When I was a young girl, my parents used to read me fairy tales. There was usually a heroine with long blonde hair and blue eyes (check) who had to overcome some great obstacle in her path (trying to find funding to get in a car – check). She would be aided by a knight in shining armor, riding to her rescue on a white horse to save the day (check). Actually, I have two knights – Eric Bachelart, Conquest Racing team owner, who made the call to put me in his car despite crazy competition to even make the field this year, and my engineer who came on board to work with some rookie he'd never even met. And we do have a horse. It's just that ours is a dark horse.
Thursday and Fast Friday showed quick times, tow times and single-lap times. Qualifying around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is all about trying to hold it together four laps in a row, so the speeds on a sheet at the end of any given day can easily tell you some tall tales. Sure, we have no-tow reports, special computer programs to work out who was behind someone and who wasn't, but it doesn't always tell the whole story.
If you had your best run of the day, but were masked in the faint and distant dirty air of another car heading into Turn 1 as you exit Turn 4, you will only show up as a slipstream-searching Sally. If you're not looking good by yourself, but you're able to get your car right into someone else's business, close enough to eyeball the gear ratios in their gearbox, you actually have a hugely strong racecar. Flip a coin – and if your car only likes the nice clean stuff, meaning you're way down on the time sheets, but up on the no-tow reports, you may be in the race, but who knows what you've got when you get there. Spend a couple of hours on pit lane and look up every now and then, and you can usually get a pretty good idea of who is out there trying to make themselves look good by hunting for that perfect run, and who is actually trying to find some kind of space to really see what they've got.
However, then you get to Fast Friday, and on Fast Friday everyone trims out to prepare for qualifying, and everyone wants as much clean air around their car as possible. Tows on Fast Friday are generally unintentional. I know I can hear you scoffing. Everyone wants to be at the top of the times on that day as well as learning everything they can for the next day. Surely, I hear you saying, surely the big boys will be out there giving each other the big old tow 'round to ensure top spots stay safely under Death Star control (that's Penske and Ganassi for those not in the know). Well if that's what you think, I'm assuming you've never driven an IndyCar at an average speed of over 225mph, so trimmed out that your rear wing angle is actually creating lift rather than doing any sort of pushing down.
You've heard the old saying that you could generate enough downforce to drive one of these cars in a tunnel upside down and it would stick to the ceiling? Not at Indy you wouldn't. In Indy qualifying aero configuration, you'd be making a mess of the cars trying to go about their usual business below you. And you'd be making a mess of them at four times the speed limit of Indianapolis' I-465 ring road...
Something I've learned about Indy during the past couple of days: In a Firestone Indy Lights car, you have to be able to pedal to get around here, but as long as you can pedal and have a good enough car, you should be pretty sound. An IndyCar, however, requires pedaling in capital letters, italics and with plenty of exclamation marks thrown in afterward.
We started to look fairly good on the time sheets and no-tow reports through Thursday and Friday. We have said all along that we were doing this because we felt we had a legitimate shot of sticking the car in the race, and we were getting the speeds both on single laps and over four-lap runs to back up our claims. Don't start thinking it was easy: I had more big moments going through Turn 1 on my best four-lap practice qualifying run (all trimmed out and in clean air) than it's healthy to have in a lifetime. But the point was, I was hanging on, keeping the boot in, and the car was looking absolutely fast enough to make it, and maybe even fast enough to make it in on day one. As we all rolled in on Saturday morning, we genuinely weren't worried. We simply thought that if we missed a little on day one, we'd be able to send in a very similar car on day two, and we'd be in without having to get in the bump line.
Then came our practice run on Saturday morning. The handling was similar, but we were an easy 1mph down on the previous day, despite the cool air of 8 a.m. supposedly helping the engine compared with the vicious heat of the Friday sun that was meant to simulate the forecast conditions of our qualifying time slot. Frankly, we weren't really sure what was going on: maybe I was scrubbing more because the colder ambient and track temperatures meant I was struggling to get heat in the tires. Maybe. But the nagging doubt entered our minds that when it was cooler it was meant to be easier, not the other way around.
We still rolled out for qualifying expecting a run of mid 224s, with every trick the team knew thrown at the car to try and make her faster through the air. Going through Turn 1, she kept up the previous behavior pattern of wanting to introduce this rookie IndyCar driver to the SAFER barrier on the outside wall, and I kept up the previous behavior pattern of choosing to decline the invitation. The fact that the car was moving so much didn't bother me too much: the previous times she'd been so insistent in telling me she didn't like me much, we had actually come across the line with a fairly good speed. So as long as I could hang it out and hang on, I was feeling good.
Then I saw the speed. There I was, trying not to kill myself or turn my one and only car into a ball of snot at my first-ever attempt to qualify an IndyCar, and we weren't even going fast enough.
Without even going through the rest of our laps, nor our second waved-off attempt on Saturday afternoon, that little paragraph above tells you everything you need to know about our Pole Day. By the evening, we were exceptionally glum. We had one night to try and fix what was happening, work out what had happened to our speed, and if we didn't get it right and get back in the game, the very next day we would be going home.
The boys stayed until 1 a.m. pulling my car to pieces and putting her back together again. The gearbox was taken apart completely and reassembled, and a new Honda got hooked to the back of the chassis. In case somehow our setup was causing the drag problems and suddenly slowing us down like a dragster's parachute opening up, we had to throw something completely different into play aerodynamically. We had one chance to get it right, so not one stone could be left unturned.
Sunday morning warm-up for Bump Day came – and nearly went without us. The Conquest team was scrambling to try and make it out to give me at least one run before we sent the car back in line to attempt to qualify. I was strapped into the car in the garage and towed out while we were warming the motor. We got four laps with only a moderate amount of aero off, and the results were not promising. For the first time since the ROP regs forced me to lift to keep my speeds down, I was lifting in every corner to keep the car underneath me. We maxed out at only 220mph and at the bottom of the time sheets. My car hadn't necessarily been playing nice with me all week, but on that run “not playing nice” took on a whole new meaning.
Back in the engineering room, things were grim. We didn't have time to put back everything we had changed without giving up our place in line, and with rain coming in, we had to be line to get our shot to make the race. The weather forecasts suggested it was increasingly likely to become a one-shot kind of deal. Sure enough, between rain delays and getting back in line in our original order for our first attempt and with another storm heading our way, the tension mounted. We were pretty sure that this was it, and we weren't going to get another shot at it even if we wanted.
Right before I got in, I looked my manager and my engineer straight in the eyes and told them that I would be going into Turn 1 with no idea what I've got, holding my right foot firmly to the floor. If it stuck, and we were fast enough, we would be going in the show. If we didn't have the speed, I had to accept at that point it was out of my control. If we hadn't cured the back end issues, I was probably going to go in backward with a thunderous hit on my very first green flag lap. I am not the kind of girl who goes down without a fight.
The boys on my car had seen me talking to my manager and engineer, and they had already worked with me long enough during the week to know that I wouldn't be going out there and holding anything back. I was not the only one holding my breath as the green flag waved on my attempt and Turn 1 came into view. The moment the rear end decided it would stick, then I knew it was just about the speed, about staying on top of everything and being as perfect as possible, and if I could just keep it up for three more laps, we might just be OK. I worked my tail off with every tool I had available to me in the cockpit and was rewarded with the lap speeds holding, and then even slowly increasing at the end of my run.
If you had told me on Friday evening that I would be so happy to be back at a 223.936mph average, I would have been worried, and wondered what the hell would make us slow up so much. However, compared to our Saturday woes, we were ecstatic. Plus, with the track not looking fast, it looked like my speed was going to stick.
The next three hours were possibly the longest three hours of my life. We had another rain delay, and I was just praying it would keep raining. However, the track dried out, and I was back on pit lane, all strapped in, ready in case we had to run again. No one looked like they were going to get in. Then, right at the very end, all of a sudden people started bumping, and running faster than us, and our time slipped down the order. I was so tense and nervous I never even heard the gun going off, and it was only when no one else went back on track after Marco that I was certain it was over. We were in the show.
So my personal “once upon a time” story went down with a Walt Disney-style happy ending, despite threatening at times to leave me instead with something written by the Brothers Grimm. But while Indianapolis Motor Speedway was making my dreams come true, in the same breath she was breaking the hearts of those around me, including that of my teammate, Sebastian Saavedra. Real life so rarely follows the movie script, so often leaves us with something bittersweet. I am now carrying the hopes and expectations of our entire team solely on my shoulders.
To me, getting this far has always been my biggest goal. I always knew that simply getting in, this year of all years, would be an achievement. I always viewed anything and everything after this point as a bonus. But now I'm here, and given the circumstances in which I'm here, I just want to get out there and do the best possible job for all these guys who have worked so hard over the past two weeks. This story is no longer about me, it's about them. I will be out there in the centennial Indianapolis 500, representing Conquest Racing and, with all my heart, what I want to do now is make them proud.