During the time between St. Pete and Phoenix, I had a lot of personal changes in my lifestyle. I officially
completed my freshman year of college at Santa Clara University and temporarily withdrew so I could pursue my racing career with no distractions. I moved back to my apartment in Indianapolis so now I’m closer to the Juncos shop and my training facility, PitFit. The weeks leading up to the race consisted of getting back into the routine of training and preparing to return to the first oval of the year. Before oval races, we tend to focus on training our necks because of the intense G-forces we encounter and so we do not become fatigued.
Friday was the first day on track and it was a very busy day. Our first practice was at 9:00AM, which was the earliest time slot on the schedule for the entire weekend. It is also important to note that since we were the first cars to be on track, there is a lack of rubber on the track. This lack of rubber means the track won’t have the same amount of grip compared to later in the weekend when the track has more cars to lay down more rubber. So considering the circumstances this was not the best session for setting up the car for qualifying, but it was important to make sure the set up was decent enough to start the weekend. The initial set up had too much understeer, so we spent most of the first session trying to gain front grip and made many short runs making changes to the car. By the end of the session we were turning quick laps on older tires, with a car we felt would be fast for the warmer conditions later in the day.
We made some minor changes before the 1:00PM session the same day, but our game plan for this session was to do a simulated qualifying run to get a feel for how the car feels light on fuel and with a new set of tires. Sadly, our qualifying run got interrupted by a yellow flag so we did not really have the complete data we wanted for the simulation, but based on the feeling for the car, I gave feedback to make changes to the set up. By the end of the first practice session on worn tires we still posted quick times. We ended up fastest in the last practice session, which gave the team and me confidence going into qualifying at 4:30PM that evening.
Debatably the most important decision of the weekend took place before qualifying when determining what set up to use. We had to decide between leaving the car relatively the same since we had been fastest in the most recent session or continuing to make changes to try to stay ahead of the competition. After much discussion, I made the decision to trim more downforce out of the car for qualifying. Once the cars complete tech inspection, they cannot be altered on pit lane, so once the change had been made the team was nervous to see if we had made the correct call.
Out of 16 cars on grid, we were the 4th car to do the single-car qualifying. With the sun starting to cast a shadow over turns 1 and 2, I think it was slightly advantageous to go out earlier than later. When I went out for qualifying I kept my foot flat and would not lift for anything. Luckily the car set up felt perfect and the track surprisingly had a ton of grip. My initial reaction after my two fast laps were that we probably could have trimmed even more downforce off the car since there was so much grip on the track from the IndyCars that had qualified before us. But after nervously watching the remaining 11 cars qualify, we stayed at the top of the time charts and we earned our second pole in three races!
The race was on Saturday at 1:30PM and starting from the pole on this oval was a huge advantage since it is such a difficult track to pass on. On the start I had a nice jump on second place and got through the first corner leading the race. The first 30 laps I focused ahead and kept a good lead in front of second until I caught up to lap traffic. After only following the slower car for about a lap, they lost control coming out of the final corner and spun around, nearly collecting me with them. Luckily I avoided the car and we went to full course yellow for a few laps. For the restart I had another good jump on the field and basically picked up where I left off before the yellow. I looked after the tires for the remainder of the race and was prepared for anything to happen, but it was smooth running until I reached the checkered flag on lap 90 to get my first win in Indy Lights!
I knew it was going to be hard to follow up such a strong weekend in St. Pete, but this weekend blew St. Pete out of the water! I am so grateful for the hard work the team puts in to get the results we have gotten to start the year off. The next race is at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama on April 23rd/24th. We will be going into that race with the championship lead 18 points clear of second. With a great start to the year, I will be focused on remaining consistent and finishing races to remain on top of the championship. I can’t wait to get back to racing!