Burkett: With determination and hard work, results are beginning to come

Daniel Burkett, IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on September 12, 2013 9:46 am
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USF2000 driver Daniel Burkett waits in the mist at Mazda RacewayMore Front Wing’s USF2000 blogger, Daniel Burkett, achieved a season-best 5th-place finish in race 2 at Mazda Raceway. Here, Daniel brings you along for the ride as he recounts the entire experience, corner by corner, from his perspective.

Thursday (Travel/Track Walk)

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you probably have begun to realize that my travel days start extremely early in the morning and end very late at night. This travel day was no different: yet again I found myself looking at my bedside alarm clock flashing 4:30 am.

I hauled myself out of bed, put on a sweater and jeans, then headed to the cold outside where the sun had not begun to rise yet. My cousin, for some odd reason, has a fascination with being up at 5:00 am — something I don’t understand but it played into my favor as he was my ride to the airport on what would be a very long day.

I arrived in my connection city of Calgary at around 7:30 am, and my next flight left for San Francisco at 11:30. Needless to say, I was less than pleased to find such a long layover waiting for me.

After clearing customs, I saw the sign for the “Rocky Mountain Lounge.” I had seen it many times before but had never actually had a proper look inside. Because I had so much time to kill, I figured why not. I stepped into the stainless steel elevator and ascended upwards.

That turned out to be possibly the best decision I have ever made while travelling. You can describe the lounge in three words: Awesome, free, food. There was, of course, a cover fee, but since I was there for three hours I easily got my money’s worth. There was a full selection of both breakfast and lunch food with milk, soda, and cocktails — all unlimited! — not to mention comfy seating and a home-like environment. It was much more comfortable than an outdated airport terminal with hard benches and overpriced food and drinks.

When I arrived in San Francisco, my driving coach, Stefan Wilson, was waiting and ready to go with the rental car. It took about an hour and a half to get to Mazda Raceway, and the time went by relatively quickly as we discussed the weekend game plan.

Arriving at Mazda Raceway is completely different from arriving at any other racetrack. The track is located on the top of a very steep hill, so the access road to the main paddock entrance is a racecourse of its own with twists and turns.

After we reached the top, I was absolutely stunned at the sheer size of the facility. It’s incredible. The track is so legendary that at one point or another every driver has driven it on an Xbox or PS3, but seeing it for the first time in person was something special.

As we explored the facility a bit more, both Stefan and I were simply speechless when we saw the exit of turn 6, better known as the run up the hill to the legendary corkscrew. It is so steep and so long that anything anyone has seen on TV or in a video game just doesn’t do it justice. It’s unlike any other track. Simply incredible.

Taking a drive down to the paddock, we met up with the Belardi Team and then a few of the other drivers. Eventually, the track was open for walking. Almost every single corner at Mazda Raceway has an elevation change, which makes it very similar to a street course because you can’t see the exits of corners.

When we got to the corkscrew, it was simply mind-boggling. One has to wonder what the designers were thinking when they were designing the track. “Oh, yes, there is a massive hill here, and it has an incredibly steep drop on the other side! Perfect for motor racing!”

The other surprise I found while walking the track is just how tight the final corner is. It’s more than 90 degrees and very technical — get it wrong and you’re a sitting duck for cars to pass you going into corner 1.

Following the track walk I met up with my parents, who had arrived a day earlier than me, and we headed out for dinner. At this point in the day I was so tired considering I had already been up for 18 hours with the two-hour time change. When I got to the hotel room, I fell straight to sleep.

*

Friday (SPCA Visit/Testing)

The first USF2000 test session was scheduled for 11:30 am, so the organizers at Mazda Motorsports decided to have all the USF2000 drivers visit an animal adoption center that’s located literally right across the highway from Mazda Raceway. I will admit that I was not the biggest fan when I first heard about the event, but after I learned it was just playing with puppies on TV I changed my mind. I mean, who wouldn’t want to do that?! (Well, probably people who are allergic to dogs, now that I think about it. But I’m not allergic to dogs, so I was looking forward to it!)

After being jumped on by several puppies, it was time to get dressed for the first test session. Just being on Mazda Raceway was extremely cool, and doing the corkscrew for the first time was awesome. However, our times were off the pace, and I would really need to step it up in order to be competitive. I wasn’t too worried about improving my times because I knew that the first test session was just about learning the track. Even though I knew the layout, actually driving it is completely different.

In the second test session I bested my previous time by about two seconds, which bumped us up the order substantially. But virtually the whole Belardi Auto Racing team was off the pace — which was fine for the moment because it was only testing and we were trying different things on the car, which is what test sessions are all about.

In test session three, I was quicker yet again than my previous best — but only by about six-tenths, which certainly helped, but the times were so tight that I was just cracking into the top 15. The one good thing (if you can consider it good) is that all of us Belardi boys were within a few tenths of each other. That made it easy for us to gather as a group, compare cars, talk about the problems we were having on track, and analyze data that is all very similar. Together, the five of us worked out a setup that we felt would work for our hour-long practice session in the morning.

*

Saturday (Practice/Qualify/Race 1)

In the morning session we improved substantially. Three of our cars were in the top 10, mine included, and we probably would have had four if one of our cars hadn’t broken down. The changes we made overnight were good, but I still wanted to shave off more time, as did Stefan and my engineer, Bob.

We made some very minor changes going into qualifying but were confident that they would put us further up on the grid. On my out lap I knew the car was spectacular, and it was going to be all up to me to qualify at the front.

Unfortunately, on the second lap after the green flag a car went off track and the session was red flagged for about five minutes. Going back out the car was still great, but I noticed that the temperature gauge wasn’t dropping at the rate it usually does after a stop in the pits. I thought nothing of it until it began to rise — and quickly, as a matter of fact. As the temperature climbed higher and higher, my times became slower and slower.

Another red flag eventually came out and we were forced to pit again. I told my crew about our temperature problem, and my mechanic found that a radiator duct had come out of place and was only allowing about half the air to go through to help cool the motor. By this point the session was almost over and there wasn’t enough time for the engine to properly cool down and start making regular power again. Not wanting to damage it for the races, we decided to stay in the pits and make up our positions in race 1.

The engine issue left us with a 19th-place qualifying, which was extremely disappointing considering that we had the 10th-fastest time in practice. I was disappointed, but I knew that my car was quick — however, it would be a battle for us to score good points. The other important part of race 1 was getting clear space for at least a few laps to set a fast time and hopefully qualify better for race 2.

The start of race 1 was ridiculous — that’s the best way I can put it. As I started far back in the field at Mid-Ohio as well, I was well aware of the carnage that can happen mid-pack. Coming off the very tight final turn, I heard Stefan yell on the radio, “Green, green, green!” So, I accelerated — only to see a car spinning about two rows in front of me on the straightaway.

Not being all that surprised that cars might wreck going in a straight line after what happened at Mid-Ohio, I navigated my way through just in time to hear Stefan say, “Never mind, aborted start, track is yellow.” But cars were still passing me. About five seconds after I received the message that track was yellow, my mechanic came on the radio and told me it was green again!

In a matter of about 30 seconds I had started a race, avoided a crash, passed four slow-moving cars, slowed down for a yellow flag, let four cars pass me, and then sped back up because apparently the caution was revoked! That’s not something that has happened to me before — that’s all I’ll say.

I caught up to the cars that had just passed me very quickly and immediately made a move and got one position. Shortly after I did this, the caution came out because of a separate incident after the one on the start. By that point, due mostly to other cars crashing, I was up to 14th. During the caution I radioed in to both Stefan and Eric and asked them what was up with mixed messages on the start. They apologized and said it was just a miscommunication, which was understandable but still very unfortunate.

On the restart I picked off a car in corner 1 and began chasing down 12th place. It took me a few tries to get the move done, but down the front stretch I moved my car to the outside of him making it seem like I was going for a pass around the outside. At the last second before braking I darted down the inside of the track and held him to the outside to complete the overtake. The 10th-place car was ahead of me by about three seconds, but I just focused in on him and drove my car on the absolute edge.

In about five laps I had closed the gap down to mere tenths. I was feeling very confident in my car’s speed. I had a look down the inside of corner 1, but he blocked well and shut the door. He blocked too well, however, as his car overshot the apex of turn 1 and I was able to get a run entering turn 3. Going into the corner I was a bit far back, but I had enough momentum that I would be alongside the other car at apex of the corner.

Despite my inside positioning, the other driver squeezed me as tight as possible to the inside of the corner. When we got the apex there was just no room left for me to move over, but he was still squeezing me down. We touched rim to rim, and I thought our cars were going to wreck. I nearly spun the car as well due to the contact. But I saved the car, and there was no damage, miraculously! I continued my hunt of 10th place.

The very next lap, it was the same situation. I was right up on his gearbox down the straight. I shadowed my car to the outside, but he decided to run down the very inside of the track even though I hadn’t made any move to go there. From here on it was virtually a replay of what happened the lap before — he ran very wide from the apex of 1 but even more so this lap. I had an even bigger run this time, and I was right up beside the other car entering turn 3.

Even with all those circumstances, he still believed it was the right thing to do to try and squeeze me down as far as possible. I saw this coming and downshifted to first where it’s usually second gear and braked even later than I had the last time, but he was still determined to push my car down the track.

When we reached the apex of the corner, I knew our cars were going to hit. I saw it coming, but there was no backing out of it. It was truly a recipe for disaster — but my car wasn’t on the ingredient list.

When the cars collided, all I saw was the bottom of his car go skyward and barrel roll into a cloud of dust.

My car sustained no damage whatsoever. The incident, of course, brought out a caution, and before the mess was cleaned up the time limit on the race was expired and the race ended under the yellow flag.

During the race I had cranked out a time eight-tenths faster than I had gone all weekend. I only learned this after the race on the radio talking to Stefan when he congratulated me on having the sixth-fastest race lap. Immediately I replied with, “What? No way!” — but indeed I had!

Getting back to the pits we looked at the qualifying results and compared them to the fast lap in the race. In USF2000, qualifying for race 2 is based on the second-fastest lap in qualifying or the fastest lap in race 1. Roughly figuring it out, we guessed I would be starting 5th or 6th, which I was very pleased with considering that our best qualifying to date was 10th.

*

Sunday (Race 2)

In the morning I checked my email for the starting line up for race 2, and I was 6th! That was a very satisfying result for me to after where I began the season in Sebring — my very best lap there was a full four seconds off the best lap of the weekend, and I never finished higher than 21st. To now be only five-tenths off the pace and qualify 6th was absolutely unbelievable.

On the way to the track, it was extremely foggy. There was very little visibility. As we got closer it was starting to clear but still not anywhere close to a safe visibility level for racing.

USF2000 drivers wait for race 2 to start at Mazda RacewayOur race was scheduled to start at 8:10 am, so at 7:40 the team headed to pre-grid as we hadn’t heard anything about a delay. We all knew, though, that some kind of news was coming about the start of our race.

After about a 20-minute wait in pre-grid, the marshals had us go one car at a time to the hot grid next to the main straight. Once we got there, we waited with our cars running and with no idea of when we would be on track. As time passed, some drivers shut off their cars and a few even got out and took off their helmets. Eventually, all of the drivers were out of their cars and just milling about as the pace car was continuing to circle the track to monitor visibility.

Eventually, we got the command to get in and start engines. I was so ready for this race. It was my time to shine and show everybody that Daniel Burkett is a top-five contender and should be taken seriously.

Because it was so cold and foggy, we were given two pace laps to warm our tires and feel out the cold, damp track. When I saw the lights go out on the pace car, I was more focused on that race than I have ever been on anything. My right foot was anxiously waiting to plant the pedal to the floor as soon as I heard the sound of engines starting to accelerate. I was listening intently for the crackle of the radio from Stefan telling me that the green flag was waving.

Coming onto the front straight I heard the front row engines start to accelerate, and then I was off. I blasted like a cannonball past the driver who was starting in 5th to my left. By corner 1 I was in 5th and right on 4th place’s gearbox.  Stefan told me I had a five car length gap to the cars behind, so I wasn’t too worried about being passed.

For the first lap or so, I stayed with the top four cars. I then made the rookie mistake of looking in my mirrors, watching and paying more attention to what the cars behind me were doing instead of focusing on what I was doing.

I was checking my mirrors after almost every corner to see where they were this time or where they were that time. I knew I had to stop, so I forced myself not to look for just one lap. When I came around the start-finish after that lap, Stefan told me that I just put in a lap three-tenths faster than the guys behind me and I was at the same pace as the top four! Inside, I kind of knew that would be the case.

I got another shot to redeem myself as a late caution flag came out. After the disabled car was moved to safety, there was just enough time to get a single lap of racing in.

On the restart I hung back on the car in front of me to try and get a run, and it worked! However, it worked too well, and I ended up running wide coming through the last corner onto the main stretch. This mistake removed any possibility of a pass going into corner 1, but I got a good enough run to stay in front of the 6th-place car.

Through the lap as the top four were fighting, I got closer and closer to 4th place’s gearbox. When we reached the run up to the corkscrew, I was ever so close to the cars in front of me. Fourth place then dived down on the inside entering the corkscrew, and I was almost certain they were going to crash. It got so tight that 3rd place just went straight down and didn’t even make the right turn going down the hill on the other side.

I saw this as a prime opportunity to move up a place, but I’ll give credit where it’s due: the driver positioned himself extremely well to stop me from making the move. There was still the last very tight left-hander in which I could make a move.

Just before that last very tight left-hand turn at Mazda Raceway, there is a very fast right-hand turn. In the right-hander I tried to carry more speed than usual so I could get a run and make the move to pass in the final corner.

That extra speed sent me four wheels off into the dirt and ruined my chances of a 4th-place finish. Even with that I still retained 5th place, which I was extremely happy with.

My engineer was absolutely ecstatic on the radio, as was Stefan. I never thought at the beginning of the season that it would be possible to get a top five. It just seemed so far out of reach.

I have to thank absolutely everyone on the Belardi Auto Racing team for believing in me, especially my teammate, Danilo Estrela. He has been like a brother to me this entire season with all of his coaching and words of encouragement. It’s really meant so much. And the decision to bring Stefan Wilson on board as a driver coach has been nothing short of amazing as my learning curve has skyrocketed ever since. Finally, the most important people are my parents. They have put so much effort into getting me down to the races and dealing with all of the lows that have come in the season thus far.

But really, the lows are the most important part of motor racing. Without the lows, how would you ever know how to celebrate a high?

Needless to say, Houston should be a very fun track and hopefully give us a great result to end the season and something to build on for next year.

I know that a 5th-place finish is not the same as a win, but it may as well have been for me. I started this season so far behind the leaders, and to be where I am now is really a dream come true.

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