More Front Wing’s USF2000 blogger, Daniel Burkett, participated in the Chris Griffis Memorial Test at Barber Motorsport Park last week with his team, Belardi Auto Racing. Below is his first-hand account of how the test went and what he learned.
Welcome, readers! It’s been a while since you last heard from me after Houston. Since then, much has happened!
The biggest announcement was that I have returned to Belardi Auto Racing’s USF2000 campaign for a second year. I feel this is going to be an extremely strong year not only for myself but also the entire team. My teammates are extremely experienced, talented and dedicated; they have found much success in the past.
In other news, winter has officially come to Canada! My maple syrup, pancake mix and plaid shirt supply is well-stocked, so I am surviving in the Great White North. Needless to say, it was nice to escape the land of igloos for a few days and take off to Alabama.
Monday (Sessions 1 and 2)
As usual, Monday began with our standard 6 AM wake-up call as USF2000 was on track at 8 AM. I really do love Barber Motorsports Park, not just because the track is badass but also because the hotel is literally across the street. And when I say literally, I mean you can see the track entrance from the lobby — a luxury that is far too often overlooked.
It was clear from looking out our hotel window that at least session 1 was going to be fully wet. It wasn’t raining, but overnight it had and the water was still glistening on the concrete. Outside, it was cold. I know I’m not one to complain, but seriously — for being a southern state, Alabama needs to step its game up. They have a great racetrack, but the weather needs work!
When I got to our tent, the team was already changing our four cars to rain tires. I took the opportunity to change my visor and catch up with my teammates. We all had our differing opinions on cornering in the wet conditions and how we should or shouldn’t do it, but it’s all a guessing game until the your wheels actually hit the asphalt.
My session didn’t start exactly as planned as we had a slight mechanical failure: the bolt that connects my gear stick to the transmission had come loose and I was stuck in third gear. The idea in wet conditions is to short shift, but being able to shift in the first place is a requirement for that. I made my way slowly back to pit lane, and trusty mechanic Kyle was on it. He had my car back on track within minutes.
Typical of wet conditions, within two corners of getting back on track a red flag was displayed for a stopped car. Back to pit road it was.
I struggled to find pace in the first session and I wasn’t high up on the time sheets, but that wasn’t going to stop me. Over lunch my coach Stefan Wilson and I looked at data and video, and we talked it all over. It was looking positive for our second session.
The other important part of session 2 was dry conditions. As the day wore on and Pro Mazda and Indy Lights had their hour-long sessions, the track slowly dried out.
Heading into session 2, slick tires were the way to go but wet patches still existed on the track. And it’s not like the patches and puddles of water were off the racing line — they were smack dab exactly where the car should be placed. It was certainly a cause for concern considering it’s nearly impossible to predict what direction the car will want to go when crossing over the damp patches.
In pit lane Belardi was the first team, and being that our cars are arranged in ascending numerical order I was going to be the guinea pig for the rest of the field to test the conditions. How delightful!
The track had much more grip than I anticipated, and I was actually quite comfortable and confident. That showed on the timing board as well. At about the third lap, Stefan radioed in and told me that I was P1!!
When I heard that, at first I really didn’t know what to think. But then it hit me and finally settled in that I was the fastest, something I had not previously accomplished in USF2000.
A red flag came out right after all of this took place, and I was forced to take to pit lane. As I got there, my team owner Brian Belardi was waiting with a huge smile on his face. I won’t lie — there was a huge smile on my face, too.
After the mess was cleaned up and the track was clear, I was determined to stay in first. I got a taste of first place, and it is quite possibly the best feeling I’ve ever had in motor racing.
As time passed in the session, I was still posting fast times and always staying within the top three. The track was drying, and with each time past the timing beacon the lap times dropped. I was able to push the car just a little more on every corner. Eventually I found the limit and ended up dropping two wheels off on the exit of a corner.
I brought the car into our pit stall and got the radiator ducts cleaned out, had a few changes made, and away I went in search of P1. During the time it took me to get cleaned out, the track had dried significantly and I was down in 6th. I pushed the car with everything I had but was only able to finish the session with the 5th fastest time.
I was pleased with 5th, but having come so close to 1st it was bitter sweet. On reviewing my teammates’ data, it was clear I was losing four-tenths in just one section of the track. Had I been able to take advantage of that lost time, it would have put me P2. But with everything in life there are always woulda, coulda, shoulda moments.
Looking to tomorrow my whole crew of my Dad, Stefan, Bob, Kyle and Brian were brimming with excitement to see what we could pull off in the final two sessions.
Tuesday (Sessions 3 and 4)
Tuesday was the exact same schedule as Monday with two sessions, one in the morning and the second right after lunch.
The first session was again wet conditions and I opted to wait until about halfway through the session to let the track dry before going out. When I finally did get on track, the plan was not to push the car but simply get a feel for what it would be like if we had to race in similar conditions come Winterfest or rounds 3 and 4 of the regular season.
This time in wet conditions our car was very quick, and I cracked into the top five almost immediately. I got comfortable relatively quickly and started leaning on the car to get an idea of what the limit was.
The car quickly told me what it did and didn’t like and boy, did I have a scare. Entering the high-speed corner 1, I was too far over on the outside and placed my wheels on the white paint. That caused the rear of the car to severely over-rotate, and I found myself heading straight towards the barriers. I ended up slowly driving through the gravel trap unscathed but with full intentions to come in and park the car — no reason to risk it.
Toward the end of the session, other drivers who had stayed out greatly improved their times as the track dried and I was left out of the top 10. Knowing that I was fast when I was on track was consolation, and I was primed and ready to go for our last session.
By the end of the Indy Lights morning session, the racing line was dry and the track was only improving. I was very excited for our afternoon session because I knew that in the dry I was fast and had the pace to be at the top end of the field.
Going into the session I was confident, but not cocky. My competitors are fast. I give them credit where it’s due. But I know I can be faster.
Straight away in the first two laps we were fast, and I was pulling away from the cars behind me. My car was phenomenal on cold tires, but as they tried to build up temperature they never seemed to get enough grip. I started having significant issues with both understeer and oversteer, which almost always means that the tires are well past their prime. I radioed in and the team got ready for a stop and a quick change on to new tires.
Being that the track temperature was only about 50 degrees F, the new tires took their sweet time before coming up to temperature. It took 13 laps before I finally got what I thought was my best on that set. The time I set put me in 6th place with about 20 minutes to go. Feeling that I could go faster if I used brand new tires, we fueled up and slapped another set of sticker tires on the car.
This proved to be relatively inefficient as two red flags came out and I was unable to get any heat into the new tires. Looking back, it would have been much better to stay on the 13-lap-old tires that had at least some heat in them and push for a better time.
I ended the session in 8th place, which was a bit disappointing, but I also felt that our car was not quite up to snuff. It was never really perfect once the tires got heat in them.
Our session was over at 2 PM, so it was a quick debrief and a few goodbyes and then back to Canada as our flight left Birmingham at 5:00. I felt that it was a successful test, and come time for Winterfest you can definitely look for the number 4 machine to be on the podium.
Until next time,