JUPITER, Fla. – Hello! With the off-season in full effect now is the time to start piecing our program together for 2019. Until then, I am still doing everything I can to stay sharp behind the wheel of a race car. The past couple of months have been full of new experiences, success and awesome opportunities to give back to the sport I love.
Our Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires season ended on a high note at Portland International Raceway. We finally bagged our first win of the season and tallied the most points on the weekend, which secured us third place in the championship. After a roller-coaster year, I am extremely happy with that result. The championship podium was especially important for me because the top three in points earned a chance to test the Dallara IL-15 Indy Lights car.
Just a few weeks after Portland, I took this opportunity to the annual Chris Griffith Memorial test on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. I don’t think you could call anyone’s first time in an Indy Lights car “ordinary” but this opportunity in particular was truly exceptional; a chance for me to perform for one of the best open-wheel teams in existence, Andretti Autosport. This was a huge deal for me – the chance to drive one of the top open-wheel cars in the world with a team that has a tremendous amount of experience and resources. I wasn’t about to take the opportunity lightly.
I started my journey to Indianapolis from my hometown in Jupiter, Fla., on Monday before the weekend test. We scheduled the seat fit and engineering meetings throughout the week to have plenty of time to go over everything I needed to learn about the Dallara IL-15, a car I have no experience driving. Stepping foot in the Andretti Autosport shop was confidence inspiring; the facility is immaculate and has over 120 people hard at work during the season. I had the pleasure of pairing up with Patricio O’Ward’s championship winning car and crew of Jessica Mace, Ryan Liddy and engineer Mark Bryant, who along with the rest of the Andretti employees all seemed to share the same passion to compete and succeed. It was a great environment to work in.
Compared to the Tatuus PM-18 Pro Mazda car, there are a few significant differences. The Dallara has a wheel-base substantially larger by 221mm, has 175 more horsepower with its 2-liter turbocharged engine and can produce over 2000 pounds of downforce – substantially more than a PM-18. It is a monster, to say the least. I was very happy to drive such a big car, because while I stand at six foot two inches, it is about the only thing I’ve ever driven that wasn’t a squeeze to fit into.
Practice started on Saturday morning with three 45-minute sessions on each of the two days. I’m not going to lie, I felt somewhat out of my element over the first couple of laps strapped into this rocket ship! The sheer power the turbocharged engine produced was a bit of an eye-opener. Like every new level of race car, once you get used to it, things start to feel more natural and slow down, kind of like in the movies when spaceships come out of hyperspace. We ended up leading most of the session before finishing third overall in my first ever Indy Lights outing.
I did not feel as if this was my first day working with the Andretti Autosport crew; we all clicked very well together and I think the style of engineering is much like what I was so used to at Cape Motorsport where I’ve spent the last two years of my career. We ended the first day second overall behind my veteran teammate Ryan Norman just three tenths off the track record set by Ed Jones and Carlin back in 2015.
I slept a lot better on Saturday night than Friday night, now that I knew what to expect. Day two was all about capitalizing on where we left-off on Saturday. I could now give more in-depth feedback about the car because my times were more consistent and I had a better feel for the driving style. The track temp was slightly warmer on Sunday than on Saturday, but that didn’t stop us from going even quicker than the time we set on day one, and even though it was only by a couple of hundredths of a second the lap was good enough for quick time of the day!
I was super happy with the overall experience of making my debut in an Indy Lights car. My mom mentioned how distant that series looked from our USF2000 perspective in 2017, and I couldn’t agree more. But here we are now with one hand on the third and final step of the Road to Indy ladder system. It’s a true testament to how well the series works to prepare drivers for what lies ahead. A big shout-out to Michael Andretti and the entire Andretti Autosport crew for a great weekend, and to the guys at Cape Motorsport for helping to create the opportunity to try out the next step. My future in the Road to Indy is still very uncertain, but my team and I are continuing to work hard to keep me on the path to IndyCar.
Giving back to this sport has always been a priority; I feel it has made me the person I am today. I recently had the opportunity to coach Sebastian and Oliver Wheldon through my old karting team Ocala Gran Prix. I first met Dan Wheldon during the winter of 2011 when he raced karts for a couple of weekends alongside me at Ocala Gran Prix to get ready for the coming IndyCar season. I remember Dan was always trying to lend a helping hand to all the Junior drivers on the team in any way he could.
I recall an extremely cold and rainy race weekend in Orlando, Dan spent some time with me walking from team-to-team trying to track down an anti-fog visor for my helmet so I could see on the race track. I’ve always idolized him, and having the chance to teach Sebastian and Oliver the basics of karting is very cool. The kids love to laugh and have a ton of fun before turning on the serious switch while putting on their helmets; it’s really something to see and I’m humbled that I have the opportunity to help them.
I do still try to stay behind the wheel of a kart, as I believe it’s great physical and mental training for race cars. I recently competed in a shifter kart race in Orlando where Rubens Barrichello and a few national karters also showed up. To anyone who has never driven a shifter kart, it is one of the most physical sports I have ever tried. I expect it’s close to riding a motocross bike with how much of the body we use to navigate the tight, twisting circuits. So, to have the chance to compete every now and then is awesome and I hope to do more of it as the off-season rolls on. Rubens ended up walking away with the win, I ended up second after an eventful race with multiple challenges for the podium. I usually hate losing, but when the winner is one of the most experienced Formula One drivers in history it’s hard to complain. Until next time, thanks for reading!