Grist: Bravery pays off with first Pro Mazda win of the year at Lucas Oil Raceway

Garett Grist, Mazda Road to Indy, Pro Mazda, Pro Mazda bloggers — By on June 16, 2014 10:13 am
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Garett Grist Pro Mazda Andretti AutosportThis probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone, but I’m beyond thrilled to have scored Andretti Autosport’s first Pro Mazda win of the season at the Night Before the 500!

It was one of those weekends where we were just in a really good place from the word ‘go.’ In practice we consistently had the No. 27 Lander Property Management/Bell Helmets car toward the front battling for quick times. And in the night session, where we knew the conditions were the same as we would have for the race and we focused only on our race setup, we had the fastest lap times of anyone running on old tires. We never even put new tires on the car in that session – we were that confident. It was awesome.

Going into qualifying we focused less on changing the car and more on looking at my driving. We saw from the data that I had a tiny bit left in the car and could carry more speed going into the corners. So much in oval racing is about the driver’s mentality and being able to make that commitment. All you can do is just tell yourself to trust it and try it once, and if it works then it’s not so bad to do it again. It’s just pushing yourself through that first try that’s the scary and challenging part of it.

When it was time for my qualifying run, I just told myself to trust that the car will stick and to go for it. My reward was two great qualifying laps that earned the pole position! My first lap was quicker than anyone else’s second lap, and then my second lap put me quickest by two and a half tenths. With the 20-second laps at Lucas Oil Raceway, that’s a huge gap.

Heading into the race we knew that the key to success was getting a good start. If we could pull out to an early lead, it would be tough for the guys behind us to pull off a pass. The thing about LOR is that if the guy behind you is doing the same times as you he’ll never be able to pass because you have to go low to pass and the low line is slower.

We were able to get the jump on the green as we’d hoped. It was probably about 30 laps before Spencer Pigot got himself into position to give us a go. I made a mistake and he pulled to the inside, but I was able just to run the high line and hold him off. He eventually had to lift and slide up in behind.

Racing is always at least a little bit about luck, and here’s where mine came in: the battle between Spencer and I was so close that I actually got a slice in my left rear tire. It’s a really good thing that the cut wasn’t any deeper because the tire would definitely have gone flat and my race would have been over.

Once that battle broke up, I opened up a gap again and it turned into more of an endurance event for me. It was a 90-lap race, and by around Lap 50 when the team was on the radio telling me I was just over halfway done I was like, ‘geez, really?’ It felt like I had already been out there for an hour!

I was able to keep pulling away, though, and my gap was up to about six seconds at one point before I convinced myself to relax over the last 20 laps and just focus on bringing it home.

It was such a great feeling to get that first regular-season win in Pro Mazda, a big win for myself and the team. You could really see afterward how happy the guys were, and I was proud to be able to get it done for them. Every one of the guys on the Andretti Autosport team does an awesome job, and I really can’t thank them enough.

But you might be asking yourself, isn’t he a road course guy? Yeah, that’s true. I’m Canadian, and I worked my way up the way most Canadian racers do, by starting out in karting. But so far in my car racing career I’ve run well on ovals – the win in Pro Mazda this year, a second-place finish in USF2000 at LOR last year – and I have a couple of thoughts on why that might be the case.

One thing that works in my favor is that I think I can switch over my way of thinking pretty well. From that first practice when you roll out, you have to realize that you’re not on a road course and you can’t do the same things. Driving on an oval is all about momentum. Plus, you have to accept that what you have is what you have — you can’t try to make up for a bad car on the track or else you’ll end up in the wall. Working well with your team and trusting in the car they give you is really important.

The other thing that helped me, I think, was being able to live in Indianapolis for the month of May and have my own place there. I was able to eat when I wanted to, go to bed when I wanted to, that kind of thing, and it was really helpful for me. I was on my own schedule, rested, well-hydrated and full of food, and given how long our race was those things all worked together and I think they definitely helped.

Now, a couple of weeks after it all, I wouldn’t say I’m riding high anymore. We’re not going to another oval. We’re going to a street course, completely different, and so it’s time to put it behind us, switch the thinking back to road course trim, and get focused for the next race weekend in Houston. That said, I’m feeling pretty good going into that one. I ran there in USF2000 last year, so I already know the track layout. That’s one nice benefit of the Mazda Road to Indy — last year I was a rookie in USF2000 and every track was brand new, but now in Pro Mazda I’ve already been to almost every track, so not having to learn new layouts all the time lets me spend my race weekends just focusing on going faster. Of course, the driving doesn’t exactly line up in the Pro Mazda car to what I did in USF2000 last year, so I’ll have to adjust for that and keep working on making improvements.

Let’s hope that Andretti Autosport can ride the momentum from May even further and we can have even more success in Houston!

- Garett

Garett Grist competes in the Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires with his team Andretti Autosport. Follow him on Twitter @gristgarett and on Facebook.

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