IndyCar’s rookie trio bullish for St. Pete debuts

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At least three and potentially a fourth rookie driver will be part of the Sunoco Rookie-of-the-Year class in the Verizon IndyCar Series season opener, and could play spoilers in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

For Carlos Munoz and Jack Hawksworth, this will be their first opportunities to race the Dallara DW12-Honda on a road and street circuit in a normal weekend.

Munoz, who will drive the No. 34 Cinsay Inc./AndrettiTV.com Honda for Andretti Autosport, made a last-minute substitute appearance for Ryan Briscoe at Panther Racing in the second Toronto race a year ago. But that marked his first time ever in one of these cars on a road or street circuit, and to jump in and finish the race was all that could have realistically been achieved.

Now, though, he wants to live up to the high standards set by his trio of teammates – Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and defending St. Pete winner James Hinchcliffe.

“St. Pete is one of the tracks I like a lot. I’ve been really fast in the past (in an Indy Lights car), but I’ve never finished in the past two years I’ve raced there. My main goal is to finish the race, take all the experience, to learn a lot,” said Munoz.

While he failed to finish last year, Hawksworth won in his Indy Lights debut with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. He was a late add to Bryan Herta Autosport’s lineup, but impressed in the Barber preseason test. He’ll drive the No. 98 BHA/BBM Honda with sponsorship from Charter Media.

“I’m really looking forward to getting the season started this weekend in St. Pete,” said Hawksworth. “It’s a track I’ve been successful at in the lower racing categories and I also lived there during the 2012 season. It’s certainly an event that I enjoy a lot.

“Coming into the race weekend, we have had a couple of solid tests and I think we should be in pretty good shape to start the season. The track is quite short – low grip but still technical. We’ll have to work hard and execute a clean weekend but if we can do this, then we’ll be in with a shout.”

Team owner Bryan Herta added, “The season is finally here and the hard work from the guys in the shop, our partners at Honda, and our driver Jack Hawksworth are ready to be put to the test. With substantial support from Charter, we are looking forward to a strong weekend.”

Schmidt has a rookie of his own in one of his IndyCars – Russian Mikhail Aleshin makes his series debut in the No. 7 SMP Racing Honda. Accomplishing what Tristan Vautier did last year – making the Firestone Fast Six on debut – is not an easy ask, but Aleshin already knows what he wants to get out of the weekend.

“Before we even get there, we want to know what changes we are going to make in the car,” Aleshin said. “I’ve been practicing in the simulator at our shop and watching lots of tape. Everyone else will have more experience than me at this track, so I need to do my best to create less opportunity for error.”

He also joked on the irony of being a Russian to make his debut in St. Petersburg.

“It’s very exciting to have our country represented in IndyCar for the first time ever,” Aleshin said. “The name St. Petersburg will also be very recognizable to Russian fans since it’s also the name of one of our most famous cities. It’s funny that they’ll be tuning in to watch me race at a different St. Petersburg in the U.S. It all fits together very well!”

A fourth rookie – Carlos Huertas in the second Dale Coyne Racing entry – has not been officially confirmed by the team. But it’s expected the Colombian rookie will be in the No. 18 Honda this weekend.

IMSA: Sebring Day 2 of two-day test notebook

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Testing across several IMSA sanctioned series continued at Sebring International Raceway on Tuesday as preparations continue for next month’s events during the weekend of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

Below are highlights from Day 2 of testing around the 3.74-mile road course.

Eurosport Racing Continues Work with Mazda Prototype Challenge Chassis

Teams in the Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda championship completed their second day of testing on Tuesday. Among them, Eurosport Racing continued their work with the only Mazda Prototype Challenge (MPC) entries in the field, in the hands of drivers Dr. Tim George (in the No. 24 entry) and Jon Brownson (in the No. 34).

“Right now, I’m driving by myself so we’re trying to make the car comfortable enough to last an hour and 45 minutes with just me in the car,” George said of their preparation efforts. “We’re trying to set up the car where it’s quick, yet it and can last, both the car and for me to make sure we don’t tire out, get fatigued and make mistakes.”

The 1 hour 45 minute window that George referenced represents the race times for the 2018 season, up considerably from last year’s sprint format that featured a pair of 45-minute races across a race weekend.

Though that change represents a drastic shift in driving philosophy, it is one that George welcomes.

“The new rules for the endurance races are great, I enjoy it a lot,” said George. “It gives you a chance to think through things differently with strategy. It also gives you a chance if you blow it…in a sprint race if you make a mistake you don’t get a chance to come back.”

Florida Drivers in Continental Tire Challenge Eager for Hometown Race at Sebring

A strong contingent of drivers from Florida are represented in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, and next month’s 12 Hours of Sebring weekend will see them compete on home soil.

“I grew up in Tallahassee and I live in Orlando now, so Sebring has been my home track since day one,” said Paul Holton, driver of the No. 76 Compass Racing McLaren GT4, which finished 14th at the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway. “I’ve spent a lot of time down here and really enjoy the place. It’s a nice, quaint little town not far from Orlando so it’s a quick, easy drive down for me.”

Fellow Floridian Ramin Abdolvahabi, a native of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida and driver of the No. 09 Automatic Racing Aston Martin Vantage, revealed that, even though Sebring is only two hours from his hometown, this week’s test was his first time at the track in two years.

“I haven’t been here for two years, so coming back is like coming home,” he said. “It’s a fantastic track and it’s one of the iconic tracks in the world so being at Sebring – a small town, my hometown, welcoming – it’s fantastic. I went on the track a couple of times yesterday and it’s just like wearing an old shoe, it just fits and it’s fantastic. Hopefully, the race will go well and the weather will hold, so anyone who’s out there, come and see us!”

Frank Raso Trades in Airplanes for Porsches at Sebring

Several IMSA drivers boast “day jobs” outside of their racing gigs. Among them, Frank Raso’s work falls outside of ordinary jobs like doctor or lawyer. Rather, Raso flies airplanes for a living.

“I’m an airline pilot for a major airline,” said Raso, who tested the No. 10 Topp Racing Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car at Sebring. “I’ve been flying for almost 30 years, and it’s allowed me, with all my time off and things like that to do this and fall back into racing again. I messed with it a little bit when I was younger, but it was, of course, expensive, so I got away from it for a while. I decided I wanted to get back into it in kind of my last couple of years before I get too old.”

Raso explained that the skills he practices while flying planes are more than transferable to his driving duties in a Porsche GT3 Cup car.

“Flying an airliner or flying any airplane, we have checklists, but everything is kind of done in order. It’s almost in a robot fashion type of a thing where you do this, you do this, you do this and you have to make sure you hit all your marks and fly the airplane with precision.

“So, when you get in these Cup cars, with no anti-lock brakes, no traction control, and no driver assist items, you have to make sure you hit your marks, when you’re accelerating, when you’re turning in. You have to be alert. It keeps your wits about you. The car can step out at any time. They’re a very difficult car to drive, but they’re a lot of fun.”
The 54-year-old Raso posted a best finish of fourth, on four separate occasions, in a part-time schedule during the 2017 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama season as a competitor in the Gold Cup class.
Newcomers Get Taste of Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge
A number of new drivers got to sample Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge cars during the two days of testing at Sebring. Among them was amateur racer Scott Welham, who got his first taste of professional racing during the two-day outing at Sebring.
And he had a strong support system backing him up in the Kelly-Moss Road and Race team, the defending Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge champions with driver Jake Eidson.
“Here, you’ve got somebody that actually does coaching, data acquisition, track management – these are all separate people – plant manager, owner, a car-setup guy, you’ve got someone that bills you – which isn’t always a good thing, but you know, you just have that huge, huge support group that enables you to focus on driving,” Welham said of the team’s influence on his development over the two days.
IMSA’s next visit to Sebring will be for the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring on March 17.