It was almost completely different compared to any kind of practice I'd done during the days leading up to race weekend. There was a yellow early for JR Hildebrand getting into the wall, which allowed us to get up into the field by a few cars because of people making pit stops. At the restart I was able to get right back into the racing and start figuring out how I was going to get runs on people down the straight and make some passes. This was difficult because we were running a lot more downforce than people around us because we knew we'd be in traffic most, if not the entire race.
I was able to get good runs through the corners but almost hit a wall on the straight when I pulled out of the draft because of the downforce level we were running. However, because of the grip we had, we were really strong toward the end of the tire stints. That is when I was really able to make up time and positions.
The first set of tires was pretty uncomfortable for me even with our level of downforce, it felt as though we had too much rear tire pressure and the car started to feel greasy, as if it was sliding around underneath me -- which is definitely not something you need to be feeling in a race situation. What we think was happening, as we looked at things after the race, was that the rear brakes were dragging for some reason, which obviously produces a lot more heat in the rear tires (and of course provides a metaphorical boat anchor to drag long the racetrack).
At the first pit stop we made a pressure adjustment, which was a huge help and after the second restart around lap 62 I was really feeling good and was able to start making moves. My move of the race was actually captured on television, which I was pretty stoked about.Sebastien Bourdais and I were having a pretty intense race passing each other back and forth and I had an opportunity with cars slowing up a bit on the inside to make a move around the outside of him in Turn 2 and I went for it. I got a great run around the outside and almost got James Jakes in front of him as well, but as you can see if you watch the race again I pulled out of the draft, didn't go anywhere and didn't get around him. Oh well, it was a long race ahead.
On our second pit stop something quite strange happened. I had my foot on the brakes, as you normally do while the guys are changing tires, and when the new rears were being put on, the brake pedal went to the floor. At the time I didn't think much of it -- I thought I would just be able to pump it and get it back -- so I left the pits and I thought all was OK. It was not. I did another stint and when I got back to the pits and I had no rear brakes and basically locked up all the way into my pit box -- I didn't even hit the pit speed limiter going into the pits because I was trying to get the thing stopped as best I could.
I just barely made it into the pit box and my guys started to go to work. I then looked into my left mirror to see that my car had actually burst into flames. I sat there and thought to myself, “Well, I'm assuming someone is going to try and put that out.” I still had the clutch in and was waiting to put the car in gear as I was soaked with buckets of water and anti-fire liquids. I couldn't really see anything but I heard Larry Curry on my radio shout that we still actually needed fuel, because it all ended up on the car and not in the car. So, we fueled up and away I went. The pit chaos put us a lap down.
The next part of the race was unfortunately not as exciting, because we had got behind and it was a long stint of green-flag running. Josef Newgarden and I were running together as the leaders eventually caught us. Then on my next pit stop, still struggling with having almost no brakes, I overshot my pit box -- the guys pushed me back and got to work. I looked in my left mirror again to check things out and yes, I was fully on fire for a second time!
I knew another shower was coming my way, so I just waited for them to douse me and I was already in first gear ready to go. I did quite a damp and slippery burnout leaving the pits, got on the radio and sincerely asked Larry Curry, “Why do we keep catching on fire?” I guess it didn't matter at the time, I just wanted to get back out on track and keep racing.
Luckily, from then on there were no pit disasters. We were behind but still running and the car was competitive in traffic. When I was lapped by the leaders I was actually able to slot in after Ed Carpenter, who was 10th at the time, and keep up for a couple laps before having to let a few more people by. It was encouraging to run close with the lead pack for a little while. I just kept learning more and more. Every single lap I became more confident placing the car where I needed to place it and try and make moves on people.
With 20 laps to go I was really feeling good. I was running with E.J. Viso and Alex Tagliani and I was actually quicker than they were, it felt like. I stayed right behind those guys until the final two yellows came out. The last restarts were basically more opportunities to learn because I was the only car on my lap (two laps down) so I wasn't worried about losing any positions. Then, before I knew it I was avoiding Dario Franchitti's debris scattered across the track and the race was over.
I saw that beautiful checkered flag and made it to the finish of my first Indy 500 -- a hugely satisfying experience that I've never felt before. I finished in 22nd position, which normally I would be extremely unhappy with, but this is such a different event. My crew guys were hugging me as if I'd won the race and it was awesome. They knew how difficult this race is to finish, especially as a rookie.
I got out of the car and could barely lift my arms, I felt like I gave it all out there on track and had nothing left. The perfect way to finish! The longest race of my career, the fastest race of my career, the most pit stops I've ever done in my career, the most fun I've ever had.
I will be very honest and say it was the scariest race I've ever done because of so many things. Mainly because of how much I actually didn't know about how things worked in a massive pack of cars and how much I just hadn't experienced yet. In the end I took it all in and was ready to race at about lap 200! I really wanted the race to just start again, but I'm hoping at some point in my life I get another opportunity to give it a shot.
I am indescribably thankful for the opportunity given to me by A.J., Larry Foyt, the entire ABC Supply Co. family and the great folks at Alfe Heat Treating and Strike. I will never forget it. It was by far the greatest two weeks of my life and thinking about it every day makes me smile. It really was a dream come true. All the people who came to get my autograph at the track, thank you! I could not believe the support I received and all the encouraging words from people at the track and on twitter when things were not going well. It means a lot to me!
So now I'm back in Europe to hopefully wave the American flag on the podium some more! Thanks for reading this, everyone!