I have to start by saying the entire month of May was without a doubt the greatest month of my entire existence. The opportunities I've had so far this year have been incredible. I'm so blessed to have done all that I have so far – and it's only June!
I began the month in the Sahara Force India Formula 1 car. I felt like that was a pretty nice way to start a month. I was in the car for another aero test at an airfield in England. This was my third aero test for the team, so the car is starting to feel a bit more familiar now. I'm pretty much begging them to let me have a go on a real racetrack now!
I got to do a lot of running again, even though it was on an airfield. I'm not sure on what exactly I'm allowed to say about the test, so I will do my best not to get myself in trouble. What I will say is that there was a lot of speed involved, shifting gears, using the brakes, and turning around at the end of the runway. All sounds quite simple, right?
It's amazing how much data the team can gather from a day at an airstrip. The different pieces the team had to test on the car each provided crucial data for how they want to continue to develop the car throughout the season. A very cool program to be a part of, however, I still want to feel what a Formula 1 car can do on the limit at a proper racetrack... Hopefully someday!
From the F1 car I went back to GP3 for the season opener in Barcelona. It was the first race with the new car and it was definitely an interesting weekend. The tires provided a very new racing environment for all of us, since they are the same tires that we used last year. However, this year, we have a big 400hp engine instead of a smaller 290(ish) hp engine. This meant our qualifying pace was fantastic and much faster than last year.
I would line up third for race one and we all knew it would be a tire conservation race. It was a difficult situation though because during the preseason testing we had so much rain that we didn't really get to do a lot of race run testing so it was almost like jumping into an unknown. It was a very difficult race because to keep the car on track and keep the tires in somewhat decent shape, we had to drive incredibly carefully. At the end of the race we had a lot of work to do to improve, I thought, but we still ended up third and right on the rear wing of first and second, so as much as I thought we needed to improve, we were pretty close.
The second race was more of the same, only we started a bit further back with the reverse grid order which made life even more difficult with the tires. In the end though we came out of the weekend with a 3rd and 5th place finish so I was fairly happy with the points to start the year. So as soon as I got out of the car Sunday morning May 12th, I knew what time it was. It was time to go pursue a dream I had since I was an infant.
The air travel getting back to Indianapolis was pretty much par for the course with my travel history – i.e., terrible. The flight path was Barcelona to London to Chicago to Indy. It was almost a disaster missing our flight to Indy from Chicago but we made it on – without our checked bags, of course. I mean why on earth would the travel be easy on the biggest trip of my life? I made it to Indy Sunday night, May 12, thankfully ,and was ready to get my rookie orientation out of the way the following morning. There was one small problem though – my HANS device was in my checked bag that was somewhere in Chicago. I tweeted that I needed to borrow one and thankfully Marco Andretti texted me saying I could use his! I was then finally ready to get to work at the greatest racing facility in the world...
Monday morning was an amazing day for me. I could finally walk to pit lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a race suit. I didn't have to sneak in on a golf cart like in my childhood, I didn't have to show my credentials, I didn't have to wear a special badge or team shirt – I was a driver! I was also able to sleep in my own bed the night before, which is something I'm not used to before getting in a racecar.
I spent the morning before rookie orientation getting a final fitment in the car, because I hadn't sat in my seat since Long Beach. I didn't really care if it didn't feel right, though, I just wanted to get out and see what it all was like. I had received book loads of information, e-mails, phone calls and basically every piece of advice about the track someone could offer in the weeks leading up to getting on track. It was awesome getting all of that information but you never know what to actually use and you don't really know what people are talking about it until you get on track yourself and feel it out.
Sure enough, I got my chance to get out there. What an amazing realization it was to get up to speed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a place I had been coming to since birth and a place that I love everything about. It may sound like I'm being overly dramatic about this but I kid you not, this is exactly how I felt and still feel.
After I got through the majority of rookie orientation, I couldn't believe the amount of people who actually wanted my autograph as I walked back to the garage. I mean, I was always someone who thought it would be awesome to get the drivers autographs and sure enough there I was, as a driver this time. I wanted to sign everything I possibly could!
When I got back to my phone James Hinchcliffe had sent me a text that was a video of me on the track big-screen TVs doing my first few laps on track – hard to believe, really. It was such an awesome first day on track because we did a lot of running once we completed all the phases of rookie orientation. I must say, I've never had the feeling I've got right now typing this, it meant so much to me getting to be a part of the greatest racing event in the world I'm just so thankful and honored to have had the opportunity! Right, so anyway, it was awesome and I still had a full week of practice ahead of me.
Practice was going well and I was getting pretty comfortable with the car. My engineer, Ray Leto, is an incredibly experienced guy and it was awesome working with him. It was important to get a good feel for the car mechanically before we started trimming the downforce out of it. I think we did the most laps of anyone on the Wednesday before qualifying weekend, which was really nice because I needed as much track time as I could get. Unfortunately, from Thursday on, things did not exactly go smoothly...
We started Thursday – as we did every day that week, really – we went out to try and improve and find more speed in the car and we were doing exactly that. I was doing some of my personal best speeds by myself and things felt as though they were moving along the right path. We then decided to make another change in the right-rear shock. Our tires were getting pretty old but they should have been fine to do another run before going to stickers. I got a new feeling from the car that I hadn't felt yet and that feeling was movement when it was fully loaded mid corner. The car had been pretty planted all week meaning it was very comfortable mid corner and I had no problems staying flat on the power. However, this time the car just felt as though it was moving around underneath me a little more, not loose, but a little bit more movement, which meant more use of the steering wheel. At the time, it didn't feel uncomfortable. I actually felt as though I was learning something new about the car and it was good experience to have.
I thought that until I was correcting a massive snap and preparing my body to be compressed into a wall. That was absolutely the biggest impact I have ever experienced in my life. Then when I started flying and tipping over... I actually said “WHAAAAT?” in my helmet out loud because I didn't really understand why it was happening. When I came to a stop I marked that point as the lowest point of my life on earth. I was given an incredible chance at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and I crashed in practice. The worst feeling of my whole life.
I was not injured in any way but it was just a horrible feeling knowing I just made life a lot harder for my crew and my bosses A.J. and Larry Foyt after they had given me an opportunity of a lifetime. But in all honesty the first thing I thought as I replayed the incident in my head was that something broke. It was so sudden and so random that I couldn't really believe that I had crashed. I wasn't in traffic and it wasn't a problem with my line. But, again, it was all new experience for me so maybe I was on the edge and I should have just pitted as soon as I felt any kind of uncomfortable movement when the car was fully loaded mid corner.
I felt pretty horrible but there were a lot of encouraging words from many people on the way back to the garage and even when I got to the garage. After discussing what happened with A.J. and Larry, A.J. was very encouraging. He, along with many other drivers said, “We've all done it.” In fact, the quote I heard most was, “There are those who have crashed at Indy and then there are those who will.” It didn't make the fact that the car was in several pieces any better, but was encouraging to hear, without a doubt.
The team did a great job in reassembling the car. We were looking ready to go the next day, Fast Friday, but a few small things took some extra time to finish and of course at Indy you want to make sure everything is done properly before going out again. Of course, as soon as I got my suit back on and we were all ready to push the car out to pit lane, it started raining – complete disaster! But I sort of assumed something like would happen. So that was it – all we had next was a quick one hour practice session Saturday morning before going to try and qualify for the big show.
We needed to use the practice Saturday morning as best we could because I didn't get to run with the added boost on Friday. The day started off a bit strange because we were at -10.5 degrees on the rear wing, which is about as trimmed as it will go and we were going slow. I didn't really feel as though we had any added power like I was supposed to. Honda did some laptop tuning and it looked a lot better.
Sure enough when we roll out to qualify later in the day, the header explodes. We think it was starting to go south in the morning but we didn't catch it... Unfortunately, it caused a lot of internal damage under the engine cover, so Honda had to take the engine and go through it to make sure everything that was damaged was fixed. This meant that my Pole Day was over before I got to even run. Another very unfortunate circumstance, but it was out of my control so I just had to focus on being ready for Sunday and my attempt to put the car in the show.
Sunday Bump Day, was a big day – all or nothing and that morning a 34th car rolled out with Katherine Legge to attempt to qualify, which meant someone was definitely not going to make it.
The practice session on Sunday morning was literally our very first run in full qualifying trim. The motor was running at full power and happiness level, we were trimmed out on the wings and I could finally get a feel for it. I did 224.8 with a very small tow in the morning session, so I thought we were looking decent enough to make it, but I was struggling to understand where the rest of the speed was.
I really put a lot of faith in the team for our first qualifying attempt because I wasn't extremely comfortable after the practice session. They made a few good changes to the car and I was much more comfortable during my first qualifying attempt. I was comfortable but terribly slow.
After the qualifying run, I had a chat with Ray and we knew immediately where we could find quite a good amount of speed, but we didn't really want to risk it and run again. I had to sit in a bit of an uncomfortable position, 31st, all day long.
But in the end, A.J. just wanted us in the field – it doesn't matter where you start as long as you do actually start! The really sad thing, though, was that we had to keep the car in qualifying trim in case anyone else went out and bumped us out of the field. That meant that the car was just sitting in the garage or pit lane while most of the field was out there getting valuable running time in traffic and race trim, which is something I desperately needed.
At the end of the day, that's what we had to do to be safe and we were in the field at 31st. I was officially in the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500 – an incredible thought. But I'm a competitive guy and would have really liked to have been starting a bit further up or at least got more out of the car.
Next up was my first day out of a racecar in 10 days! (I'm counting Fast Friday because I did actually get into my racecar, even if I didn't get to do a lap...) It was a busy week full of media events, sponsor dinners, autograph sessions, anything and everything before Carb Day. I really enjoyed it, though, because it's all part of the Indy 500 experience! It was amazing, going out to dinner most nights downtown people would recognize me as a driver and I'd never had that before! I was trying to soak it all in, every piece of the week – the rookie luncheon, media tour in Louisville, community day and whatever else I did (flat-out, every day!) was such a cool experience.
Carb Day again was a hugely important one-hour session for us, because I needed to do some serious race trim running and try my first-ever practice pit stops at Indy. The crowd was really building early as I drove the golf cart from my bus in Turn 2 to the garage area. It was time to party, from what I saw! Even though it was a bit of a cold morning, people were out in their extremely patriotic clothing and beers in hand ready for the big day.
I had a great time in the racecar myself. We did as much running as we possibly could. It all happened so fast, though! I say I gained experience, but really I just gained a taste of the experience. I learned how important it was to be running every day during the practice week and do a lot of race running, which we didn't have the luxury of doing with the situation we were in. But hey, those are the cards we were dealt and we had to make the best of the situation.
I have been to the track every day I possibly could be growing up but never Saturday before the race, because I didn't think a lot was going on. My family and I were usually recovering from the first two weeks and preparing to get up at 4 a.m. to head to the track Sunday morning. Saturday was awesome! We got presented with our Indy 500 starter rings and got transported downtown for the parade, which is again something I'd never been to – and now I was in it!
Coming tomorrow: race day and beyond