Hi and welcome to my first blog for RACER.com. This season is going to be an exciting one as Andretti Autosport and I start on our first Star Mazda season. There'll be a lot of learning, we know that, and the competition's going to be tough, but we're determined to make it work.
Last year was a great one for us, as we took the USF2000 championship together, but as I explained in an interview with RACER back in December, the Star Mazda cars are way different.
Recently we did another test down at MSR Houston, and I think as of now, the team and I are ahead of where we wanted to be, so that's always great news. Every time I get in the car I'm getting more comfortable with it, and the team is just bonding better and better each time we meet up. We are learning about this car slowly but effectively.
I think we are going to be competitive this year. We were the only team at the recent test, so it's hard to chase a target you can't really see. I mean, none of us know how we're going to stack up until practice and qualifying at St. Petersburg. Having said that, a couple of previous tests were with a bunch of our rival teams and we were right there on pace. I'm pretty confident we are going to be all right.
One thing I'm happy about is that I've unlearned the techniques I used in F2000 (BELOW) so I can hit the sweet spot in the Star Mazda. I think we're fairly close to where we want to be driving-wise. Having said that, at this stage, I'm still learning a little bit more every time we go out. With this car you've got to be a lot smoother and that's starting to come pretty naturally.
Obviously, getting this drive with Andretti Autosport was fantastic news over the winter, but I really wish the off-season wasn't so long! I'm like a lot of drivers in that I like to keep my driving sharp and have to do it online. I'm big into sim racing, and I'm signed up for a couple of leagues online that I race in every Friday and Saturday with my F2000 teammate from last year, Zach Veach. We go on iRacing and rFactor.
There's not a big difference between them: iRacing is a little bit more detailed but rFactor has a lot more tracks and cars available.
Actually, I learned MSR Houston from rFactor before I went, and I can tell you it made a huge difference. You might not be able to feel a bump or something on the simulator but at least you know the general direction of where you're going and what's coming up next.
In between school and racing, I'm also into wrestling. My dad is a wrestling coach, so I've grown up with the sport and had the opportunity to get into it. It builds up your shoulders, arms and legs, so although everyone asks whether I worry about injury, I believe it actually helps me keep fit. I've stayed healthy through this last season.
I'm not the strongest guy in my weight class, because a lot of these guys are dedicating their lives to wrestling all year 'round, sort of like I do with racing. So, they have finessed all their moves and they are all big and muscular because all they do is work out for wrestling. But that's part of the kick: I like that challenge, and it's making me tougher.
It keeps my schedule interesting, too, I can tell you that! For example, I had a four-hour flight after the test at Houston, I went to school, and then I was wrestling after that. It's a lot of work, but I think it pays off in the long run.
Money is always a big factor for kids coming through the various series of racing, and luckily I'm beginning to get some attention locally here in Nazareth. I've had a few interviews for the local papers and in school I do interviews for the school paper. But we just got a new sponsor from here – I can't really talk about it right now but they will be on board for St. Pete. That's a good sign when sponsors are actually coming to me instead of me knocking on doors and trying to get to them.
Right now, I can't wait for that race. It's going to be busy time for Michael, because he'll be watching over his teams in IndyCar, Indy Lights, Star Mazda and USF2000 that weekend! That event will put me in a funny situation, actually, because Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti – who were key guys to helping me last year – will continue to give me pointers for that weekend…and then I'm pretty much taking what they say to me and using it to talk to Zach and Spencer Pigot for the F2000 cars! Ryan and Marco teach me a lot and it stays fresh in my mind for when I'm at my weekends and racing. They are a big help and that's what I'm trying to be for Zach and Spencer. The team has all my in-car cameras from last year so they'll be able to watch that and I'm happy to help if they want to know some tricks of the track.
Because of how we finished in USF2000, I know some people are expecting us to be one of the favorites but I keep saying it's going to be a long, hard-fought season, a lot harder this year, and our main ambition is to be faster at every race. Of course, being with Andretti Autosport, I think we have a chance of being on top at the end of the season but if we only ended up top three that would still have been a great learning year. Last season we were able to give Michael [Andretti] his first win as sole team owner of Andretti Autosport. I really hope to make him proud again and give the team more wins this year.
Thanks for reading. Come down to St. Pete, or, if you can't make it, I'll be blogging here on RACER.com soon after. In the mean time, you can follow me on Twitter at @xKaramx or my team at @Follow Andretti.