Conclusion

Where did the time go?  It’s difficult to comprehend how the swiftness with which the last three weeks have passed.

It’s hard to believe that yet another Indy 500 has come and gone.  It’s even harder to believe that the Fan Force United team was able to be a part of it.  As of May 1st, our plan for the month of May was to run Armaan Ebrahim and Emerson Newton-John in the Freedom 100, and to join the masses in watching the Indy 500 from the stands.  The Indianapolis 500 was certainly on the radar screen, as it is the goal on which sights are set, but not for this year.  My what a dramatic turn in the team’s fortune.  A conversation that led to a phone call, which led to an email and another phone call, which ultimately led to the little Fan Force United team making the big leap to the big cars to prepare and run a car for the legendary Jean Alesi, forever changed the complexion of this racing team and its principals.  Things can never again be the same.  The Indianapolis 500 has been tasted.  It’s glory has been sampled.  Indy has now entered the metaphorical bloodstream of the Fan Force United team, and once Indy is in the blood, it creates a condition that can never be reversed – not that we would have it any other way.

In the moments following the end of our race, in a time that was naturally accompanied by disappointment, and in which it would have been quite simple to be overtaken by frustration or anger, team co-owner Tyce Carlson offered his thoughts that remind us all of the journey just taken, saying “We’re very appreciative of what Lotus, FP Journe, and the IndyCar Series allowed us to do.  Going into the month, we had plans to run the Freedom 100, so to get the opportunity to not only participate in the Indy 500, but to be what felt like a big part of the story this year, and to actually grid a car for the Indy 500, put us at least a year ahead of what we had planned.  Now we know what it takes, and now we just need to go back to the drawing board so that we are better prepared to take full advantage of being a part of this incredible event.  We’re not going to give up on our dream of winning the Indy 500, and we’ll be back either late this year or next year for sure.”

We went in as dreamers and we exit as dreamers.  As almost all were abandoning Lotus, and as others were offering reasons why they could not put a credible effort on track for Jean Alesi given the time constraints, we raised our hands, seized upon the opportunity to join with the underdog, and said that we could do it.  We knew going in that it was unlikely that we would be able to be competitive, given the well-known limitations of our engine, but this mattered not.  Here was a chance to show what our team could do, and we did.  Here was a chance to make the most of the situation, and we did.  We acquitted ourselves quite well, as did our highly esteemed and capable driver, and no one can point to any part of team, our crew, or our effort, and suggest that we did not honor the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, that we were in over our heads, or that we did not deserve to be there.  It is always a very good thing to be able to prove that one belongs, and the general consensus of the garage area and those inside the sport is that given adequate horsepower, the Fan Force United team and Jean Alesi would have been more than competitive on race day.

We now ask our fans to turn their attention and support to our primary effort this year, which is our Indy Lights program with Armaan Ebrahim, as we continue to campaign the #24 JK Tyre machine with an eye towards what we believe to be a tremendous future with a very talented and determined driver.  As we now put the 2012 Indianapolis 500 behind us, and carry with us the memories of the great spectacle, Armaan and the team will be on track this weekend in Detroit, working hard to return to the IndyCar series and the Indy 500, and to bring another rookie to Indy in due time.

Before we wrap things up here, Tyce (Carlson), Chris (Williams), Scott (Williamson), and Jason (Peters) would like to acknowledge the tremendous effort put forth by all involved, and to individually thank each and every member of this team that was so instrumental in bringing a dream to reality and setting us on a new course that will certainly lead us back to Indy.  So to Ted Bitting, Tim Wardrop, Mike Colliver, Ian Brown, Brad Brewer, Owen Snyder, Greg Beck, Tim Shank, Joe Vallone, Tracy Hash, Dave Metcalfe, Claudio Novoa, Mike Battersby, Mike Capicek, John Hines, John Colbert, Glenn O’Connor, Robert Lynch, Steve Turner, Trevor Mitchner, and Mike Fink (that should be everyone), we say “thank you.”  To Claudio, Olivier, John, Anne, and everybody with Lotus, we say “thank you.”  To Andreas and everyone at Dallara, we say “thank you.”  To Al, Joe, and the hard-working folks at Firestone, we say “thank you.”  To the IndyCar series administration and staff, we say “thank you.”  To the IndyCar series technical staff, we say “thank you” (and we really mean it!).   To the entirety of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway organization and the Hulman-George family, we say “thank you.”  To all those that provided media coverage of our team, our story, and this great race, we say “thank you.”  To our sponsors (FP Journe, AMG-Tim Donahue, Breeden Legal-Matt Breeden, Keco Coatings, West Point Financial, and Jonathan Byrd’s), we say “thank you.”  To Jean Alesi, we offer a very heartfelt and honored “thank you.”  Finally, and most importantly, to our Fan Force, we offer our most humble and appreciative “thank you,” and we hope that we can continue to earn and honor your encouragement, your loyalty, your well-wishes, and your unwavering support.

See you at the races!

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Chapter 13

It’s Race Day!

 

The “bomb” goes off at 5:30am, signaling the beginning of the day’s festivities.  The race won’t begin for another six and a half hours, but already, at each gate, there are lines of eager racing fans ready to experience the great spectacle that is the Indianapolis 500 mile race.  The mad rush begins, as attendees enter the gates and begin sprinting through tunnels in order to stake out prime viewing spots atop the spectator mounds that ring the inside of the track’s turns.

 

At 6:00am, in the Lotus Fan Force United team garage, and most likely in the garage of every other team that is working on final race day preparations, the televisions are tuned to the GP2 race in Monaco.  We’re all race fans, after all.  We may not be able to watch any of that race, but it is the ideal background noise for a busy team.  Naturally, in the garage of the Lotus brand ambassador, there is much talk of Conor Daly’s crash in the Lotus Racing GP3 car at Monaco.  Along those same lines, we all watch the 8:00am start of the Monaco Grand Prix, where fellow Lotus-runner, Roman Grosjean, is caught up in a spin at the start, ending his race before it could even begin.  We’ll share in similar frustrations in just a few hours.

 

Much as was the case in Lotus’ Indianapolis 500 debut on Thursday, May 30 in 1963, when two of the Lotus cars took the green flag as part of the field of 33, two Lotus-powered cars will start the 96th Indianapolis 500.  On that day, Jim Clark and Dan Gurney would score 2nd and 7th place finishes in their Lotus machines.  Lotus’ re-debut in the world’s most famous race would not go nearly as well. 

 

With the teams arriving so early on race day, the multi-hour wait until the gridding of the cars and the beginning of pre-race festivities is difficult.  Jean arrives at the garage for final strategy sessions and final pre-race preparations before returning to his home away from home at the racetrack to be with family, close compatriots, and his thoughts.  Though it is widely suggested that his day in the car will be short, Jean (and the team) prepares to race the full 500 miles.   

 

Finally, the time comes to move the #64 FP Journe Watches machine to the racetrack, and to place it at its location on the starting grid.  It is an extremely warm day in Indianapolis.  The IndyCar series chaplain joins the team for a group prayer.  Experienced team members, with years of experience at Indy go about their business.  Team owners and sponsors that are experiencing the pre-race festivities at Indy from this perspective for the first time are soaking in the traditions and the flood of emotions that accompanies the realization of long-held dreams.    

 

The team’s Indy Lights driver, Armaan Ebrahim, takes in the sights and sounds, as he fully expects to be an Indy 500 starter himself in the not-too-distant future.  It is Armaan’s full-season Indy Lights program that was ultimately responsible for the Fan Force United team to be in a position to put together the 500 effort for Jean Alesi, quickly building a very good team from a vastly experienced and well-respected base.

 

This author, with emotion breaking in to his voice, leans over to tell team co-owner (and Indy 500 veteran) Tyce Carlson that it was 27 years ago that his father had first fielded a car at Indy, also realizing a dream, and that it had started from the same spot (33rd). 

 

Though the wait had been long, the pomp and the pageantry of the pre-race ceremonies flew by in a way that did not seem possible.  It now seemed that the hours before the race were nothing more than a few minutes.  The bands had marched and played, driver introductions had been made, prayers were prayed, planes had flown overhead, drivers were strapped in to their machines, songs were sung, and balloons floated skyward.  Whereas in the lead-up to the race time had practically stood still, these events seemed to pass in the blink of an eye.  Finally, a voice gave the command to start engines.

 

Goosebumps.  Chills.  Butterflies.  A nervous glance skyward.  A silent prayer.

 

It is 87 degrees when the race begins.  The track temperature is 120 degrees.  There are no clouds in the sky, and a late May Indiana sun burns down on the hundreds of thousands in attendance. 

 

The parade and pace laps are completed and the green flag flies.  You can almost hear nervous team members audibly exhale after a clean trip through turn one.  Early on, Jean picks up a position, passing Simona deSilvestro in the other Lotus-powered machine.  One of today’s goals is to be “first in class,” and Jean is on his way to doing that, at the least.  Unfortunately, Jean is not able to maintain the pace of the rest of the field, falling just outside what is known as the 105% rule, meaning that he is called in to the pits on Lap 10, just a lap or two ahead of the time when he is expected to be lapped by the race leaders.  The team makes the adjustments that are possible, preparing to return Jean to the Speedway.  That is what their driver wants.  He is a proud and intense competitor.  It is hoped that they can pick up some positions through attrition, while also allowing Jean to gain Indy experience for his hoped-for return engagement in 2013, while also gathering valuable data for the development of the Lotus engine.

 

The team is informed that they are not going to be allowed to continue in the race.  In response, there is intense lobbying to allow Jean to return to the track, indicating that to this point the #64 car has not been in anybody’s way, and that they are most assuredly here to race.  All of this, of course, was to no avail.  Initially, Jean is scored in 32nd place, thus another goal is achieved.  However, Jean is penalized for not answering the black flag in a timely manner, and is penalized two laps.  So even though his on-track performance had him at least one spot better, the penalty ends up placing him 33rd.  A bit of insult to injury, it seems.

 

Though being parked early is not entirely unexpected, it is still a significant disappointment to a team and driver that had worked so incredibly hard.  Nobody wanted to “start and park.”  That was never the plan, and nobody was here just to collect a paycheck.  This team put in nearly 900 miles of practice laps.  This team put its car and driver on the track all but one day that the track was open for practice (including two days of ROP).  This team prepared to run 500 miles and to do all that it could to best represent themselves, their partners (Lotus), and their sponsors (FP Journe Watches, Jonathan Byrd’s, AMG, Breeden Legal, West Point Financial, Keco Coatings), while honoring the sport and the event around which we order our calendars and our lives. 

 

There is a media crush in the pit once Jean is officially retired from the race.  Jean patiently speaks to television and radio reporters, exuding class and confidence in the face of what we know is monumental frustration, looking ahead to next year and speaking quite favorably of the team that has worked so very diligently for him.    

 

At the very least, even if we were slow from the outset, let it be said that from the car that many thought to be the most beautiful car at the track this year, to the team gear that so many have expressed the desire to own, we looked good doing it.

 

To be concluded…      

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What Indy means…

From the beginning, the Indianapolis 500 has been a place at which to test both man and machine.  That test extends beyond the men behind the wheel, as all that join in to accept the challenge of Indy, from the person that sweeps the garage floor, to those that fuel the car and change the tires on race day (and everybody in between), are tested by what has come to be referred to as “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing.”  Indy is what drives this sport.  Indy is why we do what we do.  Indy is its own championship, and success here overshadows success everywhere else.  Every participant will gladly exchange an IndyCar championship for an Indianapolis 500 victory and the racing immortality so conferred.  Nearly 400,000 people will fill the Speedway on race day, because they are drawn by its inescapable lure.  Choice seats are handed down from generation to generation.  It defines the city and the state that serves as its host.  The opportunity to participate, let alone win, is reason enough to experience all of the highs, the lows, and the unnerving frustrations that the Brickyard has to offer.  The Indianapolis 500 is Monaco, LeMans, and Daytona all rolled into one and then some.  Every turn is Eau Rouge.  Every lap is the final lap.  Race day at Indy is Christmas, New Year’s Day, and your birthday combined.  Indy is pageantry and tradition and speed and danger.  Throughout its history, the world’s greatest racers have come here to test themselves and to share in its mystique.  A win at Indianapolis becomes the defining moment in the career of a race car driver.  It is the race that all want to win.  It has humbled the greatest champions.  It can be soul-stirring and heart-wrenching, producing both chills and tears.  If racing was a religion, Indy would be its temple.  Indy is where heroes are born, and it is where legends never die.

Chapter 12

Carb day at the Brickyard.  The final day of practice for the Indianapolis 500.  The Lotus Fan Force United team and Jean Alesi need their #64 FP Journe Watches sponsored machine to spend as much time on the track as possible.  Alas, this was not to be. 

 

The green flag flew over the Speedway at 11am, and Jean Alesi, driving with a freshly-mounted Lotus powerplant, steered on to the circuit for an installation lap.  One lap is needed for a leak check before the team and driver get busy seeing what exactly their new and upgraded Lotus engine can muster. 

 

Checking over the rear of the car that has been effectively taken apart and re-assembled since Sunday’s qualifying run, and with everything seeming to be in order for the moment, the engine is fired and Jean is motioned out of the pit at 11:07am.  It’s time to spend the next hour running race condition laps, practicing pit stops and launches, and making crucial final preparations.  Jean’s first lap at speed was in excess of 204mph.  This does not equal the pace of the guys at the front of end of the field, to say the least, but this does generate intrigued and somewhat satisfied looks all around the Fan Force United team pit.  Jean posts a couple more laps at a similar pace, running with traffic before returning to the pit to completely fill the tank and make his first full-tank runs of the month.  It’s possible that Jean’s expectations for the new engine were a bit higher than it was able to deliver, as he expresses a lack of contentment with the power that is available to him.  Nevertheless, the team (and Jean’s fans around the world) is confident that Jean will be able to get the best from his car. 

 

Returning to the pit, Jean slides to a stop and the team performs a live pit stop.  Curiously, the brakes are smoking, which is not exactly expected.  This draws a bit of attention, and many are curious as to the source of this strange smoke.  Naturally, the brakes are hot on a hot day, but that doesn’t offer a satisfactory explanation.  Nevertheless, the tires are changed, fuel is delivered, the jack is dropped, and at 11:19am Jean again motors down the pit lane, eager to discover how his fully-fueled mount will feel around the 2.5 mile creator of legends.

 

This will prove to be Jean’s final lap on the morning, as Jean comes right back to the pit, brakes smoking again (something about a solvent that was used to clean the brakes – a minor issue that has been addressed).  There seems to be a problem at the rear of the car.  As the team inspects the back end of the racing machine, it is discovered that there is a leaky seal at the front of the gearbox.  Thankfully, it is not an issue with the engine that limits Jean’s laps.  As far as the plan for the day is concerned, this is a disaster, as it cannot be easily addressed on the pit lane, nor there is enough time to do so.  In addition, the team is forced to let the car sit and wait until the end of practice, as they are unable to move the car to the garage for the duration of the session.  This proves to the very first mechanical issue that has limited the team’s ability to run laps since the month began.  Oddly, it comes not after the 48 hours in which the car was assembled and placed on the racetrack, nor any day thereafter.  Rather, it comes after five days of careful assembly.  The racing gods do indeed have a sense of humor.  The bright side is that the problem was discovered on Carb Day rather than race day, which is always an encouraging silver lining. 

 

Though his practice time was short, Jean’s day was just getting started.  After the aborted attempt to practice, Jean turns his attention to the Indy Lights race, paying special attention to the two Fan Force United cars of Armaan Ebrahim and Emerson Newton-John.  Afterwards, Jean makes a trip to the suite of his sponsor, FP Journe Watches, which has a large contingent of retail partners in town for race weekend.  After an appearance there, Jean returns to the garage, going over details with his team while interacting with guests, signing autographs, and continuing to enjoy his maiden Indianapolis 500 experience.  At 6:00pm, Jean makes an appearance at the annual “Last Row Party,” accepting his extra prize money of 33 cents for being the 33rd and final starter in the 500 field.  He enjoys some good-natured ribbing and mild roasting, taking it all in stride with a wink and a smile.  From there he is off to the IndyCar Soiree, for a brief appearance before being whisked off to a dinner with FP Journe and his guests. 

 

The day is long and full, but not nearly as productive as had been hoped.       

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Chapter 11

It’s Thursday, the day before Carb Day.  The Lotus Fan Force United team has been working flat-out since Monday morning to get the #64 FP Journe DW12 prepared for the final day of practice.  We’ve received and installed our new Lotus engine, hopeful that it will provide Jean with just a bit more grunt for race day. 

 

This little (not-so-little) team continues to write the headlines for the month of May at Indy.  From two days before the Rookie Orientation Program, when this particular effort was announced, to opening day, and right through qualifying, the Fan Force United team, Jean Alesi, the underdog Lotus engine, and the team with a substantial amount of heart and a growing number of fans and supporters has provided Indy with its story-lines.  It is has been our intention and sincere desire to capture the passion of the dream that is Indy, fully cognizant of the fact that it is an incredible privilege to be a part of this amazing and history-laden event.  The legends of auto racing have walked the hallowed grounds of this temple of speed and sport, and we wish to honor the legacy that has been left to us and which we have been charged to carry, as both participants and fans.    

 

It is more than worth noting that the Lotus Fan Force United team comes to the Indy 500 as the only true “one-off” for this year’s race.  Yes, there are entries that are “Indy-only,” but all of those single-event entries are being fielded in association with a full-time team.  Fan Force United, with tremendous support from Lotus, and with gracious assistance from Dallara and other manufacturers, have taken on the challenge of Indy on its own, doing so along with staffing and scaling up to run an additional car in the Firestone Indy Lights’ Freedom 100 in addition to its full-time Indy Lights program.  As the executives from Lotus have told us, as they have been closely following the team’s efforts, what the team has done is nearly miraculous.  What others said that they could not do in a month, we managed in far less time, achieving each goal that we have set for ourselves along the way.  Many thought this effort would be a recipe for disaster, but all have tipped their caps to the Fan Force United group, for what has been, regardless of speed, a flawless and well-executed leap to center-stage of the world of motorsport.    

 

Of course, there are more stories than Jean and the saga of the Lotus.  Tyce Carlson, one of the principals of Fan Force United, is yet another former Indy 500 driver making the leap to Indy 500 car owner.  This has been something of a trend of late, with a number of current IndyCar team owners having driven in the 500 in the past. 

 

Fan Force United comes to Indy with three rookies.  Not only is Jean Alesi an Indianapolis 500 rookie, but both of the team’s Firestone Indy Lights drivers (Armaan Ebrahim and Emerson Newton-John) are Indy rookies as well.  Along with the fact of their rookie status, this is the first oval race for each of the three, thus further multiplying the challenge that is being well-faced by what is proving to be a very deep team.  To make things even more difficult, Jean comes to Indy more than ten years removed from single-seater competition, which is also true for Emerson Newton-John, who is attempting to revive a career that was unfortunately sidetracked a decade ago.  Armaan is making the jump to Indy Lights from slightly lower single-seater formula in Europe and Asia, leaving home and family to try his hand on the “road to Indy.”  Tagging along with Emerson for his re-introduction to the racing world is his famous aunt, Olivia Newton-John, who will be giving the command to start engines for the Freedom 100, while also serving as the grand marshall for the annual 500 Festival parade that takes place on Saturday. 

 

As the team continued its preparations this morning, word came that Jean’s fellow countryman, F1 driver Jean Eric Vergne, is wearing Jean’s helmet design for this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix, in order to honor Jean’s participation in the Indianapolis 500.  It is truly humbling for us to have so many eyes, from all around the world, cast towards our driver and this team, as “the Jean” tackles his newest and perhaps most difficult single challenge.  Working with a driver of his stature has been an incredible experience, and we sincerely hope to be able to do it again next year, as Jean has expressed interest in a return engagement at Indy, with a bit more horsepower available to his legendary right foot.  It seems as if Jean has found something of another home here, with this team and among its fans, and appears to want to be a part of its story on more than just this one occasion.  Interestingly, Jean has made a pointed statement in the last few days, expressing his admiration for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the race, and his team, saying “I have learned more in one week here than I did in my entire Formula One career.”  

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Reach us at lotusfanforceunited@gmail.com
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Chapter 10

Props to Lotus!  Why?  Since Jean Alesi took to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway circuit in his #64 FP Journe Watches DW12 on the 10th of May, he has put nearly 900 miles on his Lotus powerplant.  In and of itself, this is not remarkable; but when one takes into consideration that the team took possession of the engine after it had already seen 900 miles of track time to this point in the racing season, the fact that the engine finished this life cycle with right at 1800 miles, with no internal or mechanical issues of which to speak, is notable.  If we add that the engine ran the last 100 miles or so with the higher boost levels implemented for “Fast Friday” and qualifying, and did so problem-free, then perhaps the too-often-maligned Lotus development team deserves a little bit of a pat on the back.

 

Why mention this little engine-related tidbit now?  Well, since the close of qualifying and the planned reversion to standard boost levels for Carb Day and Race Day, along with the news that we have received and installed our new and upgraded Lotus engine, Fan Force United supporters far and wide are again asking the hopeful question of “Are you guys going to get to keep the extra boost?”  Of course, to answer this question and to offer our response, we refer the reader to chapter seven of our story.  There, it was flatly stated that “We don’t need more boost.  We just need more cowbell!”

 

“More cowbell!”  That is the rallying cry.  Formula 1 has their air horns, South African football fans have their vuvuzela horns, and Fan Force United is adopting the cowbell.

 

Now, if you are asking yourself, “What in the world do these guys mean by ‘more cowbell’?”, we refer you to the famous Saturday Night Live skit featuring Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0uvVZg4Tw4

 

We most definitely have a fever, and the prescription is “more cowbell!”  We want/need our Fan Force to come out in support of us.  How can you do that?  Just bring a cowbell with you to the Speedway this weekend.  The first 100 fans to come by our garage or to the fence area behind our pit and show us their cowbell will receive a signed Jean Alesi autograph card.  Of course, it won’t be enough to show us your cowbell.  During Friday’s practice, Indy Lights race, and the big race on Sunday, we want to hear those cowbells.  We want to know that our Fan Force is out there and pulling for us.  We want the television and radio commentators to have to talk about the overwhelming sound of cowbell. 

 

While the final IndyCar practice session is happening on Friday morning, we want to hear those cowbells whenever Jean Alesi is coming down the main straightaway.  During the Freedom 100 on Friday afternoon, show your support for Fan Force United drivers Armaan Ebrahim (black and yellow #24) and Emerson Newton John (white #42), by letting us hear those cowbells as the pack races down the front straight.  During the 500, be loud and proud with you cowbells as you support Jean Alesi, Lotus, and the underdog Fan Force United team, as we attempt to silence the naysayers. 

 

Now, we realize that not everybody is going to have a cowbell laying around their house just waiting to be picked up and brought to the Speedway.  So to assist you, we have done a bit of research.  Cowbells are available, in a variety of shapes, sizes, and prices at music stores, tractor supply, farm and feed stores, and party supply stores.  They are definitely out there.   It’s up to you to find them; and if you can’t find one, feel free to make banners and signs with the message of “more cowbell,” and join in the rallying cry.   

 

Be a part of the cowbell movement!  Show us your cowbell! 

 

If this was not realized already, Fan Force United wants to be known as the true fan’s team.  As part of that desire, and to go along with the creation of the cowbell nation, Fan Force United has unveiled the “Ride With Fan Force United” promotion.  What’s it all about? 

 

We are giving our fans three Chances to “Ride with Fan Force United” on Memorial Day Weekend.  Because our fans are the backbone of Fan Force United, we are giving you the opportunity to have your name on one of the 3 cars that we are running this weekend.  Two lucky fans will “ride” as a sponsor or either Armaan Ebrahim (#24) or Emerson Newton-John (#42) in The Freedom 100 on Friday; and one lucky fan will “ride” with Jean Alesi (# 64) in the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday.  Each winner will also receive an exclusive team hat signed by each driver. 

How do you get the chance to “ride”?  We want you to “like” us on facebook, to tag the “Ride With Fan Force United” flyer/photo, or to post a comment to the photo telling us that you want to “ride”.  The three winners will be selected and announced prior to the Freedom 100 on May 25th, 2012! 

 

Stay tuned for another fan engagement plan.  It’s going to be a great weekend!

 

Don’t forget, to
Join the Fan Force by liking us at www.facebook.com/fanforceunited

Visit our website and sign the contract at www.fanforceunited.com
Follow us on twitter @LotusFanForce & @FanForceUnited
Reach us at lotusfanforceunited@gmail.com
Share this with your friends & family and stay tuned for more of our story.    

Chapter 9

The day finally arrived for the Lotus Fan Force United team and their driver, Jean Alesi, to qualify the #64 FP Journe DW12 for the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.

 

Before we get to qualifying, it’s time for one final practice.  There is going to be precious little time to waste, so the team is prepared to hit the track at 9:00am, when the green flag flies.  Of course, this makes for an early day and a long day, while also being both beautiful and productive.  With this session, we’re going to run in cooler temperatures and on a cooler track than we have since this car first hit the track for ROP last week.

 

Jean took to the track on a set of used tires, on a sunny and slightly breezy central Indiana morning.  We expected to see a gain from our brief session on a very warm Saturday afternoon (on a very warm race circuit), with laps somewhat close to that which we had posted on Friday afternoon.  However, the first run was a bit of a disappointment, as speeds came in around 207mph, 208mph, and 209mph.  However, we can also note that Jean was losing less RPM in the turns, while also not approaching the limits of available RPM.  More speed is available, and it should come down to a simple matter of gear selection.  It’s truly amazing how much this racetrack can change from day to day and from hour to hour.  A team can go out expecting to see one thing and be surprised with something entirely different.

 

In between his first and second runs of the morning, with the second proving to be the final run of this final practice session before qualifying, the sun begins peaks over the Tower Terrace suites behind the pit lane, and begins to rapidly warm the air and the racetrack.  At 9:22am, Jean eases into gear again and begins the long drive down pit lane towards the track.  Speed expectations are dashed again, as Jean posts a lap approaching 209mph.  The team begins to wonder if it is encountering its first engine issues of the month, and they decide to return to the garage.  Examining both software and hardware, the engine techs from Lotus determine that there isn’t a problem with the powerplant, and as the Fan Force team has yet to experience a single mechanical issue in nearly 1000 miles of track time, they set to work to determine if there is another source of this seemingly strange turn in fortune.  In the garage, the team quickly discovers a simple issue with the clutch.  No worries.

 

Noon arrives and it is time to qualify.  There is a tension in the air.  Even though the team is relatively certain that they are not in danger of being bumped from the field, and even though the team is filled with veterans that have “been there, done that” so very many times, there is nervousness.  It is probably a feeling that the team is feeling on behalf of their massively experienced rookie driver, as it is always said that the four most difficult laps that a driver will ever experience is qualifying for the Indianapolis 500.

At 12:49pm, with an air temperature of 85 degrees, and a track temperature of 113 degrees, Jean Alesi commences his maiden qualifying attempt for the Greatest Spectacle In Racing.  The Lotus brand ambassador, with a worldwide following – a man that has driven for TyrrellBenettonSauberProstJordan, and Ferrari, now competes on behalf of Fan Force United (yes, an unlikely pairing).  Speaking of that very team, at the end of the day, when his position was set, Jean had this to say: “This team has worked so hard, and everybody knows the limitations that have been placed on them by our equipment.  We have made the most of our situation and I am quite happy with everything that they have done for me.  I can tell you that next Sunday night, when it is all over and it is time to leave, that I am going to be very sad, because these guys have become like family to me very quickly.  I have not always been able to experience that in my career, and it has been quite nice.”  It could almost go without saying that the team shares in this sentiment, and would offer a very hearty ditto to their celebrated pilot.

The qualifying run is uneventful.  Jean warms up, takes the green, posts four laps (with each lap faster than the one before it), and ends with a four lap speed average of 210.094mph.  He is the 31st qualifier, but ultimately this will place him 33rd of 33 on the starting grid.  Jean will be in the catbird seat, riding shotgun on the field.

Obviously this is Jean’s first qualifying attempt at Indy.  This is the Fan Force United team’s first qualifying attempt at Indy.  This is the first qualifying attempt at Indy for team sponsors FP Journe Watches, AMG (Automotive Management Group), and Breeden Legal.  As a bit of a fun fact, this is the 19th driver to post a qualification attempt at Indy while carrying the logo of team sponsor Jonathan Byrd’s.

Some may be wondering why the significant drop-off in speed between Friday afternoon practice and qualifying.  On Friday, Jean had pushed the car to a mid-213mph non-towed lap.  This led the team to believe that a lap in the 214’s (maybe even 215mph with enough trimming) was a possibility.  However, during Jean’s qualifying run, the highest lap speed mustered was more than 3mph off that high.  So what gives?  Did the higher temperatures, both air and track, have that much of an impact?  Naturally, the answer to that question is yes, but that would not account for the totality of the drop-off.

At the same time, while Jean’s qualifying speed dropped off, the morning practice and qualifying speed of his fellow Lotus-runner, Simona deSilvestro of the HVM Racing team, jumped up to its highest level.  Until today, Jean had regularly been faster than Simona.  Clearly, something had changed.  The explanation of the entire situation is quite simple, in that Simona’s team was delivered a fresh and updated (within parameters of the rules, prior to the mid-June major update window) Lotus engine, which Lotus believed made extra horsepower and would also make a noticeable difference on track.  This proved to be the case.  Part of the team’s goal in qualifying was to at least be “first in class,” and to be the faster of the two Lotus teams, as they had been all week.  With this now out of reach, the team decided to go ahead and exercise a bit of discretion and restraint, de-trimming the car a bit to something closer to the race set-up, and asking their driver to put in four solid laps without taking any unnecessary risks.  That is what he did.  Though this made for something of a disappointment in relation to qualifying and starting position, especially as this was the first goal the team would fail to reach in its short yet eventful journey, but the good and exciting news is that Lotus informed the team that they would have an engine of the same specifications as that of Simona delivered to them for the race.  A bit more power is always good news indeed, especially at Indianapolis.

Speaking to his qualifying experience, Jean would say “It is a big relief for me to finally get into this race. I have wanted to do this race ever since I was young. I was always watching the 500, and as I progressed in my career, I would tell people that someday I would like to race in that race.  People would laugh at me.  When I decided to do the Indy 500, I talked with my father and my brother. I am close with my family, and we talk all the time, and together, we agreed that I could do it.  So, since that time of making the decision, I have watched many Indy races on TV and recordings of Indianapolis races. I knew who all drivers were, who the announcers were, and, I trained very hard for many months to prepare.  I put a lot of effort to get ready for this.  Of course, I am disappointed because I do not have the car I thought I would have, but it was all we could get, and we took it.  I keep it inside of me. It’s frustrating to not have the same speed as the others.  I am a professional, I have passion inside of me.  I want to do the maximum that I can, with the car that I have.”

Though he is not content with the speed that has accompanied his introduction to Indianapolis, Alesi is gaining respect – respect for the racetrack and respect from officials, fans, and competitors alike.  With every lap turned, Jean gains new fans, as in the face of long odds, the indomitable spirit and never quit attitude that so endeared him to the Formula 1 faithful, is also winning over the most seasoned of Indy 500 diehards.  The result has been to cast Alesi and his Lotus Fan Force United team as something of the month’s beloved underdogs, and as the topsy-turvy, feel-good story of the 96th Indianapolis 500.

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