Next we went into the 30-minute qualifying session and bounced all over the charts, from first to fourth to second to seventh back to second and finally to fifth and only 0.18sec off of first. The top seven cars are so close this year; it's going to be a fun battle to the end.
On Saturday, our first race of the weekend wasn't until 5:20 pm; I think we must have watched the same onboard lap 1,000 times before it was race time. Finally after what felt like days of waiting, we were told to false grid, and then the field drove on to the starting positions on the front straight.
We only get one lap to warm-up our tires and brakes, and at a place like St. Pete, we had to work extra hard because we could only use about 1.5 of the 1.8 miles to get the job done. They gave the command to start our Mazda engines and we made it to Turn 10. Then the lights on the pace car went out, the cars packed up and we went green.
I went in to Turn 1 three-wide on the inside; I was starting to think that the start was pretty good. I couldn't see anyone in my mirrors so I began to turn in right behind second place and then all I could see was tire smoke and a blue and black car fly through the inside with its left-rear ramping over my right front.
Luckily for me, my car had no real damage but I had fallen back to seventh place before the full-course yellow came out.
My lead mechanic, Ron Weaver, was on the radio telling me to just relax and be smart as we slowly made our way behind the pace car. When the track went green again, I put my head down and just let the car do the work. Every lap I concentrated on hitting my marks perfectly and just working through the field. In 17 laps, I went from seventh place to third place.
Even though it was a third, it felt like a win for the team and I. We made it through the bad luck at the start and finished the race on the podium.
I started P3 for the second race, but had new brake pads and rotors that I had to bed in during the warm-up lap. Three-quarters of a lap at St. Pete to bed in new pads and rotors really wasn't enough time but that's what we had to work with. I had to brake early going into Turn 1 because of new brakes not being at their 100 percent yet, and fourth place took advantage of that and got by. As the brakes started coming in, I got closer and closer but was never really able to get by third place again. I finished fourth but it was a close and fun race. I also have to thank my teammate and good friend Sage Karam for helping me learn some of the secrets of St. Pete (we even did a little photo-shoot in the IndyCar Fan Zone, check my Facebook page for more photos!).
Even though the weekend started off rough and we had some bad luck on the first race, it was a great learning experience for me. I learned how to overcome adversity, how to pass on a street course by giving up some corners to get a good run, how to follow a car around and still get air on the wings for braking and turn in, and how important it is to stay relaxed.
We have a lot of work to do before Indy, but I know we'll be ready because that race isn't until the end of May. We'll spend April doing some promotional work for National Distracted Driving Awareness Month and doing some work on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Getting back in the saddle is kind of like the first day of school all over again and you have to work out the kinks to see how your labor pays off. It's kinda like that quote, “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose and sometimes it rains.” I really like when you win and it rains!
USF2000 National Championship driver Zach Veach drives the Andretti Autosport No. 7 Zakosi Data Backup/Mazda. For more on Zach, go to www.zachveach.com.