It is amazing how quickly in motor racing that you can go from hero to zero – not that I would ever claim I actually made it to the first one after Indy, but I certainly got uncomfortably close to the second after the toughest race weekend I can remember. However, one lesson that I'd already learned plenty of times is that motor racing is much like life: Sometimes, things just don't go according to plan.
There's another saying that sums this up, and one that we use fairly regularly in the business. It's a technical and highly accurate descriptive term to explain situations like last weekend – sh*t happens.
After our troubles on Thursday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, I was genuinely positive going into Saturday morning that we would have a better day. We had taken a bigger swing at the setup, and we all expected it to work. We thought we would have ourselves at least back to where we were when we came here to test. The plan was to go out, get used to the changes, and start running fast. Basically, the big, grand plan was to go out there and get with the program.
Unfortunately, it only took a few runs on Saturday morning to realize that we were still having a minor disagreement with said program. If the program were a person, it would not have been hard to imagine it standing just out of our reach, doing a little jig, pulling annoying faces and jeering at us.
I think you already know what happened next. In the final practice session before qualifying, we were running our most competitive session of the weekend, and the No. 30 car just snapped around on me so fast I didn't have a chance of catching her. If you have seen a crash in Turn 1 at Indy, where all of a sudden the driver is just facing the wrong way on the track and going backward toward the wall at a great rate of knots, that was me in Turn 2 at New Hampshire. I know I said in my previous blog that I was done with going backward down the back stretch facing Turn 2 instead of Turn 3, but that was not meant to be an invitation for fate to fire me straight backward into the wall instead!
Before my first IndyCar race at Indy, I was told how to crash at the speedway. I know this sounds like an odd thing to tell a rookie driver, but when you crash at that place and do the classic backward-into-Turn 1 Big One and you crash like a rookie, it's very easy to get hurt more than is necessary. When you know you've lost the car, you have to push yourself back into the seat, and your head back into the head rest so as to cushion the impact as much as possible. Hands off the wheel, relax and try to breathe out before you hit, because if you're tense you will likely sustain more serious injuries. Rookies tend to lean forward and brace themselves – both bad things when sustaining a big impact. In the split seconds before I hit, I tried to use some brain power and apply what I needed to do. I managed just about everything except the big exhale before the big hit.
In IndyCar racing on ovals, the facts of life are very simple. You have either hit the wall, or you are going to. Having spent the past two seasons in Firestone Indy Lights where the same rules apply, I knew my little tryst with the tires at the very end of the back stretch the day before didn't count. Joining the have-hit-the-wall club in your second-ever race weekend, before you get to the race is certainly a long way from ideal, but this is oval racing. When things go wrong, it happens. And if you can't simply accept that as a fact of life, it's probably time to get a new job!
Hitting a concrete wall, with an impact of around 125G (I missed the SAFER barrier and went directly into concrete) is obviously not something I would recommend. Having not managed my exhale it knocked the wind out of me in a particularly vicious way, and the first pain came from my left leg where my knee had managed to smash up into the base of the dash, and my ankle against the dead pedal. I was also immediately aware that I was going to have a pretty stiff back and neck despite the HANS device and making sure I was pushed back where I was intended to be.
In those first few moments following the impact, it didn't necessarily feel that much worse than a couple of my Indy Lights hits. However, as I was led away from the now much less pretty looking NTB Rahal Letterman Lanigan No. 30 toward the waiting ambulance, the immediate onset headache left me in no doubt I'd had my bell severely rung, and even if the guys could somehow transform her into a proper car again for Sunday, there was no chance I would be medically cleared to get back in.
I was transferred to Concord Hospital, where I underwent tests and x-rays, and was diagnosed with a fairly nice little concussion. It's now four days later, and while it has subsided significantly, I still have a headache. The x-rays did come back clear, but the IndyCar medical team has seen this level of impact before, and they wanted to be sure I went in for an MRI when I returned to Indianapolis. We were unable to do the MRI at the hospital in Concord, due to the fact that my body was so disorientated that whenever they tried to lie me flat, I felt like I was being tipped up at a 45-degree angle with my head hanging off the end of the bed!
I do now have the results back, and in basic terms I managed to bang myself up fairly well, and did a pretty good number on a couple of the vertebrae in my back. The good news is, I am built like an ox, so while painful, it's nothing too serious and the doctors are hopeful I will be back in four to six weeks. Given that my next race is scheduled for six weeks' time, I'll take that diagnosis and run with it.
To say that this was not how I, or the team thought this weekend would go is somewhat of an understatement. But it's definitely not the first curve ball I have been thrown in my career, and it probably won't be the last. I desperately wanted to be out there on Sunday representing Service Central Racing and National Tire and Battery, but this weekend it was not to be.
The past few days have been a whirlwind of emotion. Waiting to find out exactly what I had done, and how long I would be out has made me moody, upset and at times angry. The headaches have made me tired and grumpy. I have entertained scenarios where I go after Turn 2 late one night when it's dark with a baseball bat and see how it likes it! However, now I have my diagnosis, and more importantly my prognosis, I can already feel my attitude shifting back to where it should be. It may have taken me a couple of days to consign Saturday to the past and start focusing on the future, but I am now definitely there. And, in four to six weeks, I will be back.