FONTANA, Calif.—Greetings from SoCal! I promise you I’m not here on some sort of extended break from the Verizon IndyCar Series. No, I’m here for our oval race on Saturday, the MAVTV 500. If you can’t be here, at beautiful Auto Club Speedway, then tune us in on NBCSN at 4 p.m. Eastern (or 1 p.m. Pacific). It’s going to be a hot one—and I’m not just talking about the action at the track!
The forecast for Saturday calls for 91 degrees with 31 percent humidity. When we get out on the grid just after noon the sun is going to be high in the sky and blazing. I mean, we’re going to be wishing for some of that rain and cloud cover we saw in Detroit and Toronto earlier in the season. If you thought those roads were slick, wait until you get a load of what all these drought-like conditions do to this track.
Fontana was already a tricky place to get a handle on the Automobile of Southern California Chevrolet, just because the degree of traction is about even from the apron to the wall. (Or, put another way, no one lane is faster than the other). The added heat, however, figures to make the track really slippery, even with the most downforce. Goodness knows we’ll have enough of it at our disposal.
This week, the Verizon IndyCar Series said we were free to adjust the rear wings of our cars in a way that allows us to wring out significant, additional downforce. This video from Indy can give you a rough idea of what that’s worth.
The extra aero allowance is to compensate for the forecast and withering on-track temperatures. Basically, we’re gonna be sweating our butts off out here. The good news is that it won’t be nearly as hot tomorrow as it is for today’s practice and qualifying sessions, where we could see the ambient temps shoot up to 97 degrees. Staying hydrated will be key—not just for me, but you fans coming out to the track too!
I could complain about the weather, but the truth is I’m really excited to be back at the office after a week off from racing. How did I spend my summer vacation? It was pretty uneventful outside of a day trip I took to Panama City, Panama. It was my first ever time going there. Technically, the trip was for business—the Latino Auto Parts Expo—but it wasn’t too taxing. The flight from my home base in South Beach is just 2½ hours, and the event itself was great. Hitachi, one of my primary sponsors, was there and so were plenty of fans—and I was happy to sign autographs for them. Then before I knew it, my stay was over, I was on a plane and back home. The next morning, I was into my normal exercise routine. It was perfect.
While I stayed active (but not busy), my No. 3 Chevy team members were able to get some richly deserved rest. Those guys have been working their butts off all year. A lot of other teams might have been tempted to throttle down their intensity a couple a weeks ago at the Toronto race, with a long stretch of downtime just over the horizon. But these guys? They stepped it up and won the Pit Stop Performance challenge! They’re amazing!
The victory marked our second in the last four races—and fourth overall—in that competition, which measures total time on pit road during each race. Only after getting me through the race, which I finished third (more on that in a sec), did they finally downshift their priorities a bit and take some time off to see their families and relax. That’s just how they are—super professional. And now that they’ve had a little time to recharge their batteries, they’re right back to business. In fact, the only thing we didn’t scratch off our To-Do list before clearing out was picking up our $10,000 first-prize check. We’ll take care of that during Saturday’s pre-race festivities.
O.K. Back to the Toronto race. Obviously, it wasn’t the result that I wanted—that I ever want. But I’ll take third place. Not only did we overcome a lot of challenges with the rainy conditions (which spoiled what should’ve been a much stronger qualifying session) and the untimely yellows (I told you they were coming!), but we finished ahead of the only three guys ahead of me in the points: Juan Pablo Montoya, Will Power and Scott Dixon. In fact, I’m just seven points behind Dixon. Don’t look now, guys, but I’m gaining on you.
I think we have a good chance to close that gap even more at Fontana. I know I can be fast here; no one’s sat on the pole here more than three times I’ve done it—in 2003, ’04 and again just last year. I know I can be consistent here, too; in six of my last seven starts, the lowest I finished was ninth. I just have to win.
I was in good position to do just that last August, when we closed out the 2014 season in a Fontana night race (photo above). But on my way out of the pits, I dove into the warm-up lane too fast and my car slid above the commitment line—an error that cost me a drive-through penalty. That effectively was how I wound up finishing 14th in that race and second overall—again—in the series championship. As much as I regret the error, I had to take the chance. Fontana was the last race of the season, so you’re taking every risk you can (within reason) to come out on top.
With this Saturday’s race at Fontana not being the last one of the season, there’s not as much pressure to go for broke. But there is a sense of urgency. Since missing an opportunity to raise the BorgWarner trophy at the Brickyard in May, we’ve had to adjust our team goals. From here on out, it’s this: to win as many races as possible and deliver the Verizon IndyCar Series championship to Roger Penske.
There are just six races left on the schedule—which means, for us, hunting season is officially open. I hope you brought your sun block. This thing is only just starting to heat up.
Helio Castroneves is the only man in history to have won the Indy 500 three times and Dancing with the Stars at least once. Check out his website, www.heliocastroneves.com, and follow him on Twitter, @h3lio.