The past year has definitely been something of a rough and bumpy ride. I've found myself on the sidelines fighting for a chance to secure a ride, and then once I was strapped into the Conquest car, I was fighting to make the field at this year's Indy 500. Though it was a battle we won, I then fought in the race against severe dehydration. I dragged everything out of myself to bring the car home in that race, but according to my critics I somehow should have accomplished more.
Some of the right people were paying attention to my performance in May, though. I landed a ride to run a few more races with Rahal Letterman Lanigan, and found a new sponsor in Service Central Racing. I'll be honest with you, joining a team with such a strong reputation as RLL, and with Bobby Rahal at the helm, at that time I expected the waters to get calmer, and the sailing to get smoother. Little did I know I was wrong.
At New Hampshire Motor Speedway we had to go to ground and fight again, but this time it was for pace. Tenths of a second can be cruelly elusive, and drivers and teams will always push themselves to the very limits to attempt to find them. Looking back, it was a tough place for a one-off rookie driver to try and go, but riding on the confidence that came from my performance at Indy, we all genuinely thought that we were in for shot. Instead, in a video clip with audio that makes nearly everyone around me cringe, I was shot backward into a concrete wall unprotected by SAFER barrier and suffered an end-plate fracture of the C7 vertebrae.
The following month we arrived in Kentucky, which for me, was meant to be a homecoming. I had won the race there the previous year in Firestone Indy Lights, and it was somewhere I knew and liked. Kentucky this year at less than 60 degrees ambient all weekend long turned out to be a very different beast from the Kentucky of the previous year. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing also had a good track record there, earning back-to-back poles in 2004 and 2005, but the temperatures were going to make things difficult. Through testing, we thought we honed in on a good racecar for the conditions, but then during the very first stint on race day we realized that the track grip had changed considerably overnight.
I'm proud of the way we fought back to a much better car during the course of that race, and of everything we learned. But it didn't change the fact that we were once again engaged in battle rather than having the fast clean smooth run we had all been hoping for.
In between the Kentucky and Las Vegas events, I spent even more time working with the engineers at the team shop in Columbus, trying to work our way forward for the next race. Learning experiences can be extremely positive for future direction as long as you learn from them, and we were determined to make the most of ours. Everyone in the organization, including me, was totally focused on producing two good racecars in Vegas for myself, my new teammate Jay Howard, and our Service Central Racing partners.
In the very first practice session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, it was obvious our labors had started to pay off. We honed in on the car I wanted to race with, I found people to run with in almost every session, and my confidence in both the car and myself really started to return. We weren't fast in clean air, but we were quicker in the dirty air that bounced off the other cars around me. Sunday morning pre-race was frantic. The public drivers meeting seemed like a great idea, but ate away at the time, and I barely had time to wolf down some lunch between it, an appearance for Service Central and getting into my RLL race day suit. I didn't really have time during the morning to think about the race, I just knew we had had a good car in traffic in testing, and I was hoping we would gradually march toward the front through the big pack.
People who asked me about the race before we went out there got much the same response they would have by asking any other driver. We all thought it was going to be tight, fast and close, however, I didn't for one moment think we would see what we saw happen on Sunday. It had been so long since such a big accident that I think most of us thought that the big issue was simply going to be avoiding getting caught out by a three- or four-car wreck.
My race began well – I had a good start, but then got hemmed in on the bottom of the racetrack and dropped back a little. Three or so laps in, I found some space on the outside, and with my car already giving me signals as to just how good she was, we started our march to the front. In the moments before the crash I was making steady progress through the field and having as much fun as I've had in a racecar all year.
Seconds later I saw the scene starting to unfold before me. I had no idea of the magnitude, but I could see cars spinning everywhere. Normally, you aim for a car and it will have moved by the time you get there, but on this occasion there was so much chaos one car would have been replaced by another spinning car by the time I got there.
As I was trying to slow, I thought I saw a gap, but needless to say it closed. In that instant I knew I was done for the race, and I knew it was going to be big.
Motor racing always has been, and always will be dangerous – as the sport becomes safer, so the tragedies become thankfully sparser, but each one then stands out ever more stridently in front of us. I still can't believe Dan's gone – he was a great guy. He will be missed by everyone and our sport is a poorer place without him.
As for my personal injuries, my hand will need skin, tendon, nerve and blood vessel grafts, plus some physical therapy to make it useful again, but I'm expected to be fit enough to drive again by January, and make a full recovery within six months. Despite everything that has happened this year, I will be spending my recovery time fighting to do all I can to ensure that I'll be back in a car next year.