As I look forward to competing at my home track of Sonoma Raceway this weekend, I’ve been thinking about all that’s gone into our 2017 season to make some sense of it. I actually began writing this just as some notes for myself, but in light of today, I felt compelled to sit down and elaborate, and thought I might share.
The chance to race in the Series full-time again was one that I was proud to earn and optimistic about taking advantage of. There were clear and reasonable expectations: we’d capitalize on our existing strengths at places like Indy and Iowa where we knew we could be highly competitive, while we’d work to develop and show progress elsewhere – we would need to learn and grow through the year. Regardless of any expectations, I came into the year with a firm personal intention to seize the opportunity for development as a driver. I wanted to be sure that I was capable of making some progress of my own.
As a team we entered the season with a bit of general uncertainty as the primary roles on the No. 21’s engineering staff were new faces and many of us would be working together in full-time capacity for the first time. Though I expected these differences to create for a revised learning curve, I looked at that less as a concern and more as a chance for us all to develop together – new perspectives and abilities are often behind movement forward, after all. There were going to be places where we’d either want or need to build new understanding, more-so than an experienced unit that had worked together for a long time; when those times came, our performance would depend on whether we were learning and getting better or learning and still learning, if that makes sense. It happens that, specifically regarding the engineering of the car, I really enjoy the process of thinking about how it works and how it could be made better, so coming into 2017 I felt intrigue rather than apprehension.
I have always experienced great satisfaction in helping to solve for a better car setup. It’s in-line with the kind of things I’ve enjoyed since well before I drove racecars, from building crazy Legos to working through complex math and science in school (I know, holy sh!t this guy’s a nerd). Well, to offset that I like reading, too (Wait no! That’s making it worse!). I have loud cars! I like dive bars! (Okay, carry on). I like to experiment simply because it helps you learn, and learning, whether the outcome is good or bad, helps you advance – I enjoy this fundamental process of learning new things. I’ve never viewed giving feedback and working with the engineers as something that I had to do or be good at, but rather an element of being a driver that can be quite interesting all on its own. The idea that we might be seeking to figure things out at more basic level or that we’d be experimenting, whether out of necessity or choice, was something I wasn’t at all opposed to.
As a driver you’re always refining your craft and making adjustments, but you establish a general approach to driving the car over time. While I’ve had plenty of success in my career innately applying my natural driving approach – it got me to the IndyCar level after all – I could see the clear value in becoming more diversified and being able to more flexibly adapt my driving to different situations. I had observed it being done. I did not expect achieving that to be easy; it’s not just about fine-tuning but understanding how and why approaches other than what has come most naturally to me might work differently or better in various conditions. It was going to require being more aware of what I was actively doing in the car, and being more assertive in challenging myself to implement new thinking than at any other time in my career. With the clear aim being progress, I decided that a goal of mine for the year would be to expand on the type of approaches and styles I could apply on a more macro level, specifically on road and street circuits.
I discovered that while this willingness to think about what I was doing differently was in its own way liberating, it was also a difficult road to navigate. The driving of the car is inherently tied to the setup of the car and vice versa – defining one helps to define the other. At times, the more we tested new ideas, the more difficult it became to determine what was and wasn’t working on either side of the equation.
Learning quickly enough to translate those processes into high-level execution during race weekends, with few tests days or breaks to supplement our effort, proved to be a tall order that simply requires more time and specialized focus in my estimation. Getting the most out of a known setup with a known driving approach is a task that requires substantial effort; the necessary bandwidth to implement and break down new strategies in either driving or engineering on top of that became a difficult thing to find within the season’s compact schedule, despite the clear value doing so might have.
While the No. 20 car often stayed close to the team’s traditional direction of setup, particularly on road and street circuits, we often diverged to seek new answers in the hopes of finding some that would give both of us a better chance to compete for 5th instead of 15th. Unfortunately neither approach was able to give us entirely clear direction as a group weekend to weekend.
The times I implemented something new to me that worked gave me a great sense of accomplishment even if only good for a tenth here or there; the times when we thought outside the box and found things were genuinely satisfying; the times when the collective exercise became difficult to unravel were frustrating as hell. I am very proud to have stood on the podium twice posting the team’s two best finishes this season, and to have matched and set the best qualifying performances on the team for both ovals and road/street courses, respectively. In the end, however, it turns out that both my own effort to reach a higher level of potential as well as the team’s will remain works in progress – separately after this next race.
I’m not happy with the overall results we produced this season, but for my part, I do not regret approaching the year like I did. While testing my own methods was trying, there are now things that I will forever do differently and better with greater awareness going forward for how to take those gains further. While we did not always arrive at critical insights quickly enough to turn our weekends around, I’m not disappointed that we experimented with new ideas as much as we did. We had a finite amount of time that may not have been adequate for the approach we took. In the end, I’d rather have spent my season open to a better way forward than honing something that isn’t yet the best version of what it can be.
Returning as a full-time entry with the team would have been a great continued story of our quest to improve and chase race wins as I’m sure we’d have done with an offseason under our belts. We were damn close as it was in just our first shot at it. That decision wasn’t mine to make, so I’ll wish Spencer good luck and move forward.
If you’re wondering what’s next, it’s a good question. I’m ready to get on track this weekend and finish this thing strong, so how about this for now – if you don’t stress about it, I won’t either.