My first race in 2 years! F4 U.S. at New Jersey Motorsports Park
I've just returned from my first race weekend in two years, and I am absolutely pumped! I had 3 days to get acclimated to a new car on a track I've never been on before. This was the fifth out of six race weekends in Formula 4 United States Championship Powered by Honda, so I had to catch up to the majority of the drivers who had been honing their skills in this car for the entire year. This presented an opportunity to show my level of talent. I would have to demonstrate my ability to listen and apply what my coaches taught me immediately. With such a short time to get my bearings back, and rain during Friday practice, my skills and hard work would truly be tested throughout this race weekend. I arrived in southern New Jersey at 3pm on Thursday to meet with my team, Group-A Racing, and to finalize my fitment to my car and preace preparations.
Thursday: Setup and Preparations:
I got to meet with the team manager and coach Jonathan, whom I have known for about four years now, as well as his father Joe, the team owner. I met the team mechanics Andrew, Eric, and Chris, as well as the cars' engineer, Alain. Andrew would be the mechanic assigned to my car.
I stayed with the team while they unpacked their race trailer which was full with three race cars, their associated parts and tools. I put on my race suit and helmet and got in my car to make sure everything was just right.
My job is to drive, and anything that can potentially inhibit my duty is to be communicated. In short, I have to be picky and clear about what I need in order to feel comfortable and go fast. These cars have six-point seat belt harnesses, two belts across my lap, two over my shoulders and two come from under my legs like a rock climbing harness. I told Andrew that I would need my leg belts tightened to feel more secure in the car. Once that was completed we connected my helmet to the car radio to make sure we were receiving each other so that Andrew could communicate with me while I was on track. With myself and my car both set up for the weekend, my Thursday work was complete.
Racing is a team sport. A driver cannot win on his own, and I have to show support to those who help ensure that I am in a position to perform to the highest level possible. I headed back to the hotel only when the team was finished with their work and no sooner. I ate dinner and finalized preparations for the weekend ahead. My own mother helped by sewing the series specific sponsor patches to my suit as I rested.
Friday: Practice, Rain and Red Flags
Friday morning I woke up bright and early at 6am to ensure that I had enough time to shower and eat before a drivers' meeting at 7:45 am at the track. Drivers' meetings ensure that all the race participants are on the same page and have a thorough understanding of the track and what to expect throughout the weekend. We discussed where the pit entry and exit were on this specific track as well as safety procedures.
Because I am a new driver to this particular series, I also had to attend a forty-five minute meeting to get a clear understanding of the rules. We discussed specific start and restart procedures, as well as the series flags and what is expected of each driver when and where those particular flags are shown.
On race tracks there are flag stations at each turn, and drivers have the responsibility to look at those flag stations as they go through each lap. For example, a yellow flag signifies a caution on the track, drivers must slow down noticeably and passing is not allowed. A double yellow signifies a safety car. A safety car is a slower passenger car with flashing lights that leads the field of racers through each lap at a significantly slower pace. A red flag means that the session has been temporarily paused, and all drivers must return to the pits so that it is safe for the safety workers to go on track and fix the issues at hand.
After the meetings I had to get weighed in the car and pass tech. Tech is a series of measurements, checks and balances to make sure that I have all the necessary safety equipment and that my seating position in the car is safe for me to race. For example, they check the height of my head in the car so that, in the event the car flips, I am protected by the carbon fiber cockpit, and my head does not hit the ground.
Along with equipment check, the series had to test my ability to evacuate the car in an emergency. With the belts holding me in, as well as a steering wheel that must be removed in order to escape from the cockpit, evacuation is not as easy as it may sound. I was given five seconds to get from fully seated and strapped in the car to standing with both feet flat on the ground beside it. After that I had another 5 seconds to re attach the steering wheel to the car. Series regulations dictate that drivers are responsible for leaving the car in neutral with the steering wheel attached so that any safety workers that need to are capable of moving the car. After the meetings, I headed back to my team's garage to prepare for a 10:15am practice.
As a new driver to the series, before I hit the track, I was required to demonstrate two practice starts to show that it would be safe for me to start the races for the weekend. It sounds simple, but a race start is quite complicated. With adrenaline running, it's hard to focus on simple tasks, like where to place the car on the starting grid, and when to launch in reaction to the lights, let alone the difficult task of getting the perfect launch and taking off from the line as fast as possible. Race cars have manual transmissions with a clutch pedal that must be released and timed with application of the throttle in order to launch effectively. I set two practice starts and was ready to head out for my first laps in this race car.
Friday practices did not yield the best conditions to start out in. There were varied rain showers throughout the day, which was particularly challenging due to the fact that the track was not wet enough to justify the treaded rain tires, but not dry enough to be able to push the car to its limits on racing slicks (which have zero tread) without risking a serious crash. I even had a spin myself, which sent me off track. Luckily there was no damage or contact to the car, and I drove back to the pits.
There were countless red flags throughout the three Friday sessions, limiting seventy minutes of practice to about a total of ten, one-minute laps. This prevented me from gaining much-needed experience. I would have to head into Saturday qualifying still in need of practice.
Saturday: Qualifying, Go fast day!
In racing, Saturday morning qualifying is referred to as "go fast day". Qualifying is the first competition in a race weekend. Drivers compete through time trials to run the fastest lap they can manage, which will dictate the order of the cars on the starting grid. Because this session was the first without rain, qualifying provided me with much needed experience more than anything. I did manage to post a lap that put me in 21st out of 32 cars for Race 1.
My first race went quite well all things considered. I managed to make a few on-track passes and to work my way up to 18th position. I had two teammates this weekend, and I finished in front of both of them. Working with other drivers on the same team in racing is slightly ironic. The first rule in racing is, "never take out your own teammates". We are competing against each other, but we must work together in order to further our teams common goals. Most team mates are given very similar, if not identical set ups for their cars. Due to this fact team mates set each others' bench marks. Its easier to compare team mates to each other because they are given the same set of tools. So in many ways, team mates are each others first allies, and first enemies on track.
The starting grid for Races 2 and 3 are based on the fastest laps run by each driver in the previous race. Due to my fastest lap in Race 1, I would start in 20th for race two in front of my two teammates. Slowly but surely I was advancing through the field of drivers.
Despite my slightly improved starting position, Race 2 did not go so well for me. I had a spin, just before a double yellow flag and safety car which saved me from falling behind, but, because I went off track, I had grass in my radiator so I had to pull in for a pitstop for my mechanics to remove anything obstructing airflow to my radiators. My tires were dirty as well, and the car would prove difficult to handle throughout the rest of the race.
After the restart, as I was gaining on the car in front of me, I misjudged turn three, the fastest turn on the track, and once again put my wheels into the grass. This time I managed not to spin or lose control, but once again I had to deal with dirty tires. For the rest of my race I had to keep a close watch on my temperature gauge to ensure that I had no mechanical issues due to my mistakes. Luckily the gauge held true to a safe range. I managed to gain back a number of positions. In total I only lost three positions and finished 23rd in Race 2. My fastest lap in Race 2 was quite slow due to my errors, and I would have to start in 26th position for the third race.
Friday: Race 3, Redemption
"I couldn't remember the last time I felt so proud. Proud to be a racer, proud to be a part of Group-A Racing, proud to perform so well in front of my family and friends at my home race, proud to be a son, a brother, and a friend, proud to be me. Both my own mother and my girlfriend were crying tears of joy. I was truly happy."
Facing adversity for a driver is tough; we race to win. However it does provide an opportunity to prove that we have short memories so we don't beat ourselves up. I had to look ahead to the next race, the final race. I know my level of skill, and I wasn't going to leave without a fight. I was ready to show my capabilities. I was ready to prove myself. Nothing would get in my way for Race 3. I was truly fired up.
Set up at the starting grid, I prepared for a launch and turned my attention to the starting lights. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 red lights appeared sequentially; a second later they went out and I launched the car to accelerate into the first turn.
I can't win in the first lap of a race, but I can certainly lose. With 32 cars trying to work their way around the first lap side by side at full speed, the chances for contact and mistakes are high. Taking the first five corners conservatively, I lost two positions, fell to 28th and took a deep breath. I told myself, "It's early in the race, take your time and work your way up, David."
At the end of lap one, I retook 27th position. Flying into lap two, I seized four positions through the inside of the first two corners! Sitting in 23rd position I locked on to my next competitor. Starting lap three, I worked my way around him on the outside of the high speed turn one, P22. Ahead, a broken car pulled off to the side of turn seven and I went straight past, moving me up to 21st.
Heading into lap four the next car was one of my teammates. I pulled alongside on the straightaway. We were wheel to wheel going into turn one, where I safely passed him on the inside. Now in 20th position there was a large gap to the next car.
I pushed hard to catch the next driver and entering lap six I was alongside her. We went through turn one side by side. In turn two, she squeezed me to the inside, forcing me onto a bumpy curb which caused me to lose a car length and tuck in behind. I shadowed her movements closely through the next four corners and on turn seven I swept around her and one other car on the outside! I screemed "Whoohoo!" into my radio, 18th position. At the end of lap seven a safety car would come out for three laps, due to a stalled car at the exit of turn one.
Thanks to the safety car I took a much needed moment to regain my footing and prepare to attack at the restart. Only seven laps of this half an hour race had been completed and I had already been wheel to wheel over a dozen times and made 10 passes. Now I could turn my attention to the cars ahead.
Still in 18th, the restart was at the beginning of lap eleven. Like a stampede, the field of 32 racers would scream past the green flag at full throttle. As we all filed through turn one a car would go off track behind me. I sped past two cars going through turns five and six. Immediately after those passes, another safety car came out for the car off track at turn one, solidifying my 16th position. Two more laps would be completed behind the safety car.
Just at the lap fourteen restart, two cars in front of me swerved into each other causing contact and damage to each of their cars at the green flag, moving me up into 14th position. During lap fifteen, three cars would go off track allowing me into 11th.
The next and final lap, the car in front made a small mistake exiting turn two; I capitalized on his slow exit speed and made the pass before turn three for P10. With just a half a lap remaining, I set my sights on P9. I closed the gap and heading out of turn ten--the final corner--I made my move. Side by side we headed towards the checkered flag. I would finish just alongside 9th position with a .027 second gap between the two of us, a true photo finish. After the race, the driver who finished in 7th, just 4 seconds ahead of me, received a five second time penalty for causing an accident. This made my official finishing position ninth.
All in all, I would gain 17 positions, almost 18. Although I did not win the race, as a driver who had two days to get up to speed, finishing 9th out of 32 cars, with two championship points, is a win for me. When I got back to the pits to see the team and my family, I screamed at the top of my lungs and celebrated. I couldn't remember the last time I felt so proud. Proud to be a racer, proud to be a part of Group-A-Racing, proud to perform so well in front of my family and friends at my home race, proud to be a son, a brother, and a friend, proud to be me. Both my own mother and my girlfriend were crying tears of joy. I was truly happy.
Racing runs through my blood, it's what I live for. I work every day to improve as a driver, and both this result and those two championship points are evidence that my hard work pays off. It took me two years just to get to this point, and I can truly say that I worked harder than every other driver that was at the track that weekend. My focus has never been stronger, and I fully intend to return to racing for good. I aim to win the 2019 Formula 4 championship in order to secure a scholarship to solidify my role as a professional racing driver once again.
I could not have accomplished this weekend on my own, and I do not intend to win a championship by myself either. I need support as a driver and every day that I breathe I seek as much of that support as I can. I need to thank my family and all of the sponsors and partners that have helped me just to get to this point. Their information can be found below. If you're reading this, and would like to contribute to my career in any way, please reach out. I'd love to hear from you.