Having watched the drama of Paul Tracy and Jay Howard getting bumped out of qualifying, I am so glad Dreyer & Reinbold Racing did such a great job in getting all four of its cars through on Pole Day. The tension that the whole team went through in 2009 was hellish, from what I hear, and here they were with four cars again in 2010, including one with a rookie. And we all got safely in, and one of my teammates, Ana Beatriz, is the highest qualifying rookie. It's pretty awesome – and also there's just a sense of relief!
I'm very proud of the fact that we got the Z-Line Designs car into 11th on the grid. Looking back, I could have got a little bit more out of the first lap of qualifying, but I was pretty pleased with the next three and I was loose all the way through Turn 1 on the fourth lap, so I didn't want to do that again. Thankfully, I didn't need to. And even if I'd done another run and got into the Fast Nine, I think the highest we could have expected was seventh or eighth. Qualifying, especially at Indy, requires you and the engineers and even the management to weigh up the risk versus the reward. And the risk was huge to pull out an 11th-placed time – one that had matched, maybe exceeded our expectations – just to move forward a couple of positions.
As we witnessed on Bump Day, the chances of something going wrong are far greater than the chance for it to go right. In a 500-mile race, what difference does two or three places on the grid make? It only has real significance when you're fighting for pole, and even in our wildest dreams, that wasn't going to be the case. We're all just feeling over the moon to get all cars through on the first day.
For the sake of completeness, RACER asked me to reflect on our Kansas race, too. (Thanks a bunch, guys…) But OK. I'll mention it in passing – which is ironic, because the one thing we didn't do was any passing. And we never nailed down why that race was such a struggle for us. We were a long way off with the balance, and we had too much tire scrub from the understeer. And as soon as you scrub, that wears down the front tires and, of course, that makes the understeer worse.
Seriously, I'd love to go and test there, because you never get the time on race weekend at Kansas. You either show up with Ganassi's setup, or you're lost. Even half a day would help, just so we could try different things. With the way the weather was, we got 90 minutes, and then we were into qualifying. We made three or four fairly major changes and none of them seemed to have any effect. And yet we come to Indy, and the cars were very reasonable right away out of the truck and we had the confidence to make the necessary changes.
Of course, at Indy, it's a different ballgame when it comes to making adjustments. The Kansas oval's high banking can mask a lot of handling characteristics and problems, so you can get radical without taking huge risks. You find yourself throwing bigger things at the car in a desperate attempt to find something that will make the car turn. Indy is not like that. Just like you have to finesse the car around the track, you only want to make gradual adjustments in the pits because out on the circuit you're on edge so much of the time. You don't want to throw something wild into the mix. What makes Indianapolis Motor Speedway great is how flat it is – but still so, so fast and still with no room for error – so making major adjustments would not really be very clever, especially when you have so much time (although a lot less this year) to try things out. So, you adjust your car like you were just fine-tuning it, checking what makes a difference and what doesn't, and I was lucky because Dreyer & Reinbold has a really good base setup.
And, of course, we had the added benefit of four cars. Initially I was nervous about us springing from two cars to four cars, because multi-car efforts can dilute the team's talent pool, as we've seen with other multi-car efforts. Fortunately, D&R handle it really well and in fact all four of us – myself, Mike Conway, Tomas Scheckter and Ana B – are fairly level-headed and/or mature enough to respect the track and realize what a huge deal this is. So each of us is able to get lots of data and back it up with two or three teammates.
Between the four cars, there seems to be two slightly different setups at any one time, but that was fluctuating throughout the whole “week of May.” Between us, we felt we had most of the bases covered and, depending on the conditions, we were all pretty close – variations just depended on the different track temperatures and whether there was a head wind or tail wind. For example, the test that we did on Sunday – our last chance to drive the cars before Friday – ended with me and Tomas with similar setups.
Considering the struggles Dreyer & Reinbold had last year, I think there were some people who were nervous on our behalf this year, but without sounding cocky, I didn't have those doubts at all. Larry Curry knows how to make a car go fast around Indy, and knows what areas need to be worked on, and my engineer Matt [Curry] has good experience here and knows what to look for in the setup. He also really relates well to my feedback and that means we can tune the car quickly: If the pair of us ever investigate a wrong setup avenue, it's not because we've misunderstood each other.
Funnily enough, Sunday was the worst day in terms of car stability, mainly because of the temperature – ambient and track – which caused all of us to go quicker down the straights and slower through the corners. As tricky as the weather was last week, those cooler days had allowed everyone to get closer to an ideal setup while the track was more forgiving. So Sunday was a surprising and therefore useful day, because it showed up any handling imbalances and allowed us to work on them. Friday's Carb Day practice won't be like that – it's more to just to get drivers' heads back in the game after four days off. We may try one slight damper change on the Z-Line Designs car, but basically the car as it is now is how it will be for the 94th running of the Indianapolis 500.
And we're in, and in the top third of the field! It feels such a big deal to even be able to write that. We have good setups for cool conditions and warm conditions and on both low-fuel and full tanks, and the car's stable when running behind other cars. So now it's up to the weather. If the track gets a lot of rain between now and the race, and the track goes green again, then obviously quicker tire degradation will become a new issue to consider, too…
But that's just how Indy is. Every time you think you've got something sorted out, it can turn around and present you with a new problem, and it's up to the drivers and engineers to find a way of dealing with the issue and correcting it. It's not just about driving flat out, that's for sure.
On a different note, for the Indy 500, most drivers want to do something special with the paint scheme on their helmet. My idea started when Will Power kept shouting
“WILSON!” at me like Tom Hanks with his volleyball in Cast Away. So I decided to paint the top of my helmet like a volleyball. 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 does a great job at painting my helmets and this time truly excelled himself. He 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. Sonja Stockton, who sponsors my brother Stefan in the Indy Lights series, was gracious enough to pay the painting fee. While I'm racing in the 500, you'll be able to bid on this helmet on eBay. All the proceeds will be split between Racing For Kids and Operation Helmet, the two charities that we support on the team. Bidding on the helmet ends June 4. To bid on it, visit ebay.com and search "Justin Wilson Justin Wilson Helmet Used in 2010 Indy 500"
Let's hope we can make it really prominent in the 500. I think a top-10 finish is definitely achievable, even though we're expecting the Andretti Autosport cars to come strong in race trim. Tony Kanaan and Marco looked very quick while the cars had downforce in practice. If everything goes right, though, I'd love to put the Z-Line Designs car in the top five, but that may require some bad luck for some of the big name drivers.
Whatever, there is a huge amount of experience to be gained over the 200 laps, and it's an experience that I love.