Race Report- 2017 St. Pete GP

Race Report- 2017 St. Pete GP

San Diego, CA: After a couple weeks of decompressing from the Grand Prix of St Pete, it’s time to write my first blog of the year!

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Late last year we announced that we signed a 2-year deal with Newman Wachs Racing. Being able to bring the Newman name back into motorsports is an incredible honor but with that, comes a lot of pressure to perform. We put a great deal of preparation into ensuring our success at St. Pete. The year for us started back in January where we tested for 2 days at Sebring, followed by the series test at Homestead, and then a final day of testing at The FIRM in Florida prior to the race weekend. The majority of our testing was extremely successful. Developing a new car, a new driving style, and learning all the tricks that make this car go fast were all some of the key areas that we knew had to be checked off our list.

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As we arrived at St. Pete, the same emotions that came over me last year came to me again. This is a race of excitement as well as anxiety. There were quite a few differences this year compared to last though. This year I came into this race with an amazing team behind me, two rock star teammates, and a year’s worth of experience under my belt. Our first on track activity was walking the circuit during which we noticed much of the track had been repaved, giving the impression that the track would be rather smooth for us to race on. It was quite a rude awakening when we took to the track for our only practice session of the weekend.

For the most part, the track felt smooth (for a street circuit), but coming through turn 3 there was a massive bump that would lift the front of the cars off the ground. This would eventually cause a car to slam the exit wall ending our practice after only 5 or 6 green laps on track. Qualifying for races 1 and 2 were a bit tricky for us. We had to relearn a portion of the track, as officials had changed turn 3 overnight, while also managing traffic and the possibility of red flags. We ended up P4 in both qualifying sessions, which while putting us in a good starting position for the races, didn’t feel like it showed our true potential. At the start of Race 1, I jumped up to 3rd place and managed to hold that position until the last portion of the race where I was passed in turn 1 then freight trained in the following set of corners. This put us back to 7th position, but we were able to gain a spot back prior the checkered flag giving us a 6th place in our first race of the season. Race 2 was almost identical as Race 1 for us. We managed to jump up to P3 at the start of the race but quickly fell back to 5th place before losing an additional spot by the conclusion of the race. The end of the weekend saw us with two 6th place finishes, not what we were hoping for, especially considering the pace we had going into the weekend.

Looking forward now, I am doing everything I can to prepare for rounds 3 and 4 at Barber Motorsports Park. You will find us at Atlanta Motorsport Park the Wednesday prior to the event, getting our final preparations in. The team and I are going to be ready to grab our first podium, our first win, at Barber, and I can’t wait to tell you all about it.

All the best,

Dakota

Post-Season Review

San Diego, CA- It’s been a long three weeks since I’ve been in a USF2000 racecar, so what better way to deal with the withdrawal than by writing a blog reminiscing on how the season went. My last few write-ups were primarily focused on our results for the weekend, but this time I want to touch mainly on the support from Mazda Motorsports and what it was like to be a Mazda Scholarship driver within the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda.

It is truly hard to describe the amount of support that you get from Mazda Motorsports outside of the actual monetary investments that they make in you. I’m an only child but the best way I could describe it is it’s as if you had a “big brother” looking out for your best interests throughout the season, making sure that every opportunity is seized upon. They really make sure that you can achieve your highest potential and give you advice as to what they would do - everything from career advice, business and social media tips, and driver coaching. The amount of support I received was overwhelming and our success this year would not have been possible without their help.

There were quite a few unique opportunities that came with the scholarship as well. I was able to drive the parade car at Barber Motorsports Park and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, go to dinners with series sponsors, and even do a Q&A session with the media with the likes of Will Power, Scott Dixon, and Spencer Pigot at St. Petersburg. All of which was completely unexpected when I initially won the scholarship. More surprises occurred throughout the season such as when I was invited into the team operations while at the Long Beach Grand Prix.

Another great aspect of the Mazda Scholarship program, going back to the funding, is that it gives you a year to focus on your next program. This gave us an extra season to focus on raising a full budget to compete in USF2000 again in 2017 with the new Tatuus USF-17. This extra time was crucial for our current program as we were able to raise funding to do some private testing and participate in the Chris Griffis Test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this past weekend.

Again, this season would not have happened without all of the financial, career, and moral support that Mazda has given me. They were the backbone to our 2016 program and the springboard to 2017. To Jade, Jim, Joel, Kyle, and Mr. Doonan, I sincerely thank you for all of your help this past year, and I will be working harder than ever to win the Championship next year so that I can be your scholarship driver again.

All the best,

Dakota

Race Report - Mid-Ohio

After a short two-week break from Toronto, we were back into the States for Rounds 12, 13 and 14 at Mid-Ohio, where we had a successful series test earlier in the year. We were in the top five for the three test sessions, which took place on Thursday, with the official practice session rounding out the day at 6:30 p.m. Unfortunately, we didn’t quite make it out to practice as we had a transmission failure. The guys worked hard to get the car back together before qualifying which took place Friday morning.

I felt confident in our ability to stay among the top five for qualifying, along with the fact that we had an extra set of Cooper Tires (since we didn’t go out in practice). That really helped as we managed to pull out the third fastest lap time! This was crucial as it would put us in third position for the start of all three races. We were all so pumped and knew that the work and changes we’d put into the program were paying off.

Race One concluded Friday’s on track events. I was a bit nervous taking the green flag and was railed around the outside by Brazilian Victor Franzoni. I later went off in Turn Four, and the rest of the race was a hard-fought battle for fifth, our second top-five finish of the year.

Earlier in the week, an announcement came out that the newest crop of rising stars would gather to be interviewed for the Team USA Scholarship on Friday night at Mid-Ohio. This obviously brought back some great memories for me and I was thrilled to be invited to help out with the interview process. The night kicked off with a wonderful dinner and it was great being able to talk with a lot of the familiar faces who had been interviewing me just a year prior. Then it was time for the one-on-one interviews. I could tell how nervous the nominees were, and for a good reason.

The Team USA Scholarship is a career-changing opportunity; it certainly was for me. I was, hopefully, able to ease the nominees’ stress and answer questions that they had. We mostly talked about what it’s like to be a Team USA Scholarship winner, and what to expect. After speaking with the nominees, I can say with confidence that Jeremy Shaw will have a hard decision to make, as usual. As the night concluded, everyone went back to their respective duties, preparing for the next day of on-track activities.

I was more confident for Saturday’s Race Two and more determined to remain where we belonged. We charged hard in the opening laps and battled our way around the twisting 2.258-mile road course. We came up a bit short but still earned our third consecutive top-five finish. Even though we were on an extremely strong run, it was eating away at me that we weren’t on the podium – yet so close at the same time. I had one more opportunity on Sunday – our third of the weekend – and once again we were out of the gate strong, holding our third position through Turns One and Two. As the race went on, though, the chances of a podium were slowly slipping away as we just didn’t quite have the pace. We ended the race in sixth, which was a little disappointing, but at the same time it was a great weekend for us, with very consistent finishes up near the front of the pack.

As we take a break before the finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, I can’t help but find myself constantly thinking about what we have accomplished this season. It has been one of the hardest fought years of my career, but being able to wear this Soul Red Mazda Scholarship suit has been such an honor. The Mazda scholarship itself is so much more than a free season of USF2000. It is an opportunity to become part of a family who will constantly go above and beyond to help you succeed. This next race weekend will be sad as it sees the conclusion of the 2016 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, but I will be working harder than anyone to get back into such a great program again in 2017. Thank you Mazda, Cooper Tires, Andersen Promotions, USF2000, Team USA Scholarship and to everyone who has made this all possible.

All the best,
Dakota

Race Report - Toronto

July found us in Toronto, Canada. This would be only my second time outside of the United States, the only other time being my trip over to the UK for the 25th anniversary of the Team USA Scholarship. The overall vibe was very similar to that of our opening weekend at the streets of St. Petersburg; it was very much a social event!

The race week kicked off for us at the Sick Kids Children Hospital where we played some games and painted (toy) racecars! It was so much fun hanging out with such wonderful kids. Thursday brought us our track walk, the first time we noticed how bumpy and different the track was compared to the year prior – or so I was told! As the sun set, I found an excuse to put on some fancy clothes and walked over to the Green Flag Gala where the likes of Conor Daly and James Hinchcliffe along with fellow USF2000 drivers Garth Rickards and Jordan Lloyd could be found. It was super fun mingling around and chatting with so many people who love this sport (thank you Alycia for setting this up for me!).

Now on to the race days. The track was extremely challenging and showed how unforgiving it was in the first practice session on Friday when three drivers smacked the wall. Luckily, no one was injured but we only got about three laps in, just enough to scrub our Cooper Tires! Practice Two went much smoother and found us in P6, continuing our momentum from Road America. We then followed that up with our best qualifying effort of the season, sixth place. It felt weird having only two rows of cars in front of me as we came to the green for Race One on Saturday but I kept my typical aggression and found myself in fourth position exiting Turn One. It was short-lived, however, as the Aussie Jordan Lloyd overtook me going into Turn Three. After some hard battling, we finished in a solid seventh position, but I felt like we still had a bit more.

That evening I had a great opportunity to take my mind off the track as I had been invited to meet with some guests from a series sponsor, Allied Building Products. It was such a relaxing and fun event full of laughs! As we were having dinner I found out that the gentlemen sitting next to me would also be throwing the green flag for our race on Sunday. I tried as hard as I could to convince him to throw the green when I gave him “the signal” but he didn’t budge… and that is what I will blame my poor start for Sunday on!

We started Race Two in sixth and exited Turn One in sixth – the first time we hadn’t gained a position coming out of the first turn all season. As the race went on we made a couple of passes and capitalized on others’ misfortune which saw us finish fourth. At one point we even had the fastest race lap! It felt so great to be near the front of the pack and the Afterburner guys had worked so hard to get us there… but now there was a strong desire to get our Mazda Soul Red car onto the podium.

Race Report - Road America

As June was coming to an end, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda took us to Road America, one of only two tracks on the schedule that I had visited before. Up until this point our season was not going as we had hoped, but we – that’s me and the entire Afterburner Autosport team – were staying positive. We just didn’t quite have the pace to run up front. We decided that we would try some big changes to see if they would make a difference. We ended up struggling with reliability throughout the weekend but we came out with 12th and 10th-place finishes and the hard charger award for both races. More importantly, we had set the sixth fastest time in Race Two.

This was the best pace we’d shown all year and it was largely due to the changes we made as a team, so I can’t thank everyone enough for that.

Another highlight of the weekend was having my old Skip Barber Racing School friends come out to watch the races. We were able to relax by the lake, grill up some burgers on the barbecue and attempt to canoe out on the lake (unsuccessfully, I might add).