Editor’s Note: In our continuing From the Cockpit series, Belardi Auto Racing’s Michael Epps offers the following recap of his race weekend on the rolling hills of the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. We thank Belardi Auto Racing and their drivers for their support and the excellent insights their drivers have offered us through this series of articles. At the end of the article, you’ll find links to Belardi Auto Racing’s and Michael’s social media connections. Be sure to follow them on Facebook and Twitter.
Well, well, well. Actually I’m not too well at all – I have a cold and a slight hangover from the USF2000 and Pro Mazda awards banquet last night as I write this. “More wine sir? Yeah, why not.” All that said though, I’m feeling pretty good at the end of my debut season in USF2000 and my first year of experience in American motorsport. Sigh…What. A. Year.
So to start off this story, this weekend featured the last rounds of the Cooper Tires USF2000 National Championship Powered by Mazda at Reliant Park in Houston, Texas (yeeehaw!). The title decider, the season close – this was it. Speaking of titles, the title of this piece will explain itself as you read through and anyone who was there or read the news lately will probably agree the Houston GP was certainly not hiccup-free!
Let’s get moving shall we? During my Q&A session on Friday in the IndyCar Fan Village I was asked when a race weekend starts for me, and I replied, “it pretty much starts from the weekend before”. It really does. You start packing on a Monday or Tuesday so you’re nice and prepared for the Wednesday flight over. We had a nice lay-in until 4am on that Wednesday morning to trundle down to Heathrow Airport in a taxi for a jolly day of travelling. This time my advisor Martyn Pott of P1 Sports Management was coming with us to enjoy a weekend of racing. As usual the M25 handled the week-day traffic wonderfully and we made it successfully to Heathrow by February 2018.
After all the ridiculous connections in the past that gave us 5 minutes to get from one plane to another, we finally flew direct to Houston. Dad was a happy chappy looking like Pete Tong with his headphones on and we all took advantage of the free wine, except me because I spilt the damn stuff all down my leg. Do they polish those little tables on the back of the seats or what? It just leisurely slid off while I wasn’t looking and my left leg ended up getting drunk. The first hiccup before we even arrived in Texas.
We strolled out of the airport in Houston and promptly made a public strip-show of ourselves (at the time wearing jeans and winter coats) in the excessive heat and humidity of Texas. I thought Florida was bad but wow; the air was so thick it was like breathing in syrup.
I was looking forward to another street race ending the season, although this one was essentially a car park turned into a track. I think for safety/insurance reasons no drivers were allowed to walk the track while it was still under construction (something we all need/want do to find those little bumps, apexes, points of reference), but I managed to get onto pitlane and have a little look at the kind of thing I’d be tackling this weekend. I then got another taste of what the weekend could hold for us; just as I looked down the main straight it literally chucked it down! I ran to shelter under the Chip Ganassi Target Team pit box for a few minutes until it calmed down – might as well get a little peek at the future while I’m being drenched eh?
I dropped all my gear with the team and we got our plans ready for the single 30 minutes of practice we had before qualifying the next day (really generous to us aren’t they!)
Right this way sir
I have to take my hat off to the guy behind the desk of the hotel as we walked in that evening. He was a strange fella, Italian I think. We asked him where we could get a good steak and also pasta for me. He said “follow me” and quite literally walked us out of the hotel car park, across the road, waving down traffic and walking us up the street further to the front door of a place called Tango and Malbec. He then asked for a table for three and asked them to show us their best steak and pasta dishes, all without being asked. He was incredibly nice, either that or desperate for a tip! The people are very nice in Texas I have to say, the autograph session on Friday was probably one of the nicest I’ve done. Safe to say the food at Tango and Malbec was beautiful too (no, I’m not sponsored by them..).
We had a briefing at 8:00am at the track, and since we were a 15-20 minute drive away and our car lot was a good 10-15 minute walk from our paddock (because they love us team crews and drivers so much that they stuck us in the furthest away car park possible) it meant we’d be leaving the hotel at 6:30am. Our first session on the track was scheduled some six hours later at 12:20pm. Still, I can’t complain; the whole of Reliant Park Stadium, Reliant Arena and Astrodome area had been devoted to us, and all the staff seemed to be really supportive of the racing too.
The weekend stumbled into its next issue shortly after our briefing, the first practice session was the Pirelli World Challenge series featuring all sorts of sports cars. There is a bump on the main straight that a few people were concerned about, and their concerns were immediately realised as cars blasted over it, completely airborne, damaging suspension and floors. After the day was halted and a meeting held, a “one at a time please” style chicane made out of spare tyres was constructed to slow us all down and at least keep us on the ground. This is street racing for you, I love it though.
Back where I belong
We headed out on track about two hours later than scheduled once the chicane was sorted, and even though I didn’t have much of an idea of the tracks dynamics I jumped straight on it. I was sitting around second on the timesheets for some of the session, dropping back to fifth at the end when a couple others found improvements. It was really positive for us – I knew where I was with the car and we were already pretty close to the mark on setup. Sweet! It looked like we were finally going to have more of a simple weekend back where I’m supposed to be at the front, especially after the headache that was Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
Qualifying was later on at close-to-sunset hours due to the delay, I got a lap in straight away to put in a time in the top 8. There was then a red flag due to someone making good friends with the wall at the new chicane. We waited in pit lane while some went to new tyres for the last few laps once the track was cleared. I stuck with my current set of slicks as there really wasn’t long left and I felt I had a little more time to find in myself anyway. We only had 3 laps to improve once we were let back out and I stuck the car on the cliff edge on the last lap to improve by two tenths putting me in P6. The guys on new tyres improved also, but one of them was excluded for an illegality with his car and I moved up to P5 for Saturday’s race. Best position yet.
Green, green, green!
We had a single file start due to the chicane not being wide enough for two cars to go through the corner, I was relieved in a way because the two row rolling starts this year have been havoc compared to the standing starts I’m used to back at home. I held position as “green green green go go go!” came through my radio from Angelo, for the first couple of laps I ran in fifth until the guy just ahead of me got a little out of shape and clouted the wall. Off he went and I took fourth place. You get one chance in street racing, there is pretty much no run-off to use. The concrete wall will usually destroy anything that touches it. I started to reel in third place just a little, setting the same lap times as the leaders. That’s the fastest I’ve been all year, and with the extremely high level of skill and talent within the teams and drivers of the USF2000 series I was pretty pleased to finally be right up at the sharp end.
A few laps later there was a full course yellow after a crash at turn 8, my buddy and team-mate Danilo Estrela was involved. I was sad for him but it also allowed me to get right up behind the front three for the restart, so cheers mate. I owe you one! With just two laps left we vaulted towards turn one at the restart, I got a great run on third place and launched it up the inside. This was my sniff of a podium. It was brilliant; both of us had locked front wheels scrambling to make it round the first chicane. I smashed over the second curb trying to make it around legitimately while he had nowhere to go and cut the corner, keeping his third place. I was a little upset at the time about it, but looking at onboard video footage later we saw that I’d actually gone off the track by a couple of inches to pass and so the whole situation was fair. It’s hard to tell from the cockpit at Houston as the track is defined by white lines painted on the surface and this particular line actually comes across to the right towards the first turn while most just go straight. That’s how things go sometimes.
I ended up losing time and dropping to fifth, I made a hard move to get back into fourth but the other guy didn’t want to give it up and we both went sliding towards the concrete wall. I just tapped it and bounced off, bending the suspension and rim, but was able to keep going. It was a harsh hit; you don’t realise what speed you’re doing until you hit something I guess. The other guy ended his race at that corner unfortunately. I’d made the pass properly, but lost a place to someone else on the exit when I lost speed hitting the wall. It seemed I was determined to finish fifth, and with a full course yellow for the final lap that was where I ended up.
^ To think that all that happened in 20 minutes… Talk about eventful! I’d posted the fifth fastest time again too with only two tenths of a second to the fastest. It was unbelievably close.
The next morning would stage the final race of the season. Where the did 2013 go to??? It certainly doesn’t feel like eight or nine months ago when I was starting up my career over this side of the pond. It’s been great though; I have enough memories since February to write a book already and I seem to have a whole new life over here. It’s incredible how different things are to how I had envisioned.
Rain, wind, and more rain
We turned up the next morning to what looked like some sort of war scene in the sky. I’d seen in the news of a tornado across the South coast and people were talking about it affecting our weather. There was a huge band of grey going across the skies with rippling dark cloud behind it. Although the skies painted a scene of evil, I was smiling in the same way due to my love for racing in the rain.
Unfortunately, my car didn’t seem to like the rain as much as me on this occasion. After moving up to fourth again starting fifth, something broke and I lost drive. It was pretty wet I have to say, there was standing water all over the track but the rough concrete surface made it much grippier than normal wet driving. Strange experience. Anyway moving to the point, I was coming out of turn 9 having just taken fourth place and a driveshaft failure caused me to have effectively nothing but neutral for a gear. I subsequently cruised down the main straight to pull off, retiring in my final race of the season.
It happens… I was a little down but I don’t think it was anything of my doing so I can’t really beat myself up about it. Without a doubt the guys at Belardi Auto Racing work solidly on all of their cars, but still things fail and luck has its way with us drivers sometimes. It probably describes my season in a way, I’ve certainly not had the easiest of rides. They do say you make your own luck though and I made a few bad decisions too. It’s all a learning experience and now I feel like if I can get myself in a position to do this again, I will come back very strong.
A reminder of what can happen
As usual, we stayed for the IndyCar race later that day. I can’t quite imagine driving a street circuit in one of those things yet, they are usually around 10-12 seconds faster than us at most circuits. Through the twists and over the bumps of that place must feel crazy, but I doubt anything felt quite as mad as what poor Dario Franchitti went through in the final lap of that race. Coming around the stadium section at probably around 140-150mph, he hit the back of Takuma Sato’s car and flew up into the catch fencing, tearing his car apart and creating a scene of horror on the fastest section of the track.
Me, my Dad and Martyn were actually walking across a bridge over that section of the track when it happened. I recognised that faint high-pitched sound of locked tyres screaming below, followed by some crunching noises, then suddenly there a massive bang as a free flying wheel struck the bridge we were on at probably 100 or so mph! Running to the other side and seeing Dario’s car in a nasty state served as a reminder to me that it can still happen, none of us are invincible or immune. Luckily Dario was alive and okay, but with two broken vertebrae and a broken ankle I don’t think we’ll be seeing him compete for a little bit. 13 spectators were also injured. Thoughts to all of them and especially Dario.
What a weekend eh? I threw on my suit for the awards banquet that night where everyone was suitably fueled by wine and champagne. It was a great laugh celebrating the season end with a lot of special people, there were quite a few funny speeches too. Lots of great trophies were given out, some of which I would love to get my hands on in the future. One I definitely don’t want though is the “Golden Wishbone Award”, for the team and drivers who spent the most money on crash damage during the season. I plan not to be taking that one home ever..!
I hope everyone has enjoyed my updates this season and I’ll continue to write about my experiences building towards 2014. Stay posted!
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