Monday, April 12, 2010

Podium in the Park!

Sunday was race day at Barber Motorsports Park and I had high hopes going into the day. I qualified second on Saturday morning and then had a nice relaxing afternoon. The car had been really good since I was quickest in the first practice and while we had to make changes for the heat of the day in practice 2, we still had a really good race car. Race day started very early on Sunday morning with a warm up at 8AM! The track was very cold and even though the Grand-Am cars had run all afternoon on Saturday, the grip was really good. We were consistently quick throughout warm up and at the end of the session, I was happy with the car for the race.

The key to the race was always going to be the start. With a short start/finish straight and a fast blind turn 1, getting a good start would be important. Couple that with the very limited passing opportunities at Barber and the start would be crucial. I had talked through strategies for the race with my race engineer and we believed that tire management would be key for the race. As hot as the track temperatures were and with the sun beating down, the Firestone Firehawks would be consistent as long as you didn't overdrive the car early. And overdriving the car early would be easy to do being second on the grid and shooting for a race win. I had a couple of pace car rides just before my race to scare a couple of my guests from Alabama. Those laps gave me an idea of how much rubber had accumulated offline and would make the start even more difficult.

And then it was race time. And I was ready. My blood sugar numbers were just where I wanted them to be, I was relaxed, confident in my race pace, knew my fitness wouldn't be an issue and ready to fight for the victory. I knew I might be able to get a good start because the pole sitter, JK Vernay, would only be doing his second ever rolling start. He had admitted in the qualifying press conference that he didn't have a good start at the first race and was nervous about the start. We lined up side by side as we came around the last corner to take the green flag. I was waiting for him to 'punch off' before hitting the gas. 'Punching off' is a racing term for when the pole sitter hits the gas and starts accelerating for the start. As the pole sitter, he has the right to set the pace and decide when to 'punch off'. The only rule is that when you do go to throttle, you commit and stay on power.

I was ready for JK to go and when he did, I reacted well and got a good start. We were wheel to wheel when we both went to power. Then JK slid back. After the race I found out row 2, consisting of my teammate, Martin Plowman, and Sebastien Saavedra, had gone to power with the front row. Then as JK either made a mistake, lifted, braked or had a problem, Plowman ran into the back of him. Once I had gone to throttle though, I was committed. When the green flag flew, I was in front and led into turn 1. Halfway around lap 2, my engineer radioed me that the officials had said I jumped the start. The penalty for that would not be a complete restart and give me the opportunity to make a good start again, but to give up the lead of the race. At any other racetrack, it would not have been as big a penalty as I would have the speed to take the position back. However, at Barber the track offers slim to no passing chances. As a result, I shadowed JK all race, never more than 2 seconds behind but unable to mount a challenge for the win. To his credit, he never made a mistake large enough for me to capitalize on. The second place finish moves me up to second in the championship and is my first podium in the Firestone Indy Lights. Still it leaves me wanting for more. We had the speed all weekend and the crew did a great job with not making any mistakes. I did all the right things and I can't wait to get to home turf next weekend. Roll on Long Beach and another chance for Victory Lane!

One last comment on the race weekend. It was the first Indy Car race held at Barber Motorsports Park and I could not have been more impressed. The grounds are immaculate, the facilities are incredible and the people couldn't have been friendlier. I was blown away by the crowd (someone said over 100,000 for the weekend) and am sure this is going to be a crown jewel event on the IRL calendar. George Barber has and continues to do an amazing job. Well done to him and his staff and thanks for letting us come race around your park!

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