It might be a cliché, but I firmly believe that sometimes it’s the difficult years that make you stronger, more focused and even more determined to succeed. I can say with confidence that 2011 has been one of those years.
I spent the first couple of months (though it felt like longer) on the sidelines – out of the cockpit and doing everything I could to get a ride lined up for the season. It was tough and not something any driver likes to endure. However, when I really needed that knight in shining armor, there he was. Eric Bachelart gave me my first run in an IndyCar – testing with Conquest Racing at Texas Motor Speedway.
It was from that first outing that I got my chance to compete in the Indianapolis 500.
The month of May was a roller coaster for myself and the team, and the weather certainly didn’t help. As a rookie with a one-off entry into the biggest race on the motorsport calendar, I at least needed some cooperation from Mother Nature; however we had to roll with the punches like everyone else.
My team was fantastic though, and we worked tirelessly to make that 33-car field. When we did, it should have been a moment of great celebration, but instead it was bittersweet. My teammate, Sebastian Saavedra, didn’t make the show, and while Indy was making my dreams come true, it was busy breaking not only his heart but those of several others.
I always said that qualifying for the 500 was our goal, and anything beyond was just a bonus. While that still stands true, all thoughts turned toward the race, and we had our sights set on a new challenge.
The race was a dream come true in so many ways and the first half was a lot of fun. We were able to draft up behind people and pass plenty of cars. As other people’s tires started to go away during their stints, my habit of looking after mine would come to the fore and I would be able to stalk and slip past them.
The second half of the race was tough. My water bottle had failed at the beginning of the race, and by lap 100 I was feeling the effects of severe dehydration. By the time we made it home in 20th place, I had to be helped out of the cockpit and straight into the medical car. I did, however, have time to see the faces of my guys — the ones who had stood behind me all month long, the ones who had worked so hard for me, and I could see that they knew as a team we’d given it everything we had.
I will always be grateful to Conquest Racing for all their hard work and, ultimately, their faith in me. I’m extremely proud of what we achieved at Indy.
One opportunity often leads to another, and within weeks I was jumping around and bouncing off the walls in excitement at the prospect of joining Rahal Letterman Lanigan for a three-race campaign. Our deal would see us take on the Loudon, Kentucky and Las Vegas ovals – and I couldn’t wait to get into the No. 30 car and find out what we had.
We went into the Loudon race weekend full of positive verve and with high expectations. We tested there in the weeks leading up to the race weekend, and that had gone fairly well. Even though I knew the track was a challenge, I liked it. I genuinely thought we were going to go out there and be up front, doing good things and raising a few eyebrows.
I think most of you know by now that life decided to throw a little curveball at me while we were in New Hampshire. Needless to say, our debut was not what I had hoped for. A tough few days of practice, desperately searching for the speed we needed to be competitive, ended with me and the No. 30 making heavy contact with the wall, just prior to qualifying.
In the hospital I was diagnosed with a nice little concussion pretty quickly, and told that I wouldn’t be cleared to drive even if the X-rays and MRI did come back clear. This was the first time in my career I have ever been told I couldn’t race the next day due to a crash in either qualifying or testing. Everyone knows that getting back in with a concussion is not good, but as a racing driver it’s not an easy thing to accept.
The X-rays did come back clear, but the MRI showed bone bruising and a C7 end-plate fracture. No brace or surgery needed, but two weeks of down time and four to six weeks out of the car.
Five weeks later, I tested at Kentucky Speedway with the RLL team and it felt good.
The Kentucky race weekend was another mixture of highs and lows, but as a team we really got to grips with the performance. We had a tough first stint in the race but at the same time the rest of the stints were definitely solid. I learned a huge amount about how the car does feel in traffic when I was behind similar speed cars, and how to deal with a car that already under steers in traffic.
We gained valuable track time and I was able to build on my race experience. The weekend certainly had its difficulties but we overcame them together.
The final event in Las Vegas was a devastating way to end the year. We had some great events leading up to the race and I was really looking forward to getting into the car to go racing. The Rahal Letterman Lanigan team had done a great job from the moment we unloaded the truck on arrival, and all weekend long we knew we had a good race car.
Motor racing always has been and always will be dangerous. As the sport becomes safer, so the tragedies become thankfully sparser, but each one then stands out ever more stridently in front of us.
I’ve undergone reconstructive surgery to my right hand, and they’ve taken skin, tendon, nerve and blood vessel grafts from my ring finger and forearm to repair the damage. I’m expected to be fit enough to drive again by January, and make a full recovery within six months. Despite everything that has happened this year, I will be spending my recovery time fighting to do all I can to ensure that I’ll be back in a car next year.
My thoughts are with the Wheldon family. I still can’t believe Dan’s gone; he was a great guy. He will be missed by everyone and our sport is a poorer place without him still here.