Sage and his team are climbing a steep learning curve. (StarMazda.com/Eric McCombs photos)
Andretti Autosport Star Mazda Championship driver Sage Karam is blogging for RACER.com throughout the season.
We've done St. Petersburg and Barber and it's a long time before the next race, so I can try and focus on things other than racing. Like writing a blog. Or schoolwork. The problem with racing is that you just miss so much school and it's been tough getting back up to speed. A gap of six weeks before the Night Before the 500 race means I can really buckle down with school, which is good. Math is probably my strongest subject and I actually enjoy it, too.
Well, if you've been following the Star Mazda series, you'll have noticed it hasn't been plain sailing for us with the MAZDASPEED/Comfort Revolution car. It's a big learning curve for me and for the team, as we're both new to it and there's a lot to figure out. At St. Pete, we started seventh and I got to experience my first standing start – and I really loved it. It's much more exciting than a rolling start. We had a fast car and I was up to fourth, but right now we're working on the longevity of our setups. We're fast early but then we always fall off and we can't keep a good pace like the other people can, so that's our biggest problem right now.
Down at Barber, we started eighth because we got stuck behind traffic on our fast lap. It would have put us eight tenths faster than the lap that earned me eighth and that would have put us third on the grid. The morning warm-up before the race we were second, only one tenth off of Tristan Vautier who won the race, so we definitely show speed, we've just got to put it all together.
So, again, I had a fast car on race day and we were doing really well – and then I made one of the most embarrassing mistakes in my career. I had just made a pass for third place and I was going on the straightaway, when a giant bug – and I'm telling you, this bug was HUGE – hit my helmet visor. I've never really pulled off a tear-off in a race; I just race through bugs and stuff. But now, suddenly, I just had to pull off this tear-off so I could see where I was going, and I couldn't get a grip on it at first. When I finally pulled it, I realized too late that it was time to make the next turn, and I just went off!
The Goodyear tires didn't clean off like I thought they would, so the car was really different from there on out and we wound up ninth. But the hardest part about the whole deal was going up to Michael Andretti afterward and telling him what happened. Here's a guy who has seen every mistake and heard every excuse in the book, but I think this was a new one for him. Thankfully he took it really well, and basically said, “Well, at least you won't make that mistake again, that's for sure.”
Here's a surprising thing: remember in my last blog I was saying how Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti have helped me? Well I was actually able to return the favor just a little bit at Barber, because one of our sessions was right before theirs, and since it had been raining, I was able to tell them where the wet parts of the track were. It does make you realize that you're part of a big team when you drive for Andretti Autosport.
Obviously, I'm not real pleased with what's going on with the season so far, but you just can't get discouraged. I'm just trying to keep my head up as best I can. Once you get discouraged, the season is just going to unravel on you. We're only 17 points out of third place, 11 points out of the top five, so it's still a long season ahead and we're still right there, nothing really to worry about. I see a sports psychologist every week and I'm always talking to him about my weekends and going over everything. That seems to help out a lot.
I wasn't quite accurate in being able to take my mind off of the racing between now and the race at Lucas Oil Raceway (what used to be O'Reilly Raceway Park, outside Indianapolis). We're going to Mid-Ohio on May 4 to try a lot of different things during some long stints. Like I say, we've got to try and figure out the longevity of the setup. And we're also probably going to put 15 tear-offs on my helmet! And we'll go to the Star Mazda Series test at Milwaukee on May 21 to get some oval miles under our belts.
I really think these ovals are going to be strong for us. Last year we were really strong at ovals. Andretti Autosport's experience with various cars on ovals probably gives us an edge over our rivals, so I think our season could turn around at LOR, Milwaukee and Iowa.
Aerodynamics and their effects on your car's handling seem to be similar, whatever type of open-wheel car you're in. Following one of my rivals at Barber, I'd pull up right behind him in Turn 2 and be right under his gearbox, but then the front would always push out on exit. So I decided to try something different; I kept a half car-width to the outside of him to get the clean air aero over my front wing and plant the front tires down firm on the track. Right when I did that, that reduced the understeer, obviously, I got off the corner real good and caught him going into Turn 5. It'll be interesting to see these characteristics playing out on the ovals, especially at Lucas Oil Raceway and Milwaukee where we'll have to lift for the turns. Iowa should be flat-out.
I raced at LOR last year in F2000 and pretty much it's all about starting position. If you start up front, that's pretty much where you should stay, because it's so hard to pass there. The outside is the fast lane, so everyone runs the outside and so if you've got to make a pass, you can go to the inside and still not make anything happen. You either have to rely on someone making a mistake in front of you or work rely on backmarkers to wrong foot the guy you're racing. Because the track is so short, and because the race is 100 laps long, we're going to be lapping people frequently. We have to be on our A game to make sure that they see the nose of our MAZDASPEED/Comfort Revolution car in their mirrors before we commit to the pass.
So it's a busy track, but also a technical one. Turn 1 and Turn 3, I guess you could call it, are totally opposite from each other, so you set the car up to handle well in Turn 1 and then it's no good for Turn 3. Set it up for Turn 3 and it's no good for Turn 1. And then there are some days when you don't even have to change the setup to get that variation! You'll go to the track and all of a sudden you won't be running Turn 1 good…it was good yesterday, but now it's no good and Turn 3 is your best corner. It can change depending on where the sun is and how the air is. It's interesting and frustrating!
I guess that sums up our season so far, too. But I think we're just about to turn the corner, I really do. Hope to see you all at the Night Before the 500. In the meantime, use Twitter to follow me, @XKaramX, the team @FollowAndretti and the series @starmazdaseries.
Thanks for reading.