One of the most important jobs after my first day back in the car was to get our Cyclops Gear entry appropriately dressed! My deal came together both quickly and late, and while we managed to get her painted and on track, our first day out there she was entirely without her clothes! Thankfully, Cyclops Gear was understanding about the need to get the driver back onto the race track, but I was extremely pleased when the logos turned up, and the large Cyclops eyes got applied to our sidepods! Sponsors are what make the world go round in motor racing, and totally aside from that, she looked much prettier once she was dressed!
The week went by without drama for us – we ran when we could, and made sure we were counting laps and engine miles. Running a one-engine program meant that my engineer Len Paskus and I had to make our runs on track count, and as the temperatures got warmer, and closer to what they are likely to be on race day, we tuned our car to get her handling just where we both wanted her.
Being able to work with, and learn from, both Justin Wilson and Ana Beatriz was hugely valuable for me throughout the week, especially when I couldn't be on track as often as them. We tried not to pay too much attention to what everyone else was doing, and instead focused on our own program within the team. I managed to do my first run in traffic in the DW12, and while it proved I still have a lot to learn about how to work the new chassis in traffic, it already put me ahead of where I was by the Thursday in 2011.
On Fast Friday, we started to trim out and look for space to work on our qualifying setup. Our no-tow time for the day had us 26th fastest and meant we would have been just outside being a Pole Day qualifier, but we knew we were close enough for a shot at it.
Saturday morning dawned cool, and a little damp. The moisture hanging around in the air made the track slick on my practice runs, and despite backing off on my out lap to try and end up in space, I still ended up wedged firmly in Scott Dixon's tow, and with a non-representative speed on the charts. My second run was a little cleaner, but then it was time to get out of pit lane, go through tech, and get the Cyclops Gear car in line.
Much as in 2011, my first run on Pole Day was not what I had hoped for. We picked up a couple of gremlins we hadn't experienced all week, and our speeds were down below where we needed them to be. A couple of other drivers had also dramatically improved their no-tow times from Fast Friday, and the speed number we would need to be a first day qualifier was higher than we had thought. We were already trimmed all the way out, and we were fighting something new, unexpected, and outside of our control.
Photos are always taken of the drivers with their cars on the line of bricks after your first qualifying run. When you know the first run was not what you were looking for, cracking a smile for the cameras that actually looks genuine is much more of a tall order than you would think! Your brain is already back with your engineer, wanting to analyze the data the moment the car is out of post-qualifying tech, and find out what was going on.
Next up was the media center and, much as with the photos, it's hard to smile, and give a great quote when all you want to do is hustle back, and start digging!
Back at the Dale Coyne Racing garage, Len was waiting for the same information as me. As soon as we had the car back, our process started. Two hours later, we were rolling out to qualify again.
Given everyone else's increased speed, we knew we were a long shot to actually qualify in the top 24, but we thought we could get close, and we wanted four laps on a completely clear track so that we could make sure we had cured our problem before Bump Day. This time, my speed was much better and all of a sudden we were back with a shot of maybe making it into the show on Pole Day if we could just find a little bit more pace.
New tires on, and we rolled the Cyclops Gear car down for my third and final run of the day. However, as soon as I pulled out of the pits, we picked up a massive vibration, and I pitted before we even took the green. One of my in-car tools had also decided this would be a good time to start moving itself around, so we decided to call it a day and focus on making sure everything was as good as we could possibly make it for Bump Day.
On Saturday evening, we made the decision not to run in the morning warm-up the following day. We wanted to leave the car perfectly ready to roll out to qualify without going out on a cooler track and getting a false reading on either the handling or our speed. It was the same car I had run the day before, and the weather would be similar, just a little hotter, making the track a little slicker. Sunday morning in the garage area, it felt strange to watch the cars out on track, but surveying the calm around our car as we prepared for Bump Day tech, we knew we had made the right call.
We made our slot in line with no drama, but even then walking out to the line is one of the few times that I don't really stop to sign autographs. Even when you think you should have no issues, qualifying on Bump Day is always stressful. It only takes one thing to go wrong, something that could even be out of your control, and the whole thing would have been over, right there and then. With the new one-weekend qualifying format, there are no second chances for second-day qualifiers. I was standing there waiting for the line to start, waiting to get into the car, just thinking, “Please let nothing go wrong. Please let nothing go wrong...”
The wait always feels like an eternity, but I always get in my car early. It gives me that space I crave in the build-up to a qualifying run – the clean air around me to keep my head clear, and the time to settle back into my seat and feel at home again before I get on track. Bia was ahead of me in the line, and was a great teammate, passing us useful information via team owner Dale Coyne. Then, finally, it was time for the Cyclops Gear car and I to make our run.
Up onto the track, getting up through the gears, getting into the right engine map, carrying speed through Turns Three and Four to take the start of the warm-up lap. Through One, being gentle with the car and tires to make sure I still had plenty of grip left for lap four. Through Turn Two, correct. Correct. Correct. Three of them in the middle of the corner, fast hands on the wheel, no slide visible from the outside, but from the inside of the cockpit I knew we were just over the edge of where the speed lies. Make an adjustment with the tools inside the car down the back straight, into Three, into Four, green flag...
My first timed lap was a 224.4, which I already knew as fairly good for the day compared to the other people we were running against. I just had to maintain that. My hands were still working inside the cockpit, my brain focused on the perfect possible line, and all the tricks I have learned through Indy Lights and 2011 to get the maximum speed numbers possible on the chart. 224.2. 224.2.
Then on my last lap, the wind picked up on the back straight, and I got thrown violently into the hard limiter going into Turn Three. My language inside the helmet was not pretty. My hands on the wheel trying to apex at 5mph slower, having lost the rhythm of the previous laps, were making corrections again. Hold onto the car. Don't get distracted by something outside of your control. Turn Four, checkered flag. My speed dropped to a 223 due to the issue into Turn Three pulling our whole average down, but for now the total average was enough. And I was much happier with the run than the previous day.
Back in the garage area, we had to have the conversation as to whether we could change our car to race trim and go run in traffic. This had been our original plan, but the last lap that dragged our time down left us feeling less than 100% safe. With a small crew, and the amount of time the changes take, there was just too much risk involved in making all the changes required in case we needed to go out and qualify again late in the day. I would have loved to have been out there running in traffic and learning, but all of that learning would have been for nothing had we run into a situation where we needed to qualify again, and we couldn't change the car back in time.
With a couple of hours to go on Bump Day, things were starting to get tense. We knew that Michel Jourdain was struggling for speed, but while there was a chance he would find it, we had to stay ready to qualify. It would have only taken one car getting bumped for the chain reaction to start, and work its way up the field to me. With 90 minutes to go, my car was on brand-new tires, in my pit stall on pit lane, and I was on the timing stand with my helmet standing by.
The end of Bump Day was anti-climactic for the fans, and while I feel deeply for Jourdain and whatever was going on over there, I would be lying if I did not admit that we were all extremely grateful that we never had to get back into line. We might have known we had more speed if we could just avoid lightning striking twice, but if everyone started going a lot faster, we didn't know how much we had left. Once you've trimmed the car out and made it as free as you possibly can – and you're close enough to the walls at 224mph-plus that you know you've come within millimeters of white-walling – you know you're getting near the limit of what you have. Our smiles on the timing stand as it became clear there was not enough time left for enough cars to run to bump us out, told the story before we heard the sad news that Michel had withdrawn and saw him climb out of his car.
So I have made the starting grid for my second Indy 500, and I am extremely proud of my Dale Coyne Racing crew for the huge amount of effort and hard work that went into building my car, and getting me on track throughout the week. I am extremely grateful to my engineer Len for giving me a great-handling car throughout the entire process, and I am thrilled that we have now officially put Cyclops Gear in their first Indy 500.
Next up for me is Carb Day, and I plan to spend that day doing as many practice pit stops, and running in as much traffic as possible! Unfortunately, given the time constraints we may be forced to choose one or the other, but in our ideal world right now, we're focused on both!
Oh, and one more comparison to where I was in 2011 with my car to where I am now with the Dale Coyne Racing Cyclops Gear car? Unlike this stage in 2011, in 2013 we have a driver qualified for the race who already knows what all the buttons on her steering wheel do! That should make life a little simpler…