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!
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.