By A.J. Foyt
Close calls. Surviving them made the difference for Vitor Meira and my ABC Supply team. We pulled out another top-10 finish this past weekend at the Long Beach Grand Prix. The race could have gone better but considering everything that happened, I left satisfied.
Qualifying went okay—we started 13th which isn’t so bad when you look at the past Long Beach experience of the teams and/or the drivers that Vitor went up against. We’ve improved in qualifying on the street courses but the competition is even stronger this year. We’re still looking to break into the top 12.
The dreaded double file restarts never really came off this weekend because the cars had to go so slow through the hairpin leading onto the main straight -- they didn’t have time to bunch up before the green was thrown. The benefit was that there wasn’t a pileup in the first turn because everyone except the first two rows came across single file. However, there was one accident in Turn One late in the race involving powerful teammates but that had more to do with brake fade—or brain fade of one guy. I bet his owner wasn’t too pleased—I’d be damn mad.
Getting back to our race, Vitor was running where he started—right behind 12th qualifier Ryan Briscoe, who pitted early using a slightly different fuel strategy. It worked for Briscoe because of the full course yellow that came out four laps later. We pitted with everyone else on that caution; the ABC Supply crew did their stuff in 7.1 seconds. But Vitor had to wait to leave his pitbox because neighbor J.R. Hildebrand was entering his box at the same time. However, that half second might have made the difference in our luck.
As Vitor sped down pitlane, Graham Rahal shot out of his pitbox straight into the fast lane – against the rules if you get caught. He banged wheels with Vitor, shooting him into the fence. Rahal veered into Servia’s pitbox but continued on. Lucky for us, it didn’t do any race-ending damage to the 14 car because they hit wheel to wheel.
But that wasn’t the end of it. On Vitor’s next stop, we had a problem which turned it into a nine second-plus stop. It also hurt that the tires went away so much at the end of the stint—like a second and a half a lap! So when he left the pits he got in front of Danica but couldn’t stay in front of her since he was on cold tires and she wasn’t.
He dropped from 10th to 14th from the combination of slow stop and losing so much time on worn tires. The thinking was (yes we did think about this) that if he had problems on the blacks at the end of the stint, he’d have worse problems with the reds which is what we were putting on. It seemed the lesser of two evils but the way the race played out, not so sure.
Vitor avoided another accident when Oriol Servia came blasting out into his path after doing a 360 in the runoff area in turn one. Servia was caught the first turn accident involving Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon. If Vitor hadn’t braked hard and downshifted, Servia would have crashed into him. Because the accident was with the leaders, we moved from 14th to ninth.
But it wasn’t over yet! Vitor had yet another close call to deal with in the 20 laps remaining.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, who was running second, had a problem with his gearbox a few laps later. As he dropped back through the field, he was staying low and cars were going around him. Vitor was outside him when Hunter-Reay went back in the groove and nearly put Vitor in the wall. Vitor thinks Ryan was still trying to figure out what was wrong with his gear selector and didn’t see Vitor outside him but it was a very close call for the 14 again! Vitor lost positions to Tony Kanaan and Raphael Matos but he was able to pass Matos back for ninth. He spent the final six laps holding off Power who came back from 16th to finish 10th.
So considering everything that went wrong, Vitor showed some heads-up driving to bring the ABC Supply car home in one piece and score another top 10 finish. He also stayed 10th in the IZOD IndyCar Series point standings.
We head to Brazil after the Easter weekend to Vitor’s home country. If we stay ahead on the close calls count, Vitor may just surprise people like he did last year in Brazil when he finished on the podium.
Surprise to everyone but me, that is.