Laguna tactics simple for Rossi: “We have to win”

He made a declaration a few months ago and repeated it Wednesday during a media teleconference. “You can’t win this championship with only two wins,” said Alexander Rossi, whose two victories have him 41 points behind four-time winner Josef Newgarden going into the season finale Sept. 22 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. “We have to win the race.”

Sitting third in the NTT IndyCar Series standings, Rossi enters the 17th race of 2019 in similar circumstances to a year ago, when he trailed eventual champ Scott Dixon by 29 points. In that finale, Dixie finished second to clinch his fifth title while Rossi was sixth and uncharacteristically uncompetitive on a road course.

“Throughout that weekend we didn’t have the pace to win,” he recalled. “We’re going into next weekend with a lot of unknowns since most drivers haven’t raced at Laguna before and the test we had in February was fairly inconclusive due to weather. So it’s pretty much a blank slate for everyone and that’s exciting, because it rewards the teams and drivers that come to grips with everything the quickest. It will probably reward them with a championship.”

The 27-year-old Californian, who first fell for auto racing by watching CART at Laguna in the late ’90s, has had a good season in his NAPA Auto Parts Honda with wins at Long Beach and Road America, a trio of runner-up finishes and one third place. But Newgarden owns four wins, a pair of seconds, a third and three fourths in addition to leading the most laps (490) in his Penske Chevy.

Still, Laguna pays double points so 41 isn’t insurmountable.

“I think it’s been a generally good season but the No. 2 car (Newgarden) has had a slightly better season, “ continued the 2016 Indy 500 winner. “I think we’ve made a lot of improvements in some areas where we struggled last year and we’ve had some bad luck in the second half that cost us dearly.

“But we’ve got some semblance of an opportunity, I guess, at Laguna. We’re definitely going to need to have things come our way a little bit. But I’ve got the same mindset I’ve had all year: show up and win. If I can do that I can be pretty content.”

Smitten with the sounds and smells of CART cars when he was aged 3-10, Rossi began his career at the Skip Barber School at Laguna and has logged many laps at the scenic, historic 2.25-mile track that hasn’t hosted IndyCar in 15 years.

“I cut my teeth there,” he continued. “And I have a lot of laps there — although they’re pretty incomparable to what I’ll be driving in two weeks.”

Rossi figures passing will be at a premium and qualifying up front is paramount.

“I’ve got no idea about passing zones — it’s a very low-grip surface, one of those tracks you’ll see cars sliding around a lot and guys working the wheel. It’s pretty tricky,” said the two-time pole winner this season.

“The championship could very well be decided in qualifying. It’s no secret that we’re expecting it to be challenging to pass just because of its history. You’re going to have to be perfect and nail it through all three rounds. The guy that’s on the pole, if he’s one of the guys in the championship fight, it’s going to make his job to win the thing a whole lot easier.”

 

Robin Miller’s Mailbag for September 11, presented by Honda Racing / HPD

Welcome to the Robin Miller Mailbag presented by Honda Racing / HPD. You can follow the Santa Clarita, California-based company at: hpd.honda.com and on social media at @HondaRacing_HPD and https://www.facebook.com/HondaRacingHPD.

Your questions for Robin should be sent to millersmailbag@racer.com. We cannot guarantee we’ll publish all your questions and answers, but Robin will reply to you. And if you have a question about the technology side of racing, Robin will pass these on to Marshall Pruett and he will also answer here. 

Q: Great news regarding the addition of Richmond Raceway; so excited for the return of IndyCar. You indicated in last week’s Mailbag that Dennis Bickmeier “will promote the hell out if it,” which I certainly hope will be the case. However, I hope the Friday/Saturday schedule will model that of Gateway (Pro 2000, Lights and IndyCar). Then there’s something with meat to promote!

I contemplated going to Pocono (again) this year, however, why would I drive four hours to tent camp on the infield of an oval for just IndyCar with no support series? Might be acceptable for some, but not my glass of sweet tea in August.  Mid-Ohio? I’m there every year from Thursday night through Monday morning. Indy? Been going 27 years, and while I’d still make the 11-hour drive without Carb Day in play, it certainly enhances the race weekend experience. Richmond and IndyCar must give serious consideration to keeping the weekend schedule filled with action (no disrespect to Vintage Indy), otherwise, it may be a hard sell getting the hardcore fans to travel more than 90 minutes (on I-95, no less).

I purchased six seats for the Richmond race last night. I was very surprised to see a sizeable majority of the “sweet seats” (Commonwealth and Capital stands, rows 20+, closest to start/finish line) unavailable for purchase. Is this a result of management’s intent to reserve those seats for 2020 season ticket (NASCAR) holders? Did I pull the trigger on lower seats prematurely?

Mark, Woodbridge VA

RM: First off, Richmond wants to make the return all about IndyCar so it’s going to have a Friday night practice session and then have qualifying (and more practice) on Saturday. It’s a little throwback to the old USAC era of one-day shows, and I think support races could be in play down the road, but I know Dennis wants to try this format to see how it’s received.

As for tickets, season-ticket holder renewals were sent out before the IndyCar deal was done and Richmond could not put their tickets up for sale without giving them the opportunity to add the IndyCar race to their season ticket package. Bickmeier has communicated to their season ticket holders that they can add this race during the renewal process, which ends on 11/1. Once they are done with renewals and know which season ticket holders added the IndyCar race, then those seats will be released. Richmond says it will also give early IndyCar purchasers the opportunity to relocate, as that is fair to them based on their early commitment, so it sounds like you can move if you chose. Thanks for supporting IndyCar.

Q: I live 30 miles from Richmond International Raceway and should be happy about the return of the IndyCars. But I am not, because I worry that the show will be a repeat of the races I attended on their earlier visits. The track is too small for cars that fast. Lap times are so quick that you need your head on a swivel, and they run so close to the wall that all the fans see are the air boxes and rear wings as the cars whiz by. Unlike stock cars, IndyCars don’t respond well to side-by-side contact. The Carbon Fiber Manufacturer’s Association was the main beneficiary of the last race I attended at RIR, and I believe more laps were run under yellow than green. I’d much rather drive an extra 150 miles to see Indy cars run at VIR than 30 miles to see them at RIR. Robin, please tell me I am wrong about this.

Greg Glassner, Caroline County, Virginia

RM: You are correct in that Richmond was follow-the-leader the last few races before leaving but featured exciting, two-groove racing when the IRL first went there, and there’s no reason it can’t be a good show if IndyCar gets the downforce right and Firestone gets the right tire. I remember NASCAR fans telling me after one of the early races it was the best thing they’d ever seen, so let’s give it a chance.

Q: As one who lives just over the river in Fredericksburg, VA (less than an hours drive from Richmond on I-95), I’m excited! As a reminder to everybody of how many IndyCar races we have in the mid-Atlantic, well.., it was zero before Richmond. I went to the last race at Richmond, which was the one where TK apologized to the fans for the procession. If we can get the tires to work and have multi-groove racing, it will be a blast. Not to mention that the pre-race with USAC Silver crown cars was also really great. (I don’t know if we can get them back for the date). Too bad we can’t pair up with IMSA at VIR. I’d travel to that in an instant, but as I understand it the track is too narrow?

Doug Baggette

RM: As we’ve discussed, the first three races were good with two grooves and the last couple were yawners because either the downforce or tires changed – or both – so it’s up to IndyCar and Firestone to get it right next. Yes, VIR isn’t ready for IndyCar in many ways, but I understand it’s a great little road course.

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Robin Miller’s Mailbag for Sept. 4, presented by Honda Racing / HPD

Welcome to the Robin Miller Mailbag presented by Honda Racing / HPD. You can follow the Santa Clarita, California-based company at: hpd.honda.com and on social media at @HondaRacing_HPD and https://www.facebook.com/HondaRacingHPD.

Your questions for Robin should be sent to millersmailbag@racer.com. We cannot guarantee we’ll publish all your questions and answers, but Robin will reply to you. And if you have a question about the technology side of racing, Robin will pass these on to Marshall Pruett and he will also answer here. 

Q: Something has to be done to fix the madness at Portland! Every race I’ve watched at that track (since ’96) has had problems in Turn 1. Why not eliminate the Turn 1 chicane and let them go flat out to the end of the straightaway? It works at Long Beach, why not here? True, there isn’t a runoff area at the current Turn 2 but maybe something can be done in that regard.

Jeff, Mesa, AZ

RM: That’s how IMSA use to start its races at Portland and it’s a great idea. Expecting 22 cars to go from 175 to 35 mph in a sharp, tight right-hander is dreaming — just like telling the drivers not to get carried away on the first lap.

Q: I’m not a fan of the field getting so bunched up before the green flag. As much as I like close starts/racing…I don’t like them so bunched up and wrecking a quarter of the field. Just let the leader exit the last turn and gas it.

Rob Peterson

RM: Nobody likes first-turn, first-lap crashes but look at the start of the Indy 500 in the ’50s and ’60s and see how tight everyone is packed together. Sure, they’re probably going 50 mph slower than today’s cars but the point is that the drivers had more respect for each other and likely more control. To be honest, other than Pocono and Portland, the drivers have done a pretty good job of getting through the first turns at most tracks — including cramped street courses.

Q: I HATE, HATE Turn 1 at Portland! What do they expect when they stick that kind of crap tight turn with open-wheel cars? Oh, I guess terminal speed would be too high for just going back to the old straight. But wouldn’t it give them more time to sort out? That turn sequence absolute needs to be changed or removed.

Greg Williams, Apache Junction, AZ

RM: Jeff’s suggestion in the first question is a good solution but I watched 20 F2000 cars all get through the chicane so if a bunch of kids can do it, why not some of the best?

Q: What was Ryan Hunter-Reay thinking when he blocked Rossi on the main stretch? Will this make things awkward on the Andretti Autosport team going forward? Also, how was the crowd for the weekend?

Paul Fitzgerald, Indianapolis

RM: Nah, RHR didn’t take Rossi out so no problem. The camping crowd was much larger but it looked like the spectator crowd was definitely down from a year ago.

Q: Why don’t they move the start of Portland to a different area of the track?

Jim Kupstas

RM: Because you’ve got a great, wide straightaway made for an exciting start, It just makes IndyCar look bad when the “best” can’t control their cars and part of IndyCar’s heritage and allure is the flying start.

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Kanaan and Dixon check out smooth and racy Richmond

The first three or four IndyCar races at Richmond Raceway from 2001-2004 featured two grooves and lots of passing but the last trio from 2007-2009 were pretty much parades. So how does IndyCar revert to those early days when it returns to the racy short track next June?

“We need the tires to go off, less downforce and we need the cars to slide and then you’ll see some passing, just like Iowa,” said Tony Kanaan, who along with Scott Dixon represented the NTT IndyCar Series Tuesday at an official press conference about the event. “I think we had too much downforce the last time and everyone was running the same lap times.

“We went around the track today and it’s extremely smooth, so that’s good because that makes it easier to run side-by-side.”

Kanaan captured the 2008 race while Dixon was a two-time winner – including the last one in 2009.

“I just remember Sam Hornish running the high line and crushing everyone and there were definitely two grooves,” said Dixon, the five-time IndyCar champion. “A lot of it is the tires — even at Iowa, because we’re searching a lot of the time to find something that works. Because the tire is highly stressed, it creates opportunities to dive under somebody.

“Tire deg is a big thing for great racing and I think our ultimate goal is to be like Iowa. It could take a little while but that’s the goal.”

Former NASCAR star Rusty Wallace designed Iowa to be like Richmond, the banked, three-quarter of a mile bullring where lap speeds approached 170 mph a decade ago.

“We had something like 800 passes at Iowa, so that’s what we want next year here,” said Kanaan.

Richmond president Dennis Bickmeier has been working for two years to get open-wheel racing back to Virginia and was thrilled with Tuesday’s turnout.

“There’s a lot of energy in this community to welcome IndyCar back and it relieves the pressure from fans who kept asking when Indy cars and NASCAR trucks were coming back, because both are next year,” said Bickmeier, who took over Richmond in 2011 after serving as VP of sales and marketing at Michigan International Speedway.

The track, owned by ISC, has undergone a $30 million renovation in the infield and new seating which now numbers 52,500 after once sporting 130,000. IndyCar drew in the neighborhood of 35,000 in its nine-year run and Bickmeier was asked if bringing IndyCar back was a hard sell to his bosses.

“They were definitely open to it,” he replied. “I appreciate work gone back and forth between Richmond, IndyCar and Daytona to make it work. Jay (Frye) and Stephen (Starks) and Joey Chitwood worked hard. We had a nice turnout of community and business leaders today and a lot has changed in 10 years. There’s been a big transition and the community has changed a lot. We’ve got more jobs, a lot of young people are staying here and downtown has a good vibe.”

IndyCar will tire test with Firestone in October then bring all the teams back in March for an open test. The format for IndyCar’s return will also be different in that there will be a Friday night practice but qualifying will be held (along with more practice) on Saturday and then they’ll go racing under the lights a few hours later.

 

COTA worked with IndyCar to avoid Sebring conflict

There was very nearly a major conflict in the 2020 racing season that would have left a lot of drivers, owners and spectators steamed but it was averted when Circuit of The Americas agreed to move its NTT IndyCar Series date back a month.

The original IndyCar schedule had COTA penciled in for March 22 — which also happened to be the same weekend as the Mobil 1 Twelve Hourse of Sebring. That would have left IndyCar regulars like Scott Dixon, Sebastian Bourdais, Alex Rossi, Simon Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden and Ryan Hunter-Reay unable to participate in IMSA’s sports car endurance showcase, which always follows January’s Rolex 24 at Daytona. But COTA did what was best for the overall landscape of North American motorsports and agreed to push back its second-ever IndyCar race to April 26.

“IMSA is our friend and we didn’t want to have a conflict but we were locked into that original date. We couldn’t move it back a week because Texas was hosting NASCAR and we weren’t about to go against them, and early April at COTA didn’t work because it;s hosting MotoGP,” explained IndyCar president Jay Frye. “But COTA didn’t want to go against Sebring if it could be avoided and I give them big props for working with us to move back to late April.

“I think it’s a win-win for motorsports. I think it might actually be a better date for COTA because it will be warmer and our teams will be coming back from Long Beach.”

Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi field teams in both series and reportedly lobbied hard to make sure they could participate in both races with their drivers.

“It was the right move,” said Ganassi, whose team is a six-time winner of the Rolex 24. “I’m glad everything worked out.”

 

IndyCar reveals 2020 schedule; Richmond replaces Pocono

The 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule looks a lot like 2019, with the exception of Richmond’s racy oval returning and some shuffling to allow TV partner NBC to cover the Summer Olympics.

The 17 races feature seven road courses, five street circuits and five ovals — beginning in mid-March and ending in late September. It’s pretty balanced, with three races in April, four in May, three in June, and two each in July, August and September.

“The cadence of the schedule is good and Stephen Starks did a great job, especially when you factor in the three weeks we won’t be racing for the Summer Olympics,” said IndyCar president Jay Frye, speaking of IndyCar’s Vice President of Promotion and Media Relations. “Big props to Stephen, COTA, Mid-Ohio and NBC for making it work.

“Venue equity is very important to us, and there’s only one difference in next year’s schedule, and that’s key.”

That new addition is an old friend in Virginia: Richmond Raceway, which hosted IndyCar from 2001-2009. The three-quarter-mile oval replaces Pocono, and Richmond president Dennis Bickmeier and Frye have been working on a return for more than a year.

“We put on some good shows there and I remember the high line really working for Sam Hornish,” said Scott Dixon, a two-time winner at Richmond who won the last race there in 2009. “It’s a great short oval, and I’m looking forward to going back.”

Because NBC will spend nearly a month covering the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, there won’t be any races from mid-July to mid-August, and it required Mid-Ohio to move from its traditional July date to August and Richmond to go in late June.

“Richmond was very accommodating because we only had so many windows in play, and Dennis worked with us,” continued Frey. “He’s a big fan of open-wheel and worked hard to put this thing together. And Kevin (Savoree) and Kim (Green) were also very cooperative in moving Mid-Ohio back. And we can’t thank COTA enough for its flexibility.

The second race at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin had originally been set for March 22, but that was also the same weekend as IMSA’s sports car endurance contest at Sebring, which traditionally attracts several IndyCar stars onto its entry list. COTA acquiesced, and agreed to move to late April (April 26) to remove this conflict.

Foyt vows to race on in 2020 despite loss of full-time ABC Supply backing

A.J. Foyt is looking for a new full-time sponsor and isn’t sure about a driver line-up yet, but the IndyCar legend says his team will definitely will be back for the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series.

Speaking to RACER.com from his ranch in Texas on Sunday morning, Foyt confirmed that ABC Supply is leaving as his primary backer after 15 years but will continue to be involved in the Indianapolis 500, and the decision will not affect his team’s participation in the sport he’s been involved in for seven decades.

“ABC is pulling back but they will still be with me at Indianapolis,” said Foyt, whose longevity with sponsors includes 12 years with U.S. Tobacco and 15 years with Gilmore Broadcasting. “They’ve spent a ton of money taking customers to races, and I don’t think there’s been a better partner for IndyCar. They’re great people, and they’ve been great to me.”

Mike Jost, the chief operating officer of ABC Supply, gave RACER the following statement: “A.J. Foyt Racing has been part of the ABC Supply family for 15 years, and although we have decided that it’s time to scale back our racing program, A.J. and Larry Foyt and Anne Fornoro and the rest of the team will forever be part of ABC Supply. We wish them all the luck in the world next season, and we look forward to cheering for the ABC Supply Racing car in the 2020 Indy 500.”

Indy’s first four-time winner has campaigned two ABC cars for the past several years, and says it will be business as usual next year as new sponsorships are sought.

“I think we’ve got three or four potential sponsors lined up and we’re probably going to keep running two cars,” he said. “I’m going to keep our shops in Indianapolis and Houston. I just want people to know we’re not leaving.”

But the current lineup of veteran Tony Kanaan and Matheus Leist figures to change.

“I don’t know about our drivers, it’s up in the air,” he responded when asked the obvious question. “I think Larry and I will sit down after the last race and make some decisions.”

Foyt’s team will be back next year, but there’s a question mark over both Tony Kanaan and Matheus Leist. Image by Levitt/LAT

Until Kanaan’s third place last week at Gateway, it had been a tough season for Foyt. The 2013 Indy winner finished eighth at Pocono and ninth at Indy, while Leist’s best showing is a fourth place at the Indy Grand Prix in May. They currently rank 15th and 19th respectively in the point standings.

Kanaan is keen to have a farewell season, but would appear to have limited options.

ABC Supply began its partnership with the legendary Foyt team in 2005, and quickly made its presence felt through staunch support of the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and his IndyCar effort.

Although victories have been fleeting during the 15-year relationship, the 2013 Long Beach win by Takuma Sato proved to be among the most popular of the season, and podiums by the Japanese driver, Mike Conway, Darren Manning, Vitor Meira, and last weekend in Gateway by Kanaan complemented the company’s ongoing faith in the team.

The irascible 84-year-old hasn’t been to the last few races because he’s battling a back problem, but he was pretty unhappy with his team’s performance this year. Asked if he considered just shutting things down, he growled: “I’ve been doing this my whole life, why would I quit now? What in the hell else would I do? And this is Larry’s team, too.

“We’ll be back next year, I guarantee it. We’re not going away.”