Unfortunately, the earliest flight out of Barcelona was Friday morning and I had practice in Long Beach on Friday. I was really hoping I could make the first session. I wanted to get the pilots to step on the gas a little and just drop me out of the plane with a parachute over Long Beach so I could make the first session. It was sad they weren't up for that idea…
I flew from Barcelona to Paris and then Paris to LAX. Paris to LAX was the longest flight I had ever been on so that was – boring? All I did was watch on-board video from Long Beach the whole flight. I couldn't wait to get on that track. Sure enough I landed in L.A. as my session was going on, so I missed it. I was disappointed for sure but I heard my teammate Esteban Guerrieri took my car out during the session, because his broke down and he set the quickest time of the session with my car – so at least my car was ready to go!
There was no time to sit down when I got to the track. I had to make sure I was ready for practice session two the next morning. I was able to look over a lot of data and video from my teammates earlier that day and I felt ready to take to the track. I surprisingly slept pretty well that night! It was nice to get a good amount of sleep for a busy Saturday.
When I took to the track Saturday morning, I couldn't believe I was driving on the famous streets of Long Beach! I've been watching that race for years, dreaming of racing on it. We did a lot of laps in practice so I could get used to the track and it worked out well – I really enjoyed the track and seemed to come to grips with it pretty quickly.
It felt like I just got to the track when it was already time to qualify! Things were happening really fast. Luckily, qualifying was a bit longer than normal and we were planning on again doing a lot of laps. By mid-session I had set the fastest time in qualifying, so I was adjusting to the track pretty quickly. My engineer, Chris Finch, was helping me a lot with monitoring where I was losing the most time on track and which areas I needed to improve on the most. However, with about eight minutes to go, just like Barber, I got some pretty incredible blocks and never got a lap in during the closing minutes of the session. I was so unbelievably frustrated because I wanted the pole so badly even though I was behind on track time. I knew our car was quick enough to do it but, unfortunately, there were a lot of people on track who felt it was appropriate to stop in front of someone who was on a flying lap. Oh well, I was starting P4 for the race and I still couldn't wait.
I was getting a lot of questions throughout the weekend about jet lag, but to be honest I wasn't feeling it. There is so much adrenaline pumping throughout the day it keeps you going. But at night as soon as I got to my hotel room I was out. I felt well-rested for race day. The morning warm up was good because I got more and more laps on the track. We were able to make a few adjustments for the race and I thought we had a great car.
The start of the race was chaotic coming off of that tight hairpin. I was flat-out as soon as I could go but the leaders were gone way early. The start didn't look pretty but the race was green so it was time to get down to business. I felt like I was still learning the track every lap during the race and as I made improvements on my driving I was catching the cars in front of me.
Early in the race, Peter Dempsey who was leading, crashed into the Turn 9 barrier. It wasn't good to see my driver coach from last year in the wall but Long Beach was an incredibly tough track and it was easy to make a mistake. The restart was crazy because everyone tried to go to power early coming out of the hairpin and simultaneously everyone was completely sideways! It looked kind of funny from the driver's seat.
I had a fantastic restart and was able to get along side my teammate Esteban going into Turn 1 and take over second place. I was absolutely determined to catch Josef Newgarden, who was now leading. He is a big rival since we grew up racing together for many years. It was a very long race and every lap I kept making small adjustments and finding a bit more speed out of the track. My car was also handling great and I started catching Newgarden. I was very good out of the final hairpin, so I knew that's where I wanted to get a run on him going down the front straight.
I closed up on him just enough into the last hairpin in the closing stages of the race to rub his right-rear tire with my nose. I saw a little smoke come off his tire, which meant I was close! When we exited the corner I went to grab third gear and I went straight to fourth – I couldn't believe it, the one big chance I had was now gone and I was having gearbox issues. The next lap it did the same thing and I had to start worrying about Esteban, who was catching me fast. I realized I had to back off a lot to shift into third gear and be very careful on downshifts.
Once I adjusted to the problem I started to catch back up to Josef when the unthinkable happened. Going into Turn 8, I see Josef lock his brakes and start to go wide entering the corner. I knew it was hard to stop the car once you got wide of the apex, so I was hoping to time a run down the next straight – but I didn't have to. He caught the tire barrier as I was entering the corner.
I couldn't believe I was leading the race. I felt bad for my team considering we were in a position for a 1-2-3 finish but hey, I wasn't unhappy that I was in the lead. When my team told me the race was going to finish under yellow I couldn't believe i!! I was going to win the Long Beach Grand Prix! I thought I was going to rip out of my seat belts and go crazy. It was such an incredible feeling after such a rough week before.
I got a radio message after the checkered flag from my engineer saying that one of our other engineers, Kent, was doing a crazy interpretive dance on pit lane – which confirmed the fact that I had won, because Kent doesn't throw down a dance very often!
I really wish I could describe the feeling as I drove around to Victory Lane. It was an incredible day for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. I was so happy for my mechanics and Chris, because we've been working really hard so far this season and it was great to be rewarded with a win. Needless to say, after a full day of media activities I slept well Sunday night! The best part was the fact I didn't have to hop on a plane for another couple days.
I decided to take a few days off in Southern California before heading home. So now I have a few days off which is an insane thought. Next up for me is a flight back to England on April 28 to work with the Carlin guys before heading to Turkey for the first GP3 race of the season. I wont be racing Firestone Indy Lights again until Trois-Rivieres in August!
This was a long story but it was a crazy one so I hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading!