What a wild ride I had this past weekend at Indianapolis Raceway Park for Rounds 3 and 4 of the Skip Barber Formula Dodge National Championship Presented by RACER. The National Championship were the only people on the road course that weekend so we were able to finish up quite early and stopped by the speedway to watch practice and a little bit of qualifying for the Indy 500.
Wednesday and Thursday were both lapping days that I used to acclimate myself to the fast and bumpy conditions of IRP. Although no official times were taken those days, I knew that I was among the fastest drivers if not the fastest but qualifying on Friday would be the true test to see if I was a hero or a zero.
Friday began with a practice session and was followed by two qualifying sessions to set the grids for Saturday and Sunday. In the practice session, I felt one with the car and my time showed that I was second fastest among twenty-one drivers, not quite what I had expected but definitely not a bad way to go into qualifying.
Sitting on the grid as we were about to roll onto the track for qualifying, it began to sprinkle and being the second to last car to go out, I knew that I would have to put in a good lap right at the beginning. As I entered the track, I pushed hard right away not wasting anytime and within two laps, the session was black flagged because of the worsening conditions. When I came in, I found out that I was on the pole for Saturday's race if the times would stand and lucky for me, the officials decided that the times would stand and we proceeded onto the second qualifying session after switching all the cars to treaded tires.
After capturing my first pole position in the series, I was very excited about the second qualifying session and hoped to establish a good starting position for Sunday's race. I went out and immediately felt a slight vibration from the left front tire that almost indefinitely meant that it was flat spotted. I came in and swapped it for another and went back out to try and get a good lap in. As I came into the braking zone for turn 15, I locked up the front tires ever so slightly and was offline as I turned into the corner. I continued to drift up high and crept up onto the tire barriers at a very slow speed and once I reached the top of the tire barriers, the car began to tip over and the next thing I knew, I had rolled the car over!
Having never been upside down in a racecar before, I sat there for a minute and then crawled out unscathed and to my surprise, the only damage that the car received was the front and rear wings. The mechanics repaired the wings and sent me back out but I think that my alignment was off from hitting the tires as the car did not feel equal on left and right hand turns. When I came in from the session, I found out that I had qualified eighteenth! Quite a bit different from Saturday to Sunday's grid but I was ready for the challenge.
Because we finished early, many of the drivers from the National Championship went to the speedway to watch practice and walk around the pits and garage area. We were fortunate enough to receive passes from Robbie Buhl through the Racing For Kids Organization and saw what went on behind the scenes. I personally was amazed at the facility and how big the place was. I had visited the speedway many years ago but to see it again and with all of the updates that they had done was quite amazing. During "happy hour" many drivers posted very fast lap times and speeds that would be a sign of what was to come in qualifying on Saturday. Once the practice session was over, we went out to dinner and got a good night's rest for the race on Saturday.
Saturday began with a short warm-up session that led into the race. I admit that I was a bit nervous but at the same time anxious to get out onto the track and begin the race. As we began to grid up, I looked in my mirrors and realized that qualifying on the pole was quite an accomplishment and it was going to be very difficult to stay at the front with so many other talented drivers behind me. On the pace lap, I tried to put a little bit of heat in the tires and also in my brakes. As we rolled onto the front straightaway, I brought the field down at a reasonable speed eyeing the acceleration cones thinking of how I would get the best start. Just before the cones, I put my foot to the floor and was able to get a good start and led the field around for the first lap.
With second place Levi Simoes directly behind me, I knew he would be tough to beat and as we came onto the front straightaway, he was right behind me. The top five were all nose to tail and with such a strong headwind, it was very difficult to stay out front. About half way down the straightaway, Simoes, Julio Campos, and Tophie Stewart all drafted by me. Campos was able to make a move for the lead and led us around for the second lap. Exiting turn 1, Campos dropped wheels on the exit and began to spin. Simoes, Stewart and I all went by him but as we came around to turn 12, black flags were being displayed due to a four car crash in another section of the track.
The field entered the pits as the carnage was cleaned up and the order that we were to line up in would be based off of the last lap. Talk about lucky, Campos was able to spin and re-inherit the lead because of this but this was short lived. At the restart of the race, Campos brought us down slowly and led for about three or four laps. During those laps, I was able to move up two positions into second position and going into turn 3, Campos spun again giving me the lead for the second time in the race. I checked up for a split second and tried to extend my lead but Simoes and Stewart were right there after the spin. Second through fifth were in a heated battle behind me and I was able to pull out a small lead but after a slight error in turn 6, Simoes closed the gap and drafted by me on the straightaway and never looked back. He maintained the lead for the remainder of the race to take his first victory of the season followed by myself and rookie AJ Almendinger.
I was very disappointed in my performance because I think I should have won but made too many mistakes which cost me the race. At the same time, I finished ahead of all those who were ahead of me in the point standings and I moved up a few spots to fifth. After the race many of the drivers including myself headed to the speedway for Pole Qualifying and saw many of the big names qualify. Once that was over, I ate with fellow racers Dan Dileo, Leonardo Maia, Juan Manuel Polar, and Jon Morley before returning to the hotel and thinking about what the game plan was for Sunday's race since I was starting so deep in the field.
Sunday began with a warm-up session that was followed by a short break before the race. Starting in the back of the field, I really thought about what to do during the race and how I was going to stay out of trouble and score points. I didn't time the start very well and actually lost a spot but made some aggressive moves in the first turn and by the end of the first lap, I had moved up five or six positions. Battling in the middle of the field let the leaders get away from me but I continued to move up through the field and eventually made it up to sixth place. With half the race left, Campos crashed at the end of the front straightaway that brought out a caution that bunched up the field.
I was now within striking distance of the leaders and a podium was definitely possible if I made the right moves. At the restart, I passed Grant Maiman to move into fifth position directly behind the leaders. When leader Scott Presti went off track, I moved up another position into fourth and was hoping to score a podium but Polar got a good run coming onto the straightaway and made a pass for fourth with only three laps to go. I was able to stay with him and apply a little bit of pressure forcing him to make a mistake coming onto the front straightaway. I passed him back but the top three were able to pull away and fourth would be the best possible finishing position. On the last lap, I was followed closely by Polar and going into the carousel, he made a move to the inside of me. I tried to stay on the outside but his momentum caused his rear tires to slide into me and before I knew it, there was car contact. My car went onto two wheels and then into a spin that I quickly recovered from. Losing four positions, I salvaged an eighth place finish, which was disappointing to say the least.
The weekend had its highs and lows but in the end, I came away with 25 championship points that moved me up to fourth only two points behind third place. Knowing that the champion of the series will receive a Barber Dodge Pro-Series ride and second through eighth will compete for a second ride, I think that I will be able to stay within this range and will have a shot at running the Pro-Series in 2002.
The next stop of the National Championship is at Grattan, Michigan where I currently hold the track record but I'm sure it is going to tumble once we get onto the track. I hope to improve on my second place finish and score my first victory before the season is over. Congratulations to Levi Simoes and Dan Dileo on their victories.
Until next time,
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Race - Sebring
first step up CART's ladder