For Carb Day at this year's Indianapolis 500, my engineer and I had a fairly long list to work through with the Cyclops Gear car and her driver. Having sat out and watched the group running on Bump Day, to leave our car in qualifying trim in case we needed to run again, and having made sure to count our miles during the testing before qualifying weekend, getting me out there in a group was our number one priority. However, I was also a driver who had not done an Indy car pit stop in nearly two years (my Auto GP ones at the end of last year don't really count as European racing pit boxes are a lot easier to get in and out of than Indy car ones). So getting some pit stop practice in was priority number two.
Our third and final item on our wish list was to get back out for a couple of in and out laps at the very end of the session with some tires I would be allowed to junk. The reason for this was to try and give me practice hard on the brakes coming into pit lane, and to not be worried about locking them up and flat-spotting them. All week during testing you pit off the Turn Three warm up lane, but on Carb Day and race day you pit coming off Turn Four.
After qualifying weekend, the guys had stripped down and rebuilt the Cyclops Gear car as part of routine maintenance to make sure she was in the best possible shape for the race. I had been sent to Dayton, Ohio, and there had been the usual hoopla of events and appearances that surround the Indy 500. Carb Day is always one of the busiest days of the entire month, and for me it was going to be no exception. After we completed our long to-do list, I was going straight from the cockpit to the booth to call the Firestone Indy Lights race, then back to the garage for an hour or so with engineering, then onto four evening appearances in a row. However, my mind wasn't on the busy schedule ahead of me, it was purely on getting back in the car, and getting through as much of our list as possible!
As with all of the other drivers in the field, I was strapped in and ready when the green flag waved, and we headed out of pit lane to do our install check from the car rebuild. I had a pretty large vibration, and just assumed it was either an imperfectly balanced set of tires, or an issue with a set of wheels. When I came straight back into the pits for the team to check around the car, we simply swapped the tires for another set. Once everything was checked, I headed back down pit lane and out onto track again, only to come immediately back in. We still had the vibration.
We tried a third set of tires just to be sure, but had the same exact problem and I didn't even go past the start-finish line. Some vibrations are just irritating, but others are actually more serious. It was bad enough that it felt as though my vision was being affected, and it was moving the wheel in my hands meaning I could not tell properly what the car was doing underneath me. This is the kind of vibration you can't run with. The guys tried several other fixes on pit lane, but being unsure of the source, we were unable to solve the issue. None of our to-do list got taken care of, but suddenly that was not as important as the bigger problem. Where was this coming from, and how could we solve it for race day?
Back in the garage area, the guys went through the suspension of the Cyclops Gear car in great detail, then finding nothing there, they fired her up on the low stands in the garage area. Dale Coyne himself was on hand for all of this process, and while I had already had to take off for an appearance by the time the car was running on the stands, he told me the next day that to him it was immediately obvious – he could feel the vibration from the shaking of the car on the stands. This meant it was coming from either engine, gearbox, or something else in the drive train, and definitely not from the suspension or any one wheel.
At 7:00 p.m., my engineer Len texted me while I was at the Firestone appearance – they were going to replace everything. Engine. Gearbox. Clutch. We would get an install check the next afternoon at 3:00 pm. I wasn't sure whether to be relieved or whether to wince. My guys had already worked so hard to get me this far, and now they were going to be subjected to another late night of hard work, and a busy day trying to get everything ready for the install check on Saturday. But taking all that into consideration, I was relieved that everything was being done to find and fix the issue.
Saturday afternoon after the morning festivities I was back in the garage area and dressed in my firesuit. If you were around you would have probably noticed I was a little stressed at that time. We all were. There were lots of anxious faces, and lots of people crossing their fingers and hoping.
As I got strapped in, I was probably as nervous as I had been all month. We really needed to have found the problem otherwise none of us knew where next to look. Race control radioed down to us that it was time to go, and I took off down pit lane. Warm-up lane, up to third gear, fourth gear on the back straight, Turn Three, Turn Four, fifth gear on the front straight... then, heading into Turn One with a big smile on my face, doing my one time past the start-finish line before I would have to pit again. My vibration was cured. I thanked the guys for all their hard work via the radio on the way in, and our timing stand was full of relieved, smiling faces. You could feel the weight lifting from everyone's shoulders and the relief rolling off us all in waves.
However, now it was back to the smaller issue that we were going into the race with a driver who had never raced the DW12, who had yet to really run in traffic, and who had yet to drive a complete lap in the much colder temperatures of race day weekend.
Race day morning dawned cold and with the threat of approaching rain on the radar. I expected to feel similar to 2011 – extremely nervous and very pale – but instead I felt fairly OK. I felt regular race day nerves instead of something bigger. I attended a tweet-up in the morning in the Social Media Garage, and spent time with my engineer going through data – what we planned to throw at the car, and learning the theory behind trying to get heat into my cold tires on a cold day on an oval. Obviously in a race you can't just simply take the extra lap to build the heat naturally, and this would be another new variable for me to understand on the job, while surrounded by 32 other Indy cars. By this time I was starting to feel the enormity of the task ahead, and my engineer must have sensed it was time for a pep talk.
“You've done everything else I've asked of you this week without any issues at all. You'll be fine.”
Sometimes a few quiet words like that from someone who works with you, and someone whom you trust, are all you need.
The green room and walking out to be introduced to the crowd felt more real and less like a dream than 2011. Over half the grid bolting from the photo to queue for the two available rest rooms before we headed down to our cars to get strapped in had a slightly comical air about it. And being back down on the grid, standing next to my guys – the Dale Coyne Racing crew who had worked so hard to put me on track – in their Cyclops Gear suits for pit stops, I felt calm, and proud of every one of them. I just wanted to go out there and make them feel proud of me too.
The moment when I get strapped into the car is always the moment when I start to feel completely at home again, pre-race. Even on my calmest days, I'm never completely comfortable with the wait, and the build-up, but once my engine fires up behind me, I'm ready to go racing.
As the green flag waved, I made the very conscious decision to just hang out where I was, and watch the action around me while feeling out the car beneath me. I had planned to be pretty conservative anyway, but given the fact that we missed running on Carb Day, I was not racy at the start at all. Instead I chose to chill out and remember that this was a 500-mile race.
The first caution came out early, only a couple of laps in, and I was already starting to find out that the Cyclops Gear car felt relatively good considering the amount of dirty air I was in back there. Under yellow we came in for a splash of fuel and some new boots, because being toward the back, more fuel meaning you can go longer is just about always a good call, and when we went green again, I started to work on my timing. As the cars started to string out into a long single-file line with people swapping positions, I started to work out how to pick people off one by one.