When my alarm rattled me awake at 5:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, my heart was already racing.
It wasn't the first time I'd woken up during the early hours of that morning with a similar sensation. People had spent the past week asking me whether it had dawned on me yet that I would be racing in this year's 500. I told them that I didn't think it would until I took the green flag, but somewhere between receiving my Indy 500 starter's ring on Saturday morning (ABOVE), the parade on Saturday afternoon, and going to bed on Saturday night, I guess on a subconscious level, it had finally started to sink in.
Through the stresses of qualifying weekend, the whirlwind of media that followed, the long engineering meeting where I learned how little I actually knew, somehow the thought of the race itself and what that would mean took a back seat. As the race grew closer, I was actually more plagued with worries than I was elated with excitement. The nerves about whether I was really doing this, and whether we would be able to get the car back underneath me after a troubled run on Carb Day were at the forefront of my mind.
On Friday, we had not been good in traffic. While I slowly got better at my side of the bargain, we struggled to get the car back into a handling pattern that I was comfortable with in clean air, let alone in the dirty stuff. And starting in 31st place, on the inside of the very last row of the grid, the dirty stuff was certainly something I was going to be spending my whole day contending with.
I had also managed a few practice pit stops on Friday. The first few, coming off Turn 4 for the first time, were not good. Getting the brakes so hot on the way in meant that, all of a sudden, they were now reacting differently than they'd been all week when I was trying to hit my marks, and had become difficult and grabby. If the wheels lock, it makes it almost impossible to turn, and impossible to stop. My launches out with the new sequence were not crisp, and on one of the early ones I stalled. It was not a day of building confidence for either me or my guys. If at times, my driving on track had been near faultless during the previous week, my stops made it extremely obvious again that the word "rookie" is used for a reason.
So, as Sunday morning rolled around, the most prominent emotion was definitely nervousness over excitement. I wasn't the only one. The mood in our garage area was tense, and for the first time since making the show I was actually having to make an effort to look like I was happy to be there. I have never been good in the build-up to races, so I should have probably guessed that in the build-up to the biggest race of my career I was possibly going to be a little on edge. One of my friends here in town who knows me well sent me a text message to remind me to breathe.
My engineer sat me down and went through notes with me again on pit-stop procedure, fuel saving, how to get the car into emergency mode if I needed to while out on track, and what that would mean in terms of driving it from then onward if I had to do that. We sat and discussed strategy and whether we thought we could get off sequence. Then the bulletin came through from IndyCar that we were definitely going ahead with double-file restarts – and not only we were going ahead, but we were now supposed to be nose to tail. If the pre-race jitters needed ratcheting up a notch, that one little piece of paper certainly did the trick.
Standing on the grid, seeing the packed stands and knowing everyone was there to see us was a very strange and surreal sensation. I'm used to being a Firestone Indy Lights driver where only the most die-hard fans know who I am, and now I had just been introduced to a live audience of several hundred thousand fans. In the gaps between the songs, and the National Anthem, we could hear some of the crowd near us calling my name.
Everyone has told me that the parade laps at Indy are something very special and that the front stretch turns into something of a tunnel on race day, making coming to take the green on lap one a different experience from any other lap you've turned all month. I'll be honest: once I was strapped in, I stopped even noticing the stands around me. I was more concerned with trying to maintain the right distance to the row in front of me, and stay tight enough to allow room to the two cars outside of me. The front stretch at Indy is so narrow that it even feels tight running down there three wide at pace car speeds, I couldn't imagine what it would feel like in two laps time at over 200mph.
I was also concentrating on the view in front of me. In my previous two visits in Indy Lights, I had qualified on the fourth row the first year, then on pole for the second. This was my most recent experience of the Speedway on race day, leading the formation laps around, having a completely clear track ahead of me. Needless to say, starting on the inside of the last row of 33 cars, this time my perspective was slightly different. I could already feel my helmet moving and wanting to buffet. I took a sip of my drinks bottle to calm my nerves and steady myself, but nothing came. The little electronic motor had failed, and that meant however hard I sucked, nothing would come.
At the time I didn't think it was of that big a deal. I have never had a drinks bottle in a car in my entire career, so I didn't think I would miss it. I knew it would make my life a bit tougher, but at that moment I genuinely didn't give it more than two seconds of thought. I simply shrugged, said, ‘Oh well,' to myself and moved on. I think, looking back now, I'm fairly glad I didn't know what I was about to go through. Knowing the way my race would turn out was a distraction that I didn't need when coming around to take the green.
So what is it like, coming around through Turns 3 and 4 in your row of three wide, listening to your spotter for the call of the flag, trying to be ever ready, foot primed to slam the throttle to the floor, fingers poised over the upshift paddle ready to grab the next gear, eyes concentrating on everyone around you and how they're moving around, making sure you create enough space for your own car so as not to be squeezed out? The answer? It's incredible.
I'm not sure at exactly what point the nerves stop being nerves and start to become adrenaline – changing you from obvious newcomer back into the category of racing driver, but at some point, while gathering everything up, and getting ready for the go, the transformation happens. It stops being a big thing, and goes back to being just what I do. When the green flag dropped, I was ready.
I had looked at the data before the race on Carb Day, and I knew that starting where I was, I would be expecting a fairly sizable brake into Turn 1 on the first lap. The team already knew my plan was to go conservative – the whole three-wide-around-the-outside deal is not for a rookie on her first-ever start. As it turns out, I was a little too conservative, and dropped back through the first turn, but I was through it cleanly and with no contact. Over the next couple of laps I started to settle in, then as I started to catch the cars in front of me, and was able to start passing people, I started to have fun.
The first pit stop was a reminder that while I was getting the hang of this thing on the track, it was no Indy Lights race. We were still under green – a few of the people whom I had passed, and a couple in front of me pulled off a lap earlier and dived in while I was being called one to go. Next lap – my turn. Call for more front wing, try to stay on the throttle through Four, shoot across to pit entry, on the brakes, down to speed before the line. Pit lane speed limiter, into neutral, into the box on the marks, holding the wheel and the brakes, being ready as soon as the car hits the ground but is still fueling. Ready, ready, ready... Fuel disengaged, first gear, wave out, GO. Reset the fuel, reset the in car tools. Breathe. Watch for the pit exit, be ready, be ready... Pit exit, disengage speed limit, push on the warm-up lane, push. Yellow – wait? What? Yellow?
Yes, yellow. I hadn't even made it back out onto track and the track was down. That meant that everyone who had just stopped was likely going to end up a lap down. I knew my stop had been fairly neat and tidy, but as I saw the cars ahead of me in the queue that I had already passed once I knew that I had been too conservative getting down to pit lane speed and into my box. As the leaders pitted and filtered back out I ended up right behind Dario at the blend line. I was the first car one lap down, and everyone ahead of me who ended up just ahead of him got the wave-around.
I immediately learned two very important lessons. The first – you save fuel on the parade laps to try and go one further in the race; and second, being a little conservative to make sure you do everything right on your first-ever pit stop can hurt you just as much as over-shooting your marks and screwing the whole thing up. Before I get my next shot in an IndyCar, I'm going to make sure I spend as much time as possible attacking the pit entry and messing it up in spectacular style during testing so I have a better handle on the limits come race day, and when I get my next shot at an IndyCar race, I will be saving fuel on those parade laps like you would not believe!