Graham, Sarah and the gang try to connect the dots. (LAT photo)
My adventure with Sarah Fisher Racing continues this weekend at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, and for that I'm truly grateful. With the delay in the much-rumored Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing deal – for reasons that I could but won't go into here! – I could have been left out of work for one of my favorite races, and that would have sucked. But instead, Sarah and her husband Andy O'Gara have once more stepped up to the plate on my behalf and I only hope I can reward them.
I've done my best in my two races so far; that I can say with hand on heart, and I know also that SFR is doing its best for me. At St. Petersburg, I thought we made good progress with the No. 67 Dollar General car. We struggled off the bat, the setup wasn't quite there, and so, of course, neither was the speed on the Friday and Saturday. In qualifying, normally you can push everything a little harder and get another couple of tenths, but this time we were doing the opposite. There wasn't enough mechanical grip so pushing harder just made us slower. But in the race, we decided to throw a setup on the car that involved fairly major changes that we knew would make a difference. We weren't sure whether it would improve the car or make its problems worse, but it was worth trying.
Well, guess what? The engineers got it right, and that showed how much we'd learned already. It's one of those deals where we wished we could go back there and start with the setup that we ended up with! It still wasn't a Penske car, but it was better than a lot of cars and I think our result reflected that. We got ninth place, beat three Andretti Autosport cars, and we felt we'd hit a home run. The team was extremely happy.
At the same time, we looked at what was coming up, Barber Motorsports Park, and we expected to get better, especially because we'd done a few test laps there before St. Pete. But it's no secret that we weren't close, and maybe the key was how few laps we were able to do in that previous test. Because we were trying a lot of things, and rushing through the basics because we were trying to make up for lost time (remember, it was a pretty late deal!), maybe we didn't reach something that would have increased the grip and helped the balance.
If there's a place where a driver can make a difference, it tends to be on street courses, whereas road courses emphasize issues with a car. Well, it soon became clear that there was a lot of work to be done, and the biggest puzzle for all of us was that we struggled to get the car to react to anything we were doing, even when we were getting quite radical. It's like the car was numb, and it was neither gaining nor losing speed. We never got the handling to the point where I was confident to push the car, and that's not a situation I'm used to at all. It definitely was the biggest challenge of my career, but I learned from it and I hope my feedback helped Sarah Fisher Racing.
The race was a major struggle, because I was trying to do qualifying laps every lap, and the car chewed through the tires in five laps, so for the next 20 of a stint I was just hanging on. Not comfortable. Sarah and Andy would be the first to tell you that they've done zero to the car for road courses, no real development, because they thought Sarah would be in the car and she didn't think she was going to be particularly competitive anyway. So, very understandably, they've spent their money on developing the car for ovals, and obviously that's going to hit you when you reach a 2.4-mile road course. I mean, if you look at what the teams who only switched from Champ Car to IndyCar in 2008 have done in those two years, there are so many parts that have been specially made and developed for road courses.
But now, we're looking ahead with some positivity. Sarah is the greatest person, and I say that sincerely. The effort and work she puts in are amazing, and she's surrounded herself with a great group of people, so I hope that the union between myself and SFR can produce something good this weekend, and something that will help the team even after I've gone. We've highlighted some weaknesses that they're going to work on, and hopefully what we achieve this weekend in Long Beach will be like an endorsement of our efforts together.
I'd be disappointed not to crack the top 10 in qualifying. I've had some success at Long Beach, and I've had some letdowns, too – like last year when I was running second but got waved out of the pits too early, fortunately just pulling the tank along instead of catching on fire! It's a track where a driver can make a bit of a difference and I hope that we can be fairly competitive. Another top-10 finish would be sweet.
Understeer would be the real killer 'round there, so what we have to do is find a good balance for the car, and stop using the tires so hard. The way to do that is get more compliance so we've got more mechanical grip and we're not just relying on tire grip. The team is working hard on that, and we're going to try a lot of ideas in practice, so I hope they work.
It's not been easy, but I've got to keep reminding myself: would I rather be racing with a car that needs some work, or sitting on the couch watching it on TV? Well, that's not even a question, because I remember how I felt watching the Sao Paulo race last month, and I know how I'm going to feel watching Kansas. These three races for SFR have hopefully been educational for everyone involved, and it has kept me doing what I do best: racing. For that, I owe Sarah and Andy a heck of a lot…