JUPITER, Fla. — It’s hard to believe the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires season has already started — time sure flies when you’re having fun. Virtually all my life I’ve hoped to one day be a part of the MRTI ladder system. I remember watching a USF2000 race at Sebring about six years ago, having no clue that one day I would race in the same series. To start this season with a win and the points lead is awesome. I feel very fortunate to be in the position I am in today with so many great people around me.
My St. Pete Grand Prix week started at the Cape Motorsports shop, conveniently located just 15 minutes away from the track. The Capes have heaps of data and video from St. Pete, I spent a lot of time at their shop studying and talking to Dominic Cape about things like car setup, weekend strategy and racing lines. Their experience and data has helped my learning curve tremendously. On race weekends, we don’t get much practice before game time, so it’s important to be on it right away.
My few days prior to the Grand Prix were very busy; there was a lot for me to do at the track and around the city making media appearances and meeting many different people. I was invited to speak and have some great food at the media day lunch with a few Verizon IndyCar drivers and my Mazda Scholarship teammates, Anthony Martin and Aaron Telitz. Interviews have never been my strong suit but I feel that lately I’ve learned a lot from doing so many of them, and now I feel much more confident when talking in front of a crowd or a camera. These events are quite enjoyable, and I am happy to have the opportunity from Mazda to attend.
Our only 30-minute practice session started Thursday afternoon at 5:00pm just after media day. I was so excited to finally experience a street circuit. Unfortunately, our session was cut short because I clipped the wall coming out of Turn Eight, causing me to limp back to the pits. We missed out on about five laps due to several other red-flag stoppages, so my mistake didn’t hurt us as much as it could have. Dominic looked at my theoretical with the few laps that I turned, and saw I was close to where I needed to be on pace. That was nice to know heading into qualifying the next morning at 8am.
The two qualifying sessions went very well; we qualified third for race one and second for race two. I was the only driver in the top three in both sessions, so it was a good comeback from a rough start. We were using qualifying like a practice, because I couldn’t afford to spend time in the pits and lose more track time. I had a much better understanding of the track when it was all over.
My mindset heading into this whole weekend was to leave with points. There are many cases of drivers in the past starting the season with a points deficit and having to catch back up through the season. I know we are very strong at the next few tracks the series goes to, so I was happy to finish the first race in second place, with fastest lap, after being shuffled back to fourth on the start and having to pass a few cars through the narrow streets. The second race gave me a wide-open opportunity to win. I was running second when the leader overshot Turn One after a restart about mid-race. With our unmatched race pace, I could control the field and win my first ever USF2000 race. Emotions were soaring when I drove into the victory circle. Everyone from my team was ecstatic and I felt like there was another huge weight lifted off my shoulders. With the team I have behind me, and the people involved in making this happen, I think there will be many more of these moments coming soon.
As weird as it sounds, I’ve only seen one IndyCar race before this event, and that was about eight years ago at Homestead-Miami Speedway. I was a just a fan on Sunday. Art Wilmes from Rising Star Racing was very kind to invite me to his booth on top of pit lane to watch the veterans start their season. I was happy to see Sebastien Bourdais win the race after go-karting with him at Andersen RacePark earlier in the week, for the traditional “Karts for Kids” charity event. Sebastien was auctioning off his race helmet for charity and was joking about how it would be worth much more money if he won the St. Pete Grand Prix!
Now it is time to prepare for Barber, the second round on the USF2000 calendar. I hope to see you there! As always, thanks for reading.