This is my third day out of four, and my second day straight, sitting in the Conquest engineering garage discussing setups and watching a TV screen with a live feed of the empty speedway. The only motors echoing around here are the jet drier engines and those of the safety trucks being driven around to dry up the track. And it's cold enough for me to need my beanie. Welcome to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the Month of May…
I was aware coming into this month that I was doing so with a hand somewhat tied behind my back. I have next to zero experience in an IndyCar. My teammate Sebastian Saavedra is running only his second ever Indy 500 and, unlike the two rookies over at Dragon who have the association with Schmidt and their in-house experienced lineup, we only have ourselves. We have some great people over here at Conquest Racing, but we are one of the smaller teams and we don't have back-up cars. If either of us screws this up and sticks one in the wall, we are going to be in trouble.
After Rookie Orientation Practice, we were pleased with what we had. Our game plan for the week was fairly simple. Pin down the handling, then start working on speed. Tires are always much more of a limiting factor here than engine miles and, as a rookie, I would need as many productive and constructive miles as I could get. We knew weather would come into it – it always does, every year here, without fail. However, none of us quite realized that in May 2011, Mother Nature would be in such a foul mood.
The weather started to interfere with our plan as early as our very first day on track. We were running extremely conservatively and relatively well, but we had a little handling niggle that just wouldn't go away. Some 20 laps in, we came back to the garage area to get the car on the pad. And then the rain started.
It rained all day Sunday. Monday we got some good running in – in terms of laps on track – but we didn't quite fix our niggle. I was starting to get to the point where I was wondering whether it was in my head, but then my engineer sat me down and showed me my steering data. Yeah, you wouldn't have wanted to pull aero off my car on Monday, not if you wanted it to come back in one piece. Some things are not smart, and some are NOT SMART. Trimming the car out would have fallen into the second category.
So, Monday evening we did not look pretty on the speed charts, and while we knew speed would come naturally as we took aero out, it still left everyone feeling a little disquieted and uncomfortable. There are going to be eight cars going home this year after qualifying weekend, and nobody wants to be one of them.
The meeting and discussion continued long into the evening after I left to visit Riley Children's Hospital, and on Tuesday morning, after I e-mailed through my updated schedule for the day to my engineer, I was greeted by a reply. A couple more messages fired back and forward before 8 a.m., and the basic premise was, “We think we got this.”
Two days of track time later and no laps, we're still stuck in the "think" bracket.
The past two days have been like Groundhog Day. On Tuesday, between the misting, the track did go green for a while but the temperature never really got above 50 degrees. We got as close as talking about going out, and on Wednesday we got as far as the car in pit lane, driver strapped in, and one minute to green before the rain came back and we headed back to the garage area.
We now have two days left before qualifying. The next two days are going to be busy, intense, and insane. We expected to be fully with the program by this stage in the week, but instead, because of situations outside of our control, we are not where we thought we would be. Work has been going on with the cars behind closed doors to just keep massaging them, and making them more and more perfect through the air, getting them ready for the two big days this weekend. The next two days are going to answer a lot of questions, but the real answers will only come when the chips are down this weekend and it really matters.
I came into this month fully aware of what I was going to be up against, but with these past two days, and three out of our four days spent sitting around the garage unable to run on track, the reality is I don't just have one of my hands tied behind my back anymore – it's pretty much both. You could argue the conditions have been the same for everyone, but as we are in a position where we are desperate for track time, they have been even crueler to us.
Good job, I like a challenge.