First practice was underway early in the morning. We got good laps in, and it was nice to get a feel of the track. We ended Practice One in P11. As I came in the pits we did a quick bleed of the brakes to get air out as I was experiencing a soft pedal. It was a fairly long wait till the next session so I went over data with my engineer, then pretty much got ready and waited.
Going out for Practice Two I felt immediately that the brake pedal was better. It was a very decent session; I was able to get more comfortable with the brake points around the track. Also, I had corrected the braking issues that plagued me in Sebring. I was now getting a very good pressure on the pedal, but there is always room for improvement. I needed to push the brake zones more, brake deeper. All in all the session went well. An electronic problem plagued the overall pace of the car, but the Belardi guys were all over it and had the car in tip top shape for qualifying.
The following morning I took a bike ride around the paddock. It was great to see all the “rungs” of the Mazda Road to Indy program. Not only were the Pro Mazda Championship and Indy Lights there, but the IZOD Indy Car Series. This would be my first experience watching an Indy Car race.
It was soon time to get in the car for qualifying. The track was initially a bit damp but became dry very soon. I ended the session P17. The biggest lesson that I learned was to attack early in the session, be more aggressive. I waited just a bit too long to push on the damp track. But it was a good lesson learned, and something I can improve on for the future.
Race 1, in typical St.Pete tradition, had a very chaotic start. I was able to take advantage and make some spots up. And over the next laps I picked up a couple more positions. I soon was fighting for 8th place; I had a good battle going. I finally made my move into Turn 10; we came out side by side and went through the S’s. I ran out of road, and was pushed over the curb. The car became unsettled and I spun. It was no fault of the other driver, just hard racing. After the spin I was mired back in 16th. I fought hard for the remainder of the race, climbing my way back up to 11th where I finished. I learned a lot, and it was good to get some really fun, tough racing on a street course.
After the race, I met with Dean Case (Mazda Communications Officer). I was informed that I would be doing a quick photo-shoot. So at six, I put my gear back on. and made my way to Turn 2, to meet Dean and the photographers. It was really good to spend time with Dean, and we had some great conversations, in which I learned a lot. The photographer came and we took some shots. It was pretty cool working with professional photographers, and most importantly, they were great pictures. But this to me was more than just a photo-shoot. It was another example of how Mazda was helping me. They have already given me so much, but they have continued to help me and teach me. And for that, I have to give Dean Case, John Doonan, and everyone else at Mazda and MAZDASPEED a huge thank you.
It was soon time for Race 2. Before I could blink I was on track warming the tires. I would start Race 2 in 21st, which was tough. We had finished 11ththe day before, and it would have been nice to start up there. But that’s the way it goes (Race 2 starting position is fastest race lap or second fastest qualifying lap). The start was clean. I again started picking up positions; I was moving my way up the field nicely. I was soon up to P13. Until, when attempting to overtake a driver, I was hit and the driver launched up into me. I was luckily able to continue but this contact dropped me in the order. I was again fighting my way back up. I soon was behind one of my teammates, Daniel Burkett. I would be locked in a battle with him for the rest of the race. With two laps to go I was right on his gearbox. But a slowing championship car was thrown into the mix. We both made our guesses, and mine worked out. I was able to make the pass and then keep the position to the finish.
It was a great two races at St. Pete. I learned a bunch about race craft and also where I still need to improve. There is a lot to work on but with the help of everyone around me, I know we can succeed.
Editor’s note: Belardi Auto Racing has teamed up with OpenPaddock for the 2013 racing season to bring you deep insight to the race weekend. After every USF2000 race weekend, one of Belardi Auto Racing’s USF2000 drivers will share with us his thoughts on the weekend and give us a glimpse at what really happens behind the scene. Peter Dempsey will be providing similar insights after every Firestone Indy Lights race. We’d like to thank Belardi Auto Racing’s USF2000 drivers Peter Portante, Danilo Estrela, Matt McMurray, and Daniel Burkett, and Firestone Indy Lights driver Peter Dempsey for providing this great service to us race fans.