Damn! The IZOD IndyCar Series is pretty unlucky with weather in its testing schedule this year. I'm starting this column sitting in the airport at Rochester, N.Y., (the flight's been delayed – again!) waiting to fly home, having just spent a wasted day at Watkins Glen. There were nine drivers there, and between us we turned one lap (Alex Lloyd did an installation lap) before the rain came – hard. At Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, we took the Z-Line Designs No. 22 car out of the transporter, looked at it, talked setups, and put it back. It wasn't so long ago that we all got unlucky at Kentucky – the test was rained out and it wasn't even raining! Come to think of it, the preseason open test was restricted by the ridiculously cold conditions, too.
This one really hurts, though, because the Watkins Glen race weekend is only two days, so we have restricted running time there anyway. And although I won the race last year – and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing had a strong event with Mike Conway – we haven't worked there together yet. It would have been a huge benefit to investigate different development avenues now that we can pool our information and thoughts. Sadly, it wasn't to be.
Still, it's been an eventful three weeks since I last wrote, after qualifying at Indy. There have been high points and also very low points, and I think you can guess a lot of them.
We were all happy with qualifying 11th at Indy, but then on Carb Day, we had very different conditions, just warm and windy, and the car wasn't so good. The car had a quite a lot of push that I hadn't experienced when we were testing on Bump Day the previous Sunday, and that surprised me. Bump Day had been much hotter – and that's when the track gets slick and starts highlighting any handling difficulties. Now, in what should have been much better conditions, the No. 22 car was doing one or two things I didn't like, so I just put that down to it being tight and having lots of new parts on the car, and I hoped it would free up as we got miles. So we didn't mess around with the setup and kept the settings for the race.
And then, in the hottest Indy 500 ever, the No. 22 behaved exactly the way it did on Carb Day. Motor racing is a mystery sometimes because it doesn't follow a logical pattern. It wasn't a bad car at all, but it just wasn't as nice as it had been through the rest of May.
It was so hot on race day, my drink tube melted on the first parade lap and I would have to go without any fluids for the entire race. The team would pass me a drink bottle in each stop, but by the time I had opened my visor the guys had finished putting the new Firestones on!
But you can put up with a lot when you lead the 500! Between us, Mike, Tomas Scheckter and I had D&R at the front of the field for 31 laps so that was good. For my part, I wasn't able to get the same fuel mileage as the best cars out there. Everyone seemed to go a lap or two longer and that meant we were caught in the pits when the yellow came out, so halfway through the race, we were a lap down. We just needed to recover at that stage, so that's why we went off strategy and that's how we cycled through to the front. It nearly worked. Mike pitted with 21 to go, I pitted with 10 to go and then Helio pitted with eight to go. And I emerged ahead of both of them, and we were cutting our way back through the field as every one else was fuel-saving.
I could see a big pack ahead of me, I caught them and I got chopped by one of the cars, which lost me momentum and let Mike past. So I just followed him and we caught the Andretti Autosport cars. Mike then got ahead of Danica, and I was right behind her, and we were heading to Turn 3 but suddenly at the apex I saw Mike pull down, looking like he's going for the grass! I thought, “What the hell? That's strange!” and it wasn't until afterward I discovered Ryan Hunter-Reay's car had had a fuel surge. Mike was just trying to miss him, and couldn't get quite low enough to do so. Danica and I just yanked our cars down hard to the left, both of us went over the grass with our left wheels on the exit of Turn 3, and managed to miss the carnage going on to our right. It was a pretty big shunt, and Mike was lucky to get away with a broken leg and vertebra: actually, if you see the onboard from Ryan's car, you can see how lucky he was.
Finding a solution for situations like that won't be easy. I understand cars cruising around off the pace trying to save fuel, and we're drivers and can judge the closing rate accordingly. But that takes no account of the unexpected suddenly happening. When Ryan got that fuel surge, it's as bad as hitting the brakes and it gives the followers no chance to react. It's like in cycling, where the riders aren't allowed to have brakes because at the rate they're going around a velodrome, just a touch of brakes will send one bike over another. And at Indy, there is nowhere to go and hide in those circumstances.
It's a tricky situation for the series to sort out. Maybe if cars are 20mph off the pace, then they should be down on the apron, the acceleration and deceleration lanes, but those drivers don't want to do that because then they lose even more time. Alternatively, I suppose the series could insist that cars must have one or two gallons of fuel left at the end, but then it would just mean that drivers save fuel earlier in a stint to make sure they have a gallon left. You're just bringing the problem forward in the stint.
Or maybe what happened was just a chance occurrence that no one could have anticipated. I don't know. Let's just be thankful that Mike's relatively OK, even if he is now out of action for three months. He's certainly a lot healthier than I expected when I came around Turn 3 the following lap…The atmosphere in the team afterward was strange, inevitably. We had led with some cars and Ana Beatriz, Tomas, Mike and myself and our crews had done good jobs. But our thoughts were with Mike. We couldn't really relax or reflect on a decent job until the next day when we got a bit more news from the hospital.
Then, though, we could recall the encouraging bits: with a seventh-place finish, I'd ended up roughly where I expected to be, and although I struggled in the middle of the race, my crew had done a great job: seven or eight perfect pit stops. At one point we pitted just ahead of Helio and came out three seconds up on him – and remember the No. 3 crew had won the pit stop competition the day before! And we beat two Penskes to the checkered flag.
Texas was a mixed bag – quick in practice, pretty good in qualifying, and then a race that turned out as bad as Kansas for us. We made a change before the race in terms of downforce level and that bit us pretty hard. In traffic, it meant I had terminal understeer, and the front tires then lost grip so the understeer got worse and worse.
If there was a saving grace, it's that eventually we were running alone and, out of traffic, we were able to go quick. Why were we alone? Because we kept getting unlucky with the strategy. We were so unlucky, it actually became laughable. We'd pit under green just as there would be a full-course caution. I couldn't believe how misfortune was biting our behinds all night: We had to gamble to get our lap back, and every time we did, we rolled snake eyes and went another lap down.
Anyway, the lesson to be learned was that Tomas went the right way in setup, the way he added downforce, and said his car was good all race. So we'll remember that and use it in the future.
Before I move on from Texas, I wanted to give you all an update on the results of the auction for my helmet. To refresh your memory, for the Indy 500, I created a special paint scheme for my helmet. Michael Corby, my helmet painter, painted the top part of it like the Wilson volleyball. The idea started when Will Power kept shouting, “WILSON!” at me like Tom Hanks with his volleyball in Cast Away. My PR rep, Mike Micheli, contacted Wilson Sporting Goods and secured permission to use their logo and make it look as realistic as possible. Michael Corby and I then went down to Riley Children's Hospital at Methodist and had some of the children put their hands in paint then put it on the helmet, and it came out great. I wore it during the 500 and afterward we put it up on eBay. The auction ended the Friday of Texas and my helmet sold for $9,100, which is fantastic. All the proceeds will go to two great causes, Racing for Kids and Operation Helmet.
So now we head to Iowa, and I'll have a new teammate in Graham Rahal driving the No. 24 car. I'm looking forward to that, as he and I worked fine together at Newman/Haas in 2008, but don't get me wrong: I like working with Tomas, too. He's interesting to watch in terms of his interaction with the team and because he's had a lot more experience on ovals than me. Seeing how he works out exactly what he needs and how he gets it is valuable for me, because every driver needs the same thing on these high-banked oval tracks: good downforce but low drag. I always like working with Tomas. I hope he gets a drive again soon.
For myself, I'm looking forward to Iowa, because I remember how well Tomas went for Dreyer & Reinbold at that track last year. Plus, me and my engineer Matt have the data bank from Kansas, Indy and Texas to now try and put into practice – what to do and what not to do.
And then there's Watkins Glen…which is going to be exciting for us all. Can I get Z-Line Designs into Victory Lane again but with a different team? I hope there is that possibility. It's not like we were gifted it last year: we genuinely beat Penske and Ganassi. Problem is, there's another Penske there this year, and neither of those teams have been sitting still over the last 12 months. Plus, the field has gotten closer this year: it wouldn't surprise me to see Andretti Autosport cars in the mix at the front, and maybe Alex Tagliani, too. And we haven't been able to test there….which is back to where we started this blog.
I guess what I'm saying is that I'm confident that we're going to be in the fight but that a fight is exactly what it will be. Hope to get back to you with good news next time.