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.
I headed back out onto track, and was able to slot into a nice gap without traffic. Running around other cars is great when you already know what you have under you, and where you want to be, but for those first exploratory laps you generally want some nice clean air, and a little bit of track space so that you can play and feel out what you've got.
The first big thing I noticed was that without the aero on the car, the transitions to and from the high banks into Turns One and Three, and out of Two and Four, were extremely pronounced. It wasn't something you noticed in the old-style Indy car, but in this one they were a big part of the handling. The transition on the way in made the turn in feel faster than it had in the old car, and the transition on the way out would give you a pop of loose every lap, the size of the pop depending on the angle you hit the transition at, and the amount of steering lock you had in the car from the middle of the corner.
The compression in the middle of the corner at Texas has always been big, but when you are light on aero, and sliding your tires fighting for grip, it really helps push the car back into the racetrack giving you confidence. The lifts on the throttle were not the big lifts I was expecting coming into the weekend, but more “breaths” where you bring your foot slowly back to 80%, 70%, maybe even 60 or 50% throttle as the tires wear or you get into traffic. This helps the car keep turning, and means you can keep the entry to the corner over the first transition a little more delicate, and have less steering lock in the wheel over the transition on the way out to make sure the little pop of loose that's coming doesn't become any bigger drama than needed.
Then there's the line. For years IndyCar ran on the low line through the big ovals; however now it often looks much more like a classic racing line – with a wider entry, a low apex – than a high exit, or you get people up riding the cushion trying to carry more speed, in what is almost a stock car-style fashion. I also answered a very important question during the first run that had been hovering in the back of my mind – would I like this style of driving, and would I be able to use the same feel? While the Cyclops Cyclone was definitely a handful from the get-go, and certainly held my attention, the answer was an empathic yes on both counts.
For those wondering why there were so few people who spun all weekend when the cars were moving this much for most of us, compared to the old chassis, you can get the DW12 pretty sideways and still bring her back in line as there tends to be less of the big snap. When she goes, she still really goes, but until that point you can chase after her with your hands to try and bring her back in line. This is what people would be doing lap, after lap, after lap, all night long on Saturday. After my first full-speed run I was already starting to understand that having a setup which allowed you that forgiveness to chase and catch continuously would be incredibly important come race night.
For the rest of the session my engineer and I worked on the car, trying a couple of different strategies and directions. Justin had an issue and was not able to run representative laps during the session to provide more team feedback, so we were flying solo and relying on the feedback of someone making her second-ever DW12 appearance on her first Texas race weekend appearance, and her first time on the high banks with low aero.
However, as the session went on, the car started to come toward us. We didn't run as fast as we had earlier in the session due to the fact that when you slide a big, heavy Indy car around this much at high speeds, it takes its toll on the life of the tires, but we were confident we had found a direction and were making progress. The loss of downforce for our team, on our cars, did affect our handling, and did mean that last year's car was not going to be where we raced this year. The end of the session came far too soon for us as we had plenty more we wanted to try.
Back in the garage area, there was a big rush to get ready for qualifying. As I drew an early number, we had about 45 minutes to decide on any changes, and get them on the Cyclops Gear car before she was required in tech, and then in line to qualify. We made the group decision to not trim out, and instead to use the three laps as a clean air, quick read test – to re-baseline the car on new tires after all of our changes. It wasn't going to result in a big qualifying speed, but grid position was much less important to us than continuing the work on our racecar for the following evening.
Out on pit lane, we discovered that two other cars that were meant to be in front of us had not made it there in time, and as such would miss qualifying and start from the back. The extra three-lap run was too important to both cars in our team to miss, and the Dale Coyne Racing crew did a great job getting both Justin and I down there in time. My run was good and clean, and while we weren't fast compared to those who trimmed out, we were faster than we had run in the morning on the exact same aero, and the handling was better. Given we were running race trim, we were actually fairly pleased.
The big thing for the evening session was going to be to try and get me comfortable in traffic before race day. We would only have a 30-minute session, but we wanted to run fat with fuel, do long runs so that I could learn how to look after the tires, and find me a few people to try and play with so I would have more of an idea of what to expect. We also wanted to continue our work on trying to make the car handle better over the transitions, and trying to make her better up in the top lane where I hadn't yet been able to run.
My first long run showed our speed in race trim compared to everyone else, and the speed I set in that run stayed in the top 10 for the entire session, but in running that hard I learned a valuable lesson for race day about not abusing my tires early in a stint while the car was heavy with fuel. On my second set of used tires, I approached things a little differently and was able to rattle off a 30-lap stint of relatively consistent speeds with little drop-off. I started to work in traffic, and I tried the high line a couple of times but we just got too sideways up there with too little grip, so I was limited to trying to find air underneath people.
The good news was that few people could run as low as me in the middle of the corner lap after lap, and once they left my air for even a quarter of my front wing down there mid corner, it allowed me to get a good run off, draft up behind them, and make the pass stick on the inside at the other end of the track. I had a few big pushes up the track where the snap of oversteer on the transition made me hold my breath, but overall I was starting to get the idea of what I needed to do, and where I needed to be.
After the session the crew were pleased with both of my runs, and I had a couple of texts from people that I respect who noticed how things had gone. Still unused to the new scenario, at the time I wasn't quite convinced that my 30-lap stint would be quite fast enough for race day, but we still had a couple of areas to work on with the car. We were still working away at those transitions, and I was pleased to hear that Justin had not only been on track with his issue resolved, but had also found a solution that allowed him to run the high line if he needed to. That was one of the few key pieces of the puzzle I was still missing, and between Justin's engineer Bill and my engineer JD, a plan was made for the following night.
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!