It's good to be back and it's great to be back with a win. My first race since crushing a vertebra in practice at last August's Mid-Ohio round of the IZOD IndyCar Series was this year's Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona and you may be aware that myself, AJ Allmendinger, Ozz Negri and John Pew won with Michael Shank Racing's Riley-Ford.
Before the race, people were asking how my back is – and I confess I was wondering myself how it would be. Well, after my first double stint, my entire back was tingling like someone was tickling me all over it, then in my second time in the car, that feeling was gone and my third time in the car, it felt great.
It was just my back muscles getting a wake-up call. It proves that no matter how much working out you do in a gym, there are muscles that are used or abused in driving that you just can't exercise, or ways that you use those muscles that you can't replicate in a gym. It was the same at Barber in the IndyCar last week: there are movements caused by G-forces on your neck that you can't reproduce without one of those sophisticated sim machines that the top Formula 1 teams use. But I feel great now and able to go through all the fitness routines that I did before the injury.
I've had some really significant victories in my career – getting the first Champ Car win for myself and RuSPORT in Toronto in 2005, winning for Newman/Haas at Detroit in '08 to score the final victory for Paul Newman, scoring Dale Coyne's first win at Watkins Glen in 09 – and they all felt big. But winning the Rolex 24 in the 50th anniversary race was probably the biggest win of my career. In a 24-hour race, a lot can go wrong, but I had three good, fast and smart teammates and everyone in Michael Shank's team did such a great job.
People think single-seater drivers worry when they have to share a car and see other drivers out in “their” machine, but the group we had with AJ, John and Ozz didn't really leave me with any feelings of anxiety. I just did the best job I could and trusted them to do likewise.
Put it this way; I was able to go and get rest between my stints knowing they would be fast and not do anything foolish before I had to get back in. Even when AJ was banging doors with Allan McNish, I was fine with that – as I said at the time, I couldn't think of anyone better to go head to head with a sports car legend like McNish. I was pretty relaxed.
I'm not playing it down, though. It was flat-out between the two Ford-powered cars and for a lot of the time, the Ganassi cars, too. For 15 hours, we treated a 24-hour race like a two-hour sprint race, but believe me, that's what we had to do to be competitive. At the time, I'd have been quite happy if our chief rivals had broken down and left us with a five-lap lead so we could cruise around to the finish, but afterward the sense of achievement in winning a pretty epic battle was great. We seemed to be switching places a lot and it was see-sawing back and forth; exciting for us, exciting for the people watching.
But there is luck involved, too. I remember battling with McNish at one point, and I was right behind him and he got a better run through traffic and opened the gap for a couple of laps and got a four-second lead. I was thinking, “When are we going to catch a break? This sucks.” And within a lap he had caught a GT car at the Bus Stop chicane, it killed all his momentum and from four seconds back, I caught him, used the extra pace on the next straight and got past him. So then it all went my way for the next 10 or 15 laps.
With so many slower cars out there, even if you were able to plan ahead – which you barely can – it's pretty much impossible to prevent getting held up somewhere around the track. You'd love to say that the way you get through traffic is all down to skill and timing, but the truth is that so much of it depends on luck going for or against you. The key is to stay patient, being careful you don't shoot yourselves in the foot by throwing it off.
The post-race euphoria lasted a couple of days, but it wasn't long before I was desperate to get back to my day job – driving IndyCars. This year, I return to Dale Coyne Racing after a couple of years at Dreyer & Reinbold and I'm excited to work with Bill Pappas again. We formed a strong relationship at DCR back in '09, we scored that win at the Glen and had several other strong showings, and we're all anxious to go and recapture that form. Dale has signed with Honda, and we have a lot of confidence that is going to be a powerful engine.
Although we got little done at Sebring due to a mechanical issue, I did at least get to experience the new environment of the Dallara DW12. There's a little bit more room for me compared with the old car, and there's a lot more padding – but I've got to say it isn't any more comfortable. I think all the drivers have made four or five seats trying to find their most comfortable cockpit position.
I thought initially it was because of my height, but average-height guys are having similar issues. I don't know why; we've seen all the drawings and it's meant to be the same if not better than the old car. Thinking about it now, the cockpit doesn't flare out where your elbows are, so you feel quite pinned in. Cut the seat down to give yourself a little more elbow room, though, and suddenly you have no side support, so any lateral load causes you to fall out of the seat. We'll just have to work on it a bit more. There's some finessing that needs to be done.
Going from Champ Car to IndyCar in 2008, from turbo to normally aspirated engines, I noticed that initial throttle response was better, so converting back to turbos is like driving an improved Champ Car; the turbo lag is reduced but there is still a noticeable delay in pickup. However, once the turbo spools up, you do get a decent kick in the pants. Having said that, I do wish there was an extra 2000rpm, because the Honda engine is really coming on song just before you hit the 12,000rpm limiter. (Wilson was on pole at Portland in 2007 in a Champ Car, at LEFT).
Handling-wise, I'd say that once everyone has the DW12 more figured out, it could compress the field from front to back. But right now, there's still so much scope to adjust the handling, it's about who's smart and discovers all those things first. At Barber, I initially ran the 2011 Barber race tires and we weren't setting the pace and we weren't too far off, either, but it was fairly tricky to drive. Then we got two laps on the tire compound that was used at Motegi last year and that just transformed it for me, and I went one second quicker. With more time to play with setups and for me to familiarize myself with the car, I think there is a lot of potential to be tapped.
Obviously, there are a lot of unknowns in the IZOD IndyCar Series this year – we don't know which of the three engines is going to be the best. What I'm confident about is that wherever Honda is in the power race, Dale Coyne Racing can be mixing it with Chip Ganassi Racing, the gold standard of the Honda-powered teams – actually, the gold standard of IndyCar racing for the past four years! Sure, we'll have our bad days, but I think we'll have a lot of good days and I think there's a good opportunity here.
We have Bill Pappas (FAR RIGHT) on my car, John Dick on my teammate James Jakes' car, and Dale is assembling a strong crew, too. Maybe it will take a little bit of time – we weren't the first team to start testing, that's for sure – but we have the sort of people around us who can work things out in a hurry and can propel us forward.
Our next test isn't until Sebring – the official test next week – but as team manager Phil Le Pan pointed out, there is a parts shortage at the moment, we haven't got all the latest bits yet, so what's the point in going testing with a car that isn't in the specification we'll be racing in at St. Pete? That situation is the same for a lot of teams.
One thing I'd like to clarify before I sign off. There was some talk about myself and Tony Kanaan boycotting the race at Texas this year. That's not really what we were trying to say. What's wrong is that we feel the DW12 has too much downforce for the amount of horsepower it's producing on ovals. The aerodynamic package gives a huge draft effect from a long way back and allows cars to follow each other closely, but they can't pass. We lost Dan Wheldon last October, and we want lessons to have been learned so that we can avoid the mindless pack racing and take the sport forward.
As a result, I spoke to [IndyCar vp of technology] Will Phillips at length last Friday, and he says there is still plenty of room to take quite a bit of downforce out from the underwing, so he's confident we can get to a point where we're having to lift. We may still be able to run flat on new tires in qualifying, but in the race, we'll have to lift �� so the cars will not be running in a huge pack, we'll need racecraft and hopefully it will be an entertaining race. No one – not the spectators or the drivers – want to see a situation where there are 28 cars just going around like they're on a highway but at 220mph. Will has given me confidence that there's going to be modifications made, and that at the 15-car test at TMS in March, we'll see significant progress.
I hope that over the next few weeks on the run-up to St. Pete, there will be significant progress made by Dale Coyne Racing, too, so that we can hit the ground running. There can be no let-up from any team if it hopes to compete with Ganassi, so the more track time we get and more data we acquire in the next month, the better off we'll be. I've got to say, with this new formula, it's a great feeling to have so much buzz around the series once more. Now I hope to be creating a lot of that buzz with DCR.
I'll get back to you soon.