Sunday, July 5, 2009

Great Day at the Watkins Glen

Yesterday was race day at Watkins Glen. After qualifying 5th on Friday, I was really excited about the race. I knew we had a decent car and a solid chance for the best result of the year. We also had the chance to improve the car in a half hour morning practice session. After qualifying, we were reasonably happy with the car, but had some changes that we wanted to make. We had originally planned to make the changes to the car in the first practice session but because of a broken battery, we weren’t able to. There is another short anecdote about the battery story at the end of this blog.

So, we had decided on the changes we were going to be making in practice and had a good idea of what we needed to do with the car to prepare for the race. With the race being 30 laps (100 miles) long, there was going to be more fuel in the car than at any other time during the weekend. The practice went very well because the car was pretty good to start with and I was within the top 4 times the whole time. Then with a couple of laps left, I set the fastest time of the practice. That time was only .5 of a second slower than I qualified and I had a full load of fuel on board! It was very encouraging heading into the race. It also made me wonder how much better we could have qualified if we could have made the changes to the car during Friday morning’s practice.

The race began in almost ideal conditions- high 60’s, a bit breezy (gusting up to 15 miles an hour) and only a few clouds in the sky. Starting 5th, I had the inside line headed into turn 1. I had hoped to box the outside line of cars out and pick up a couple of spots. Unfortunately, I didn’t get as good a jump as the outside row and got shuffled back into 6th. As the race settled down and the pace picked up, I knew I had a good race car as I could close the gap to the cars in front of me without a lot of trouble. However, once I got into the ‘dirty’ air behind the group, I couldn’t keep the pace up to pass them. I was running a solid race in sixth, with the lead group, pulling away from the rest of the field for the first 12 laps or so. Then, headed down into turn 6 (a downhill 3rd gear right hander without a lot of run-off area), James Hinchcliffe spun out of 4th place and backed into the wall. There was a full course yellow while the safety team cleared his crashed car out of the way. On the restart, I held my position and settled back into the rhythm of the race. Then on lap 24 (out of 30) I made a small mistake and dropped behind the group of James Davison (2nd place), Sebastian Saavedra (3rd place) and Felipe Guimares (4th place) by about 10 car lengths. I put my head down and closed the gap back to them, setting a time that would be the second fastest race lap and only .1 off of my qualifying time. Then with 3 to go, a yellow flag flew for the crashed car of Wade Cunningham into the tires at turn 11. I knew that there was going to be a one lap dash for the checkered flag and any chance of 4th place (or higher) would happen on the ensuing restart. I didn’t get the best restart and watched as Guimares passed Saavedra into turn 1. I closed up as much as I could while keeping my teammate for this race, Richard Phillipe, behind me. Then on the exit of turn 6, Saavedra dropped two wheels in the dirt on the exit compromising his run into turn 7. I managed to squeeze a nose under him on the entry, forcing him to run a wide slower line on the exit. It became a drag race up the hill out of turn 7 towards turn 8 with me on the inside. Saavedra missed a shift allowing me to pull alongside, wheel to wheel. In a last desperate effort to keep me from passing him, Saavedra jerked across to the right, making contact wheel to wheel. I kept my foot in the throttle and outbraked him into turn 8. I held the car (not knowing if there was any damage from the contact) through the last 3 corners and came across the line in 4th place! It was a great result for the team as a whole because Phillipe finished in 5th (after Saavedra was handed a penalty for the blocking/ contact move). The points from the top-5 finish move me solidly into the top-10 in points and within striking distance of the top 6 or 7. With the next five racetracks either being road courses or ovals I have driven, I am confident I can continue this strong of good results. Going back to Milwaukee, I now have 3 top-10’s in a row and can’t wait for next weekend’s race in Toronto. It is a street race, a la Long Beach, and looks like just as much fun.

Speaking of Canada, after the battery problem in first practice, the team borrowed a used battery from another Indy Lights team for the qualifying session. A special thanks to them is definitely in order (except I am not sure which team’s battery we ended up using! 3 teams lent us their spares to run). And since, with it being a holiday in the US (4th of July and all) the closest place that had the specific battery we needed was in Hamilton, Ontario….Canada. The drive from Watkins Glen to Hamilton is about 4 and 1/2 hours, plus any wait time at the border. Since the team had all their personnel committed to getting the cars ready for qualifying and the race the next day, my dad jumped in the rental car equipped with a GPS and headed off! He made the trip, sat for an hour and a half at the border control, got the battery shop to wait an hour and half for him to get there, got two batteries and got back to the Glen before midnight Friday night. He then got up early to give them to the team so that the mechanics could fit the new battery for the Saturday morning practice! It was a big effort and it helped to remove one of those niggling worries in the back of my mind when the race started. So firstly, thanks to my dad for making the round trip and then thanks to the battery shop in Hamilton for staying there and having the batteries in stock.

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