November 2001 California Speedway, Fontana -- Round 12 CART Dayton Indy Lights Championship, 4 November 2001The weekend at Fontana was certainly, in my opinion, going to be a make or break race for me. It was really important to win my third consecutive Rookie of the Year title, secure second in the championship, and win the Bosch Speedway Challenge (this is a separate oval championship within the full twelve round championship).

Previously, I had never raced at this super speedway; I was very much looking forward to the experience. However, I had been to the track last year to watch the Indy Lights race, and it looked like great fun, but it was apparent to me that ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN!

My weekend was really enjoyable from the beginning -- I did some karting for the KTLA 5 morning news show on the Thursday, just outside the Staples center in LA. The only thing that was bad about doing this was that I had to leave my hotel, which was near the track in Fontana, at four o'clock in the morning, and I am certainly not that much of a morning person! (Is anybody?) That same day I also attended the CART media lunch at Universal Studios. At Universal Studios they also had a small kart track set up for us, that we were allowed to cause trouble on, isn't life great?!

On Friday, we were scheduled to have three half hour practice sessions. Unfortunately, the first session was cut short, to just around five minutes. Luckily, this little amount of time was enough for what the PacWest Lights team and I wanted to do, as we just had to do a systems check and then get an accurate read on how close the bottom of the car was running to the surface of the track. The circuit was unbelievable to drive around. It is certainly the biggest oval I have ever been on and, although in an Indy Lights car it is easily flat out all the way around, it is still very exciting.

After the second practice session of the day, we were second fastest and very happy with this. During the session, I ran in the draft the entire time, and we knew that our speeds in qualifying would not be with the assistance of a draft. However it was still very important to see how the car handled amongst a group of cars. Bearing in mind that all 16 cars in the Indy Lights field last year were covered by only one second, it was very, very important that my car handled well amongst other cars. It was also imperative for us to focus on the race, as 20 points are given to the winner and only one point awarded for qualifying on the pole.

In the third and final practice session of the day, we decided to run the whole session on our own in clean air, without the assistance of a draft. We ended the last session fifth quickest. We knew from our second practice session that -- with the aid of a draft -- we could pick up nearly a full second in lap time, so we were very encouraged by this. We believed we had a car that handled well amongst other cars in the draft, which would bode well for the race and was also quick enough for a shot at the pole.

On Saturday, the only track time we had was qualifying. We finished the qualifying session fifth quickest which, I have to say, I was very disappointed about. My car handled well; I just believe our package was not as strong as others in certain areas, which this track really makes apparent.

Sunday - and I thought the race was going to be very chaotic! It turned out to be very different to what I had expected. It was actually a good different! I got an excellent start and moved up to second place, from my fifth starting position. From there on out, I sat right under the rear wing of the car in front of me, about an inch from the gearbox (sometimes less) and, amazingly, because I could do this, we broke away from the rest of the field. So, there I sat, right until the last lap, where I had planned a move to overtake the leader. Unfortunately, my plan didn't come to fruition, and I didn't manage to pull the win off, and the number one Gemstar Communications / PacWest Lights car came home second. I did not drop out of the draft enough to get a sufficiently big run at the leader, and I missed a win by a mere five hundredths of a second, but by coming second I had achieved my goals that I had set myself for the weekend.

In the final year of the CART Dayton Indy Lights Championship, I won the Rookie of the Year title, finished second overall in the championship, and I also won the Bosch Speedway Challenge.

On Sunday evening, after the race, we had the awards banquet. It was a fantastic event to bring the series to a close. It was also an event which I think it would be best not to discuss here as, I'm sure if I did, certain people wouldn't remember too much anyway! (I won't mention any names, as much as you would love me to!)

Looking ahead to next year, I am currently talking to teams in different formulae. The main thing for me is to be in a competitive seat, so I can have the chance to challenge for race wins and championships. It is unbelievably hard when I do not have any finance, but I am a firm believer that if someone works hard enough and is good enough, they will pick up a competitive race seat. It just takes a little longer, particularly with the situation of motor sports right now. In the meantime, I am training hard and looking out for the best opportunity.

This is my last diary for the 2001 season, so I would like to thank you for following my rookie season in the CART Dayton Indy Lights Championship. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank everybody at the PacWest Racing Group, particularly Mr Bruce McCaw and his family, Gemstar Communications, SeePoint, Oxywater, PitFit Training; everybody at CSS Stellar Management; Jonathan Gee; Bell Helmets; A star; Sparco and Oakley.

Best wishes,
Dan

- www.danwheldon.com