Saturday evening drew in with very similar weather to the day before. Hot, but not stinking hot, perfectly dry and with a light breeze – just about perfect race day weather on all counts. I have never done an evening race where I haven't been on track for anything else all day before, and I discovered that unfortunately it gave my nerves plenty of time to breed, and my confidence time to start waning away. I found myself asking so many of the same questions internally that I had asked myself the previous day before I ran at all, and I probably looked very nearly as green as I looked before my first Indy 500 in 2011.
I was asked on the grid by a respected journalist how I thought it was going to go, and after one look at my face he was kind enough to reassure me that about half the field looked like me right now, with no idea which way it was really going to go for them out there on track. I took a deep breath and forced a smile.
Once strapped in the car, waiting for the command, I started to feel calm again. My heart beat came back down, and I felt at home in my office environment. As the engines fired and we started to leave the pits, all those anxious feelings started to dissipate, and I was suddenly immensely looking forward to the race again. I had a plan to try and help my tires last for the entire stint without pushing them too hard on that heavy fuel load. I had a whip-smart engineer helping me, an experienced teammate who we would also be able to get reads from during the race, and a great spotter who I trusted implicitly. You don't get combinations like that very often in your career, and despite the fact it would be my first start at Texas Motor Speedway in any series, and my first low-aero high-banked race, I was really looking forward to seeing what I had out there, and how everyone else's handful stacked up to mine!
I knew I might look like a rookie in the pit stops, having not even got to practice more than two of them at Indy, and only having had four IndyCar starts prior in my career, but all of a sudden I was much less worried about feeling like a rookie out on the track. I wanted to go green, and I wanted to go racing.
Two formation laps, and one pace lap later, the green flag flew. My start was not what I wanted, and I assumed it was because I got caught out by the concertina effect, and was off-throttle just at the wrong time compared to those around me. No biggie, I wasn't that concerned. I would make the places back up throughout the stint, and throughout the race if the car was good, and I would work on my timing for the next start.
I followed through Turns One and Two being a little cautious, but the car felt much better than I expected despite the turbulence. I pushed a little harder through turns three and four, and I could feel the tires already coming to pressure, and that the car was handling so much better over the transitions.
However, I didn't seem to be accelerating, and despite the tow, the cars ahead were leaving me. I feathered the throttle just enough to run a lap in the 208mph range through Turns One and Two the second time by, but I was still getting left behind.
I started to wonder whether my foot was catching the brake. We had moved the dead pedal where I rest my left foot out of the way overnight to try and make me a little more comfortable in the car, and I wondered whether we had somehow got it wrong, and I was somehow riding the brake. I double and triple checked down the back straight, but nope, I was definitely not on the brake. The field pulled away more through Three and Four, and my speed across the stripe for the lap was turgid. I didn't understand because my lifts were increasing small, and I made the decision to just try and drive the car flat out for a few laps to make sure I stayed in tow even if I paid for it later in the stint by damaging the tires early on.
As soon as I turned into Turn One on the third lap flat out, and the car was under that much load, I knew something was going wrong. By the time I came out of Two I was already off throttle and heading to the bottom of the racetrack when she blew. The guys told me they could see flame with the smoke, so I stayed off line, and parked in front of the safety crew to make sure the fire was extinguished as quickly as possible. Needless to say, my day was done.
Back on the timing stand in pit lane I watched the lap times with interest over the course of the first stint, and the realization set in that our 30-lap stint the previous day in the same conditions had actually been as good as other people told me it was. I'm still not sure whether that worked as consolation that we really had potential that night, or whether it just fueled the frustration of not being able to go out there and really find out.
I was gutted for my sponsor Cyclops Gear that we hadn't been able to go out there and run the Cyclops Cyclone in front of all those spectators, and I was gutted for my guys who had worked so hard, and had given me what would potentially have been another great car. However this is racing: We go out there, we push the limits, and our engine manufacturers do the same, too – that's what competition is about. One week earlier Honda had been kicking butt in Detroit, as had Dale Coyne Racing, so I was so disappointed for them to lose an engine in that way, too.
But, I grew up watching this sport as a little girl, and I absolutely understand that things like this are just part and parcel of the package sometimes. It happens, and this weekend, it just so happened to happen to me. Does it feel a little crueler because I don't get to run again next weekend, and because my chances to race are so limited? Maybe. But that doesn't change the fact that sometimes this is just the way it goes.
So for now, I just want to take a moment at the end of this column to reiterate my thanks to both Dale Coyne Racing and Cyclops Gear for making this past weekend possible for me. Two weeks ago I didn't think I would have this opportunity, and while I didn't get to race, I learned a huge amount about what to expect from the car, and what I want from my car should I get to go back to Texas, or to a similar style low-aero high-banked fast track in the future.
I also want to thank all the fans who were kind enough to tweet at me, and get in contact with me via my Facebook page. It means a huge amount to me that so many got in touch, and I want you to know that yes, I am working hard to be back again with Dale Coyne Racing. So far those guys have given me two great cars, but we just don't have what we want to show for it on paper. Here's to putting things together for another run later this year, and third time being the charm!