After more than seven months of waiting, we finally went racing again this past weekend in St. Petersburg, FL. A lot had happened since the last time I raced when Juncos Racing and I claimed the 2014 Pro Mazda Championship last August at Sonoma Raceway along with the Mazda Scholarship to move up to Indy Lights. When we arrived at the track in St. Pete everything was different. We were now competing in the Indy Lights Championship Presented by Cooper Tires in the brand new Mazda powered Dallara IL-15 against top teams and drivers from around the world.
St. Pete is one of my favorite tracks and I’ve had a lot of success there over the years so I couldn’t wait to get on track. The weekend didn’t get off to a great start. In our first practice session on Friday morning we had a small issue with the throttle that took a while to fix so I didn’t get many laps. Before our second session later that afternoon it started to rain heavily. None of the teams did any laps since the forecast was sunny with no chance of rain for the weekend. It wasn’t worth the risk of damaging the car if we wouldn’t be racing in those conditions.
Even though I have raced at St. Pete many times it still took some time to relearn the track, especially in such a quick car. Since we didn’t get many laps in practice I had to continue to learn during qualifying. We started the session strongly; I was 3rd after our first set of new tires. Towards the end of the session we came back in for a second new set, as did everyone else. I didn’t go much faster on my final run and ended up qualifying 5th. Later we discovered part of the diffuser had been damaged from the bumpy nature of the track, which resulted in a lack of downforce in the rear of the car. The car was pretty difficult to drive and this was the reason for it.
Now it was race time. The races in Indy Lights are much more physically and mentally demanding. They are longer and you have to think about much more than in Pro Mazda. Not abusing your tires and strategizing when to use and when to save your Push To Pass(P2P) are very important. Normally the Mazda engine will create 450hp but we can press the P2P button for an extra 50hp. Each time we cross start/finish we are given 1.5 seconds of P2P. You can save up to 20 seconds at a time and each press of the button will use 6 seconds, so it takes four laps to save up enough for a full use. You can press it as many times as you want but the more you press it the less you will have saved in case you need it to attack or defend.
On the start I tucked right up behind Jack Harvey who started third. We both went late on the brakes into turn one and made our way up to 2nd and 3rd. My car was really good at the beginning of the race and I made a pass on Harvey for 2nd in turn 10 on the first lap. Unfortunately I locked up my left front tire and slid a bit wide allowing him to pass me back. As the race went on we all spread out a bit and I didn’t have the pace to challenge for 2nd.
Race two started out very similar, I made a good start and got into third. My race wasn’t as straight forward as on Saturday. Again I wasn’t quite quick enough to fight for second but I did have to work hard to stay in third. I had Carlin’s Max Chilton right behind me for the entire 45-lap race. He’s won races in Formula 3, GP2 and has been racing Formula One the past two seasons so I knew if he got close enough he would be aggressive. For most of the race he wasn’t close enough to make a move but towards the end he gained on me and tried to pass into turn one. Although he was close I knew he wasn’t close enough to pass me without locking up and running wide so I let him dive down the inside. Sure enough he locked his front tires and I easily passed him back on the exit. He tried again the next lap but I kept him behind to finish on the podium again.
I’m very pleased with our results from the first weekend of the championship. We will continue to develop the car and keep fighting hard to challenge for wins but to finish on the podium twice in the first event against such tough competition is rewarding.
I wouldn’t have been able to make the step up to Indy Lights without the scholarship Mazda and Cooper Tires presented me with for winning the 2014 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires. I also have to thank Doug Mockett & Company, Rising Star Racing, The Stutz, BAD, California Scents, MOBĒ, Brad Penn Oil and of course the Juncos Racing team for all of their hard work.
The races from St. Petersburg will be on TV this coming Sunday, April 5th at 4:30pm eastern on NBC Sports Network. We head out to the west coast for our next race in Long Beach, CA on April 19th.
Thanks for Reading,