For the love of the street race

Special to The Baltimore Sun

I'll never forget the first time I raced on a street course. I was very young, still racing go-karts, and we were competing in Monaco. Yes, Monaco, the famed circuit through the streets that is Formula One's most famous race every year.

But since we were only kids racing karts, our barriers were hay bales. As the race went on and we kept pushing the limits, the bales got pushed farther and farther out to where I felt they should have been at the start of the race.

That's when I fell in love with street racing. It's an immense challenge that presents a driver with difficulties we don't see at permanent courses. You have to be precise on a street circuit. You can't make mistakes. And, in our case this weekend at the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix, there are no hay bales. There are only hard, unforgiving concrete barriers.

From what I've seen of it so far, the Baltimore circuit appears to be well planned. It's got proper elements of the best street courses, with long straights, chicanes, a mix of sweeping high-speed corners, 90-degree turns and tight hairpins. All of the drivers are enthused about racing here.

So what it is about street racing that I find so interesting? First, the course is always changing, even during the race itself. When we first go out for practice on Friday, the track will be green, meaning it won't have any rubber from our tires built up through the turns. That accumulated rubber helps our cars grip the surface and turn faster.

By the time we race on Sunday, depending on the weather conditions, the rubber may have built up to the point that it's greasy and slick. Add to that all the elements of city streets -- uneven pavement, bumps, manhole covers, changing types of surfaces, you name it -- and a street race becomes extremely challenging to those of us behind the wheel.

Beyond that, though, street circuits are unforgivable. Unlike a road course, where we have plenty of runoff and sand traps if we go off course, there are few areas on a street circuit where we can save ourselves. A mistake usually means the wall, which means the end of the race.

There are other differences, too. We can't see around corners like we can on road courses. Almost every turn, because of the walls, is blind. Imagine trying to pull that off: Racing hard, bouncing through bumpy streets, not quite sure what's around the next turn -- all while trying to pay attention to the cars around you and listening to and responding to someone talking in your ear. It's tremendously difficult, but that's also why I love it.

It's also why I felt such a sense of accomplishment when I won the Long Beach Grand Prix in April. It was a tough race, but my guys with Andretti Autosport kept at it and we prevailed. I don't know why street courses suit my driving style, but they do. You have to put it on the edge to win on a street course, and I enjoy that aspect of it.

So when you see the black-and-gold No. 27 Buffalo Wild Wings car roar past you this weekend, imagine yourself behind the wheel. Picture how difficult it is, how busy it is, and how exciting it is.

Then you'll know precisely why I love it so much.

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