After getting the car back from Atlanta, I did the maintenance on it and checked everything over. Luckily, I didn’t find any issues, so I spent the couple of weeks leading up to Florida finishing up minor details. I didn’t change the setup of the car much except for adding some more front camber and taking out a bit of rear toe.
I flew in to West Palm Beach on Wednesday and hung out until Thursday’s practice session. The track configuration was basically the reverse of what was used the previous year. With my car, it was a fourth gear clutch kick entry into a right turn, transition to the left and hit an outside clipping zone, downshift to third, hit an inside clip, then finally a right turn with another inside clip. By far, the main focus of the course was the entry and hitting the outer clipping zone. The track was risky due to the fast entry and lack of run-off room after the outer zone. I drove safe on Thursday and just tried to find some reference points to be able to nail the first turn and outer zone. We left the car alone except for gradually lowering the tire pressures as I got more comfortable with the course.
On Friday, we had one more hour of practice before qualifying. I stepped it up a bit in this session and tested holding the throttle longer in the first turn and getting closer to the outer zone. I would be the first driver to qualify, same as in Atlanta, since I was still last in the standings. My first run was too conservative, which resulted in a score of 52. There was a big separation in scores, much more than Atlanta, but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get in top 32 with the first run. On the second run, obviously I knew I had to push harder, but I couldn’t afford a spinout. It was a much more aggressive run than the first, and my line was near perfect. I knew it was a good run right after I finished, but I scored even higher than what I expected with a 91. That put me in second place. In top 32, I would be going against Ken Gushi, the 31st place qualifier.
There was a one hour practice session on Friday night for the top 32 drivers. I followed on almost every run to get a feel for people’s speeds and lines, but I kept it safe as it was tough to spot my reference points at times with the track lights on and smoke everywhere. Overall, I felt pretty comfortable with the track and fast enough to stay with the majority of the competition.
On Saturday, we had one more hour of practice, but I only got a few runs due to track delays. After a couple hours of waiting, it was time for my Top 32 battle with Gushi. I led first and did a pretty solid run with no mistakes. My mechanic/spotter, Kareem, texted me on the way back to grid that Ken ran close and clean, so I knew I had to be on him to win or get a one-more-time.
I spoke to Ken before Top 32, and he agreed to pace me to the pace cone and give me a jump on the start to make sure I could keep up with him. I didn’t get to run with him in practice, so I had no idea how our cars compared in terms of acceleration. I left the line on the 5th light on the tree, shifted to third, passed the pace cone, and I still couldn’t see Ken closing in the mirror. I thought I jumped the start too much, so I lifted off the throttle to let him catch up. He still wasn’t closing and I was thinking maybe I should stop and they would restart it since I couldn’t get up to normal initiation speed waiting for him that long. Right at that point, he got on it and blew by me about 3/4 of the way down the straightaway and got a huge lead.
I should have just stopped at that point and hoped for a restart, but I didn’t make the decision in time and ended up doing the run trying to catch him the whole time. I was disappointed because I didn’t even have a chance to try to follow. The run was basically over when he passed me. I’m not trying to blame Ken for it. I may have just jumped the start too much or maybe he didn’t get a good start for some reason, which allowed me to get too far ahead.
Overall, it was still a pretty good weekend. I qualified for the first time and learned a lot throughout the weekend. The car is in good shape, and the next round is close to home.