Sage was breathing fire in Iowa, and reckons prospects are good for more of the same. (Star Mazda)
Since I last wrote, things have taken a real upswing in Andretti Autosport's Star Mazda Series team. The Comfort Revolution No. 88 car has been fast on all types of track, which is what we've been looking for all along; that consistency that makes us potential winners every time we race.
Edmonton was fun, but it was a little more difficult to pass than I expected. I thought with the long straights it would be a little easier to draft, but in fact when it came to outbraking someone, you kind of had to just throw it in there. Part of the problem is the closeness of the competition: that track is pretty wide open for a Star Mazda car, so me and my teammate Zach Veach qualified 1-2 and he was only five thousandths of a second off of my time, and I think the top 10 was spread over just half a second.
The first race was pretty crazy with the rain arriving and so we had to make our first-ever pit stop, which was…interesting! We'd never practiced them before so we didn't have a routine, as such; it just about getting four slick tires off and four rain tires on as fast as possible. We came in first but left second, so maybe we need to practice because Trois-Rivieres could see us running in the wet again.
Still, pole and two second places isn't a bad points haul from the double-header – it was more consistent than anyone else, so we made up some ground in the championship and we know we were capable of winning. That gives us all confidence. But it was disappointing that we didn't get into victory lane like we did at Iowa.
That was a special event at Iowa Speedway; the same weekend that Michael Andretti's IndyCar team scored a 1-2, I was really happy to give the boss a win in Star Mazda, too. In fact, it was perfect because I got pole and fastest lap and any time you leave a track with the maximum points you could achieve, you consider it a job well done.
It's a pity that Iowa is one of the few tracks where Star Mazda doesn't have a double-header! Double-headers can make it or break it for you. For example, at Toronto, I started on the front row, but we broke a differential on the start line so that's one race ruined plus you start dead last for the next race. Somehow we came through the field and pulled out a third-place finish (see video, RIGHT) but I think there's a real case to be made for having two separate qualifying sessions so the second race's grid isn't decided by finishing order of the first race. But I also know how tricky it is, especially on one of the many weekends when we're on the same schedule as IndyCar and Indy Lights, for organizers to find time for another session. We don't get as much track time as we'd like, but I guess we're near the bottom of the food chain, so we just have to suck it up.
The mechanical problem was losing a few spider gears inside the diff – and in fact that happened to a couple other cars through that weekend, and it hasn't happened at any other point in the season, so it makes you realize how hard the Toronto circuit is on diffs. Great track to drive on, though; I love it.
The thing that we take a lot of encouragement from, though, is that the Comfort Revolution car is consistent on all types of track. If you look back at the stats, you'll see we've finished on the podium in six of our last eight races, and that's pulled us up from seventh to third in the standings. We're really pleased that we seem to have gotten back to where we were in our USF2000 days in 2010.
We have seven races left and the championship leader Jack Hawksworth does have a healthy lead, but I believe we can eat into that, especially with the double-header at Trois-Rivieres coming up. We have only one practice session before qualifying, it's a quite a difficult circuit, it's one of my favorites and it's new to Hawksworth. But I don't underestimate him; he's a good driver and he normally gets stronger throughout a race weekend, so I expect him to be a tough competitor.
But we'll do everything we can. Looking at the double-headers at Trois-Rivieres, Baltimore, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and then the single race at Road Atlanta, I can honestly say that these are all near the top of my list of favorite tracks in North America, and historically they've proven to really suit our team.
One of the biggest steps we've made, I think, compared with my rookie Star Mazda season, has been in tire usage. In the second race at Edmonton, I was doing just enough to keep in contact with the leader while saving my tires, because I knew there'd be a caution at some point. When it came, I ended up battling with another driver off the restart, so I lost ground to the leader a little bit, but then came right back at him by the checkered flag; I think we had him covered in terms of pace. So yeah, I think we're managing our tires well and the Goodyear people have been checking them out and saying they're good.
The championship battle is still on, as far as I'm concerned. Look at Iowa: we went in 46 points behind Hawksworth and came out 22 behind, and even now we have seven races left. So the Star Mazda Series title is still a very real possibility and certainly, the very least we should expect is second. To do that we need to get some more wins and I'm positive we can land at least two or three, hopefully more. I want to go to Indy Lights with Andretti Autosport next year, but I've too much to focus on in the next few months to be thinking beyond this season.
Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you at the tracks. I really appreciate the support.
• Follow Sage at @SageKaram88, Andretti Autosport at @FollowAndretti, and the Star Mazda Series at @StarMazdaSeries