This week was my last in my freshman year at school, so I had my finals, and I had to keep studying while worrying about this weekend's Star Mazda race at Milwaukee but trying not to let the school work drop. It got tough, I admit! But we're through that now, and I can focus on the racing.
Since I last wrote you, we've put the No. 88 Andretti Autosport/MAZDASPEED/Comfort Revolution car on the podium for the first time this year, and I'm excited about that. We had a difficult race weekend at Lucas Oil Raceway on the night before the Indy 500 and, in the end, a third place felt a bit like a victory.
I knew we were going to be quick on the ovals, because we'd been third at the Milwaukee test, so I arrived at LOR pretty confident we'd qualify in the top five. The morning before qualifying, though, we got in a crash: a driver ahead spun out and I had nowhere to go and I ended up clipping him. The accident damage was enough that we missed both practice sessions and just had to go into qualifying without having been able to work on setup the whole day. We really didn't know what to expect, and I just put my full trust in the Andretti Autosport team…and they pretty much nailed the qualifying setup right off the bat! Given our situation, third on the grid behind the two Team Pelfrey cars was great, I think.
For the race setup, we could have had the car a little more free, but that's just the nature of missing those two practices. We ended up doing our learning in the race instead. Connor De Phillippi and Nick Andries were a little quicker than us at the beginning of the race, but when the tires started losing their edge, we started running the same lap times if not quicker than De Phillippi who won the race. I closed up on Andries, but from about two car-lengths back, our car would get aero-tight and I couldn't steer the thing, so splitting them wasn't really on. With the bad luck we've had in our season so far, I thought it would be smart to consolidate what we had and take the third-place finish.
That loss of front-end downforce when running behind another competitor may just be a characteristic of these cars; I hadn't driven in a pack on an oval in a Star Mazda car before, so I was pleased that we actually cut through the backmarkers better than the Pelfrey cars. But I couldn't make a pass on Andries stick because the fast line is the high line and if he has that, there's nothing you can do.
The Milwaukee Mile this weekend should be very different. If you're running solo like on a qualifying lap, you start out wide on corner-entry, pinch down to the apex, there's still a 10 percent throttle lift, even on fresh tires and then roll out wide. But you stay in fifth all the way around. Then for the race, the difference compared to LOR is big, too. The Mile is much wider, there's more variety in the lines you can run and you can make passes. It's pretty hard for someone to block you, especially in these narrow cars, because you can always find an alternative way round them. Should be more fun.
Now that we're seventh in the championship and 31 points off the lead, I keep wondering about the championship. It's going to be tough, but not impossible. I don't expect the leaders to drive perfect for the rest of the year – they're going to have one or two bad races, or get caught up in an accident or two. And, at the same time, we are building momentum here at Andretti Autosport. I think if we can consistently get podiums, and hopefully a couple wins, we can get right back up there.
But, like I say, that's a hard battle ahead. It's Andretti Autosport's first year in Star Mazda, it's my first year, too, and we are just a one-car team against experienced drivers in two-car teams. I'd really love a teammate right now! The only data we can go over or the only videos we can watch are from years past. We have a good engineer who came over from Andersen Racing, and he has a bunch of setup data but it's not as current as he'd like. And we can only do so much with one car. It's not like sending two drivers out and saying to them, “OK, one car is going to try out mechanical variations, and the other is going to try different aero setups.” We have to do it all with my Comfort Revolution/MAZDASPEED car.
For me, too, it makes a difference: I don't have a driver to share data and opinions with, like I did with Zach Veach in F2000 last year. But perhaps a benefit of that is that it's forcing me to step up my technical understanding of the car. Last year was a little more laid back. This year has been a big wake-up call; there's a lot more revolving around what I say, my opinions of what the car might be able to do if we did this, this or this.
I had a conference call with the team earlier this week and they were really emphasizing how the Milwaukee track surface is going to change a lot from the running of midgets, sprint cars, and then the full Mazda Road to Indy – F2000, Star Mazda, Indy Lights and IndyCars. There will be big variations of grip levels with a lot of rubber down, but from lots of different types of tire compounds. And then there's going to be rain on and off through the weekend, washing a lot of that grip away! So the guys were telling me to really pay attention to what's evolving with the grip level and to think about how the setup may need adjusting as the weekend goes on. We've all got to be on our toes from the first session through to the checkers.
Michael Andretti has been really cool to work with. He knows we've got a tough gig here and that it's a real building year for all of us. He really gets it – I think he's been in these situations once or twice in his life (!) since I think he may have experienced pretty much everything in his career. So he's absolutely someone who I can go talk to about stuff. And the great thing about all of his teams racing here this weekend is that we can actually share some info about the way the track's changing through each day.
After Milwaukee, we go to Iowa which is very different again: it's got a lot of banking, so it should be flat all the way around – and we don't get to test beforehand. That doesn't bother me too much, because at least I know it from racing there in F2000 last year. There's a bump between Turns 1 and 2, which goes the full width of the track and I've spoken to my engineer about it and he says that it will be enough to unsettle the car, and we may have to lift off the throttle just a little bit, but really softly. Should be interesting.
Anyway, let's see what we can do at Milwaukee, first. I'm feeling pretty good about what we can achieve here. If you're in the area, come and watch us race. It's a great track, and I think the Star Mazda cars will put on a good show.
[Editor's note: since this blog was written, Sage ended the Star Mazda test on Thursday at Milwaukee at the top of the leaderboard by 0.45sec…]