Hey, welcome to my new regular column for RACER.com. Good to be on board, good to have you reading it. I’m assuming you watched the first IndyCar Series round from St. Petersburg last week. Pretty exciting, huh? Pity some of the excitement came at the cost of me, though!
I’ve gotten over it, sure, but it certainly was disappointing to be spun off on the opening lap. It seems like I’m living that cliché – if I didn’t have bad luck, I wouldn’t have any. Having watched all the footage, I’d still say it was Tony Kanaan at fault: he was the one who hit me. But I also think it was partly Dario [Franchitti]’s fault. I don’t think TK should have been trying to shove his nose in there, and he even came and admitted to me that it was his fault. But I think when Dario dived down the inside of my car – well, all the cars, actually! – it startled everybody. It’s an OK move, but for the first lap of the year it seems a bit unnecessary. Debatable, I know.
I say this in all modesty, but it wasn’t a surprise that we got the McDonald’s Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing No. 02 car on pole position. I had already felt that I had been driving better this year and I felt that the team had really improved since last year. And when we ran on road courses in testing, the car was really good. So logically, I thought pole was possible.
Other people were surprised, that’s for sure, but from my perspective, I knew that we had what it takes to do it. The guys had worked extremely hard in the off season, and right when I got in the car at Sebring for our first test of the year, it was miles better. The overall handling, the consistency of it… It felt like every single aspect was a little bit better which, combined, made the whole package a big improvement. You’d think it might be hard to gauge as we have such a long off-season, but still I could feel it.
The setup that we ran this year at St. Pete was very, very similar to what we had last year. When something’s good, why change it? On raceday, it felt the car went off a little bit quicker than I expected, but overall I was pretty happy. We were damn competitive, no doubt about that, and up until about 10 laps from the end, we had one of the fastest laps of the race. My middle set of tires wasn’t a good set, and the left front wore out too quick, so at the end of that run, I’d lost a lot of track position to Tony and Dario. That was a shame, because after the pit stops we should have been ahead of them, as I’d been saving more fuel than them while going just as quick.
What we take from the weekend is knowledge – knowledge that we have speed. So looking ahead to Long Beach, I really believe we can do the same thing again in qualifying (and hopefully get luckier in the race). Yeah, OK, so the last two years I’ve raced at Long Beach in the Panoz-Cosworth Champ Car, but at least that means I know the track. It won’t matter that this year it’s a Dallara-Honda; I look at all the street and road courses now with the view that we’ve got what it takes. We should be very good, and I think the street courses, as a whole, suit my style better than other ones.
I think a win isn’t just a possibility at Long Beach: I’d go as far as saying that we’re one of the favorites, to carry on Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing’s great tradition there. Down the years, this team’s had six wins, 14 podiums and 11 pole positions there. And the way we went in St. Pete, I think it’s logical. I’m driving well enough (though I admit there’s still a long way for me to go), the guys are working hard and seeing it pay off, and I’d say now we’re getting to the point where we ought to be contenders every time out. Well, on road and streets, at least; we can’t be sure about ovals yet until we race in Kansas, though I reckon you’ll see improvements there too.
People bring up my age and the responsibility of leading one of the greatest teams in U.S. open-wheel – in fact, that was brought up in my interview in RACER
this month! But that’s not extra pressure: I feel that people should be expecting great performances from us. The team is so good, I’ve worked so hard in the off-season – in all honesty, there’s no reason for us to not be good.
As we become strong, this does have a knock-on effect in terms of the demands on my time, but that is absolutely fine with me. There are promotional events that are more fun than others, naturally, but that’s cool with me. If I can help elevate the series and elevate open-wheel racing in North America just by being front and center, I’m happy to do that. I want IndyCars to get the recognition it deserves in the media.
One of the good things I get to do this coming week is for Operation Home Front, a non-profit organization which, to use the wording on their website, “provides emergency assistance and morale to our troops, to the families they leave behind and to wounded warriors when they return home.” So as you can see, it’s one of those causes that’s always worthy and always going to be relevant. They’re giving me a chance to fly from San Diego on a Grumman C-2 Greyhound – it’s a twin turboprop cargo plane – to an aircraft carrier where I’ll stay for 24 hours. Now to give you some idea of how exciting this is for me, I’ve wanted to do this for ages: I love
aircraft carriers. I’d be happy to stay on there for a year, never mind a day! I’ll be taking pictures whenever I’m allowed, so make sure you call in at my website!
When I get back to San Diego I’ll head down to Long Beach, go to the gala on Wednesday evening, hook up with the team on Thursday for the track walk and to talk setups, followed by an appearance for IZOD in the evening, and then we get down my real work. Of course, the real work is the real joy in this business: I’m at the
classic American street race. No complaints from me! Monday and Tuesday I’ll be doing more promotion work, this time for Honda and my team sponsor McDonald’s.
Like I say if I’m going to be the poster-child for this series, that’s fine by me – bring it on! It means I must be doing something right, and it means the IndyCar Series is promoting us. I’ll get back to you in a couple of weeks and we’ll talk ovals. There are one or two things I need to get off my chest about last year and make sure I remedy this year.
See you in Long Beach!