Burkett: A topsy-turvy finish to a true rookie season

Daniel Burkett, IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on October 16, 2013 2:29 pm
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Our USF2000 blogger Daniel Burkett closed out the season with the rest of the series at the Grand Prix of Houston. Follow along as he shares his impressions of the weekend!

Hello, everyone! Before I start the recap of my trip to the Wild West, I would like to take a moment and thank everyone who has helped make my rookie USF2000 season as memorable as possible.

First, my parents: they are seriously the only reason that you’ve been able to see USF2000 through my eyes. Without their support, I just simply wouldn’t be at the races.

Next are my teammates: Matt McMurry, Peter Portante, Michael Epps, and last but certainly not least, Danilo Estrela. Wherever they end up in the world, the five of us will always share a special bond because we fought together and we won together. We were the Belardi Boys, five cars on one team — something that had never been done before. It was only possible because of the Belardi staff that worked relentlessly behind the scenes to make sure every single car made it on track for every single session. The engineers, Bob, Joe, and Angelo, worked together to always bring us the best car they possibly could. The mechanics, Eric, Kyle, Marc, Dave (AKA Rotor), and Josh, are forever upbeat and positive, making sure the cars are in pristine mechanical condition and never letting you get down on yourself after a hard session. Team Belardi was truly something special this year; we proved that having a quality team with a large quantity of drivers is possible.

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Thursday (Travel)

Thursday morning started at 9 AM, which was probably the best start to a racing trip I’ve ever had. Usually it’s 4 AM or 5 AM, but this time it was just all about relaxing. I did, however, have a two-hour car ride from Winnipeg to Grand Forks, North Dakota, the reason being that flights were substantially less expensive and got us into Houston at around the same time. Nonetheless, it was nice to be able to have a relaxing travel day instead of feeling like a zombie running on caffeine.

We arrived in Houston at around 10 PM after some flight connections and whatnot. We received our rental car and began what was supposed to be a 30-minute drive to the hotel. It turned out to take us nearly 90 minutes because of traffic delays. After arriving, my parents and I were very hungry. The only thing that was open at that hour was a very small, very old IHOP. It was good food but nothing to receive the Burkett Stamp of Approval. At any rate, we had a very late supper and then went straight to bed as the alarms were set for 6:30 AM.

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Friday (Practice/Qualifying)

Friday started with a drivers’ meeting at 8 AM, which was really just to tell us that we have to be smart about our passes because concrete walls really don’t care if you make a mistake — they will utterly destroy your car. At the meeting I realized that only four sessions remained in the 2013 season. It really went by quickly!

USF2000 was scheduled to go out at 12:25 but the Pirelli World Challenge Grand Touring cars were out at around 9, so me and Danilo grabbed the team bikes and pedaled our way over to a grandstand to watch.

The course looked insanely bumpy and very physical to drive. It was so bumpy, in fact, that the GT cars were going four wheels off the ground on a bump down the main straight! The promoters of the event delayed all other practice sessions for hours until they found a solution. I hate to say it, but their solution was pretty pitiful. They made a tire chicane to slow cars down, but the entrance was far too small and one car barely fit through! But it was what we had to race on, so we did.

Practice for us was reasonable. We were P16, a little bit slower than anticipated, but I always start the weekend off the pace. I found the artificial chicane to be a little bit silly and out of place. I nearly forgot to brake for it the first time around. I had been practicing the 2007 version of Houston on Rfactor back at home in which there is no massive bump/chicane.

Qualifying was literally an hour after practice, so we had a very quick water break and data analysis and then sooner than later I found myself getting back into my sweaty suit and fire proof garments (not the most pleasant feeling). It was nearly 90 degrees outside and even warmer with an engine running right behind your back once in the car. The only situation I could compare it to would be the 2011 World Karting Championships in Dubai, where it was 104 degrees all day, every day — absolutely brutal.

Going on track, I knew where I could improve my times and hopefully qualify up front. Early on in the session I was running P6 and was very happy with that, but USF2000 qualifying always comes down to the wire. As usual, around halfway there was a red flag for a car in the wall. After the crashed car was cleared we set off again and I was in P8, only three tenths away from P5. I wanted that top 5 so badly because I knew that I could make it there. On my second flying lap I was keeping up with the drivers who were ahead of me on the time sheets, so I knew that it was going to be a fast lap. But entering turn 3 I caught a bump wrong and lost the rear of the car, which sent me into the slowest and longest slide right into the tire barrier.

That contact ended the day, and I lost my fastest time for causing a red flag. I finished the session P15, but in looking at the data after we saw that I could have been 5th or 6th if I had put my best sectors together and not crashed to cause the loss of my fastest lap. Stefan, Bob and I were a bit discouraged by that, but we knew we had the pace and that’s all that mattered. It was the final weekend and was really just about learning as much as possible. The results had no impact other than bragging rights heading into next season; qualifying P15 was not the end of the world.

Heading into Saturday, drivers were told that the tire chicane was going to be removed and that the bump would be ground down. This was going to give me a boost up the time sheets as it showed in the data I was losing three tenths of a second just through the one tire chicane. Needless to say, I was looking forward to not braking in the middle of what was supposed to be a straightaway.

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Saturday (Race 1)

Saturday was a very early start as the teams were told that USF2000 would be given an extra 15-minute warm-up to test the bump. We were scheduled to be on track at 8 AM but the construction didn’t end until 9:30, so as a result 15 minutes turned into two laps.

During those laps I didn’t find the bump to be harsh at all as long as you placed your car over the right area. But still, to my disappointment, the chicane was placed back in. Due to having a chicane right before the starter’s stand the start would be single file, which was also a disadvantage to me because the leaders would be even further ahead to start the race! But there was really nothing I or anyone else could do about it, so I just dealt with it.

The start of the race was actually not as bad as I had thought it might be. The rubber chicane separated the field just enough that there weren’t any banzai moves down the inside of the racetrack. For the first few laps it was really just one giant chain of cars — no one had the breakaway ability. That was until a few cars in front of me started to battle down the long curving back straightaway. I was ever so close to those cars, but I was always just too far away to attempt an overtake. This was very frustrating until two of them wrecked and I inherited 13th place. And, as fate would have it, another two had wrecked further up the field, so I was up to 11th simply due to attrition. Looking back on it now, I probably would have been the third car involved in the wreck had I not been those constant two car lengths back.

BurkettRace1HoustonTaking the green flag again, Stefan radioed in telling me that the race had 15 minutes to go. Again the restart was civilized and no cars made contact, and again I found myself slowly slipping away from the cars in front of me — maybe only a tenth or half a tenth a lap, but it was enough to keep me from attempting a safe overtake.

It turns out that I didn’t actually need to make any overtakes in this race to finish in the top 10 as another car hit the wall and had to retire. As mentioned earlier, concrete really doesn’t care if you make mistakes.

At this point I was informed that it would be a one lap dash to the finish after the damaged car was cleared. With all of the retirements I was in 10th place but hadn’t been overtaken or made any overtakes. Heading into turn 3 after the restart I had a good run on 8th place, but we both braked extremely late and he had the position going in, so I figured that I wasn’t going to give up positions like the other cars that retired had.

BurkettWilsonHoustonComing around the final corner, it was the inevitable: a car with the entire right side suspension missing, piled into the wall. This gave me 9th position and I hadn’t even passed a single car.

After the race I was actually disappointed with 9th, which seems a little silly considering that I was so overcome with happiness when I finished 9th at the Night Before the 500 in May. Stefan and Bob reminded me that the results didn’t matter — I had the pace and we just had to go out and do it tomorrow with a better car than we had today. After a brief meeting we decided on a few changes and then left for the hotel.

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Sunday (Race 2)

Sunday was cold, miserable, and rainy — not the ideal conditions to end a season on, but again, it’s what we had to deal with. Our race was very early in the morning, but not as early as Pro Mazda — they were on track at 8 AM, which is far too early for me to be racing. On our way to the track we could hear their Mazda Rotary engines screaming around and waking up all of the surrounding households.

The rain really started to fall about 30 minutes before our race, and it was a mad scramble to get all the cars ready. We were then informed that there would be an hour weather delay to let the rain settle, which relieved a lot of stress — but don’t you think they could have made that decision a little earlier?!

BurkettRace2HoustonWhen I was finally buckled into my car and awaiting the call to start engines it was still raining fairly heavily, but I felt relaxed. Taking the green flag, it was literally impossible to see the cars in front — the rain lights helped some but not a whole lot. I actually nearly overshot the corner 1 chicane and piled into the cars in front, but I held it steady. Some cars were finding it so hard to see that I accelerated past them as they had already begin braking for a corner. By the first red flag in the race I was up to P11 and having a much better run than I had on Saturday.

The second green flag stint didn’t last long; another car had spun around and buried its gearbox into the tires. I believe that I was up to P10, but I was not entirely sure as the radio connection was spotty at best and I couldn’t see much more than two cars in front of me.

On the restart I was “that car” that went into the runoff area as I locked up my brakes entering turn 3. It took me so long to get out safely that the entire field had passed. I was very lucky, however, as another crash caused the third full course caution of the race. This bunched up the field and gave me an opportunity to make up all the lost places. As we approached the rubber chicane before receiving the green flag, I decided that I wasn’t going to care if I couldn’t see the braking zone into turn 1 — I would just brake when it felt right. Despite the my brain telling me to slam on the binders I kept accelerating, even though the visibility was only about five feet. This made a huge difference, and I found myself right on the gearboxes of the cars in front of me.

From this point on in the race I just focused on not spinning the car as I saw so many other drivers had. They weren’t actually crashing their cars but more just practicing elegant 360-degree turns across the racetrack. Just from not spinning the car I gained back most of the positions I’d lost. I could make out on the radio that my lap times were a bit off of what the cars in front of me were doing; however, in rainy conditions mistakes are amplified tenfold and pushing the car over the limit would lead to a greater loss. By the end of it all I finished P8, which was a solid result. It was the first time I had raced a car in full wet conditions. I must say, the spray that comes off the tires could be considered a small tropical storm! All things considered, I was pleased with 8th. I finished 15th in the championship.

This year in USF2000 was a true rookie year being my first in a car and my first on all of the tracks the series went to. There were lots of other drivers for whom it was their first year in USF2000, but they had lots of experience racing F1600 or SCCA F2000 and had seen a few of the courses we raced on. For me I was fresh from karting, which is a completely different world — and when I say completely I mean the only thing the two share is that they both drive fast around racetracks. As for the speed or how each feels, you just can’t compare the two. I hope to be back in a kart sometime soon because it really is just so pure and so much fun. Karting is where all great racers started, and I don’t ever want to forget that.

The next event that I will be writing a blog for will be the Chris Griffis Memorial Test, which is being held at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama on December 9th and 10th. Be sure to look for it. Thanks for reading!

Sincerely,

Daniel

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