Burkett: From rain to concussion, a tough weekend at Mid-Ohio

Daniel Burkett, IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on August 12, 2013 9:41 am
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More Front Wing’s USF2000 blogger, Daniel Burkett, had a very difficult weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course — from his 18-hour drive from Winnipeg to an unexpected race in the rain and a trip to the hospital for a concussion. Here, Daniel recounts for More Front Wing the entire event from his perspective.

Tuesday (Travel Day)

Tuesday was a travel day simply because we made the decision to drive the 18 hours from our home in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Lexington, Ohio. Mostly this was influenced by the prices of flights. For some odd reason, it was astronomical for Mom, Dad, my girlfriend and myself to fly. I knew the drive was going to be a long and boring one, so on the night before I dug out my old GameCube and installed a power inverter in the backseat of the car to handle the voltage. Away we went at 5:00 am on Tuesday. The travels of race car drivers really aren’t all that glamorous.

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Wednesday (Travel Day 2/Sim Day)

On Wednesday I had prearranged an appointment to drive the Mid-Ohio circuit at SimXperience just outside of Cleveland. It actually worked out pretty well as we had to pickup my teammate, Danilo Estrela, from the Cleveland Airport. After that, we continued on our way to SimXperience. It was a very high quality sim, and Danilo and I were very pleased with the realism. I would highly recommend buying a SimXperience machine to anyone in the market.

After a short hour drive to the hotel, we checked in, had a quick dinner, and then went straight to bed to be ready for the early morning session.

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Thursday (Test Day)

Thursday started very early at around 6:30 am. The track was a 30-minute drive from our hotel with a McDonald’s on the way. The coffee in America really does not compare to The Great White North — just being honest here, folks — so we also stopped at the local Starbucks to start our day off right.

Upon arrival at the Belardi tent, the usual crowd was out and about: my mechanic Eric, team manager Chuck overseeing everything that happens under the tent, and all the other mechanics prepping my teammates’ cars. As always, my first task was to find the engineering trailer and make a plan with my driving coach, Stefan Wilson, and my engineer, Bob Knox, for the weekend. What I found quite odd was that the engineers’ trailer was about a five minute walk down the hill from our hauler — not ideal, but just something I had to deal with.

Stefan had big news to tell me when I got there, which was that he had secured his ride in IndyCar for the Baltimore GP. Now I can officially say an IndyCar driver coaches me, which is pretty cool!

Our first session was at 9:00, and the track was extremely slippery. There wasn’t much to be learned from it, but the car felt pretty good. So, it was a quick meeting in the tech trailer and we just looked ahead to the afternoon session.

The later session didn’t really go as well as planned. We ended P20, and I was very disappointed with that. We just never really got the car working right or found the right balance in it. Needless to say, this engineering meeting was a lot longer than after the first test session. After finishing up the meeting, I was confident we had made the right changes to the car and that we should be able to close the gap to P1 in the first practice on Friday.

It was really nice to have my girlfriend on the trip with me. She helped take my mind off the disappointing day.

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Friday (Practice/Qualifying)

Friday was another early-starter — practice was at 9:30 am, so it was a 6:30 wake-up call and then off again to McDonald’s and Starbucks for some breakfast before our car full of people continued onto the track.

Feeling confident about practice 1, I was in a good mindset and just chatted with my mechanic to pass the time as he did his usual daily morning checks to make sure everything on the car was in order. Eric is a very good guy. I completely trust his preparation in the car, and he works extremely hard on the weekend to make sure the car is perfect, which really means a lot.

Practice started off well. Stefan informed me that I was P9 after the first 15 minutes, which was around the grid position I was aiming for this weekend. I was fairly pleased but knew I could pull more out of the car. I went out for another run from pit lane after a few changes and pushed the car harder than I’ve ever pushed a race car before — but my lap time only improved a few tenths. This small of a gain can sometimes help, but in this case it really made almost no difference. I found that the harder I pushed the car, the slower my lap time got. This was very frustrating, and again I was not happy with the car. At the end of the 45 minutes I was P18. I was pleased we didn’t go backwards from Thursday, but I still wanted more.

Qualifying was not long after practice 1, so any changes that I wanted to make had to be decided and executed fairly quickly. I felt like I knew what I wanted done to the car, so Bob and I talked about it and then conversed with Stefan and he seemed to agree, so those are the changes we made. I was starting to find my confidence shaken going into qualifying, but I tried to keep my head up.

In qualifying we decided to go with two sets of new tires: start on a new set, and then halfway through the session come in and make changes and go out on a second new set.

The first half of qualifying was dismal. We were bouncing around the back of field, and Stefan told me that I had to go faster.

After coming in for the second set of tires, I was feeling much quicker and pounded out a lap that was a second quicker than my previous quickest in the session.

That was pretty much all we got for time in the session, and we ended P17 — which again was an improvement, but I still wanted to be about seven positions ahead of that. Race 1 was at 8:35 am on Saturday, so I knew it was going to an early morning. My idea coming off of qualifying was to try and do a solid debrief and data analysis on Friday so I could get as much sleep possible for the morning race.

Bob, Stefan and I probably spent four hours in that little tech trailer, sweating away and trying to get our problem fixed. And at the end of it all, we were very confident that the car would be strong for the races.

*

Saturday (Race 1, Race 2)

Saturday morning, I was awoke to the sound of rain. This put a frown on my face because we weren’t going to get any type of read on our setup for the dry. When I arrived at the Belardi tent, it was a flurry of springs and wrenches and rain tires with everybody switching the cars to wet setup.

I very quickly found out that Mid-Ohio in the rain is probably the slipperiest surface ever. I’m not even kidding — I have never experienced that low of a grip level in the wet before!

Clearly, many of the other drivers had the same experiences as me because even during the pace car laps a few drivers found themselves off in the barriers or grass. This resulted in the green flag being dropped much later than expected. Then, not even one lap after the green was given, a full course caution was being displayed.

For me, nothing really happened in the race. There were a grand total of three green flag laps in race 1, and I finished P13 — which, again, was an improvement, so my mood was starting to brighten up again. After the checkered, I actually radioed in to my team to say that it was the lamest race ever.

Once we got back to the pit, the car was converted back to our dry setup and the waiting game for race 2 began.

The food that our truck driver makes for team lunches is absolutely incredible. Old Mike Todd, as most call him, has to be one of the best cooks that I have had the pleasure of eating from (aside from my mother, of course). I always look forward to lunches at the track simply because of his amazing hospitality. You will not find a better pulled pork at the racetrack, and there is nothing better than his hot sauce — he grows all of the ingredients himself in his own backyard. The store-bought stuff just cannot compete!

Because of my poor second lap in qualifying, I had to start race 2 from P24, nearly last place. This didn’t really shake my confidence, though, because I knew that I was much faster than most of the cars in front of me until I got close to the top 10.

USF2000 racer Daniel Burkett at Mid-Ohio Sports Car CourseAt the start of race 2, I tried my best to get a run on the field, and it actually worked quite well. I was able to get a run on a car going on the outside of turn 4 and make the pass going into turn 5. Turns 6 through 11 are pretty much single file racing, so I was forced to stay in line there. But at my first moment to attack in turn 12, I took it and passed a couple down the inside. By the end of the first lap I was in P19 due to a couple of cars going off track but later rejoining.

The group in front of me was a fair bit ahead, but I began my chase and caught them within a few laps. The group in front was basically P11 to P18, so it was very good motivation for myself that if I caught the group then I could be in the top 10. Stefan Rzadinski was going to be my first car to overtake, but the yellow flag came out and I was forced into a slow, painful, single-file march around the track.

On the restart I pounced on Rzad, but he defended well and I was forced to try a risky pass around the outside of turn 12. It turned out to be too risky — I ended up off the track in the grass. After this I was very frustrated as all of the work I had just done was erased.

I again started my hunt and pushed the car extremely hard. I probably pushed a bit too much as I ended up spinning the car again. I ended the race P21 and very disappointed, knowing I could have finished so much higher.

Watching the on-board footage after the race, Stefan and Bob were happy with some of the moves I’d made. But they both agreed that I should have waited for a better passing opportunity to try and get by Rzad. At the end of the day, we were happy with the car and I was ready to make progress in race 3.

*

Sunday (Race 3)

Sunday’s race started early again — 9:30 am, to be exact. And I was ready to post a good result and bounce back from my poor showing in race 2.

Before each race, the IndyCar pastor, David Storvick, always prays with me to keep me safe. It felt really good after Dave prayed with me that day — I’m not sure why, but it did.

The start to the race was very fast, and the starter threw the green flag very early. The whole outside row got a very good jump on the inside row, and I was feeling like it was going to be a good race.

Then, it all turned bad very quickly.

Tire smoke suddenly filled the air, and I saw multiple cars spinning out of control directly in front of me. I had to quickly dodge a slow-moving car right in front of me that had jammed on the brakes. I knew the inside row of cars was still going to be there, so I took to the grass in an effort to escape the carnage.

I felt my car lose traction, and I was headed to the wall. Then, I saw a cluster of three cars stopped directly in my path. I knew my race was over at this point, and I braced for impact.

But before I hit the cars, it all went black.

I don’t actually remember the feeling of impact on the trio of cars, even though I knew I was going to hit them. When I opened my eyes again, my teammate, Danilo, was standing above me and saying something, but I couldn’t make out what it was.

Next, a Holmatro Safety Team member came over to the car and was yelling something — but again, it was all just white noise. At that point, I knew something really bad had happened to me.

He took the wheel off the car and started to pull me out of what was left of the front end of my car. I was able to use my strength, but my head hurt really badly. He took the HANS device off, undid my helmet, and asked if I could pull my helmet off, which I could.

He helped me into the safety vehicle, and that’s pretty much the last thing I remember.

My next feeling of consciousness was in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. The paramedics put a needle in my arm, and I guess the pain triggered my brain back into memory mode. The medics asked me a whole bunch of questions, and apparently I got most of them wrong. Before we arrived at the medical center, I lost consciousness again.

I finally regained consciousness when I was being wheeled into an observation room and being transferred onto a bed from the flat backboard. I’m not sure how much time passed, but soon I was into the CT scan and then back to my room where my family was waiting.

After getting all the test results and being released, I was very happy just to be out of the hospital and back on the street with my family. It meant a lot to me that my PR rep, Ashley, and David Storvick , the IndyCar Chaplin, came and saw me in the hospital. It just showed me what great people I have surrounding me.

When I got back to the track, everyone on the team was happy to see I was okay, and I got hugs from everyone. It was sad to hear, however, that my on-board camera was knocked off in the crash.

I later learned that someone’s front wing had come off in the crash and hit me square in the helmet. That’s not exactly the way I wanted to end off my already challenging weekend.

All in all, it was a weekend to remember and a weekend to forget. I learned lots about setup tools and how much it all affects the car. But it wasn’t really what I had planned for.

One positive thing that came out of the weekend was that my good friend and fellow Canadian, Garret Grist, got his first USF2000 win — very exciting!

For now, I’m looking forward to the next round in Laguna Seca and bouncing back from my very tough weekend.

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