Living like a rock star in Great Northwest
VANCOUVER, B.C. -- For one day at least, I felt like I was living like a rock star, and it was great -- a dream come true. I was put in that lucky position because I was almost able to be in two places at once on Saturday afternoon.
At 2:45, I jumped out of the No. 17 Rocketsports Champ Car after qualifying fifth for the Molson Indy Vancouver. Seventy five minutes later, after a police escort and flights on a Lear jet and a helicopter timed with military precision, I was being strapped into my No. 48 Ford Focus for a SPEED World Challenge touring car event at Portland International Raceway.
It was made possible by the United States Air Force Reserve, which backs my season-long ride in the SPEED series and was on board my Champ Car as well for the Vancouver weekend. Paul Gentilozzi (Rocketsports owner) and Major Greg Pachman (director of the Air Force Reserves motorsport program) had the open-minded, out of the box thinking that was crucial to pulling this off. It was very important to me to fulfill my touring car commitment, but everyone involved in that program knows how important it was for me to get another chance in Champ Cars.
Champ Car qualifying couldn't have gone much better, though we might have had a few extra minutes of travel time if there hadn't been a couple of red flags. And it wasn't just a flash-in-the-pan type deal. Every session we were in the top 10 and in qualifying we pulled out a fifth.
It was awesome to get that respect again. As a driver, I never lose my confidence, but other people always kind of forget what you are capable of. I'm glad they got to remember me again. Most of all, I'm really happy for all the people at Rocketsports. They were just walking on air. I could see the satisfaction in their eyes. It was neat to see them so satisfied and it made me feel happy.
The car was great in qualifying. It was just getting better and better and faster and faster. It felt like I was asking a lot out of the car in several different corners and it never let me down. The harder I pushed, the more it was there. I haven't had a car like that on a street course for a long time and it felt really good.
After I completed my allotment of 15 laps, I felt sorry for jumping out and running away so quickly because I wanted to celebrate with the Rocketsports team. I ran down the pit lane as fast as I could and jumped into the car for the ride to the airport.
I was pumped the entire trip, from the police escort to jumping on the Lear jet to circling around the track in the helicopter and seeing the field doing a warm-up lap. I thought, 'Just get me down there and get me in that car because I'm ready to go!' I was really excited. To miss the start would have been a real disappointment, especially after how well everything went in qualifying at Vancouver, but we made it with about a minute to spare.
A Champ Car and a Ford Focus are kind of both ends of the spectrum. I got one warm-up lap to get used to the touring car again and then we took the green flag for a standing start. We didn't use the Festival Chicane and I had never gone straight through there before because I wasn't there for practice or qualifying. So I kind of wondered where to brake for the first turn. I had gotten a few guys off the launch and then I started flying past them into Turn 1.
I thought they were braking early, because I had just gotten out of a Champ Car with a lot more grip. Suddenly I understood why they were braking and I just about dropped a wheel off, but I manage to just skate around on the outside. Then it was just a matter of getting in a groove for a front-wheel drive car and I felt at home again. We moved from 33rd to 11th, which I think was pretty good and the TechSport team seemed pretty pumped.
I was so excited on the way to Portland for the race but on the way back to Vancouver, I was completely at ease. The day couldn't really have gone a whole lot better, in all aspects at both tracks. I was just super satisfied. I got home -- back to my hotel in Vancouver -- and I opened up the balcony door, looked out at the water and just put my feet up. It was certainly one of the best days of my life and I'll remember it for a long time. It was a good feeling.
I wish I could say the same about Sunday because coming into the race I thought we had a chance at a podium. I just made a slight mistake on the 20th lap and locked up the tires, which spun us around. That put us to the back and threw us out of our pit stop sequence.
After that, we tried to gamble a little bit on the fuel strategy, but it's just not as easy to do that these days with the rule requiring green flag pit stops. I just wasn't able to move up, though the car was pretty good at the end and the times were decent. We matched my finish from Portland by coming home 11th. It was good to get a race distance under my belt again and experience that because next time it's just going to be that much better. I think it's a lot harder to get the qualifying down than the racing, but I couldn't be a whole lot happier than I am after this whole weekend.
Obviously I hope to be in the Rocketsports car at Road America in two weeks and beyond. I'm sure Paul has a tough decision about what he is going to do. There needs to be some sponsorship if they are going to continue to run me, and I don't know where that's going to come from. I just bring my helmet.
I think to compete with top teams like Forsythe and Newman/Haas you have to have two drivers that can share data and setups. At Vancouver, I got a compliment from Alex Tagliani, who said it was the first time all year he had some data to look at. That means a lot. I think Paul and the team realize that and I'm sure there is a big push to get me in the car. I know all the guys want me -- now we just have to see how all the politics work out.
I've learned over the last four or five years trying to get a ride in Champ Cars that you can't take not getting a ride personally. That's what's really a big part of my success. I'm confident, and when I get out on the track I push it as hard as I can.
I'd love to get a full-time Champ Car ride with some testing so I can get in a groove. I've been successful at every level, in Champ Cars too, without a whole lot of time in the car. We'll have to wait and see what happens. I won't be sitting by the phone waiting or questioning my abilities. I'll just be ready for the next opportunity.
Memo Gidley was talking to John Oreovicz, who covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.