Two weeks ago I would have put my chances of being back in an Indy car at Texas Motor Speedway for the Firestone 550 at around the 10% mark. I knew things had been positive overall throughout the month of May, and I knew I had a sponsor and team that were interested in putting me back in the car later in the year. Dale knew I had run a one day test at Texas in the previous Indy car chassis with Conquest Racing, that helped me get my Indy 500 debut in 2011, and he knew that given the chance, I deeply wanted to go racing again ASAP. However anyone who works in racing will tell you that those 10% chance deals rarely work out – even the 50% chance ones are usually pretty flaky.
But, just days after Indy started to fully wind down, and as the series moved onto Detroit without me to wind up for their big double-header weekend there, my phone started to make noise. I was sitting at home on my couch, cheering for the Dale Coyne Racing guys who were having an amazing weekend in Detroit, and keeping my fingers, and my toes firmly crossed. I got told it was happening on the Sunday, but I'm not sure I quite believed it until Monday and I got to speak to Dale himself back in the shop. The engine was going into “my” car from Indy, and the No. 63 decals were being peeled off the Cyclops Cyclone and being replaced with No. 18.
I spent most of Monday still in a state of disbelief, wondering whether somehow the carpet would get yanked from under my feet. Then on Tuesday the elation and excitement started to sink in. For the first time in years, I was going to get the opportunity to get back into a car I knew I was happy with, at a track I had been to before, with a great team behind me that I was already gelling with, and without a long forced lay off from driving a racecar.
I knew Cyclops Gear had been pleased with our marketing efforts and activation at the Indy 500, but to learn that we had doubled their sales during that period of time was an amazing realization. To have them and Dale Coyne Racing coming together to put me back in car so soon after our Indy 500 program was an extremely special feeling.
On Thursday evening I boarded the plane with my Bell helmets and Cyclops Gear suit – bound for Dallas Fort Worth airport. On Friday morning I was back in the IndyCar paddock, watching the car that was now officially mine again for the weekend getting unloaded, and meeting with the engineers.
One of the big changes IndyCar has made since I did my one-day test at Texas in 2011 is to the aero levels on the cars. With the new DW12 chassis in 2012, Texas Motor Speedway hosted the first high-banked low-aero race for most of the current generation of IndyCar drivers. This made the cars much trickier to drive, and created much-needed separation between cars to avoid us running in a big pack. It meant that while the setup was still hugely important, the driver had more control back from inside the cockpit, too, the cars were a lot more sideways, and the gaps between the good cars and the bad cars over the course of a stint or the race were huge.
All of this I only knew second hand, as I hadn't experienced any of it for myself. Also, according to our team calculations, the new aero regulations for Texas in 2013 as opposed to 2012 meant that we would be about 300lbs of downforce lighter than the previous year. This was a number that was debated and disputed throughout the paddock over the course of the weekend, with some teams feeling the loss more acutely than others, however our on track data for our team would actually show this loss as a true number for our cars. We then had a new tire that we had not tested before the weekend either, brought by Firestone to try and improve upon the tire they had at Texas the previous year. It was another unknown variable, and it was probably at this point that I started to feel a little nervous. This no longer sounded like the same place I'd had my one day test at two years ago.
How was I going to find it out there? Would it all make sense to me once I was in the car? Would the feel that is so important to me driving on an oval still be there? Was I going to go out there and just find it mega-loose and scary at 210+ mph? Were we going to unload with a great car like the guys had last year despite all the changes and the team not getting to test at Texas beforehand?
There were a lot of questions, and most of them were not ones I wanted to voice out loud. However when you have a teammate who won the race the previous year, it's a huge pool of information to draw from, and Justin Wilson was kind enough to let me sit and pick his brains about what to expect.
The biggest thing I wanted to understand before I got into the car was the sequencing to lifting off the throttle. On an oval, if you lift off the throttle too abruptly, the weight transfers from the rear of the car to the front of the car, causing oversteer. Given that oversteer and sliding was something that had been a hot topic in 2012, I wanted to understand what the technique would be, and how the car would clue me in on how much I needed to back out of the throttle compared with the previous generation of car, where you almost never backed out of throttle.
As Justin explained to me, what the car felt like and the nuances, it started to make sense in my brain. Everything he was telling me was making sense in the oval brain I developed racing in Indy Lights, despite the fact you don't lift very often on the big tracks in that series, either. It was extremely reassuring not only to be able to get an idea of what to expect, but also to find myself starting to connect the dots before I had even felt the experience for myself.
Our one 75-minute test session before qualifying started with an engine install check for the engine that had been put into my car. I pulled out of the pit box, followed the apron through Turns One and Two, up onto the track going into Three and Four, one time by, through One and Two, and then back into the pits for the guys to check everything over.
Even at slow speed, the exact nature and layout of the Texas “D” came back to me from my previous test there. However, given I had only run with Dale Coyne Racing at Indy, the steering offset on the car was cranked a little too far out for my personal tastes, and a quick change was made on pit lane for me while the guys completed their checks.
I mentally steeled myself to drive the car even if I still wanted a little more out of the steering before qualifying, as track time would be far too precious to give up if we needed a more dramatic change than one that could be done in pit lane, and it was time for my first run.