A confusing day for a lot of people – among them, me, Justin and all of us at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. After the race, a lot of drivers were talking about how the sets of tires behaved so differently from one another, and I guess a lot of engineers were scratching their heads thinking the same thing.
For us, it was the same thing for most of the weekend – constantly battling to get the understeer out of the car. We made a lot of changes to it, but we could never get the balance right, and paid for it on the used reds in the first stint. I got a pretty good start, and got by Mario Moraes and Rafa Matos on lap 1, and then got the new guy, Adam Carroll, on lap 2.
Then I decided to settle into position behind Marco. It was time to save fuel, and I was hitting the number, but then all of a sudden, maybe eight to 10 laps in, the front grip just fell off a cliff face. The little bit of understeer which we'd had all along became a chronic problem – I think I had Matos, Moraes and Hunter-Reay come past me on consecutive laps because I couldn't get any momentum out of Turn 1 and up the hill. If you exit Turn 1 bad, it's going to affect you all the way to the Bus Stop.
Problem is, we had to get to lap 18 if we wanted to make this a two-stop race, and apparently I was down to the cords the last four of those laps, all the way around the tire. That's the deal with understeer – once it starts, it never stops because it makes itself scrub more and more and you start locking brakes, too.
I think the team had decided enough was enough and were going to pit me and switch to a three-stop race, but then as I went to come in the pits, and I was in the slow-down lane, the red light at Pit In came on, because there'd been a full-course caution. So then I had to pull back out and lost a couple of positions, and wait with everyone else for the pits to open.
It wasn't a good stop: I didn't come in very well – I was too cautious about not making errors. And then the fuel hose got stuck, so all in all, we'd lost a ton of positions. Back there in traffic, I was on black tires and the next 10 laps were horrible: I couldn't get the car turned, and although I got by a couple of people, we decided to pit again and get me free of the dirty air and see how it would go. We put in some extra front wing, grabbed another set of blacks and then I started to run some pretty good laps. I think that's the stint I set my fastest lap.
Then as soon as I caught up with the cars ahead who'd stopped, I had an armful of understeer again. I'd gotten up to 17th, but things weren't looking good at all, especially not when I came out of the pits in 20th ahead of…I don't know, but not many cars. But during the pit stop, my engineer Yves got the guys to crank even more front wing on and gave me a set of new reds, and suddenly the car started to come to life. I got Danica and Sato in consecutive laps, then after a couple of laps I passed Tag and then Carroll.
I think some others had problems making it on fuel on two-stoppers, so I got a couple more places that way too, and we wound up 14th, which from where we were 20 laps earlier, was OK. I'll be honest with you, I was probably the only guy who didn't want the race to end: I had the bit between my teeth and I reckon only a couple more laps is all I'd have needed to get Marco who was having the same nightmare I did in my first stint. Me, I had the Honda Indy Toronto car pretty much how I'd wanted from the start of the weekend.
So not a great finish, but when a guy like Justin finishes 10th and he and I had the same problems in almost the exact same times, it's actually a help for our engineers Yves and Matt in how to go forward at other road courses like Edmonton, Mid-Ohio and Sonoma. It's a bummer, because if we could have gotten to the first pit stop in, say 10th, we'd probably have stayed around there because of everyone else's tire and understeer issues farther on through the race. Another thing: I'm sure my second stint on black tires wouldn't have been such a struggle if we'd been in clearer air. Going to the back made it much more difficult, so Dennis [Reinbold] was right to pit me again and give me some clear air for the third stint.
Obviously the engineers weren't happy with how the cars performed, and although we were able to squeak a good qualifying time, in race performance the car was just abusing the front tires. On the other hand, I don't think the D&R boys should beat themselves up too bad about it. Like I say, everyone had the same problem at some point. Well, everyone except the Penskes, obviously. Even Dario screwed his fronts, I'm hearing, and usually he's pretty kind on tires.
There was one part of the track where we were good – amazingly strong, come to think on it – and that was the Bus Stop. I could brake later there than you'd think was possible, but of course, that's where you're not pushing the lateral g loads on the fronts; you're just stopping hard, and then flicking it right-left-right. But yeah, it was incredible: in two of the passes I put on (I think) Tag and Carroll, I wasn't even alongside them when they hit the brakes and I just went flying past. It felt like I was going through about 30mph faster.
Here's another interesting thing that just kinda shows how it's impossible to get decent fuel mileage when your car's not handling right. In the first 10 laps, I made the fuel figure we'd been given no problem, and then the next six or seven laps I couldn't do it no matter what I tried. It all comes down to not being able to carry enough rolling speed into a turn, so to keep up your momentum you have to get on the gas earlier and earlier, and obviously that's when your target mileage takes a dump. Then in the final stint, when I was catching and passing other cars, going pretty much flat-out, I was hitting my fuel mileage no problem: because so much of your straightline speed comes from getting out of the corner quick, we were able to do that no problem on the fresh reds.
Summing up the weekend, I guess we can look at it as a voyage of discovery – once we had the car right, we came back and made up a bunch of spots passing some strong drivers. I was happy with my own performance – I wasn't fatigued, and this is a tough racetrack because of all the long corners and it was pretty hot. But compared to last year, when I was carrying a thermal jacket of fat, it was night and day different for me. I've been doing my training in and around Vegas, so I'm pretty used to the heat: it's been over 100degF out there for a while.
I think the DRR team owners Robbie [Buhl] and Dennis were happy with how I worked with Justin over the weekend, too. We even weigh pretty similar so we run similar weight distribution on the car, which takes some of the guess work out of setting the cars up. It meant the team could work in one direction. So after the two Canadian races with KV Racing in the Make A Wish car, I'm available and I hope Dennis and Robbie are interested. I get the impression from the people in the team that we got a good weekend of work under our belts, even if the end result wasn't what any of us were looking for.
I also want to thank Motegi Racing wheels for their efforts on my behalf. (Check out their Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Motegi-Racing/116089027007?ref=ts.) After having dinner last night with the president of the company, Jody Groser, I found out he'd been into U.S. open-wheel racing for a while – he was a CART fan and went to quite a few races back in the 1990s. So obviously he was pretty happy to be at the race, so who knows? Maybe this might spark off some more plans. At this stage, I don't know.
I'll be blogging again for the Canadian races, so if you can't be there, be here. And follow me on Twitter at @paultracy3.