Burkett: A breakthrough top 5 and a breakdown in St. Pete

Daniel Burkett, Mazda Road to Indy, USF2000, USF2000 bloggers — By on April 10, 2014 9:38 am


An all-out downpour was scheduled for Saturday. The weather forecast was predicting 50-60% rain right at the time we were scheduled to go out for qualifying, which would really throw a wrench in our plans and everyone else’s. The skies were ominous as we got to the track, and I was waiting and hoping that it wouldn’t rain. I knew that we could have a good performance in the dry, but a slick track can throw wild cards like nobody’s business.

As we rolled our cars up for qualifying it was not pouring rain but was definitely more than drizzle. As I pulled into my pit box, I knew I had to make every single lap count like it was my last chance to set a fast lap because it very well may have been — the rain could come at any point.

When the signal came to exit pit lane, my focus became solely on getting heat in the tires as fast as possible and then stretching the limits of my comfort zone. On track, our car had an extremely good grip level right from the start, and I was feeling confident in my ability to set a quick time.

About five laps in, a red flag came out and Stefan informed me that I was running in 6th. I said to myself, “Okay, rain, you can come any time now!” It didn’t, and we headed back out on track to complete the session without any rain whatsoever.

I ended in 9th place, which was solid enough, and I knew that I would have a good race and would definitely be moving forward.

Immediately after our session, all on-track activity was stopped as tornado warnings plagued the area. All fans were told to seek shelter, and teams were asked to put walls on awnings and tie them down tight. The delay lasted for probably two hours before the treacherous conditions lifted and we were allowed to leave our trailers.

With nothing else to do, my teammate Nico Jamin and I watched the SPEED Energy Formula Off-road trucks slide around, which was extremely entertaining! In the midst of us watching the trucks, an emergency drivers’ meeting was called and we were told that our race would start in 25 minutes!

All of the USF drivers rushed to get back, get changed, and get to the grid. Going into the race I wasn’t nervous at all — there was no time to be! Driving cars in the wet has been a bit challenging for me in the past, but I was ready to go out on track and push my limits so that I would have a solid start to my season.

During the warm-up laps, Stefan told me to try an alternate line into the tight and slippery turn 1 that he thought would allow me to apply the brakes much later. In turn 1 at St. Pete there are massive stripes of paint across the track on entry and the paint is exceedingly slippery in the wet, so Stefan figured that if I could go to the extreme inside and not have to brake or turn on any of the paint entering the corner that it would allow me to have much more confidence. It definitely was a good theory, and I figured it was at least worth a try in the race.

When the green flag flew the visibility was about two meters, and that’s not an exaggeration! Braking into turn one, I followed the shadows and blinking lights that led the way. I didn’t pick up any positions but I also didn’t spin or damage the car, which was going to be a big part of this race.

Settling into a rhythm I started chasing down the cars in front of me, which I caught quickly but had trouble finding a way by due to visibility (or lack thereof). Just when I had a run on the car in front of me coming out of turn 1, we rounded the long righthand sweeper that is turn 3 and he started to lose traction. I backed off the throttle preparing for evasive action as I saw an impressive but failed drift through the corner. I must have come within inches of a head-on collision, but nonetheless it was avoided.

Shortly thereafter a full course caution was displayed, which bunched up the field. At this point I was running in 7th and posting lap times quick enough to be in the top 5.

On the restart I had a lot of wheel spin and got a terrible run out of the last hairpin corner, which dashed any hopes of a pass going into turn 1. There were only four laps left once the green had been thrown, so it was vitally important to get close to the cars in front of me and make my overtakes ASAP to have any hope of a top 5 finish.

I was closing on the 6th place car quickly enough that I would have a shot to make a move in the last few laps. With two to go, fellow MFW blogger Aaron Telitz, who had been ahead of me, hit the wall in the short stretch between 8 and 9. I was concerned that the race would be put under a full course caution because of this and I would have to settle for 6th place. Luckily, the incident remained a local yellow and I had one last chance to break into the top 5.

On the last lap crossing the start/finish line I was at least 10 car lengths away from 5th place, but I was determined to make a move at some point during the lap. My opportunity came in the very last corner as he took a traditional wide entry to the hairpin and I went right down the inside on entry and let my car slide to the outside right next to his in the middle of the corner. Exiting I was clear and in front, but the drag race to the finish was extremely close. In the end, I pulled it off.

My overtake was a bit cheeky considering I was five car lengths back entering the corner — but an overtake is an overtake!

Everyone on the Belardi crew was extremely pleased with the results of our team as Nico had finished 3rd, which meant we had two cars in the top 5. No one in their right mind would complain about results like that.

The biggest difference for me in this wet race compared to others was car setup. It was absolutely bang on, and I couldn’t have asked for anything better from my Belardi crew.

To finish up the day, my parents and I went for dinner with our team manager and had an early night as race 2 was at 9 AM on Sunday.

NEXT PAGE: Wrapping up the weekend on Sunday in St. Petersburg

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