At 8:30 p.m. on the Wednesday before Rookie Orientation at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – just 12 hours before the track was due to go green – I was still at the Conquest Racing workshop, working on driver fit with the guys. My car was the same car I'd used at Texas, but since then it's been my teammate Sebastian Saavedra's spare car, so everything in it was set up for him.
It became “my” car again after it returned from Brazil, just one week earlier. But the moment it arrived, it had to be stripped to be body-fitted and then sent to paint. Racing on ovals requires a lot of detailed preparation, and none more so than at Indianapolis. Everything has to be done just right, and everything takes time. Time, however, was a commodity that we were extremely short of.
The Rookie Orientation Program at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is not optional – it's mandatory. We had to be ready. But, at the same time, everyone was absolutely determined to make sure that everything got done properly. By the time I'd been fitted back into the car and was at home in bed, the guys were still working. They finally went home when 3 a.m. rolled around, only to be back at work at IMS just three hours later. When I arrived at 7 a.m., they were still working.
Mid-morning, we were ready to roll out onto pit lane and out onto the track. It was time for me to get strapped in – my first day back in a racing car since testing at Texas two months ago, and my second ever day driving an IndyCar. Sure, we all knew I'd done a good job at that previous test, but this wasn't Texas. We were at the fastest course in the world – the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It wasn't about talking anymore. For me and the other six rookies participating in ROP, it was soon to become about reality.
My pole speed of 191mph from last year in the Firestone Freedom 100 wouldn't even get me through the slowest of the four speed phases – five laps of 200-205mph. All the hard work, all the effort, all the preparation, all the planning would only count for so much. Now the baton had been firmly passed to me.
The front stretch at Indy is only 50 feet wide. The turns are wider, but the groove is almost one line. There is almost no banking in the corners to help you, or help save you if you make a mistake. The entry into Turn 1 is completely blind due to the stands on the inside of the track and the end of the pit wall. At 220mph, if you wait to see the apex to turn in, you won't make the corner. And as we were reminded at drivers briefing, there are no small mistakes at Indy.
First run of the day. If everything felt good, the plan was to get through the first two phases of the program on our first set of tires, and run up to 210mph. Due to the fact no one had been on track other than the two-seater car, the circuit was completely green and dusty, as it normally is for the first Firestone Indy Lights test. I remembered the previous year how much the dusty surface had eaten my tires, and stripped them bare to the canvas in just a few laps.
Lap 1. 200mph. Lap 2. 204mph. Lap 3. 207mph. Lap 4. 210 mph. Lap 5. 214mph.
I could hear officials from the IZOD IndyCar Series on the radio, but I couldn't quite hear what they wanted. In exactly the same way as had happened to me in the Lights car the previous year in qualifying, my dash had decided that it didn't want to play with me. I was still meant to be running the speeds of my first two laps, not steadily building as my comfort level rose, but I didn't have the mph. I was just doing what felt right.
My engineer came on the radio and relayed the information. Apparently I was giving quite a few people palpitations. I was required to rein it in and he gave me my speed every lap. I just worked on trying to stay down below 210, but gradually, toward the end of the run, after I had lost count of how many laps we had done, they started to creep up again.
When I started to feel the tires going away, I radioed to pit in. I was told that we were already halfway through phase three of running 210-215. New boots went on the car, we went back on track. On cold tires there was no issue. On the first flying lap, I was already at 217mph, despite lifting. This time I had my dash and, as the radio crackled into life, I started backing away from that speed, counting down the laps until I was set free into phase four – 10 laps above 215.
As soon as we were clear, we jumped to 218-219mph for a string of laps fast enough to put me second on the current time sheets, and just enough laps to complete phase four. By almost midday I was out of the car, and our ROP was complete.
We had completed our plan with minimum fuss and effort, just quiet efficiency. We didn't want to use tires and engine miles on a barely rubbered-in track. My Conquest Racing guys had worked relentlessly to get the car together and needed to be able to rest. May is a marathon; we have barely made it through the first mile.
So, when you look back at the time sheets, and compare us to everyone else who ran and ran, our performance may have slipped under the radar. That doesn't bother us – we know what we've got.