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. The line started moving forward again, cars taking to the track and setting their times. Then it was me. Out of the pits, onto the steep banking into Turn 1, building up the speed, trying to wind the car up as fast as possible without taking any unnecessary risks. All the way back to the front straight and until Turn 1 with some speed for the first time. A little bit of push, and I adjusted my in cockpit tools slightly going down to Turn 2. The car felt good through 3 as I came to the green. Back to Turn 1. Too much push, I had to lift to get the car to turn, and cursed myself for being too cautious with the tools I had at my disposal at the lower aero level. I adjusted again, this time giving the car more of what I thought it needed, and steeling myself to hang onto the rear for grim death if I needed to next time through.
Turns 2 and 3 were no drama, but then it was the long straight to the white flag, and Turn 1 was approaching again. I held up high as long as I could, then dove the car down toward the inside, this time my adjustments worked, and I was able to carry full throttle. Turn 1 and I were even at a one all draw, and my second lap came up in the 217s. I had produced a good run and even out-qualified Justin, and while Dale and the guys on the No.18 crew were pleased with my effort, I was only pleased with my second lap. I hate leaving time on the table like that in qualifying!
The evening session was all focus on the racecar, and despite thinking we had made progress on Thursday when we last worked on trying to run with other people, I struggled mightily in the dirty air. I coined the push I had coming off Turn 3 “the death push” and images of my right front sliding up and whacking the outside wall giving me another bent toe link flashed before my eyes. I pitted, and we tried changes in our short session. We improved, but for race day, it wouldn't be enough.
After the evening session, we were also offered the option to change our engine for the newer specification. Both Justin and I took up the opportunity despite the grid penalty it would mean. Given a couple of people had crashed in testing anyway, we would only be moving back a few spots on the grid rather than the full 10, and the potential to have better mid-range power for where we expected to be constantly on and off the throttle, driving the cars in traffic throughout the race was too good an opportunity to pass up. It was a late night for the guys, and with install check at 8 a.m. the following day, it was an early start again for everyone on the team.
Next came the autograph session, then trying to eat something for lunch at around 10:30, ready for the race at noon. I tried to stay hydrated, cool and calm. And this time – unlike Indy in 2011, and Texas in 2012 – and despite knowing that everything could be riding on how this race went, I was surprisingly collected. Getting strapped in, I knew the pressure was on for nothing at all to go wrong, and I knew I had to make absolutely sure that I controlled everything possible that was within my control from inside the cockpit, all day long.
At the green flag I took a cautious approach, making sure I didn't get caught in anything on lap one, then the guys made a great call to come in and top off while we were under the first lap caution. That call would come back and pay huge dividends for us later in the race. At the restart, I took a similar approach, then just settled in and started to try and hunt down the cars ahead of me. In my first stint I passed several people, including Justin who was struggling with his car during the first part of the race. Then I was chasing down Graham Rahal again, and when he pitted a couple of laps earlier than me, I thought I had my chance.
I was pushing like crazy, but I had cars coming out of the pits slowly in front of me on both of my laps in what would have been clean air. Apparently I was also momentarily in the lead of an Indy car race for the first time as we cycled through pit stops on my lap on the way into the pits. The guys gave me a great clean stop, and I was back out on track again... just as the yellow and black car of Graham flashed past me at full speed. The Cyclops Gear car and I gave chase.
In the second stint I really struggled getting past lapped traffic – a couple of guys already struggling, and already a lap down. I kept getting my timing wrong, and getting stuck in that nasty window of three to five car lengths back, unable to get close enough to get the big tow and complete the pass. The leaders were coming. Then I was juggling being lapped, while trying to race and lap, while trying not to make any mistakes. A yellow came out for a pit lane incident and effectively saved me. That splash of extra fuel, that slightly later first stop, meant I was still on track. At the restart I would now be back on the tail end of the lead lap, with another chance to fight again.
The rest of my afternoon felt pretty much like a knife fight with traffic one lap down on me all day long. I spent the entire day working on my three to five cars lengths back rhythm trying to figure out how to get close enough to complete the pass. They were running their race the same as I was running mine, and I knew it was my job to get there and make the pass happen. But that didn't make it any easier – and it didn't make a couple of my radio transmissions any politer!
I was playing with my weight jacker continuously, and playing with my engine map settings every time I needed a little more to try and help me out. I was running in the top 15, but I needed to find a way around these guys. Somehow, someway, I had to get this done. And then, finally, some precious clean air to run to the end. I thought the hardest part of the race was done. I was wrong.
With 10 laps to go, the leaders were coming to put me one lap down. I was racing other cars on the same lap as me, trying to save fuel, and about to be lapped traffic again myself – all at the same time. My rule of thumb quickly became that once the lead lap car was within one car length and coming with the run I would feather throttle and make it easy to pass me, then tuck back in behind. This helped me with fuel, cost me as little time as possible, and allowed me to afford some courtesy to those racing for the win. I know a couple of guys got stuck in that nasty three to five car lengths back off me that I had been stuck behind with my lap traffic all day, and trust me I know how much it sucked back there, but I had my race to run too. And as soon as they finally got their run on me, I made sure it was an easy pass.
Then on the last lap I started to run out of fuel. I dived for the bottom of the racetrack, no longer able to maintain pace, changed the fuel map, stayed half-throttle and just kept hoping there would be enough for me to make it back. I was passed by one of the cars one lap down that I was now racing since the leaders went past me just a few laps before, and slipped back to 15th, but the next car didn't quite make it to me in time, and I made it across the line down low by the pit wall still holding onto our hard fought 15th-place finish.
Pocono Raceway was a tough place to turn up, jump in a car, and run. But we did it, and we contributed another top 15 to keeping the No.18 car inside the Leaders Circle points for 2014. I am incredibly grateful to Dale Coyne for putting me back in the car this weekend, for the opportunity he and Cyclops Gear gave me, and to the entire 18 team crew who did such a great job again all weekend long. I was also extremely grateful to come away with the kind of solid race run under my belt that I needed, and that those guys deserved from me.
I will be back behind the wheel for the final IndyCar race of the year in Fontana – Dale has already decided that I will be driving again for this team there, and it's a pretty amazing feeling to know I have another race already lined up with such a great group of people, and such a great sponsor. My only issue is that fall can't get here soon enough. As the start of every year, most people associated with the IndyCar series, myself included, started asking at regular intervals whether it's May yet. Now I have a new one – is it October yet?