It was great to back in my home state of California after being on the road for almost two months and living out of a suitcase since Cleveland. San Jose was the site of our best finish last year and I couldn’t wait for this year’s race especially after our less than stellar performance in Edmonton. With only two races left in the championship I was sitting just outside the top 10 in points and looking to finish within it. I had all the points added up in my head and knew who I had to beat and by how much. I figured that the best approach was to aim for a finish in the top five and then everything would work itself out, so I made my mental predictions for the race and as it turned out I was pretty close.
After checking into my hotel, I went looking for a good pinstriper to put the final touches on the paint work of our Swift for the last of the Sherwin Williams “It’s All in the Finish” race awards for the best presented car. I hopped on my bike and took a ride around town looking for a paint store that had pinstriping supplies and possibly to see if I could find someone local to do the work. I didn’t have any luck finding anyone but I did finally locate a store and got what I needed. I spent the next several hours waxing the car to a mirror finish and added my own pinstripes to complete the design I had in mind. It actually turned out great and there is definitely something special about a design when you can step back, look at it and say to yourself “Cool, I did that!”. Our car had the final touches it needed for the Sherwin Williams competition and from there we got to work on making it fast.
In Friday practice we were in experimental mode with the chassis and aero set-up. In our initial configuration we had everything trimmed out and I clearly had the fastest car in a straight line by far, but not overall. So we scrubbed that idea after a valiant effort and went in a direction that compromised straight line speed for a more balanced setup.
Saturday saw the Sherwin Williams group of judges arrive after morning practice and I was looking forward to it. The judges are very personable and down to earth people and I enjoyed talking to them about the planet color lines, our overall paint scheme, and pointing out all of the elements within our design and the attention to fine details (especially the fabulous pinstriping!). As a team we strive to think outside the box when it comes to our race car’s livery and I felt that the judges appreciated our use of the scallops and pinstripes drawn from the southern California hot-rod look, which also appear on my scooter and helmet.
They were really impressed with the color scheme, and with the fact that I as a driver had played a major role in the design. They respected the concept of a presentation that is both show car and race car, and it’s always fun to share a mutual love of fast machinery. And having a chance at the prize money definitely helps out our team.
Confident that we were in the running for the Sherwin Williams award, we turned our attention to an improved setup for final qualifying. I felt that we had a pretty decent setup, but man was this field tight. San Jose is a relatively short track and Atlantic cars comfortably lap it in under a minute. I gave it everything I had and we were pretty much in the top 10 early in the session. I was right on the limit, nearly hitting the wall trying to get everything I could out of the car and I finally nailed the Turn 6 wall fairly hard with the left rear on my last lap before pitting.
I did some damage, but as there was nothing we could do about it as time ran down we put on a new set of tires and went for it again. The first 18 cars were all within a second of the pole time and I ended up 16th on the grid but in a field so closely matched I wasn’t worried. It was probably going to be better to start a little further back and avoid the inevitable first lap carnage. We had a consistent and very drivable race car that went 13th in the Sunday warm-up session so I felt good.
As the start of the race approached I was relaxed and enjoying myself. I found that I wasn’t overly concerned with where I was starting and I was comfortable as we rolled up for the standing start, knowing that I was in the right place at the right time. Just drop the flag and let’s go racing! I got an awesome start but flat spotted the front tires all to junk on the first lap and had a vibration that was sort of half therapeutic down the straights and half disaster waiting to happen in every braking zone.
Nonetheless, I got right up behind Ryan Lewis who had started 12th and was making a determined run at the top group down the back straight. I decided to follow, however I got way too deep into the braking zone at the end of the straight and had a choice: the tire wall or the run off? I picked the run-off and said about 10 bad words in a split second as I realized I had expertly out-braked myself.
I whipped the car around and then had to sit there and watch the entire field go by. More proof that qualifying didn’t matter. All that really matters is where you finish. So I was back into the battle in 22nd place with the extra motivation of personal redemption behind me. Passing practice was definitely on! I picked off about five or six cars before the yellow flag flew for Ryan as he took his turn in the wall. That sucked for him but I have to admit that it was good for me because he was five points ahead. With Ryan out, and the paint competition over, I was back where I’d started in 16th again and ready to add some big black donuts to my side pods if I had to. This was also the considered opinion of my Chief Mechanic Scott Davin, so I felt ready to move up.
I got a few more spots on the restart and several laps later I actually gained four spots at once. Someone had a problem that held up the three cars ahead of me coming onto the back straight but I never lifted and shot past four cars as we went into the braking zone for Turn 6. Sweet! It struck me as odd that if you drove like a mad man on a mission, the cars almost seemed to move out of the way, kind of like the waters parting in front of me. Well, OK, perhaps not quite that dramatic but I was certainly on a charge and moved into the top 10 rapidly. Before the last ycaution period, I came up on a car with its front wing falling off, and not wanting to get wrapped up in that, I just kept on the pressure and watched him drive a little too hard before tapping the wall as I went by for the spot.
At this point I was up to eighth with no one in front or behind. However, I needed to conserve the car. I was running on flat spotted tires and I thought that I might need to have something left in case we went yellow again before the end. Sure as dung we did. With mixed emotions I convinced myself I was still going to try for fifth, bad tires or not. I was up with the front runners at the sharp end of the field and this late in the race I knew that all of the drivers were going for it just as hard as I was. I needed someone to make a mistake to improve my position.
On the restart, I gave it everything I had hoping for an opportunity and it came suddenly as we went into the hairpin. Cars were going in every direction and somehow I passed everyone I could see up ahead. Exiting the corner all I thought was “Alright!” until I ran over someone’s wing flap. Still, there were just five cars in front of me and it was time to go for it. When I arrived at the next corner I experienced the slide from hell directly towards the wall from which I narrowly escaped and it showed up again in the next two corners. It had a sinking feeling that I had cut a tire on the debris and that it was going down along with my hopes of a decent finish.
Following another slide towards the wall, I lost a ton of momentum and the pack was hard on my heels. Adrian Carrio tried a move into Turn 7, and I countered by trying to lure him too deep into the braking zone. However, he did a heck of a job getting inside and I was left on the outside coming onto the front straight with even more lost momentum. I was a sitting duck for Alan Sciuto as he caught my draft and went by into the braking zone into the hairpin. After taking that all in, I got sorted out, scrubbed my tires off and as I still had four Coopers with air in them I regrouped, put my head down drove her harder. I was definitely going after those spots that had been mine for a few corners, but everyone else drove clean and hard for the last few laps and I finished up in eighth.
Having been close to the top five, I was somewhat dejected but everyone was so happy as I climbed out that I quickly got over it. We’d come back to eighth from 22nd, we were solidly up to 10th in the championship points standings AND we had won the Sherwin Wiliams paint award not only for San Jose but for the whole season! We earned the overall series honors for 2007, the second year running, and our team will again be recognized at the season end banquet and have our car on display. Hats off to Sherwin Williams for their continued support within the series and for their truly awesome products. I also need to point out that our painters did a great job with the finish and design, and congrats to myself and the team for not scratching it up over the course of the season. It’s great for all of us to have that one in the bag plus I made another five bucks off of the Newman Wachs guys.
Overall, it was a great race weekend capped off with some of Stone’s brewing company’s finest ale with the boys, and the celebration of three birthday’s for Scott, Evan, and Adrian. After the race I also took some time to hang with Brett Smrz and his parents. Brett is young and very talented kart racer who recently suffered a terrible injury. I’m delighted that he’s doing great and I’ll be there when he gets back into a race car for the first time since his accident.
He sat in my car and we talked about life, which for us is racing. I explained certain techniques necessary to drive an Atlantic car, talked him through the cockpit, controls and told him he needed to get some more sun! It was very cool to see the fire in his eyes and it reminded me of how I felt the first time I slid into a Formula Atlantic car. I know he’ll get his shot as he’s a proven winner and as long as he never gives up he’ll get there and maybe kick some ass along the way. I never gave up against long odds and here I am living the dream, so it can happen. Go for it Brett!
Thanks again to everyone for just being cool, and for all your hard work. Now, I need to stop writing and get ready for the last race at Road America. Hope to see some of you in Elkhart Lake!