Here's the thing about driving on a short oval. Like a big oval, it's all about "feel," and you have to hone in on the car, trying to make it as perfect as possible. Also anytime you go down one of the straights backward, it's fairly clear you're in trouble.... Do it twice in one day, and you can probably spell out T-R-O-U-B-L-E in capital letters...
I actually came to test here at New Hampshire Motor Speedway about a month ago, with the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team. The only other attendees were Will Power and Penske, so we used them as a gauge for where we thought the track should be. We left the test convinced that this was a tough, rough, tricky little place, but that we could improve the car and driver and we were somewhere in the ballpark.
We had meetings and debriefings back at the RLL shop, working out how we could come back better, faster and stronger for the race weekend. I was fitted into the freshly painted No. 30, introduced to Orland Wolford of TBC Retail Group, and we picked up sponsorship from National Tire and Battery, Big O Tires and Service Central for the remaining three races. There was an extremely positive and excited vibe building. We all thought we were coming to the "Magic Mile" to surprise a few people, and be much farther up front than a rookie in a one car team on her second ever IndyCar race should possibly be...
As one of the few drivers who had tested here, I did a lot of pre-race weekend interviews previewing the track, and how I thought it would go. I continually said that I thought that the track being such a tough place would make it difficult for some of the teams and drivers to master, and that I thought with all the bumps, it could well catch out quite a lot of cars and drivers and send them backward into the wall. We thought that we had a pretty good car, and given how tough the track is to drive, I even repeatedly said that I thought it could be a track that fired some people off backward and chewed up some cars (ahem…).
The first warning shot was fired across our bow as soon as the very first cars went out on track and started running in the first practice session. No one wants to go out there first, and effectively sweep the track for everyone else. Helio Castroneves was the first to cave – he ran around 20 laps, and got down to a similar time to that of Will Power at the test. Other people were posting comparable times, so it looked like the track was pretty good. It was time to put the Service Central rookie in the car and go find out what we had.
I just want to make it very clear that even at this point in time, we thought we were going to go out there and come back happy. We thought we were going to run a little faster than we had at the test because the track seemed a little faster, and we were going to be in the ballpark. No big deal. Just time to go out and get with the program.
One run of 15 laps later, we all knew that we were in trouble. The track was dustier and more slippery than it had been when we were here testing. Accordingly, we were a little slower. Everyone else was already faster – and not just a bit faster either. Within the first 20 laps of the day, people were going faster than the guy we had thought would be our benchmark. When you have less than half a second to find, you can make little improvements here, little improvements there, and slowly inch in on the lap time. However, when you suddenly need to be going around somewhere over a second quicker, it becomes a lot more difficult! Talk about moving the goal posts…
The track also seemed to have changed since we were here testing, possibly from the leftover rubber from the NASCAR race a couple of weeks ago.
We started trying to tune in the car, trying to improve things. I was out there hustling and pushing, trying to get the best out of what I had, and push hard enough to give detailed feedback as to what the car would do if I pushed and hustled that little bit harder to give us the right direction to improve on things. About four runs into the day, I was coming out of Turn 2, and at a point in the corner where I'm actually already back flat-out on the gas for the following straight. I was unwinding the steering lock from the wheel to let the car have its head and not scrub off speed coming onto the straight, when I suddenly found myself facing backward, and heading down the back straight rear wing first. Even a rookie knows this is not the optimum way around the track!
I came to a halt about three-quarters of the way down the back straight, and my car with tires now as flat as pancakes was towed back into pit lane. Time to go back to the trailer and try and work out what was going on out there.
An hour later, with 30 minutes left in the session, I was pulling the Service Central Racing suit up, donning my helmet, and climbing back in the car to get back to pit lane to test a couple of changes that we all hoped might help solve the issues. We went quicker on our run than we had done in the morning, but not by much, and still slower than we had in testing. While we improved things a little with the car, we still had the same handling characteristics that were giving me and the RLL engineers a headache.
In the first run of the afternoon it felt like we had started to make progress. I was back to hustling, pushing, and trying to get the very best out of what I had... And, then in a carbon copy repeat, only 15 laps into the afternoon session I was facing backward, going down the back stretch again for a second time in one day. Even before I clipped the tires right down at the other end of the straight I was exhaling a tirade of four-letter words and expletives from under my helmet. Whatever was going on, there is no pride, or dignity in getting caught out by your racecar – twice in one day, in the same damn spot!
The fact that both times she snapped so quick on me I had no chance of bringing her back is no excuse, and while I should probably be grateful for the violence of the big snaps around, as they left me going backward down the straights to scrub off speed rather than into one of the outside concrete walls, I was too annoyed and frustrated to look on the bright side. It was also a fairly obvious and public indication that we still hadn't gotten on top of this thing yet...and nobody likes to air their dirty laundry in public!
We have some fairly major wholesale changes now being thrown at the NTB No. 30 for Saturday morning's session. My goal coming into this weekend was to end up with a top 15, and that is looking like a very large pipe dream right now. However, I'm not making adjustments just yet. Thursday was just life giving me a little reminder that, despite having one entire IndyCar race under my belt, I'm still a little bit of a rookie, even compared to the other rookies running in the series.
It was also a reminder to all of us that as a one-car team, with no experienced driver, we are all relying on this rookie, this monkey in the middle here who operates the pedals, to pull her socks up and rise to the challenge. Those who follow me and read my blogs will know I'm not one to back down from a big occasion or crumble under pressure. However, I probably did come here with the illusion that this place was going to be kinder to us than it has been so far, and that we were going to be better out of the box than it turned out we were today.
That being said, there is some small, scant comfort that we're not the only ones scratching our heads. Even some of the bigger teams and more experienced drivers are in the same boat.
As a final thought, and just in case you were wondering – those rose-tinted glasses I came here wearing are now in a twisted and crumpled mess on the floor of the RLL truck. I came back from medical after that second spin, threw them on the floor, and stamped on them as hard as I could. I then ground them into pieces with the heel of my race boot.
As the old saying goes – if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.