At 6 pm. on Tuesday July 2, I got a phone call. That phone call told me to get on a flight to Pocono the next morning. I was told no deal was done, but obviously if I wasn't there, there was no chance I would be driving a racing car at the weekend. So I set my alarm for 5am the following morning, and I got on the plane.
I knew the plan was for me to jump back in the No.18 Dale Coyne Racing car, and it was “my” car – the chassis I had driven at Indy and Texas, complete with her Cyclops Gear decals – that was waiting in the garages for me when I got there. But I also knew that losing our motor early at Texas, coupled with my rookie mistake at Indy had hurt us. I knew Dale wanted me to drive, and was trying to help make things happen, but there I was, in the paddock, genuinely unsure whether the No. 18 would even run the next day. Word came through at about 5 p.m. on Wednesday evening, before the open test started at 9 a.m. the next morning. Dale had made things happen, and I was getting back in a racecar.
One of the reasons Pocono had always been on my radar, and the team's radar for me, if that it is another of the big tracks where in the past I have been able to just jump in and get up to speed. Pocono was also new to everyone in the series, and there would be an open test before the race weekend so, hopefully, I would be at less of a disadvantage than some of the other places I could have tried to just show up and run at.
However, there had been tire tests and manufacturer tests at Pocono before the open test, and very few drivers and teams were turning up in the same position as we were at Dale Coyne Racing – with no laps under our belts. To use one of my favorite phrases borrowed from Top Gear...how hard can it be?
As usual, the answer is, very! A couple of slow laps late on Wednesday evening with Justin Wilson in the road car started to enlighten us both as to why they have nicknamed this place the Tricky Triangle. The massive banking into Turn 1 feels like it's trying to pull the car down to the inside before you want to let it go, and the corner feels like it tightens up at the exit, the line you want narrowing, and the wall coming up to meet you. Turn 2, modeled after Indianapolis, has very little banking, more of a hard kink for an Indy car than an actual corner, and definitely the first place we would be able to carry full throttle. Then Turn 3 is a similar style corner to Milwaukee, with very little banking and a very long radius.
At that moment the thought that I had never driven Milwaukee in an Indy car, only once in Indy Lights in 2009, might have crossed my mind. It might have been followed by the fact that Turn 1 seemed most similar to Iowa, and I have never driven an Indy car there, either. I was going to have some serious learning to do on Thursday!
So Thursday morning, on pit lane, I had the visor down. We completed our install check, and then when the track went green for testing I got to take the Cyclops Gear No.18 out for our first run on Pocono Raceway. Turn 1 made an impression immediately. The pull of the banking as you approach at speed, trying to force the car into the turn too early while you try to fight the physics in play and force yourself to stay high, is unlike any other track I have ever experienced. Turn 2 seemed less of a kink and more of a corner all of sudden, and Turn 3 felt like it went on forever, with the car sliding out from underneath me through the long radius.
My first exploratory run was eye-opening, and at moments heart rate-raising. Throughout the morning we worked purely on getting me comfortable in the car on the track, and finding what I needed to give me the confidence to keep finding speed. Turn 2 came full throttle first, and then it started to become just a big fast kink in the back of the track as opposed to a full corner. Turn 3 started to come next, finally finding the way through a short oval, flat-style corner while carrying speed and pedal toward the floor. But it wasn't easy. In fact, that was even a conversation we had over the intercom during one of my stops! I was, however, getting close. Turn 1, though, was proving a whole different ball game.
In the afternoon we kept working, and the guys kept tuning on the car for me, and I kept tuning on my driving – changing the lines, trying different things. I also started trying to finally get comfortable enough to start trying to follow other cars. That's when I discovered the other reason they call Pocono Raceway the Tricky Triangle – this is one tough place to follow another car.
You start losing grip at Pocono Raceway from around five to six car lengths back, and even getting inside that to around three back is the first challenge. Then it's working out how to try and get somehow from three to five car lengths back into a position where you can get a run and attempt to pass people. By the end of the day I had the hang of Turn 3 in clean air, was getting much closer to where I needed to be in Turn 1, and I was starting to get myself and my Cyclops Gear car into that window of three to five car lengths back in the dirty air. It was a massive learning day, and while Pocono may pride itself on its unique three-turn layout – with “What Turn 4?” painted on the wall on the exit of 3 – for me, the learning curve was definitely my personal Turn 4.
Friday had the odd distinction of being an off day for us. I was at the track at stupid o'clock for an interview for local news, then spent the morning getting better fitted back into the Cyclops Gear car to make me more comfortable during the race. I had turned nearly an entire race distance in laps the previous day, and Justin had “borrowed” “my chassis” for a test at Mid-Ohio.
We made a couple of changes, fitted a little more soft foam to a couple of areas inside the tub where I was discovering new bruises. We also spent time in the engineering office, working out what changes we wanted to try on Saturday. While we had had plenty of time on Thursday, on Saturday we would have just one hour long session before qualifying, then the one warm-up lap and two timed laps of qualifying itself, then a final 30-minute session after qualifying to fine-tune the cars for the race the next morning. Not a lot of track time.
It was important to get up to speed quickly in the first session, and get with the program. Our "overnight" changes from the test day on Thursday worked on my No. 18 machine, and all of a sudden with a couple of night's sleep to let things sink in since last driving, Turn 1 started to make more sense to me. The speeds got faster, we started to take our aero levels lower, trying to get me closer to what I would be attempting to qualify.
The only place I have ever driven a DW12 with such low aero is in qualifying trim at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Trying to sneak up on less and less downforce in a short session with an inexperienced driver was very much a process of a little at a time. As the flag flew on the session, we knew what we wanted to run mechanically, but we had to decide how brave we were going to get on aero level for qualifying proper. We also ended up a tic too far off with the gears for both cars, meaning the gears for qualifying would be an educated guess. Back in the engineering room as we went through the final numbers, I asked to be excused to get a pair of big girl panties to make me feel equipped to run with the rear wing number that had been decided upon!
Qualifying line is always one of the more tense times of a race weekend. Normally I start to feel better once I'm strapped in the car, but this time the intense heat and humidity beat down on me, not allowing me to relax. Then one of the cars ahead of me in line made a mistake and had heavy contact with the wall, his car stepping out right where mine had bobbled on more than one occasion. Sitting in the car, strapped in, sweating from the heat and the nerves, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. In my second year of Indy Lights I qualified on pole at every single super speedway we raced at. I have qualified for the Indy 500 under extreme pressure twice. I could do this.