For the entire National Guard team at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, the early part of the Verizon IndyCar Series season has been up and down. We've had some really strong points and some really low points, and we have had a lot of bad luck already.
Luck plays a big part in racing, and it's probably the biggest thing that's affected us, both ways. Look at the season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla.: We had a phenomenal start -- I don't know that I could ever beat that again. We gained 11 positions on the first lap, which is kind of unheard of, really. So to do that and to put ourselves right up into position to pounce and make up a couple more spots … and then through a couple of little strategy things we ended up not being passed that day by a single car and finishing 14th? You look at that and it's like, how does that happen? But it's the way these races can go.
Then in Long Beach, we struggled really badly most of the weekend until the actual race. I was really proud of the team on race day because we decided to take a swing for the fences and make a big move with our car setup, and it literally transformed our weekend and our car. In the race, we had as good a pace as anybody if not better, and we put ourselves in position that maybe we couldn't have won. Then again, Mike Conway was behind us most of the race, and he did win. So we put ourselves in a position where we could have won, too.
Unfortunately, through a whole bunch of circumstances, I got a penalty and we recovered from that and worked back toward the front, just to get punted at the end of the race and finish 13th. You look at things like that, and there just isn't a heck of a lot you can do. So Long Beach was just an up and down weekend.
The most recent race, at Barber Motorsports Park, we struggled all weekend. My teammate Oriol Servia and I both felt a major lack of overall grip; we felt like we were just driving the wheels off of the car and getting nowhere.
I think the positive through all of this is that Oriol and I are on the same page. He's a phenomenal teammate and a guy who I know is going to help this team move forward. So I'm happy and proud to have him with us. The season now moves to Indianapolis. We have the inaugural road-course race at the Speedway and then, of course, the Indy 500, and he's going to be a very influential part of how we progress and how we run.
Oriol is definitely a guy everybody in the paddock respects a lot; he's been very competitive through his entire career. When people see me struggling and then him struggling as well, it's clear we're missing something in the car, because we both shouldn't be this far off. But at the same time, "far off" is misleading: I just think it comes down to the fact that IndyCar right now is the most competitive form of motorsport in the world. Look at, for example, a lap around a 2.5-mile circuit: we've seen the top 21 cars separated by just eight-tenths of a second in a practice session. That doesn't happen anywhere else! So when you're talking about numbers like that, sometimes people don't realize just how close everyone is. All you have to do over 2.5 miles is miss a little bit, a tenth of a second or even less per corner, and there you go, that's your difference. Sometimes people might think you're a mile off the pace when you're really not. So this level of competitiveness kind of magnifies the entire issue.
The key to running up front right now is getting your car into its sweet spot. That isn't anything new, but the sweet spot used to be relatively big: You could get the car into a window and work from there. Now, though, the sweet spot is tiny. Combine that with the fact that there are only three people on my team that are the same as last year … Oriol is new to the mix, too … so we're all still learning. There's a lot to be gained that is still to come, and you have to build those relationships. That's what we're doing.
Outside of our own program, other teams that have caught my eye so far this year are ones like Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. That team has done a great job with Josef Newgarden. Lots of people are watching what Juan Pablo Montoya is doing with Team Penske, but it's not really a surprise to me: he's with one of the best teams and he's a hell of a driver, so it doesn't blow me away that he's looking good. Russian rookie Mikhail Aleshin is fast, and I won't be surprised if he's going to be extremely good and competitive going forward. But Newgarden and SFHR have to be the real surprise of the early season, so hats off to them.
Now it's finally the month of May, and it's going to be tough. This road course that were going to run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is totally new, so we're all going to have a lot to learn. But I'm excited, I had a lot of influence on us racing here and on the track layout, so I hope it all turns out well for us. And judging by our first test on the road course earlier this week, it's a fantastic track to drive; I'm confident it is going to allow us to put on a great show for the fans, so come on out to the Grand Prix of Indianapolis next week!
For the teams, it's going to be pretty tricky because we go from Saturday racing on the road course to Sunday being opening practice on the Speedway for the Indy 500, so that's a big switch for drivers and teams alike. For the drivers, it's going to be wild going from one day doing one thing and the next day going the opposite direction and twice as fast. So there's a lot of adjusting to do but everyone is excited and eager, I think it's a good way to kick off the month and get some energy behind Indianapolis. ABC is televising both of the races, and I think that will help build viewership. Hopefully the fans will really enjoy this.
For me, I'm more excited than ever, the road race is going to be a lot of fun -- and we need this as a team. We need to get to Indy and be competitive, and Bill Pappas, my engineer, has always had great cars on ovals. So I feel very confident going in there that we're going to put ourselves in a great position.