I endured a tough offseason after my 2010 year in Firestone Indy Lights – by far the toughest of my career. I'd come out of a strong run in the series, but then spent all winter in the endless pursuit of funding to go racing again in 2011. In February I picked up a one day test with Conquest Racing, and that eventually led to my debut in the IZOD IndyCar Series – competing in last year's Indy 500...
Fast forward nearly twelve full months since the Conquest deal was done and here I am again, on my feet, searching, looking, seeking, hoping, and to be honest at times praying...
I thought making the race last year was genuinely the start. Maybe it was, but my start then stuttered and stalled in the ensuing races that I was able to put together. Trying to jump in and out of the series as a rookie running a partial campaign with a one-car team was in hindsight, just too much to ask. Then of course came Vegas, and while I don't want to dwell on that day in October, it's fair to say this offseason has been hell for every single one of us. While we will never forget, finding a way to move forward is the only way for life to go on.
For me, my life changed for a few months following the 2011 season finale. Following the accident, I had to undergo reconstructive surgery on my little finger. This involved three separate operations and then two months of daily hospital visits, physiotherapy, and learning how to bathe and re-bandage my hand at home. It was a struggle, but one thing kept me going. I was going to get back in a racing car.
By Christmas I was out of the main bandages and allowed back to the UK to see my family. My mother had come to stay with me in Indy after the surgery, and she was extremely happy to see the progress I'd made. I had meetings in London in January before returning to the US, and I was convinced I would still be on the grid in St Pete. Convinced.
January came and went, and nothing wanted to teeter over the edge and fall into place. My hand and I had been cleared to drive again, but I had no steering wheel to hold onto. The sponsorship we were chasing was so close to coming to fruition, but as every racing driver in this position learns again and again the hard way, almost doesn't count.
February sprinted into view, flat chat, and full throttle. I kept working hard every day in the gym, making sure that my right hand was getting better and my right arm, where they had stolen the tendon from to rebuild the joints in my little finger, was getting stronger. I wasn't allowed to train for a few months after the surgery, so cardio was another thing to work on rebuilding.
As the official test at Sebring drew closer, the sleepless nights grew more frequent. I was there, ready and waiting until the last possible minute for my phone to go off, telling me to get my backside to a race shop to make a seat. Needless to say that phone call never came. The circus went to Sebring and I was left at home.
But it's not about how you cope with things when they are going well, or even about how many times you get knocked down. It's about how you try and cope with things when they aren't going well. This job is about how you get back up again, dust yourself off, and get ready for the next round. If you quit and stay down on the ground, nobody loses but you.
I immediately started looking ahead to May, with the aim to run as many races as possible for the rest of the season.
I decided to attend the first three races of the year despite the fact I wouldn't be driving. I knew being at the track would be hard, but I also knew that staying at home on the couch would be awful - being busy is the best form of distraction.
In St Pete I driver coached a young racer (Colette Davis, -Ed.) in USF2000's National class, I gave garage tours to IndyCar Nation Champion members, I was a guest commentator on the Firestone Indy Lights race radio broadcast, and made it out to the IndyCar Fan Village where they were kind enough to welcome me despite my “non-driver status.”
For Barber I made the 500 mile drive from Indianapolis solo, and the spent the weekend keeping busy with a similar schedule to St Pete. My track shoes covered many more miles of walking, but my violin stayed firmly in its case. This was the deal I had made with myself. I could attend the races, but there was to be absolutely no pity parties. Focus on the positive, I told myself, focus on May...
The following week there was a test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Initially I had no intention of going but when the time came, I found I just couldn't help myself.
Standing there in the pitlane, watching the new car go into turn one, looking up at the pagoda, and across into the empty stands that had been full last time I saw them, the fact that I genuinely might not be out there in May hit me like a demolition ball in full swing. Reality sure knows how to throw an excellent sucker punch.
I had worked so hard at focusing on all the positive things that were happening that I had convinced myself we would close the sponsorship deal in time. I was so certain that it was going to all come good again for May, after all, this was Indy! The track where I sat on pole two years ago for the Freedom 100, and the track where I started my IndyCar journey last year. The place where in 2011, we'd made our own fairytale come true...
Last year was the toughest offseason of my career, but this year has trumped it in spades. I am trying to remain positive and deflect the body blows without buckling, but it is as much of a challenge as it is in the boxing ring. I have picked myself up off the floor numerous times, but I have not given up on May yet this year. Don't get me wrong, I'm not living in the clouds pretending that I know this is all going to work out in time, but all I can do is keep working hard, keep pushing, keep fighting, and keep going. And I promise you that if the sucker punch comes, I will be getting back up, fighting to get on the grid later this year, and doing everything I can to make that happen.
If you quit, you lose. Last time I checked my résumé, it said I was a winner.