Character building. That partly sums up the June 12-14 race weekend in Toronto for all of us.
For Kyle Connery, racing the #91 Hi-Tide/SeaRock Pro Mazda, it meant overcoming an unhappy 15th place qualification result on Friday. It meant dealing with difficult changing weather conditions. It meant avoiding the carnage of a first-lap 6-car wreck on the first lap of Race 1 on Saturday. It meant hanging on with ZERO visibility in Turn 3 of Race 2 on Sunday…..settling down and picking off cars.
For us, character building meant 3700 miles of the new experience of towing a small 18-ft travel trailer. And camping. In rain. In temperatures plummeting below 70 degrees. (We live in Florida, ya know!) It meant 3 of us learning to dance around each other living with less floor space than in our bathroom at home. And mud. This stuff was everywhere! Being a boat guy the only mud you normally have to deal with is on the anchor…..which has a convenient ocean in which to rinse it.
The goal of the trip was to get to the Toronto IndyCar Grand Prix, with everything else on the way up and the way back being catch-as-catch-can experiences. We immediately went to Plan B on the way north when awful weather conditions on the East Coast led us to go inland and up through Georgia, Tennessee, Ohio, etc. So the trip basically became Florida, hook around the north shore of Lake Ontario, and return! Not a drop of saltwater in 3700 miles.
All we heard about Toronto was about the horrible traffic. From everyone. And it’s true. But we snagged VIP parking passes for the parking garage right at the race course, and we left early from the campground (Rouge Hill, near the Toronto Zoo) and beat traffic downtown. The traffic IS bad……but seems very polite. (Remember, we live in Florida!) And there is an advantage in heavy traffic downtown for us visitors in that we get to go really slow and better see the sights. And it is a very cool downtown. We could take the train, trams, taxis and ferries to get everywhere we needed, which beat walking during the heavy periods of rain. (Again, we live in Florida so the concept of friendly, clean, convenient mass transit is a bit foreign. But hey, we were in Canada……and to us, that’s foreign, eh?).
So, take a cool downtown on the edge of Lake Ontario, and then plunk a serious race course down at lakeside and the exposition place……and you have one amazing annual event. (St. Pete in Florida is similar but not quite on the same scale.) The drivers seem to love the race course, calling it a “road course” plunked down into a street setting. The turns are more open than St. Pete, with a few more runoff areas, and there are more open zones with passing possibilities. It’s bumpy as all get-out with difficult transitions between asphalt and concrete. But everyone seems to love racing here for the track and the wonderful hosting by the people of Toronto.
On & off rain was a major feature of the weekend, and if it wasn’t raining you still had lots of puddles to deal with ……whether you were walking around or driving a race car at 160 mph. I am glad I was walking.
There were two particular standouts for me in walking around in the rain in Toronto. The first was, no beer lines! Instead, attractive though drenched young ladies brought trays of a variety of beer right to ya! The second was……POUTINE. We knew about this Canadian comfort food from our time living in South Florida……the very best soft serve ice cream we’ve ever had was at Dairy Belle in Dania Beach. Super smooth, rich and creamy. The best!! Dairy Belle is a French-Canadian hangout, and the Quebecois (folks from Quebec) flock there for their poutine. Ready for it??? French fries with fresh cheese curd covered in brown gravy. We had always said we would go there and try it but never got around to it. Well, when in Rome……! It’s pretty good actually, and it certainly hit the spot in the cold pouring rain . Good stuff, eh?
Back to the races. Kyle and his #91 Hi-Tide car started 15th of 18 Pro Mazda cars. BANG….mayhem on the first lap with 6 cars crashing out. Kyle slipped through there, got down to business and had some of the fastest lap times, and ended up picking off a few cars to gain a solid 6th place finish. Then on Sunday, again starting 15th, he learned to stay out of the blinding rooster tails of the cars in front, really went fast, and finished 10th. Two top ten finishes!
These ladder series (USF2000, Pro Mazda, Indy Lights) are driver development series that teach the young drivers what they need to do to be successful race car drivers. And success here can lead to a seat in an IndyCar. This weekend in Toronto was indeed character building particularly with the adverse weather and driving conditions. Kyle gained confidence. And the JDC Motorsports crew resolved a pesky bug in the car that had been affecting shifting and acceleration. Character building indeed! Thank you, adversity! Eh??
Breast? Wings? Thighs? Hey…..I’m looking at the big chicken!!!
Next up on the Pro Mazda race calendar is Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham, Alabama. This is a “European-style” road course, and the Pro Mazda drivers all sound excited about going there. This year’s batch of drivers includes a handful of Americans and Canadians, plus drivers from France, Great Britain, Mexico, Italy, Malaysia and Uruguay. Best wishes to Kyle Connery, the JDC Motorsports team, and the #91 Hi-Tide Boat Lifts/Sea Rock Concrete Pro Mazda!
We’ll pay close attention to how all the intricate pieces of preparation and teamwork fit together to garner great results, consider how these lessons can apply to our daily lives, and figure out what taking life one “great corner” at a time looks like too, as we look forward to hearing more wisdom from Dr. Jacques Dallaire.
I will be back in St. Pete in mid-May to help support a 3-day West Marine sales event and am really looking forward to going back, maybe without splurging at the Renaissance Vinoy this time – it is supposed to be a work weekend, after all. Though I may not be splurging this time, I urge everyone to enjoy a fun St. Pete getaway weekend, including the Vinoy. What a great hotel, great location, great food & drink choices, and most of all, a great boating town!
Race 2’s crisp Sunday morning saw Kyle, again, starting well back from the front. On the first lap, a handful of cars banged around and we held our collective breath as we watched the monitors to see who would emerge unscathed. The JDC crew saw it first, and headed for the tires and parts cart to get new carbon fiber nosepieces for Rauol (#19) and Parker (#26). However, Kyle’s Hi-Tide car got through the mess and reemerged in 5th place! While the crew rushed to repair the other two cars, Kyle held off challenges from Canadian Garett Grist, opened up some distance, stayed off the walls and brought it home in a solid 5th place position. He finished the opening weekend 6th out of 17 in the standings.
“Keep it off the wall! Bring it home in one piece!” I think we’ll be hearing this advice a lot during this first season for the #91 Hi-Tide Boat Lifts Pro Mazda, from the stable of JDC Motorsports in Minnesota. It was particularly appropriate during the first races of the season at St. Petersburg, Florida’s street circuit. This circuit is totally enclosed in concrete barriers, meaning there is nowhere to go but into a wall should you make even the slightest of errors.
The St. Petersburg Grand Prix (April 11-12) was the first race of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season. The weekend excitement included the supporting open wheel classes of the “Road To Indy” series: F2000, Pro Mazda, and Indy Lights. The street circuit winds along the waterfront and downtown, bordering the adjacent Albert Whitted Airport. Progress Energy Park (Al Lang Field), the spring training home to the Tampa Bay Rays, was onsite and is one of the best places in the world to watch spring training baseball. The backdrop of the stadium, downtown, and the Grand Prix is Tampa Bay.
Our HQ was a bit of a splurge, to be honest. The Renaissance Vinoy is a large, pink Mediterranean Revival hotel that has been a feature of the St. Pete waterfront since Aymer Vinoy Laughner built it in 1925. At its beginning, The Renaissance Vinoy served as the centerpiece of St. Pete’s social scene and as a winter destination for celebrities and the wealthy. During WW2, it served as housing and training base for over 100,000 military bakers and cooks. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the hotel began to decline, largely due to their resistance to installing air conditioning, which caused guests to seek cooler alternatives. In 1974, the then-dilapidated Vinoy closed.
A voter referendum in 1984 saved the Vinoy from destruction, and it sat empty until 1990 when extensive reconstruction began. Reopening in 1992, it was a Stouffer hotel and then became part of the Renaissance Group when they purchased Stouffer. Continued makeovers since then keep enhancing this beautiful, historic structure, which was named a Historic Hotel of America by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Once again, the Vinoy stands prominently within the local social scene and as destination for celebrities and people of wealth and taste.
Both celebrities and the wealthy may have been at the races that weekend, but who truly attended in abundance were the race fans. In spectacularly sunny and cool weather, we relished the 10-minute walk to the race circuit, which led us along the waterfront past Straub Park, the St. Petersburg Yacht Club and Pioneer Park. The alternative walking paths to the circuit were equally attractive, taking fans along Beach Drive or 1st Street with a multitude of choices of restaurants and outdoor cafes. We certainly had a wonderful dinner along that stretch, seated near a large propane heater to take the edge off the evening chill. And let’s not forget about the post-race drinks we enjoyed while lounging at the Vinoy’s outdoor promenade bar.
St. Pete has noticeably wide avenues and boulevards and the traffic, even on this busy race weekend, was gentle. It’s a great downtown for walking around, with a great selection of restaurants near the waterfront area and off of Central Avenue, 2nd St, 3rd St, etc.
But, back to the race circuit and those concrete walls; JDC driver Kyle Connery (#91 Hi-Tide Pro Mazda) explained that racers are obviously aware, all the time, of those looming walls and the consequences of making a mistake on street courses like this — particularly when compared to upcoming road courses at New Orleans (NOLA) and Birmingham (Barber) that have sweeping, grassy margins you can spin or slide into. However, you won’t be fast if you keep thinking about those walls. Fellow JDC driver, Michael Johnson (#54), hit the wall on Turn 3 in the opening practice session on March 27, was taken to the hospital, but was still made it to race weekend. How do you not think about those walls?
Kyle started from 12th position in Race 1 on Saturday, then worked to 10th, getting bumped in the right rear wheel, which affected the car’s handling. Sometimes keeping it off the wall and bringing it home in one piece is the best you can do.
We went to the Pro Mazda paddock after the race to watch the JDC Motorsports team take the cars apart for cleaning in preparation of Sunday’s Race 2. It is quite an effort, a team effort, to support Kyle’s #91 and the other JDC Pro Mazda cars of Raoul Owens (#19) and Parker Nicklin (#26). While there, we met Dr. Jacques Dallaire, a well-known performance expert based in Charlotte, North Carolina who is Kyle’s performance coach. What an extraordinary conversation we had with this gentleman, who has had an amazing 40-year career working with high-performance athletes and others in high-risk careers, including many drivers and crews in the motorsports world.
Dr. Dallaire discussed the fact that the human mind cannot really process more than one thought at a time. If you are thinking about those walls, you simply cannot think about winning the race. It becomes your dominant thought, and it steers your emotions and your behaviors due to those emotions, and thus, your ability to perform.
A racecar driver wishes for a great season. To have a great season, they need to have a string of great races. To have a great race, they have to drive a series of great corners. So, having a great season boils down to one, simple fact: they must drive great corners, over and over again. Their dominant thought must be about the next corner, not the walls. And at St. Pete, with so few possible passing zones, your qualifying position goes a long way toward determining success in the race. It all boils down to great corners.