Oxford, England (April 10, 2009) â€“ My off-season this year has been a lot of fun, a lot of work and a lot of learning. Last October, after coming off the biggest race win of my career at the famed Formula Ford Festival, I returned to England six weeks later to try and put together a plan and a deal for racing in 2009. Four months and 10 test days later, here I am living and racing in England full-time!
This month I thought I could share how it all came together as well as a recap of the pre-season test days I have been able to complete while preparing for the 2009 MSA Formula Ford Championship of Great Britain.
It was late November when I returned to England, scheduled to test four days with three different teams before negotiating a deal for the 2009 racing season. Weather conditions were very challenging the whole time. Although in just the few months prior I had raced FF1600 cars three times â€“ one race weekend in Canada and the two in England with Team USA â€“ this would be my first taste of the FF Duratec.
Test Day 1, November 26, 2008 – Snetterton/JTR (100 Laps) Conditions were very cold, 34F degrees and it rained off and on all day. We were really fast in the wet and I had a lot of fun while making a good connection with the guys Joe Tandy has working with his team. It was a good situation to evaluate a team that you might be racing with and maybe even going to war with all season long.
Test Day 2, November 27, 2008 – Donington/Raysport (75 Laps) Conditions were cool and dry until 1:00 pm, then we got washed out by rain. We were fast but brake complications cost us some of our lap times. This team would have been a collaboration of Cliff Dempsey and Raysport and would have been partially based in Ireland. After much thought and effort on everyoneâ€™s part, this deal was just not in the cards. Itâ€™s a shame because I really bonded with Cliff Dempsey and my mechanic, Francis, from my Festival win just one month before. Iâ€™d love to race with these guys again sometime in the future.
Test Day 3, November 28, 2008 – Silverstone/Jamun (100 Laps) Conditions were wet and very cold all day. The Jamun car was very fast and the team was tip-top in the wet conditions. I felt like I was on a rail, lapping 1-2 seconds quicker than the other FF drivers. This was a full day test, I did a lot of laps and I knew I had another half day with these guys the following week.
Test Day 4, December 2, 2008 – Silverstone/Jamun (80 Laps) Conditions were foggy but dry at 8:50 am. By 9:01 it started to rain lightly and then began to drizzle non-stop with a mix of sleet from the bitterly cold wind. The fog barely lifted but we finally got on track at about 11:00 am. My test was scheduled for just a half-day and it was also the seriesâ€™ rookie media day. I knew the track well by now, especially in the wet. My test the week before was in the wet and I had also raced three days at Silverstone during the Walter Hayes Trophy for Team USA. On this day again I was fast-fast but today some of the other guys were running closer to my times, especially the guys testing Formula Renaults â€“ ha, ha! Everyone knew this was the last chance we had to impress anyone before the Holiday break so I think a lot of us were laying everything on the line. I know I was! The Jamun car and team were very good. They even let me run as long as I wanted late into the afternoon. It was a good day for all of us because we learned a lot about the wet set up while being asked by Cooper Tire to test the new Avon rains that were to be introduced in 2009. I also believe the Jamun team was working very hard to help me make my decision as to which team I was going to go with for the next year. It was a good test day all around.
Now it was decision time! We let all the teams know we wanted to but couldnâ€™t decide right away. But I must admit that was just a stall because at that point no plan was in place to finance a year of racing in England, let alone a full-time relocation for me. All we knew for sure was we were going to find a way to make it happen!
As push came to shove it took two more months to secure the financing and negotiate a signed deal. Actually we made the commitment to JTR in January before we even had a commitment for the money, but I canâ€™t imagine Iâ€™m the first race car driver to ever do that.
In the end, we chose Joe Tandy Racing because the negotiations came down to which team we felt would be able to give me the best training for my future career in racing as well as the cost. Joe Tandy made the biggest effort to get me on his team both with a racing plan and the financial offer. The money was important but not the primary issue. We had already planned on running a Skunk Works-like operation for 2009, so this decision mostly hinged on putting together a championship-winning car, team and effort.
Once I settled in at my flat in Oxford and secured all the other creature comforts and necessities any 18-year-old American race driver living in Europe would want (or could afford), it was time to get down to some serious testing. This was the time I was really waiting for: Iâ€™d never had my own race car â€“ at least not the same car for a whole season â€“ and my own crew of guys doing everything they can to make my car go as fast as possible every time Iâ€™m on track. Wow, what a luxury!
I always wondered what it would feel like to be a real-life professional race driver: At this point, once I moved to England, I felt like I really knew! I may not have joined the biggest or most experienced race team, and FF may not be the most prestigious racing series in the world, but itâ€™s very rich in history and every one of the competitors wants to win, just like me. The cars are very fast and have no wings â€“ hence minimal drag, which actually gives us better straight line speed than an F3. This year the FF series also comes with a full-season TV package that shows the events at 7:00 pm on Saturday nights with just a two-week delay. One thing is for sure, this summer if youâ€™re in England watching Motors TV on a Saturday night, you will probably see me trying to drive the wheels off my Robo-Pong/JTR FF Mygale!
Hereâ€™s how the rest of my testing went after I arrived in England at the end of February:
Test Day 5, March 13, 2009 â€“ Snetterton/JTR (100 Laps) Conditions were dry and cool all day. This would be my first laps for shaking down the car that I had seen sitting in pieces at the shop just one week before. Plus, this was going to my first time on a dry track in quite a while. What a great job the team did and although I kind of treated it like a new street car at first, once I was sure it was all in one piece and no wheels were going to fly off, I ran it for all it was worth. At that point there was plenty to do. The car was fast but I wasnâ€™t fully comfortable in the cockpit and our setup plans still needed some adjusting. I ran solid lap times for our first outing, but the real achievement was the carâ€™s excellent reliability.
Test Day 6, March 18, 2009 â€“ Rockingham/JTR (75) Laps) Conditions were dry and mild all day. This is a very cool track. Rockingham is fast and I found it pretty easy to learn. The team and I made many progressive changes to the car, and I was much more comfortable in the seat. Damper issues we experienced the first time out had been improved, thanks to a quick re-valve to our Penske dampers. Pace was once again solidly there, and the entire team felt great about the progress so far. I know Iâ€™m going to enjoy our race meeting at Rockingham during the season.
Test Day 7, March 19, 2009 â€“ Donington/JTR (85) Laps) Conditions were again dry and mild all day. This was a track I already knew and liked from testing in November. I felt I would go well on this day and I had a lot of confidence going in. It was my third day in a brand-new race car that just seemed to get better and better. We did a lot of work, I did a lot of laps, and it seemed like I could go just about as fast as I wanted at all points on the track. My lap time reflected this with a fast lap that day of 1:09.9 with the lap record standing at 1:10.8. At the end of that day, everyone went home with a big smile!
Test Day 8, March 25, 2009 â€“ Oulton Park/JTR (40 Laps) Conditions were wet and pretty cool. It was my first visit to Oulton Park, in the north-west of England, and although I had heard about the track and even been told it gives a lot of guys trouble, I thought I would have no problems. At end of this day I was certainly no master of this place. I donâ€™t know what it was but it turned out to be a weird day for the whole team. It started out with a long drive (200 miles) to Oulton, and when I left after testing, I knew we had a lot of work to do at the track which would hold the first race meeting of the 2009 season in just a few weeksâ€™ time. It was a wet test with constant red flags which made for a long and tedious day.
Test Day 9, April 1, 2009 â€“ Oulton Park/JTR (75 Laps) Conditions were slightly wet early on and then it dried out by noon. This was a good productive day for the JTR team. By this time I could really feel how we were starting to bond as one unit, even me and my teammate Liroy Stuart. We did a lot of work, running maximum laps and found what we believed is going to be a really good team rhythm. I ran on old tires to the end of testing while most of the other teams chose to make new tire runs at the end of the day; we mainly focused on setting up a balance that would stay consistent throughout the entire race weekend. The official lap time at Oulton stands at 1:40.6. Like I said, British FF is very competitive and all these guys say they want to win just as bad as me (of course, that remains to be seen!) so no doubt, at this point I knew it was going to be all elbows out in the British FF series in less than a weekâ€™s time.
Test Day 10, April 8, 2009 â€“ Oulton Park/JTR (75 Laps) Conditions were dry and mild all day. This was a test day more to my liking. Today the team and I found some good speed, developed more positive chemistry and also a bit of luck. When I left the track at the end of this day, I knew all of our hard work had paid off and I even had one more day to rest before the first race meeting of the season. I also knew we were really well prepared!
So there you have it, my full MSA Formula Ford Championship of Great Britain pre-season report. I must say, I really think the entire JTR crew did a great job preparing my new car and in particular preparing me for the upcoming season. They are real pros and I am going to work hard not to let them down.
I also want to thank Jeremy Shaw and all the Team USA Scholarship supporters. I know my great adventure from last fall is what led to my opportunities this year. I am committed to making sure all of my supporters past and present are very proud to be associated with me and my racing efforts.
One more thing I want people to know: I really believe if youâ€™re a young driver just starting out and youâ€™re very serious about making it as a big time race driver, British Formula Ford is where itâ€™s at! These cars are fast, the tracks are cool, itâ€™s unlimited testing and you can develop your own parts for the cars. Best of all, most people in UK are nuts about racing and the press is all over every form of motor racing.
I love it!