If you had asked me around one week before the Indy 500 what my chances were in the race, I was confident we were going to have a great car, and that pink would be going to the front on race day. Throughout testing this year, I finally got to do full tank runs and spend plenty of time in dirty air, and I was starting to get on with the Dale Coyne Racing / Susan G. Komen car in a similar fashion to the way I got on with my little white Indy Lights car that looked after me so well in 2010. It’s the first time I’ve ever been able to get enough seat time to start to feel something even close to that level of confidence in an IndyCar, and I’m sure it had a lot to do with the amazing people surrounding me during this May.
Back in 2011 when I drove for Conquest Racing, in my first ever 500, after one day of testing an IndyCar prior to rocking up for Opening Day, I had an engineer who listened to me, who had my back, who helped me step down through the needed aero levels to get to qualifying trim in an orderly manner despite the rain, and to whom I give a lot of credit for getting us qualified for the 2011 Indy 500, when three full time drivers did not.
In 2013 when I first showed up to drive for Dale Coyne Racing, I met this amazing group of people who made me feel at home in their team, and who worked their backsides off to field an extra car for me at the Indy 500. It was so much extra work for those guys to go from two to three, and despite being on a short engine program where I didn’t get out on track much, I had the type of experience with the team, and the team with me, where I was asked back sporadically throughout the year as part of the roster of previous Indy Lights winners, and IndyCar winner Mike Conway, who filled that seat throughout the remainder of the season. At Texas, we felt we had a pretty good car, but a mechanical issue effectively took me out even before the start. At Pocono we had a top 15, and at Fontana, testing went well, but both mine and Justin’s cars just dropped out of the window on race day itself, and then running at the back I was caught out when a tire came off the car in front of me, causing me to collect the wall in avoidance of both the tire, and the spinning IndyCar ahead. So on paper it might not look like any great shakes, but inside the engineering room, and inside the team, I knew I had found a group of people, and a team owner whom I wanted to work with as much as possible again. Luckily, they felt the same way about me.
Over the winter I worked flat out to put together sponsorship to run more races, and felt like I came close several times. The racing driver urban myth of getting everything done, and then things effectively falling apart on the day you felt like the paperwork was meant to get signed with the sponsors? This off season, that was me. I was once again asked to go and race in Nationwide, but much as with last year, I still haven’t grown up racing sprint cars on dirt ovals, and it’s still an incredibly difficult transition for anyone from open-wheel, including multiple championship winning drivers. For those reasons, for the second year in a row, I took the hard decision to decline. Had it been a sports car I would have said yes in a heartbeat, but as you all know, a stock car is very different from a sports car, and once again I had almost nothing coming into January other than a steely determination I would make something happen.
Actually saying I had nothing is not quite true. I did have a team owner, standing behind me, who wanted me in one of his cars. When you’re trying to put together a plan, having a real racing car waiting with your name on it makes a massive difference to merely having a hypothetical one.
Early in 2014, I had an introduction to Komen Central Indiana at their Pink Tie Ball. I met the local director Natalie, and I knew that given their past history in IndyCar, I wanted to see whether I could do something to bring them to this year’s Indy 500 as part of the program I was trying to put together for the race. This whole plan started with the idea of taking my red and yellow helmet, that I have not altered in any significant way for over 10 years, and turning it pink for the cause, then donating it to Natalie after the race for them to auction off to raise money. However, something on a platform as big as the Indy 500 meant that things had to go upstairs for approval, and as things grew, the idea of forming a partnership around my now pink helmet, turned into the idea of putting together a partnership around an entirely pink program, out there to raise funding directly for Susan G. Komen via laps turned by the pink car through a pledge site, and to raise awareness on the massive national stage that the Indy 500 provides.
So as all this progressed throughout February and March, Dale kept up to date with my progress in terms of putting things together, and getting all the moving pieces in place to actually make things happen. In St Pete, we went to see Honda, and explained to them what the program would be. I do have to stop for a moment here, mid-sentence, mid-column, and just thank them again for stretching to 18 engines to power my Susan G. Komen / Dale Coyne Racing car. It seems trite and somewhat obvious to say that without their support this would not have happened, but 18 engines was a big ask, and I was number 18, so I am truly grateful that they never wavered in terms of their support.
By Long Beach my car was being painted back at the shop and Darren, the team manager, and I had a conversation about getting the car staffed. Darren had been the team manager when I was back at Conquest too, and he mentioned to me that he was trying to put the band back together with the engineer I mentioned earlier, and maybe bring some of his key staff from the sports car team where he worked too. If you had been looking anywhere near the Coyne tents around this time, you would have seen me pretty much unable to contain myself as I hopped from foot to foot. Brandon and I had always said we would try and work together again if we got the chance, but given his full time gig as engineer and team manager at Muscle Milk Pickett Racing, I didn’t think it would probably ever really happen.
I am still gutted, not only for Brandon, but for all of those guys who came over to work on my car, that it only happened because MMPR was going through the process of closing down, but at the same time I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity granted me. I also know those guys were happy to be working together one last time as a team before they disperse and dissipate to other jobs throughout the paddock, and now that May is over, I hope they all find full time work very soon. The thing those guys all have on their side is they are very good, and very good people are not always easy to come by.So here I now was, coming to Indy, on a longer engine program, with an amazing crew, an engineer I knew, had worked with before, and am lucky enough to call a friend away from the race track, and to a team I had settled into the previous year, with a great team mate whom I already knew in Justin, and into a chassis I had actually driven before at Indy. In a part-time world of putting together deals, things don’t get much better than that!
Throughout May, things progressed extremely well. Justin, Carlos and I all liked a similar enough car that in general, feedback on changes were able to be shared and translated from chassis to chassis. I got to draft and pass plenty of cars on full tanks, running full fuel stints to better understand how the handling would change over the run, and how to try and set-up passes in the DW12. During qualifying weekend we had a slight hiccup early on Saturday, but got it resolved before the end of the day, running a speed we were happy with, and then improving it again on Sunday to qualify P22. And now I’m back to the start of this column where I was happy, confident, and ready to race the Susan G. Komen car for Dale on the following Sunday.
However, nothing in racing ever goes that smooth, and on Monday and Carb Day, as the temperatures rose and despite our trying not to kid ourselves by always running relatively low aero when it was cold, we still just dropped outside our handling window with all three cars. The engineers all worked together, and engineers with their specific drivers too, coming up with the best plans to try and nudge our race cars back into their happy place. Brandon and I talked at length about the differences and nuances between trying to follow on Carb Day compared to the previous week, and we decided that with my car, we probably weren’t looking for too much. A tweak here, a tidy there, a little polishing and rubbing on an area, and we would go race it and see what we had.
Coming down to turn one, in the middle of the pack, at over 200 mph, three wide at the start of the Indy 500 is always unnerving when you’re not entirely sure what you’re going to have when you get to the corner. But I had faith in Dale Coyne Racing, faith in the guys on my team, and faith in that guy on the timing stand who has now stood with me through two Indy 500s, and as I went down into one, the pink Susan G. Komen car did exactly what I was hoping she would, and the first stint of the race was on.
Throughout the first two stints I was working on the tools I had in the car, learning about the dirty air and how to draft. Our car was still moving and sliding a lot more than it had been the previous week, but given the higher temps so were most other driver’s cars, and the balance wasn’t far out at all. I settled into my afternoon, passed a couple of guys for position during the first stint, swapped a few places in the second, and was happy with our pace, where I was running in the field, and the amount I was learning on race day. For the first time in my career, I was driving a DW12 behind an entire string of cars the whole time, and working out how that affected things in the heat of race day as opposed to just one or two cars as I had been on race day in 2013.
Then we had our second stop. It’s been reported by many people that we apparently had a suspension issue, or a mechanical failure. Neither are true. It was just a rough stop, and as I took the pit lane speed limiter off coming onto the warm-up lane I instantly knew something was wrong. I had a loose wheel, and I knew I had to stay slow, stay low, and get her back to the pits without over-riding the safety on the nut that can stop a loose wheel coming all the way off if you catch it quick enough. Creeping down the back straight with my inside wheels almost in the grass, with that kind of speed difference to the cars outside of me was an awful feeling. I was certain we would go yellow, but it never came. I had momentary huge relief on the warm-up lane, then at the exit of it, I was hugging the inside wall again to make sure I left room for anyone pitting off the track at speed to pit lane. I had one come by me right as I was doing that, and then I was finally back into the relative safety of pit lane, and into my pit box. However, now we had a new problem. Remember I mentioned the safety feature on the nut? Now the nut didn’t want to come off the wheel at all! For seven or eight more laps I sat there with the engine off while hammers and screw drivers went to work on the inside rear of my car. I knew our chances of a good result were gone, but it was important to me to get back out on track.
Firstly, my race had finished early at Indy the previous year, and I knew how much more I had already learned in that short, first part of the race. I wanted to keep learning. Secondly, my car this year was not your average race car. When you’re running a car as special as this, with such a big meaning behind literally being out there turning laps for so many people, it meant that if we could get back up and running we needed to. Then thirdly, this is Indy. Anything can happen, and while we would have needed a miracle to get that many laps back, you just never know what might be ahead. My guys felt exactly the same way as me, and then the nut released, a new wheel went on, and I was headed back out into the race.
However now I was presented with a new and different, difficult problem. How do I slot in here, and get up to speed, while trying to make sure I get out of the way given the amount of laps down I am? My first few laps were painful to drive, and probably painful to watch. I was ceding too much throttle, costing myself too much time, and then running too slow, and having it happen all over again in quick succession. Obviously it was not working. I had to find a gap where I could slot in, get up to speed, and be fast enough whereby I was running with the cars around me, but on the back of that group so as not to interfere with their race. With the help of my spotters, we found me that hole, funnily enough right behind the group I had been running with before my issue, and I got back into the rhythm. I was still very aware of the fact I was multiple laps down, and made sure to crack throttle and make life easy when someone came off a turn within two car lengths of me, and anyone who got close enough to think about showing me a nose into either turn one or three got cracked throttle on the opposite straight to make life easy for them too. This way I was able to aid any cars past me that needed by without losing too much speed, or losing to the group in front of me, and losing the learning opportunity of running behind them in all their disturbed and dirty air.
We made adjustments to the car at the next pit stop, and as I was off sequence, this time I came out and ran most of the next stint right behind my team mate, Justin, and his group. I kept thinking it had to go yellow soon, and get me at least one of those laps back, but it didn’t. In fact, it went green for 150 laps before the first caution came out, and the first chance to gain one of my many laps back came up.
In the end, I think we gained either two to three laps back throughout the last part of the race, but mainly we were just picking up positions as people fell out, or had issues of their own. Our pace was similar throughout the race to the guys I had been racing in the first part of the race, who eventually filled positions 12-17, which was exactly the area we’d been aiming for and felt we could finish in this year. The car got better at almost every stop throughout the race, and getting to run the rest of the race to the checkered flag gave me so much invaluable experience for my personal data bank of knowledge, that it will put me in a much better position when I come back here again next year. Plus, there was a sense of satisfaction in knowing that while the end result might read 24th, we ran fast and dug hard, and never gave up all day long. The crew on my car were incredible too, and I am so proud of them for not giving up when adversity struck on race day, and for the way they just kept digging until they could get me back in the show. When you’re driving with something as special as I had on the side of my car, giving up is simply not an option.
Running the Susan G. Komen car this year, in the first year of our new pink partnership, has been an incredible experience. The amount of survivors, co-survivors, and people whom have lost loved ones who have reached out to me both in person, and via social media, has been both inspiring, and humbling. One fan came to find me in the garage area, and gave me a decal carrying the name of his wife who passed away this April, and I carried her name with me in the cockpit for the race this year. It has been emotional, and at times almost overwhelming, but I am so proud of our new partnership, and what it means to so many people.
I also want to take a moment as I get to the end of my column, to shout out to that guy I talked about at the banquet last night. I don’t know that he’ll ever see that, or read this column, but it’s more that I want to make sure as many people as possible know how great a team owner Dale has been to me. To be honest, I’m struggling a little for the right words, as so many things I could write here would sound canned, but as honored as I have been to be driving the pink Dale Coyne Racing car this year for all the reasons pertaining to the deeper meaning of it being the Susan G. Komen car, I am also so incredibly honored that Dale has been such a big part of being able to put this partnership on track in year one, with minimal commercial support. It’s yet another reason why I feel so humbled by everything I have had the good fortune to be a part of this May.