Ed. Note: Danilo Estrela wasn’t sure what to expect heading into his first oval race. Neither did several of his opponents. A drivers first oval race — something that occurs quite often in the USF2000 National Championship — can be a special moment or one that ends far too quickly. In this particular case, Danilo Estrela had a good first outing and narrowly missed a podium finish. I asked him to recap the weekend in his own words. Enjoy.
First oval experience by Danilo Estrela
After a very successful two days of testing at Mid-Ohio it was time for my first oval experience, I was quite worried because any small change you make to your driving style, typically makes a huge difference on an oval. Plus we would be going about 115 miles per hour on the corners with no run-off areas. That means no mistakes at all.
On the test day the entire Belardi Auto Racing team was excited for the oval. I took my time to learn Lucas Oil Raceway, focusing on being smooth, and after the last session we were second quickest. I learned what I needed to do in order to do well: be really smooth with my input into the car and don`t guess. On the oval I had to be 100% sure the feedback I was giving Bob Knox (my engineer) was accurate. A driver has to know how they are taking each corner. You need to know exactly what you are doing.
Finally the big week arrived, I arrived in Indianapolis very early on Tuesday so I could attend all the seminars and events that the Mazda Road to Indy had for all the drivers (Just a special thanks here to MazdaSPEED and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship – they put together a great program this year on-and-off track). On Thursday I went to the track after my seminar and it was all ready for Friday. I headed to the hotel for dinner and went to bed early …no parties before race weekend!
Friday was a good day. In the first session we were third quickest. Unfortunately we couldn’t participate in the second and most of the third session due to an electrical problem. Thumbs-up to the Belardi crew – Rotor, Marc, Eric, Kyle, Chuck and Joe – who fixed the problem. On Saturday we were in the top-five during the first session, but I had a little bit of oversteer which led us back to the initial set-up for qualifying.
Qualifying didn’t go as well as planned. I was P8 and not happy with the result, but my spotter Stefan Wilson kept telling me that we had a good car for night racing and would be strong for the race. His advice and confidence helped to cheer me up. After qualifying we had driver introductions. The stands at the track were packed with spectators, so it was a very, very, good time! The next thing I knew, I was strapped into the car listening to the National Anthem and ready to go.
During the start I gained three spots, moving to fifth. On the second lap, I made a move on Wyatt [Gooden] and advanced to fourth place. Garett [Grist] was behind me and we stayed that way for most of the race. After lap 50 I began making more mistakes and Garett passed me. His car was really strong at the end of the race. By lap 63, I believe, I was able to overtake Scott Hargrove which put me in fourth place again. This is where I would finish.
Overall I was happy but disappointed as well; I really wanted a podium in this race especially after Peter Dempsey earned his fantastic Indy Lights win at the Freedom 100 for my team. I was happy my teammate Peter Portante got a podium for Belardi. Now it`s time for Toronto and I’m already preparing for this weekend. I know that first win is coming!
I didn’t have time to thank everyone who helped me because I went to watch the Indy 500: the greatest race ever (nothing in the world is like the Indianapolis 500; it was the best race I ever witnessed!). I would like to thank Brian Belardi for giving me the chance to drive for his powerhouse team and Ashley Marks who drove my teammate Daniel Burkett and I to all the Mazda Road to Indy seminars and events! See you all at the podium in Toronto!