The motorsports industry has changed so much (as I noted in my last blog) and to say that I was really excited to finally start the 2011 season would be an understatement. Just like any business, you must do all the preparations and ancillary work before you can really start your job – much like moving into a new house, you must prep it before you can live in it. All of our off-track preparation had come to a head and it was time to finally get back in the seat at the track that you always seem to hear about: Sebring.
Sebring is one of my favorite racetracks, not only do you have to figure out how to get around the bumps and dips of the course, you also have to figure out which corners to give up to benefit the car. After managing to win the Cooper Tires Winterfest Championship, I wanted to carry that momentum into the first race of the 2011 season. I felt prepared and excited for the season opener after spending the entire month of February on iRacing and talking to my engineer Scott Graves about what we were planning on doing for the race.
Once we got to the track, all the hard work seemed to pay off. We sat atop the charts in the practice sessions and, surprisingly, we barely made any changes to the car setup we used from the Winterfest. The biggest challenge we had to overcome was to adjust our driving to the multiple different kinds of rubber that built up on the track as the week went by.
After two quick days of practice, it was time for qualifying, and if I could go back and do it again, I would have been a little more conservative on the tires to help me out during the second race at Sebring. I battled with my teammate Spencer Pigot throughout the whole qualifying session; I would be P1 and then he would, this continued until the very last minutes in the session, and when the checker flew, I was P1 by a .1 tenths. It was at that moment, I knew that this year is going to be a tough fight to the end of every session and ultimately for the championship.
The first race couldn't have gone any better for me – we managed to get the pole, led flag to flag without a yellow, and had the fastest lap and won the race. The only real problem that we had was the car really fell off by the end of the race.
As I said, I should have been more conservative with my tires during qualifying because I started on pole for the second race on that set of worn out tires, while a lot of other cars had tires with only a few laps on them (the tire rule for USF2000 is you get three sets of tires per weekend; one set for practice, one for qualifications, and one set for Race 1 or 2). We usually do new tires on Race 1, because your fastest lap qualifies your position in Race 2.
On the start of Race 2, I made the mistake of running the racing line instead of holding the inside to protect my position and fell back to second. With my tires being worn out, we were obviously always looking for more grip, and I fell back to fifth at the halfway point in the race. Going into Turn 14, fourth and third were side by side. I followed the guy in third into the corner and he braked a lot earlier than I expected. By the time I saw him brake, I couldn't get my car to slow down to his speed, resulting in me losing a wing. We ended up finishing eighth with my front wing dragging the ground the last three laps. It wasn't what the team or I were hoping for but you always learn from your mistakes – and I learned that patience and anticipation are key to being a good racecar driver. You have to wait for an opportunity, and then anticipate what that driver is going to do, and then react for the pass.
Onto the streets of St. Petersburg…
I have always looked at St. Pete as the Indy 500 of street courses; it has always been a dream of mine to race there. I've been on the simulator and watched video, but it was never the same as feeling the emotions of racing down a city street surrounded by concrete walls, with no real room for error.
Going into the event weekend, the only thing I was really concerned about was the start and Turn 1. A race is never won in the first corner but, a lot of races are lost there, and I was hoping that wouldn't be the case for the USF2000 races.
The race weekend at St. Pete didn't start off exactly how we wanted to, and I think it hurt us throughout the rest of the weekend. When you only have 40 minutes of track time in two 20-minute sessions before qualifying, you have to make every second count, especially when it's your first time at a new track. In our first session, we only got four laps in because of a fuel pick-up problem...
I've always been told that what makes a driver great is the adversity he or she is able to go through and still come out strong at the end of the day. I didn't let the problem bother me; I just went back to the trailer and worked twice as hard looking over onboard and came out P3 in the second practice session.
One thing that I really learned was, look where you want to go, like in the great book The Art of Racing in the Rain says, “the car goes where your eyes go.” There's a lot of truth in that, especially on a street course. When the car starts drifting to the wall, you can't tense up and stare at it, because if you do, that's where the car's going to go.
We still had a lot of time left in the car after practice, but when you're racing on the streets with many different types of track surfaces, it's hard to get it perfect; but I still have to try!