Yesterday was a very busy day for me at the Chicagoland Speedway. The Firestone Indy Lights had everything on one day (kind of like Iowa- but that one was because of rain delays). Our practice was from 9:30-10:30, qualifying starting at 1:30 and then the race at 5:15. Chicagoland is a really fun track to race the Lights cars on because while it is a 1.5 mile, D-shaped superspeedway, the banking is high and the back straight has a bend in it. This means that it is reasonably easy to run two and even three wide through the corners flat out. And side by side racing is exactly what everyone got to see! But practice first.
We started practice with the first intention being some running in clean air (not around other cars) to get used to the set up, get up to speed and learn the line. I also spent some time running the high and low grooves so I was comfortable in both places. Then, because the car was handling well on my own, it was time to find some traffic. I had to rely heavily all day on my spotter, Chris Wheeler, to get me in a pack of quick cars and then give me all the information I needed about what was going on around me. The spotter stands right up at the top of the grandstand and talks through everything he sees on the radio to me. All of the spotters are up in the same area and so they talk amongst themselves. This means that if I see something I don’t like on track, I can let the other driver know through my spotter to their spotter. But usually before I can say anything on the radio, Chris has already informed the series tech official or the other driver’s spotter! Working in traffic in practice was a lot of fun and in the hour long session, I ran more laps than I would in the race. I got out of the car a little dizzy, but with a huge grin on my face!
Then it was a mad dash to get ready for qualifying. We didn’t feel we had the right gears in the car, so the mechanics made hay and got those changed. Then it was some quick set up adjustments and on our way. My mechanics time was especially short since I would be 2nd in line for qualifying. On an oval qualifying, it is the aggregate time of two laps done completely by yourself. You get one warm up lap and then it the clock starts. At Chicagoland, we went straight out onto turn1 and put your foot down. You only lift off full throttle after you have seen the checkered flag. I was reasonably happy with my run, but knew that if we had more time to prepare, we could have done more to the car and gone a bit quicker. I ended the session in 11th which I wasn’t too worried about since it was going to be pack racing and there would be plenty of laps to move forward.
After the morning’s practice, I was really comfortable with how competitive my car was going to be in the race. I had a good jump and when the green flag flew, the pack formed! It was a little bit chaotic into Turns 1 and 2 but things settled down as we headed to 3. Then in the middle of Turns 3 and 4, Anna Beatriz, who was trying to pass me on the outside, moved down on me and pushed me onto the apron (the flat, non-banked dirty bottom of the track). I had to get out of the throttle massively and catch the car from spinning. As a result, I lost all my momentum and fell out the back of the 16 car field. I caught my breath, restarted my heart, and set about chasing down the pack. I wasn’t a long ways behind and soon I had caught the group with a massive run in the draft. I passed about 3 cars in one go and was looking to keep moving forward when I saw contact ahead of me, wing parts flying around and the yellow flag came out. We got to turn 1 and Pippa Mann spun ahead of me. I stayed low and was fine. At that point, I had moved back up to 12th or so. Then as we restarted, the #5 car of Mario Romancini blew his engine and I moved past him.
Then it was back into the pack until after about 30 laps, there was big contact in turns 3 and 4 involving Mike Potekhen, Anna Beatriz and the innocent James Hinchcliffe. The three of them made big contact and I was lucky to avoid the spinning cars and all of the debris. When we got restarted, I had a good restart, but had to lift heading into turn 1. As a result, I lost the draft of the lead pack and dropped behind the lapped Mann. I then drafted off her and ran some very fast lap times to catch back up to the front group. I then had about 20 laps to find a way to move forward through the tight group. I got a few big runs on the group of 7 cars, but got balked each way I went it seemed! When I had a run on the outside, someone else went high. When I went low, another car went before me! I still picked of Martin Plowman as his car faded and crossed the line in 7th, right next to 6th place Sebastian Saavedra. I struggled to crack into that pack and move forward, but I was extremely happy to have finished with the lead group and with a car that was as fast as the leaders. I was comfortable running up and down the track all afternoon and can’t wait to get to the last race of the season in Homestead. Homestead won’t be as chaotic a pack as Chicagoland, but it will still be a fast close race. I have a month off of racing for September now, but will be busy traveling the country to diabetes conferences with a showcar. I am looking forward to blogging about my experiences at those really neat events.
Now though, I am in a car very early on a Sunday morning headed to downtown Chicago for an in-studio interview with ABC 7. Should be fun! Then I get to spend the day in town wandering around, shopping and relaxing before flying home to California this evening.
(Here's the link to the TV interview I was on my way to when I wrote this blog! And I have tried to embed it below.... Just ignore the advertisement before the segment :) )