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Pippa Mann

 

 

I was standing in the pit lane of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, watching the timing monitors, heart pumping out of my chest and sounding through my ears louder than any engine. It felt like every single car that went on track was going significantly quicker than they had run before, and every single one was going quicker than us.

It was May of 2011 and there were 42 cars trying to qualify for one of the 33 starting spots for the Centennial of the Indianapolis 500. On Pole Days, the big guns got in the show. On bleak and rain blighted Bump Day, those of us who were left were all trying to compete for the last 11 spots in the show. And I was out of the car, unstrapped, un-helmeted, and unsure what was going to unfold next.

Before I got in the car at Indy, I had driven an Indycar for one single day of testing. That one day had been enough to convince one of the smaller team owners, Eric Bachelart of Conquest Racing, to take a huge punt on me, and to allow me to try and qualify one of his cars. I had sat on pole the previous year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Firestone Indy Lights, along with two other poles and a race win on the ovals that year. But in the IZOD IndyCar Series, I was a complete unknown - trying to make things happen on a shoe string budget.

I can vividly remember sitting at home the day the entry list came out, and just praying that there would be a second Conquest Racing entry on the list with the driver “TBA”. Then when the list came out, and the car was there, my euphoria only lasted for about ten seconds, as I then realized the next thing was to convince the boss that I was the racer to get in the car.

That car went to the Brazilian race with the team, as my soon-to-be team mate Sebastian’s spare car, and when it came back, the mechanics had just two days to turn it around and get it ready for me to hit the track. My pedal fit was the evening before, and while I got home at 11pm, the guys had to work through until dawn just so I could take part in the mandatory Rookie Orientation Program that every new driver at Indy has to complete in order to be allowed to practice - let alone compete.

The weather throughout the week of testing was some of the worst anyone could remember in recent memory. I spent hours and hours of time in the garage, listening to the rain hammering down on the roof, and there seemed to be nowhere near enough time on track. The experienced drivers in the big teams were complaining. We had an inexperienced driver in a small team. But sometimes you just have to suck it up.

Despite the challenges, our limited testing actually went fairly well, and on Pole Day we turned up confident that we would be fast enough to make the show on one day or the other with very little drama. However the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has a personality all of her own, and one thing you learn very quickly is that no two runs are ever the same. The experienced drivers will tell you that you don’t choose to win at Indy - she chooses you. And when you’re one of the hopefuls who have turned up to try their luck against the fastest track in the world, she has a habit of reminding you. Rookies have often ended up in trouble on qualifying days at Indy, and a wallop with the wall at over 220mph will not only leave you with a trashed race car, but sometimes an overnight stay in the local hospital too.

Our speed on Pole Day was slow. We got slower every run on track. We didn’t know why. And the only thing we could do was pull the entire car apart again over night, and put everything back together again to check nothing had gotten bound up causing us to slow down. The gearbox was rebuilt. The engine was changed. And the kitchen sink was thrown at the car.

Bump Day morning was the first time I had driven to the track all month long without some kind of cheesy music blaring loudly from the speakers of my road car. I was staring down the barrel of not getting in the show, and we didn’t know why. Unless we had found the problem overnight, we were not getting in, and we would be going home. It was a frighteningly simple equation.

Despite pulling their second all-nighter, the boys were still working on trying to put the car back together when morning warm-up started. We towed into pit lane with five minutes remaining on the clock, driver already strapped into the cockpit, engine revving to warm it up as I was towed behind the team cart. We got three laps in. I was one of the slowest cars on track. The handling was off, and as I couldn’t run the track flat out with the handling off we had no way of knowing whether we had solved the problem.

There was a tense 30 minutes back in the garage while my engineer and I tried to work out which set-up changes we needed to make. The decision had to be fast and intuitive, as there was not enough time to trawl through data. Then the car was going through tech, and we were walking out to pit lane to get in line to qualify. We had seen the rain coming on the radar, and we did not want to miss our slot in line.

I got towards the front of the line, and got in the car. Helmet on. Strapped in. Two cars to go. The rain came.

Back in the garage area we watched the radar and we waited. The rain fell outside, and the atmosphere inside was thick with tension. The jet driers started up on the track outside, and we waited some more. The radar showed another big band of rain coming towards the speedway. If they got this place dry in time, this might be it. My one shot. My one run. It would either have to be four laps with a big enough average speed to put me in the show, or we would be done. I didn’t know how the car was going to handle, but I knew if we hadn’t fixed the issue from the morning and I tried to run with my foot to the floor I would be one of those rookies who ended up in the wall. I also knew that if I didn’t run with my foot to the floor, we would not get in the show. It was time to get back in line and pick your poison.

I spoke to both the boss and my manager, and I let them know my position. Going home because we were simply not fast enough due to me being over cautious was not an option. If I failed to make the show this year I didn’t know if or when I would get another chance. The team boss was anxious, as I had been the faster of his two cars throughout the week, and if he didn’t get either of his cars in the show it would be bad for his team. The decision was made. I was going to go out there and drive it like I believed the car was going to do what I wanted, and if I had to hang on for absolute grim death, then that’s what I was going to do. None of us knew which way it was going to go at that point, but one thing was sure. We were either going in the show, or going in the wall. We were not simply going to give up and go home.

Front of the line, watching the car in front of me complete four flying laps, then out on track. Through turns three and four, then up to speed coming down the front stretch. One lap of two and a half miles to get everything warm, then the green flag. Coming back to turn one, qualifying run under way - don’t lift, don’t lift, don’t lift...

Between turns one and two I was finally able to breathe, I knew the worst part was over, and we had managed to hit the handling issue from the morning on the head for the run. I started working my in-car tools, to make the balance a little crisper, and as I crossed the line the first time I checked to make sure we were running at the speed where I needed to be - 23.9. 23.9 was the time we thought would be the cut off time, the difference between being in, and being out. I had to stay the same speed. Slowing down due to getting behind the wear of the tyres was not acceptable. I kept moving the tools inside the car. 23.9. Still okay. Lap three I worked them a little harder, making sure I was ahead of the curve. 23.9. One more lap to go. Suddenly I got the rear of the car sitting on the knife edge, where the difference between having enough grip not to be sideways, but being so close to sideways that if you even blink too fast you’ll be dirt tracking at 220mph actually allows you to release even faster out of the corners. 24.0. An average in the high 23.9s. It was absolutely everything the car and I had. Would it be enough?

The line continued. My time held. More rain came. I started to believe I was safe. Then the jet driers went back out, and somehow they got the track dry. No one wanted to attempt to qualify straight away on the newly green track, so it was opened for a general practice with all cars on track. We tried to run a little less wing to test it, to see whether we had anything if we needed to qualify again. The answer was we didn’t. The car was viciously loose, and after several big saves in just a couple of laps we came back in to try something else. But then the track closed again. Cars were getting back into line to go and qualify. We put the aero back on my car, I stayed strapped in, and we rolled to my team mate’s pit stall near the tail end of the line. There we watched, and we waited. We knew we didn’t want to go again unless we had to, but we had to be ready in case we had no choice.

Some cars went faster. Time ticked slowly down, dragging by with minutes feeling like hours. My engineer was constantly watching, calculating. With 15 minutes to go before the gun fired, he radioed and told me to get out the car. He was convinced that not enough cars could complete their warm up lap and the four timed laps in time to knock us out of the show. That should have been the end of it. But it wasn’t. The next 15 minutes of standing, watching the monitors, feeling my heart beating out of my chest and every beat deafening me through my ears. The track seemed to have gotten faster. Every single car that went out there was throwing up a big time and knocking us further down the order. My team mate went out for his last run, but had a huge moment, and had to get out of the throttle and abandon the attempt. Whatever happened now, he was out.

Then finally, the gun fired. The last car was on track. The entry I had driven was in the show, but the team’s full-time driver was not. At the Indy 500 the car qualifies, not the driver, and Eric would have been perfectly within the rules to tell me that I was no longer getting to race. Instead, he shook my hand, and he told me I deserved to be out there, and that I would be out there. And that’s when I finally knew I had just qualified for my first Indycar race, and in less than a week’s time, I would be starting the Indianapolis 500.

Pippa Mann

www.pippamann.com

Follow on Twitter @PippaMann

 

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