I have been very fortunate in my career to have had some tremendous opportunities that most short-track racers will never get. In 2015 I was given a second chance to compete in The Indy 500 with Jonathan Byrd Racing. The Indianapolis 500 starts 33 cars and just having a ride does not guarantee that you will be starting the race on Memorial Day Weekend. Qualifying in 2015 was a story in itself and I wanted to share a side of IndyCar racing that most short track fans never see.
We knew going into qualifying on Sunday that we weren’t the fastest car by any means. We had kinda been flirting between 29th and 33rd all month long. It’s fairly frustrating when you’re working for a week and a half and trying to find speed but not finding any. Towards the end of the week we showed spurts of what we needed but it’s always hard to tell until Fast Friday where you are at because you always have some sort of tow or just other cars on the track helping you along. We still landed in our typical range, I can’t remember where we were at but it was in the 30’s somewhere.
We knew we had to be better than what we were and it’s a bad feeling going into qualifying day and not being sure what you’ve got. There was a lot of stuff that happened leading up to qualifying day and qualifying morning actually.
Ed Carpenter got turned around and turned upside down. From there we were kind of put on hold and not really sure what was going on. We now had some rule changes and some different things so when we rolled out onto pit road nobody really had any idea where they were at. The package that we had just spent a week and a half on was just thrown out the window and we were forced into a different package.
“It’s fairly frustrating when you’re working for a week and a half trying to find speed but you just can’t”
The package was much safer so nobody was worried about how the car would handle because all that they did was add down-force. On the other hand nobody knew what kind of speed they were going to have. We had spent so much time kind of working on all of those little details throughout the month that when they throw something like that at you it’s not necessarily scary from a standpoint that you’re afraid you’re going to go out there and crash or anything like that. You’re scared from the standpoint of that you just busted your butt for 8 or 9 days working on every little detail it was just thrown away. Now you’re rolling out for the biggest day of the month really with no idea what you have or what you need to do inside the cockpit in terms of gearing and shifting. Some days you shift and some days you don’t, depending on wind and what you have on the car. There is a lot that goes into that so to roll out there on Saturday and not have any idea of what you have is kind of stressful I guess and on top of that you’re just worried about making the race.
“Your 4 time trials laps are the busiest in auto racing.”
An IndyCar is so much different from a sprint car/midget/silver crown car. You’re so much lower to the ground. Obviously a winged sprint car has some down-force but it’s not quite as high down-force as an IndyCar. There’s also no warning you’re going to crash. You keep going through the week keep peeling down-force off it and peeling down-force off it. You’re just going so fast that really by the time you realize that you’re out of shape you’re probably in too much trouble. Back in 2012 I tried to chase it and probably made things worse, tried to catch it, got myself in too high and lost it.
Your 4 time trials laps are the busiest in auto racing. There are so many gadgets you have at your disposal, especially in those 4 time trial laps. Each corner is so different when you are running with such a lack of down-force. You’ll go through turn 1 with your bar in one position and your bar in another. Through the short chute you might take a little weight jacker out of it. Down the backstretch you’re moving bars and moving weight. You do the same thing through turns 3 and 4 and on home. You may shift in the short chutes depending on the wind.
The cars are so touchy to wind. A wind direction change can change your whole setup. The wind was probably the hardest thing as a short track racer for me to get used to. You’re walking down pit road and constantly checking where the wind is at. You’re thinking about what that was going to do to my car and trying to figure out how to work on your car to make it react well no matter what direction the wind is coming from. You ask yourself is what you’re doing working today because you have extra down-force on the front because the wind is blowing on my nose? What is it going to do tomorrow if the wind is at my back? It becomes a long process and a lot of thinking and a lot of planning.
Qualifying really starts the night before. The Indianapolis 500 pays $225,000 to start and that’s a lot of money no matter who you are. $225,000 is a big chunk of change, especially for a short track guy. We race off percentage there too so it’s not all mine but still, it’s a large number.
The Indianapolis 500 pays $225,000 to start and that’s a lot of money no matter who you are.
You spend the night before qualifying going through your head reminding yourself what you need to do. I ran those 4 laps a thousand times in my head. What if the wind is doing this? What if the wind is doing that? I don’t think I’ve ever looked at wind reports as much as I have the night before time trials. You spend the night before not so much stressed but trying to make sure that you do everything right.
The morning of qualifying is a lot of waiting. You get a practice session and in that session we kind of had a lot of havoc this year. Ed got upside down and that’s where the rule change came into effect.
Your warm-up lap is probably just as important as the rest of your laps, especially with the package that we were forced to run with it being such a high down-force package. IndyCar’s are so over-gripped and under-horse-powered so you end up paying for every little mistake somewhere down the line. The quicker you can get to flat-out, the more momentum you can build up so that’s what you’re working on as you pull out of pit lane. You’re trying to hit your gear shifts just right. Ideally you want to be in 4th gear by the backstretch and stay there through turns 3 and 4 and try to hit 5th gear down the front straightaway.
I try to be flat out but turn 1 and if you’re not you better be flat by turn 2 so you can carry your speed down the back straightaway. A lot is going on, you’re trying to watch your lights and trying to see if you need to be in 6th gear. Am I being pushed by the wind? Am I in a head wind? You kind of have an idea going out. You’re constantly watching your lights on your steering wheel. I still ask myself questions. Am I turning into the wind? Do I need to downshift? That kind of stuff.
We really missed on our gearing this year on run 1. I couldn’t shift really so we were kind of stuck in 5th gear. We chose not to waive off our run because they were down to 33 cars entered and at that time the 34th car had trouble in inspection so really we were just worried about getting a run in.
I made a minor mistake in turn 3 on my warm-up lap that really cost me and I think my first lap was 219 mph. Fortunately I was able to run flat the rest of the way. I think we were about 221 mph and really didn’t have any speed. We needed to be about 223 mph so we were a couple of mph off.
As a driver when the car doesn’t have much speed like in our situation there is only so much you can do. I can move my weight jackers to try and free up the car as much as you can. The new down-force package forced me to try and get rid of as much scrub as I possibly could. As the qualifying run goes on the car frees up and the tires get worn. You’re constantly chasing the front bar and the weight jacker. You need the front to turn but you need the rear to stay stuck. We have a weight jacker on our steering wheel so through 1 and 2 you might have left front weight in it and through 3 and 4 you might have right front weight. If you watch the in-car camera of a guy who makes a good qualifying run at Indianapolis he is constantly changing things. Obviously while you’re doing all of this you are trying to hit your marks as perfectly as you can and trying to make the race track as wide as possible. You’re really as a driver looking for the hundreds of a second that you can pick up. I can’t as a driver really pick you up 2 mph but I can pick you up a quarter of an mph.
Another part of being a driver is accepting criticism in addition to the glory. Eddie Cheever, a former Indianapolis 500 winner questioned whether short track racers could make the transition to IndyCars. I feel like I proved in 2012 the transition could be made. Obviously we didn’t complete the month but we were a top 10 car all month long. We had an issue in qualifying just like any other great driver has had. At the same time though, everyone is entitled to their opinion but I don’t necessarily agree with his. I think 2012 showed that it can be done and done well and I felt like Sarah Fisher and those guys gave me a great effort. We were pretty underfunded and they rolled out a piece for me that was a top 10 race car all month long. I feel like as a former driver he should probably understand that there’s more to these situations than just my background but at the end of the day all I can do is go out there and drive as hard as I can, go flat out and see from there what it gives us.
Having no speed in time trials was frustrating. We weren’t really sure why as we had run 224 mph during the morning practice so we thought we had good speed but for whatever reason it didn’t translate to qualifying.
We were a little worried after round 1, I think we were 33rd. At Indy they do a Top-9 Shoot-Out for the pole and then a Bottom 4 Shoot-Out. We were the first car to run and I think we averaged 221 or 222 mph, I think it was just under 222 mph. I knew it wasn’t that great but I didn’t really know where we had any more speed.
From there on out it was kind of a waiting game. 1996 Indy 500 champion Buddy Lazier’s car had now passed technical inspection and he came out and made a run at about 218 mph. Following that they kind of sat on pit road and it was a waiting deal. It’s a game, you’re waiting for the right temperatures but at the same time if you go out too soon you give someone a chance to go back and respond immediately. If you go out too late and something happens you’re in big trouble.
Buddy rolled out with 30 seconds left in time trials to make his run and all you can do is hold your breath.
You are on pins and needles. You’re trying not to think about things. I feel like it’s one thing if you go out and make a mistake and you feel like you have more speed out there. It was tough though because I felt like we’d laid down as good of a run as we could and that was everything that we had. At that point I had resigned myself to whatever was going to happen was going to happen.
Buddy rolled out with 30 seconds left in time trials to make his run and all you can do is hold your breath. I think his first lap was 219 mph so obviously at that point I felt pretty good but at the same time I knew if he ripped off a 223 mph or 224 mph lap it was going to make things interesting. On lap 2 Buddy was at 219 mph again so I felt really good about the situation but at that point I told myself I wasn’t getting out of the car until he was done with his run. It probably should have been a lot happier time once he finished but it was more of just a relief. We worked so hard all month and we just didn’t have speed.
As a driver it’s frustrating because if you looked at all of the data it almost kind of showed that we should be faster based on the way that the scrub traces were and things like that. For whatever reason we just didn’t have it. Looking over all of the data and based on the information we had I had done everything I could to be fast but at the same time we just didn’t have it. Sometimes it’s like that and it’s a frustrating thing but at the same time it’s why they pay us to do what we do I guess. At the end of the day though, I had a starting spot in the 2015 Indianapolis 500.