So let's give last weekend an A for effort and progress, a B for the potential result and a C for the actual result. In the circumstances, I reckon the 11th and 12th that Justin Wilson and I got for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing was good – we beat de Ferran Dragon, FAZZT, KV, and Newman/Haas – but I also think, by race time, the handling of our Motegi Racing Wheels car was better than we were able to show.
Even though I hadn't been on a 1.5-miler for a while (Las Vegas in 2005), the Kentucky track was more like what I was used to from the old days of Champ Car. As you could see in the race, it wasn't like Chicago, where anyone could run any line they wanted so you got the three-wide pack. This was more tilt-in down to the apex and then let the car run out wide on the exit, so the cars were more single-file and you had to use your brain to figure out how to make a pass, by doing the opposite of the car in front. You couldn't just run around on the outside of a rival until you or he chickened out.
Starting from the beginning of the action, we came in with what we thought would be a pretty decent car, based on what Justin had finished with in Chicago which gave him a seventh-place finish. The team decided to mirror that setup with some small changes for Kentucky, but, in fact, it was imbalanced right off the truck. So we started making some pretty big changes and we only got 25-30 minutes in the morning session because of rain. So we decided to risk throwing some fairly major changes at it for qualifying and it was better, but not good enough.
There was still too much push. Could we have qualified in the top 10? No, but in the teens – Justin was 16th – was realistic, so we decided to make some more major changes, and in the Friday evening session, we improved the front grip. That was a reassuring feeling – that our changes were making a real difference – because the last thing you want on an oval is an unresponsive car.
Yves, my engineer, and myself had a whole 24 hours to think about it before the race, and made some more changes for the conditions which were something like 65-degree ambient. The balance was just about right, although I started out with a little bit of push. But when Sato crashed at the start, we went slightly off-strategy, topped up with fuel, and they put half a turn of front wing in.
After that, we put in half a turn at each stop and, at the end, the car was handling well in the draft and on its own, but we couldn't quite keep up with the big dogs because we had it geared a little bit wrong. I was in sixth gear the whole race and was just kissing the limiter when I was running alone, so when I was in the tow, I was on the limiter from halfway down the straightaway and couldn't go faster. I just needed an extra 200rpm on top. So I'm thinking our sixth gear would have been a pretty good fifth, and I needed one more above that.
That really showed up when I got to 10th and we had that restart with only the fast guys ahead, and they were running 216mph laps and I was on the limiter all the way down the straight, just watching them inch away. So, that's something for the team to put in the bank as experience.
Other than that, it was a fairly straightforward night; we had a slight issue on our final pit stop, but all the rest were right on the money, and the amount of progress we made over the course of the weekend was really encouraging. It's like a driver will often tell you – if we can start the weekend as well as we finish it, we're going to be great, and I truly believe that's possible at Dreyer & Reinbold. I get on well with Justin, I really like working with Yves who seems a really switched-on guy, and I think together we can push the team forward. Motegi Racing Wheels, and my other backers (Kicker Car Audio, CEC, AlpineStars, Oakley and Monster) are all pretty impressed with the way Dennis Reinbold and Robbie Buhl run their team, so they feel that me and my manager Allen Jay made a good choice. There's just a positive mood here. Even when there are issues, there are always solutions.
Now we head to Motegi, which is going to be interesting for me: I haven't raced there since 2002, but at least I know it and I know what to do there. It's more of a driver's track because it's not a perfect oval – more of an egg shape, and the tighter end of it involves (I think) two downshifts in these cars. I've led there before – I remember I had a really good car there one year but a wheel bearing failed.
Anyway, I think it will be a case of me being able to bring a lot more to the table than I could in Kentucky, even though most of the field will have raced it more recently than me. I know the competition has increased since last year, but I looked on Wikipedia and saw that D&R had their cars 10th and 13th on the grid last year. So we'll see. Motegi Racing Wheels' parent company is in Japan, so it's going to be a really big deal for us if we give a really strong performance there. And I think we can.