team. "So that's when the owners said, 'You know what? We need to make this work.' " Despite being on the business end of most of the practical jokes, Wheldon, last season's rookie of the year, seems to have benefited the most from the team.
"I'm having the time of my life," Wheldon said. "I think the fact that they teach me so much, and they are who they are, because they're bloody good drivers, has sped up my learning curve."
Wheldon ranks first in points heading into Sunday's race after two third-place finishes and his first victory -- at the Japan 300 -- in the first three races of the year. Kanaan, who won in Phoenix in March, ranks second in points, while Herta and Franchitti rank 13th and 14th, respectively.
On Sunday, the foursome will try to win the race that has tormented the family that lends its name to the team. Mario Andretti won the event in 1969, but Michael has the dubious distinction of leading for more laps than any other driver that has not won the race (426 in 14 starts).
When they are strapped into their Dallara Hondas, the jokes will stop.
"You look at Dario right now and he's smiling, but when you get him behind closed doors in an engineering meeting, those guys, I guarantee you, are more serious than any others out there," Wheldon said. "They know how important it is to win."