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.
In a race, the DW12 is very different from the last Indy car chassis that I drove at IMS in 2011. You feel the effects of the cars in front of you from a long way behind them, both in terms of the tow pulling you to them, and the understeer that kicks in from their wake. I started learning that I needed to adjust my tools as far as four car lengths back to be able to carry more throttle through the corners while following another car. I started trying to learn where I needed to get out of the throttle to be able to make the pass cleanly before the turn, so there was no argument who's corner it was when we got there. One by one, I started to pick people off and make my way up the order. As the stint went on, I knew cars were also starting to pit around me, but it was only when I watched the race back on my DVR that I realized that for a couple of laps I was running P2 at IMS, in the Indianapolis 500 under green, as the pit stops started to cycle through.
Unfortunately, at the end of this stint came the first contentious moment of my short race. I caught up to lap Buddy Lazier, and was unable to get around him on the way into Turn Three, unlike the two cars ahead of me. So I eased off the throttle and elected not to pass him until the front straight, not wanting to try and force the issue in the short chute. Given how my race would end only a few laps later, it's somewhat ironic that the whole reason I did not want to go around the outside of him in Turn Four was because I know that is a bad place to get in the gray.
However, Buddy was a lot slower than I had bargained for (I later found out this was because of a fuel pressure issue), and I ended up having to check up even more than I had been expecting, despite already being down in fourth gear as I entered in Turn Four behind him. At the exact same time, Sebastian Saavedra, who was a lap down on me, must have decided we were both going too slow, and the DVR replay shows him putting his nose inside of me right as I started to turn down to take my line into Turn Four behind Buddy.
We drivers do rely on our spotters for information, and my guys did an amazing job the entire month long. I knew someone was closing, but the angle of view or the closing rate that Seb had on Buddy and I, given how slow we were both going, must have caught everyone out. I never knew he had tried to put his nose there until I watched the race replay on DVR. I have expressed this to both Seb in person and his Dragon crew, but I am genuinely sorry that their race ended this way. It was a tough break, and a tough deal.
I pitted during the caution period and as I rejoined the track, immediately came the second big contentious moment of my race. Cars coming out of the pits were ignoring the blend line at pit exit, and just trying to accelerate up to whereever they wanted to be in the pack! There was mass confusion, and I asked several times for clarification from race control as to where I was meant to line up. I got the answer and moved into line; however I don't know whether race control didn't tell Graham Rahal and James Jakes this information, or whether they ignored it. I do know that coming down the back straight, under yellow, there was some extremely aggressive passing going in the pack, and assuming that the perpetrators would get penalized for their actions I was furious, but I elected to drop a couple of places back from where I should have restarted to avoid getting into something stupid under yellow. Inside my helmet, I was fuming.
After the restart I started picking off cars one at a time again, and I quickly caught up to Graham, who was meant to have restarted behind me. I watched his line through Turn Four, and knew there was a hole where I could get clean air the next lap. I timed my lift through Three, aimed my car at the clean air down low on the inside in Four, but that time Graham kept coming down in front of me, and I was about a half-car length too close given his different line. As my car took off up the track, Graham was releasing his car out of the corner in front of me. No clean air. No clean air. No clean air. Smack. I whacked the wall with my right-side tires. I'm sure you can imagine the fine stream of choice language that was escaping me at the time.
I drove the car down into Turn One, and caught a big snap, drove it through Two with no issue, and wondered whether it was just paranoia, or whether I had knocked it hard enough to bend something. Another big snap and catch in Turn Three unfortunately confirmed that my day was done, and I headed back down to pit lane.
The guys checked the front of the car, and told me what I already knew – one bent toe link, and one bent wishbone. We had to shut her off, and we were done.
My initial reaction after thanking the Cyclops Gear guys for all their hard work was frustration and fury. I was furious at race control for allowing the shenanigans before the restart, furious with Graham for restarting in front of me when he was meant to be lined up behind, and furious with myself for making a rookie mistake when trying to line up the pass on Graham, that I shouldn't have even had to make.
Race control did eventually fine Graham and James Jakes for “blend line” infractions, but that didn't help me, and didn't put my car back on track. I did later speak to race director Beaux Barfield, and he told me that after the incidents under that yellow were reviewed they did later announce to all the teams that any more of the nonsense we experienced under yellow would get people drive-through penalties under green. While I'm glad a harder line is going to be taken, my initial reaction was obviously that I wish this decision had been taken before my race ended, trying to pass a car that should have already been behind me.
However, a day after the race, and a good night's sleep to help settle down and reflect on things, I realize that we still have a huge amount to be proud of this month of May, despite things not finishing the way we wanted in the race. With our small but determined crew, and amazing help from my teammates, we had a great month overall considering the car had never run before we first took the track two weeks ago to start testing, and with a driver who had last driven an Indy car 18 months ago. We had a great racecar, and despite not really getting any running in traffic before the race, by the time I went out I was plus seven from my starting position (one of the top five highest "movers" at the time), and still comfortably going forward. My two first pit stops back in the car went smoothly, and I spent laps under green flag conditions running in P2, at the Indianapolis 500.
Overall I'm incredibly proud of our effort. The Dale Coyne Racing crew did an amazing job for me this May, and I was thrilled to bring Cyclops Gear to their first Indy 500. The final thought, however, obviously has to go to Tony Kanaan. If there was one good thing about not being in a car at the end of this year's race, it was getting to experience and hear first-hand the metaphorical roof getting raised at IMS when the crowd realized that he had finally won the Indy 500. TK's personal story at Indy has involved some pretty hard luck, despite always being fast, and if you've ever spoken to TK and mentioned the three magic letters “IMS” you will have no doubt how much this means to him. They always say that you don't choose to win Indy, she chooses you. This year I think, ranks up as one of her best choices ever. Congrats TK!