Three years is a long time in racing, especially when you're as hungry for success as Dale Coyne, his loyal team, our engineer Bill Pappas and myself (right to left, RIGHT). Back in 2009, we were the first team to break the Penske/Ganassi stranglehold on the IZOD IndyCar Series that season, and three years later, after all getting back together, we've gone and done the same thing again. We scored Dale Coyne Racing's first victory on the Watkins Glen road course. Now we've scored its second win, and this one was on an oval.
But Texas Motor Speedway last Saturday saw us produce a different kind of oval racing from what we'd been used to on 1.5-mile tracks in recent years. This time the driver and engineering input had a much bigger role to play. It was about mechanical grip and balance and using the throttle to help turn the car. This time we were constantly making little adjustments to tune the car, and we had a great time out there. And although I haven't had a chance to watch the race on TV, I think the people watching us loved what they were seeing, too.
It was a real challenge, where you had to concentrate on the car up ahead as you gained on it, and figure out how to pass him, because people were taking lots of different lines. If someone wasn't going all the way down to the white line, then you could dive into the space, not necessarily to pass but to then get a strong run on him down the next straight. We were having to plan in advance and work on each rival, one- or sometimes two-at-a-time. We weren't just running in a giant pack for lap after lap, waiting for someone to screw up and take four of us into the wall. It's such a relief to see that, as a sport, we have moved on from that kind of insanity that contributed to some terrible accidents in the past, including the one that took our friend and highly respected rival Dan Wheldon from us last October.
As a result of this return to real oval competition, although we'd only qualified 19th, I was confident we'd have a strong race, with a decent top-five finish and maybe better. If we played it smart, didn't stress the tires too much early on in a stint, and so we kept the car under us when others were fading at the end of a stint, we might even see a top three. Those were my thoughts at the start of the race. So in the first stint we made some progress, passed a few cars, gained on others, and we felt we were matching the guys at the front. Then I came into the pits and discovered that Simon Pagenaud in the adjacent pit had had a major moment, sliding through his box and kind of acting like a pool cue on the laid out sets of new tires. There seemed to be tires everywhere, and his outside front tire changer leapt backward to avoid being hit, but had stopped right in front of me! So I just had to come to a halt before I'd even reached my box while this strange mess got sorted out.
So I dropped near the back again, and then it was a case of keeping calm and carrying on picking people off. It was kind of an exercise in restraining yourself and not panicking if you saw people pulling away early in the stint; you had to have the self-confidence that they were going to come back to you as they finished off their tires too early. Well, that kept happening. At the end of the longest stint, I was up to fifth. I'd been constantly trying to make the car better with the tools in the cockpit, because so often in these races it comes down to a 15- or 20-lap sprint at the end and I wanted it fine-tuned. As the track rubbered up, I didn't want to lose our advantage. I thought, “We have Honda power, we have a Bill Pappas-engineered car, we've got no excuses not to have a strong enough setup for a shootout, and that last bit is down to me, so keep up with how the track is changing.”
In the pit stops, we'd made some tire pressure adjustments but didn't need to adjust the wing because that was pretty much on the money all night. So then it was down to adjusting the rollbars and weight-jacker in the cockpit. And that's another thing; with this new aero/grip oval formula, the car becomes very, very sensitive, and each increment on the tool settings makes a significant difference. For example, when I changed down from sixth to fifth gear, that altered the balance of the car because the extra bit of torque made it looser, so at that point you have to go through the tools again, readjusting. It was just one of those nights where you were kept on your toes by all the things you had to do to optimize the car. A real challenge.
And from the safety point of view, the cars that got into accidents looked less damaged than is usual at tracks like these. Obviously it's never good when you hit a wall, but the speed differential between the straights and the turns and the angles at which you were taking them meant the car had time to spin and scrub off speed before impact. It wasn't like in previous races, when the string would snap and you'd just fly straight up the track at full speed and make a huge side impact into the wall.
Of course there was some predictable surprise that Justin Wilson and Dale Coyne Racing had won on an oval rather than a road or street course, but you only needed to look back a couple of races and see that we had potential. Check out how strong we were on race day at the Indy 500 and you'd see that we aren't giving much away to the traditional oval dominators. At the final restart at Indy, we were in third place, behind just the two Target Ganassi cars. I dropped to seventh on the restart…basically because I didn't jump the green as bad as certain others did! That was frustrating, but a third or fourth at Indy wouldn't have felt as good as the Texas win: for one thing, in the Indy 500, more than in any other race, anyone except the winner is a loser, and secondly, there's just no substitute for the winning feeling.
In between Indy and Texas, at the sort of racetrack where I'm expected to shine – the street course in Detroit – that's where I made a lap 1 error! I got a little loose coming off Turn 2 and slapped the wall. It didn't feel too hard, so I hoped it was just the tire, but in fact I'd bent the rear suspension. So we took it back to the garage, and the crew did a great job in fixing it so we could go back out and try a few things we'd worked on between the warm-up and the race.
We'd started the weekend really fast but as the track had gained grip from all the rubber going down, we'd slipped down the order. This was a good opportunity to basically do a test run and try things that will help us on road/street courses… and I ended up getting fastest lap! OK, others were saving fuel and we didn't have to, but I'd definitely say we got a few ideas for the future. Still, it was frustrating not to be out there fighting for a podium finish, but I guess I experienced the highs and lows of racing, packed into seven days.
So we ride into the Milwaukee Mile on a bit of a high, but I'm in the same situation as Scott Dixon and Will Power; an engine issue means we will get a 10-place grid penalty for changing units before the engine was maxed out on mileage. That's frustrating, but at least it's an oval, so passing should be a little easier…if we have a good-enough car. We know what we're looking for from a car on all circuits and we know that we can make our car work on ovals. And, after Texas, everyone else knows that now, too.
Thanks for all your messages of support over the past five days. It's been much appreciated. Hope to give you some more results to cheer about soon. Very soon.
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