Pretty good day’s work, huh? It’s good to be back. Actually, it’s great to be back, not just because we’re getting prepared for the Indy 500 but because, at long last, I’m driving a fast, open-wheel racecar again. It’s what I was born to do, and you have no idea how much it’s hurt to feel shut out since last July.
The other thing I was born to do was compete at the front, and that’s what KV Racing Technologies has employed me to do, that’s why GEICO are on board, and why Monster, CEC Wheels, and so on are with me.
The No. 15 car today was everything that Kevin Kalkhoven, Jimmy Vasser and team manager Mark Johnson told me they’d give me. It was quick, well-balanced, and even when we ran race downforce, I was still able to turn a 220mph on my third hot lap. That put us quickest for a couple of hours.
We had a few electronics problems – couple of sensors weren’t working, there was a laser that wasn’t working and a strain gauge that wasn’t working properly, and it took a couple of hours to sort through that, and in the meantime Robert Doornbos went quicker. But we got back out about 4 o’clock and ran that same set of tires, did a longish run in the mid 220s, and came in again. Then we put some more fuel in, a new set of tires, and ran a 223.1 and went to the top of the charts. Pretty sweet.
That was satisfying for the team: it really reflects their hard work and proves we’re solid as a unit. And of course, GEICO are gonna be pleased, because they didn’t make the show last year. Seems like everybody’s over the moon to see me back in a car, so for us to go quickest is a big bonus. It’s not like we didn’t all have faith in each other – none of us would have made our moves to get together if any of us had thought there might be a weak link in the chain. But you still breathe a sigh of relief at the end of the first day when everything’s gone so well.
There’s a long way to go, of course. Track conditions today were about perfect: pretty sunny, light winds, 78 degrees ambient. It’s pretty close to how the weather is being forecast for Saturday qualifying. But still you can’t make a direct comparison or prediction with the weekend situation. There’s not a lot of rubber on the track yet, and this diamond-cut track surface is chomping through the tires pretty quick. You get 24 or 25 laps out of a set right now and as the tires start to wear, the rear-end gets a little bit nervous – the usual stuff. But I’m expecting as the lap count builds up, with more and more rubber going down, we’re going to get more grooves, more lines for us to take, so each session is going to be like an investigation to see how much grip is available and where.
So far I’ve got to say the KV car’s been pretty well balanced. But one of the things we didn’t really try is running traffic, simply because there weren’t enough cars out there today. In fact there were only a handful running at all, and probably a maximum of three at any one time. So that’s another aspect we’ve got to keep our eye on during the days ahead.
But for today, I’m satisfied. Another thing I was grateful for was the reaction from the spectators. I’m not a race driver who people think needs a lot of loving outside of the team, but I’ve got to confess I was pleased to see so many well-wishers and quite a few excited fans. Also I caught up with Dario Franchitti and Justin Wilson and chatted with them a bit, and obviously Mario Moraes as a teammate is someone I’m gonna be dealing with a lot this month.
Apart from that, I didn’t get a lot of time to talk to anyone outside of the team, but that’s fine: this isn’t a social occasion and it feels good to do real work again and get concentrating. Having said that, I’ve gotta run off to the Mari Hulman George reception party now, but I’ll be back with you every day we get on track this month – and maybe some days when we don’t. This is a big deal for me, so you can be sure I won’t run out of things to say…P.T.[Subscribe to RACER before May 26 in order to start your subscription with the July issue, which includes an exclusive, no-holds-barred Paul Tracy interview. - Ed.]