Today has been a very long day at the office. It is going on 18 hours up and working!
The day started with a driver's meeting at 7:45 and then practice at 8:15. I had to spend quite a few laps getting up to speed and learning the track. Having never been here before, it is an intense experience early on. It is 7/8 of a mile with some big banking and so flat out, you do a lap in just over 20 seconds. The laps add up fast when they are that short! And you spend almost the whole lap turning so you can get a bit dizzy. The car was pretty good right away though and we ended the first practice 4th quickest. The hardest part about the track is a very big bump between turns 1 and 2. The asphalt has settled where the tunnel under the track is and left a nasty bump right at the apex.
Second practice the day had heated up dramatically. In the first session, the air was about 72 but in the second it was closer to 83 and very high humidity. We ran more laps and did a qualifying simulation. I encountered traffic on my quicker laps and so we were only 5th in our half of the field, about 8 or 9th overall.
Next up was qualifying. I had drawn the 4th spot to go out and qualify. I had a good couple of laps and didn't have issues getting the car started or anything dramatic. We missed the set up and the aerodynamic balance by a little bit. I ended up 8th on the grid of 18 cars. I was reasonably happy as a lot of the other drivers were really pushing hard in qualifying and taking bigger risks. There was no better example than James Davison driving for Vision Racing- he set a track record for his first lap and the proceeded to spin down and across the grass on the exit of turn 4 on his second lap! He managed to not hit anything, but that was down a lot to luck.
So our race was scheduled to run at 8PM and finish by about 8:45. There were rumors running rampant in the paddock that the whole evening had been canceled because of moisture 'weeping' up through the track. The series decided to cancel the Indy Car qualifying and focus and doing what they could to get the track dry for our race. They were also trying to run us early (7:15) because there was a band of rain headed towards the track. It took them a lot longer than expected to get the track ready and it wasn't until about 9PM when we finally rolled off for the start.
Before the green flag, one of the other cars pulled into the pits with a problem. On the start, I made a solid move on the outside of Pippa Mann to move up to 6th. After a few laps of green flag running, it went yellow for Pippa, who had spun coming off turn 4. When we went green again, Pippa's teammate Martin Plowman moved past me into turn 1. I was quicker than Martin, but I couldn't quite get close enough to make a pass. Then as we encountered lap traffic, I moved past Martin. I was trying to chase a group down when I encountered Pippa running slow a few laps down. I moved to the inside of her into 3 and she chopped down on me until we hit. We both kept the car going straight, but I lost so much momentum that 3 cars moved past me. I was easily quicker than Davison and Hildebrand ahead of me, but again I couldn't find a way past. Then with 2 laps to go, we encountered a group of lapped cars that included Pippa again. Hildebrand (leading the Davison and then me) went passed Pippa late into 1. Davison tried to stuff it down underneath her very late and aggressively. I could see where this was going and backed off to avoid their crash. Sure enough, Davison slid hard up into Pippa and then both spun up towards the wall. I slid down the inside and picked up 7th place for my efforts.
I truly believe we had the car to fight for the top 5. We may have been running too much downforce, especially as the evening cooled off. If we had raced when it was hotter at about 8, we might have been a little more racey. Still I am very happy with the result and it equals my best finish from St. Pete. We finished on the lead lap with a fast far with 4 straight wheels and decent points.
I am now really excited about heading to the next three races. We go to Watkins Glen in upstate New York July 4th, and then the street race in downtown Toronto, followed by the airport track in Edmonton. I tested at the Glen and love the track- I can't wait to go back there and race!
Now it is time to head back to California and take my dad out to dinner to celebrate Father's Day. Without him, none of my racing would have been possible. He is a constant source of inspiration, guidance, wisdom and advice. Thanks and I love you, Dad!