The last few weeks have been crazy – as usual. The first race of the season has already taken place and the second race is right around the corner. Mix in a few transatlantic flights and some GP3 testing and you've got a general summary of what has been going on lately.
The first race of the season was in St. Petersburg. I got down to Florida a week early so we could do some final preseason testing at Homestead and Palm Beach International Raceway. I was struggling after the official Indy Lights test at Barber Motorsports Park so it was really important to do a few more test days before the racing started. It was tough figuring out what I needed from the car. My teammate Josef Newgarden was very fast at the Barber test and I was no where near his pace. However, as we tested at Homestead and PBIR I began to really get used to the car and figure out what I needed out of it to go faster. It also gave me more time to work with my engineer, Chris Finch, who really helped me adjust my driving style to suit the car a bit more and make the right changes to help the balance of the car. I felt very prepared for St. Pete.
We arrived to St. Pete on Wednesday night. I absolutely love the St. Pete event. It is such an awesome track and the city really goes all out for the race weekend! I had a busy schedule lined up for the weekend and I was really looking forward to it. Thursday was a busy day with things to do for the Mazda Road to Indy. There were a few seminars to attend, a media lunch, then pace car rides. Yes, this year I'm part of the Indycar Pace Car Team, which has been a lot of fun so far. Josef, Stefan Wilson, Anders Krohn and I all got to scare some people by taking them around the track for some hot laps in the pace cars!
After my pace car team duties were fulfilled, we walked the track. It's always cool to be walking around the track when the IndyCar guys are out there, too, I look up to a lot of those drivers. If you thought the day was done after the track walk, you were wrong! I was then involved in a parade through downtown St. Petersburg! It was definitely one of the coolest things I've done on a race weekend. There was a huge turnout and it was great to see a lot of people out to support the event.
So, after all the events, it was time to get down to business on Friday afternoon. Getting on track that afternoon brought back good memories of the year before when I won the Star Mazda race there. Every time I got on track I was thoroughly enjoying it. I absolutely love street courses and I seem to do pretty well on them. Practice went pretty well but qualifying was a bit depressing. We were P1 almost all session long until four minutes left. There was a final mad dash for the pole after the session was yellow flagged to pull someone out of the wall. My teammate Esteban Guerrieri went out just in front of me and we were both pushing very hard. He ended up getting the pole by something like a hundredth of a second. It was unfortunate because our beacon was setup on the front straight so that's where I saw the lap times but the official timing line was before the last corner. On my dash I had a lap good enough for pole but not according to the official timing line. It sucked but it was still really good to have the Sam Schmidt Motorsports cars P1, 2 and 3!
I was quickest in the morning warm up and was really happy with the car. It was going to be tough starting outside pole though. The outside of Turn 1 at St. Pete is not the place you want to be unless the circumstances are well in your favor. As we came to the green flag I thought I could get just a little bit of a jump by being in second gear instead of third. However, I was wrong. As soon as we all hit the throttle I was on the limiter and everyone just jumped a little ahead of me. I braked very late into Turn 1 but my teammates Josef and Esteban were already side by side which meant I was on the outside of a three-wide situation. I got the worst of it and ended up coming out of Turn 2 barely holding on to fourth position.
I had a great car though so I was able to catch the cars in front of me slowly but surely. It took me two tries to get by Peter Dempsey into Turn 1, but I got him and then I had to work on catching Esteban and Josef. With only a few laps remaining there was a full-course yellow. This gave me an excellent opportunity to pass my teammates. I got a really good restart and was able to get alongside Esteban. We both braked a bit too late into Turn 1 but he went a couple feet deeper than me and overshot the corner. I seriously don't know how I didn't hit Josef going into Turn 1. I've never seen the gearbox of another car that closely before! I could have sworn my front wing was damaged but sure enough, into the next two corners the car felt fine! Unfortunately, I didn't get an opportunity to make a move on Josef for the lead so we ended up P2 with the fastest lap of the race. I learned a lot from that race and now I'm looking forward to Barber! But wait, there's more…