“The weekend I have been waiting for had finally arrived after six months of waiting to get back to racing. During the offseason, I moved back to my hometown in Santa Clara, California and attended college at Santa Clara University studying business. During much of the offseason it is a balance between taking classes and staying active in the car by testing whenever my schedule allows. The first race took place on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida this past weekend to begin my second season in the Indy Lights Championship presented by Cooper Tires on the Mazda Road to Indy.
Like most street courses, St. Pete is very bumpy and challenging to find grip. Racing on a street course is very different from other tracks since they are not raced on regularly, so during the first practice sessions the track is very low grip and not very indicative of how to set the car up for later in the week. Our first practice was Friday morning and in the first sessions I usually like to get a general feel for the car and slowly work up to speed. Our game plan was to stay out and just run as many laps as possible to gather data and get warmed up to the track after not being there for about a year.
Our second practice session was later in the afternoon after the Indy Cars had already gone on track, which adds a lot of rubber and cleans off a lot of the dust that makes the first session very low-grip. The temperature had gone up a lot and mimicked what we expected our racing conditions to be like on Saturday and Sunday. So we ran the same tires from our morning session and did many laps to get an idea of what the balance of the car is like after a long run on tires in hot conditions.
Very early at 7:55AM on Saturday morning we had the first qualifying session of the 2016 season. Although our pace from practice may not have indicated how well we would do, I was confident after spending many hours going over data and video. We decided to start the qualifier on the old tires we had run the day prior to get warmed up and burn some fuel, then after that short stint I pitted and put on the first set of stickers. With a lot more grip and a car that felt nearly perfect I managed to get a strong lap time that put us into P1 with approximately 8 minutes remaining. I had come into the pits for my second set of stickers with the expectation of besting the first time to ensure the pole for both races. After getting the tires up to temp, on my first flying lap another car caused a red flag, cutting the session short by about 3 minutes. As soon as I got back to the pits I had realized nobody had gone quicker than my time on the first set of sticker tires and I got the pole for the first race later that day, which was the first pole in the Mazda Road to Indy.
After waking up so early, it felt like forever before the first race at 12:55PM the same day. Starting from the pole was first for me, so I spent a lot of time thinking of the different scenarios that could’ve played out during the start. Luckily, my planning paid off pretty well and I got a great jump on Rosenqvist heading down to the first corner. Unfortunately, I broke a little too deep going into the brake zone and locked the front tires slightly and went a little wide of the apex, costing me one position to Zach Veach. I was still pretty happy being in second after the first corner and my plan was to pressure Zach to try to get the position back. I threatened a pass going into turn 4 on the leader, but wasn’t close enough to complete the pass. In turn 5 I was hit by a car behind me sending me way wide costing me two more positions. After the opening lap there wasn’t much action until about halfway through the race Zach Veach had an issue with his car and had fallen back through the field. The driver in front of me, Scott Hargrove, made an attempt to pass going into turn 10. They made contact, giving me the opportunity to overtake Zach Veach and move into third position. I pressured Hargrove until the end of the race but had to settle for third. I was still very happy to get a podium finish in the first race of the season.
The second race I was starting in third because the grid is determined by the second quickest lap in qualifying.
Rosenqvist got a great start so by the time I arrived at the apex of the first corner I was side by side with the Zach Veach, who started the race in second. I held the inside line and had the advantage going into turn two and moved into second position. For the majority of the race I was focused on maintaining the tire life since it was very hot and a longer race than the first one. A little after halfway the leader caught up to lap traffic and was being held up. I closed the gap from 4 seconds to 1 in about three laps, but couldn’t get close enough to make a pass. As the race started winding down I had to take care of the rear tires and settled into second place until the checkered flag.
Overall, this was the best weekend I’ve had in Indy Lights plus it was against the biggest and most competitive field the series has seen in a long time. I’m extremely proud of the team and the results we achieved during this weekend. The next race is at Phoenix International Raceway on April 2nd. We’ll head into that weekend sitting second in the championship, only 1 point behind first. So with the championship in mind I’ll be looking to keep up the momentum and getting a strong finish for what looks to be a great year!”