When RACER asked me to write a preview column about Fontana after getting the opportunity to test there the previous week, I was reluctant. I'm not usually superstitious, but I knew how hard it was going to be at race weekend at Auto Club Speedway, despite getting to test, and I didn't want to tempt fate. Editor David Malsher tried to convince me that a preview story allowed me to be positive, whereas a review would be very much dependent on results.
He pretty much had me convinced. Then the events of race two at Houston unfolded, followed by an extremely sad and difficult week for the entire motorsport community. Putting fingers to keyboard to talk about “me” simply didn't feel right. But asked again last Sunday for my reflections on Fontana, following a rough weekend for not only me, but our entire Dale Coyne Racing team, I figured I hadn't shied away from writing tough columns before so why start now.
Coming into this race weekend at Fontana, I couldn't wait. I had been counting down since stepping out of the car at Pocono, and having the opportunity to test a couple of weeks previous to the weekend along with the rest of the IndyCar field was a huge bonus. At the test I found the track tricky, bumpy, and very different to any other big D-shaped oval I had been on before, but I decided I liked the challenge. For someone from Indy Lights, running the bottom of the track on these big venues is often par for the course. However, at Fontana during the test, I found myself running the high line, right up by the wall. For the first time since I ever drove on an oval, I started to get comfortable up there, we felt we were improving and tuning the car.
My test had to end early due to a gear selection issue, but I had gotten up to speed, gotten valuable experience, and best of all, I'd been able to contribute. Given I was running Sonny's logos at the test, and Dale was so involved with me having that opportunity, being a true second car providing information that could also be used by teammate Justin Wilson and his engineer Bill Pappas was hugely important to me. I know it's been incredibly tough for those guys this year, to have so many of us switching in and out of the No. 18 car, and it was incredibly tough for everyone to stretch at add a third car for me at Indy too. However, everyone on the team has always gone out of their way to make me feel welcome, and a part of the organization – something I am just as grateful for as getting back in an IndyCar in the first place.
I was looking forward to the first session. The 18 was dressed in her Cyclops Gear livery again, and we unloaded just as well as I had hoped. The front was a tad on the grabby side, and the rear a little neutral, but given the DW12 normally likes to be driven with a little bit of sideways going on, I didn't think anything of it. Our car was releasing well from the corners, I was immediately up to speed and happy on the high line and running in the top 15.
So then I started working immediately on how my car would be in traffic, and experimenting with running lane 3, a lane lower than I had run in the test, but somewhere I would need to run to be able to make passes. I started to sneak up on the car in front of me, working that inside line in Turns 3 and 4, inching closer each lap. And then when I was about a car length behind him, really starting to plan and set up my pass, I caught the seam between lanes three and two with my inside front wheel.
Ah the seams. At the test I wondered what the big deal about them was. Sure, they were uncomfortable, and yes, I could see how, if you hit one, it could spin your car around as happened to Will Power the previous year. But as someone who hadn't had an issue with them at the test, I didn't think I was going to have an issue with them on race weekend.
Yup, that one really came back to bite me.