The last time Kurt Busch was at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he was embarking on a quest to become only the second driver to complete all 1,100 miles of the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in the same day.
Now, the Outlaw is returning to the world’s greatest race course. But there will be no Double this time around – just 400 miles in his No. 41 Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet on Sunday at the Brickyard 400.
However, the memories remain from this past May of pushing to not only perform well in a different discipline, but uphold NASCAR’s honor in the world’s biggest race.
“In the world of NASCAR, we race 40 weekends a year and it consumes your life and sometimes can burn you out,” Busch recalled recently. “But Dale [Earnhardt] Jr., is the guy who threw down the gauntlet – ‘You are representing NASCAR’ – and at that point, it hit me that this was bigger than my personal goals.
“I was going to be judged as the only pure NASCAR driver with no Indy experience to go there and compete with the best of the best in their biggest race. I never seem to do things the easy way. I had to pick the year that Indy was at its most competitive.”
But Busch was able to hang with IndyCar’s finest, and that brought him a world of respect from competitors and fans alike.
“When I landed on the front straightaway at Charlotte after finishing Indy, everybody was applauding me like I was no longer the bad guy,” he said. “I was their NASCAR guy coming home, who went to Indy and made them proud so much that people were saying, ‘We always knew he was a racer.'”
Busch is now focusing on what it will take to conquer Indy in a stock car. He’s never won there in 13 Brickyard 400s. But it’s not like he’s the only that’s trying to solve the place. Of the 16 drivers that currently occupy the Chase Grid, he’s among a group of 12 that’s winless there.
A victory on Sunday would give him two for the year (Martinsville), which in turn would make him a virtual lock for the post-season. But it will not be easy.
“Indianapolis is tough,” Busch said. “It’s been a tough place for me but it became even more of a challenge when they did the diamond cutting of the track.
“It’s just hard trying to find the balance you need that works at the beginning and will get you to the end of the race. We tend to have long, green-flag runs there and, for some reason, it has just been a track where I’m still trying to figure out the nuances you need to have a proper-handling car that gets around there and is fast.”
Pippa Mann, who will seek to make her sixth start in the Indianapolis 500 a little over one month from now with Dale Coyne Racing, will have additional races on her plate this year in an all-female driver entry in this year’s Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo North America championship.
Mann and Jackie Heinricher, herself a sports car veteran with some Lamborghini ST experience, are among a four-car entry for the Prestige Performance team in the IMSA-sanctioned series, which is operationally run with IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship powerhouse team Wayne Taylor Racing. They’ll share the team’s No. 57 Lamborghini Huracán LP 620-2 in the pro/am division.
“I am thrilled to be joining Prestige Performance and Wayne Taylor Racing for the 2017 Super Trofeo season. Learning a new car, a new team, a new series, and new tracks will be a big learning experience for me, and I’m extremely excited not only to have this opportunity, but to have this opportunity with such a great team,” said Mann, who’s already had a couple tests in the car.
Heinricher added, “I am excited to be involved with Prestige and Wayne Taylor Racing in the season effort and for the incredible opportunity in joining a professional team for long-term growth in sports car racing.”
The other lineups see rising sports car star and a couple-time IMSA series champion Trent Hindman (in both Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge and Lamborghini) with Riccardo Agostini in the No. 1 car, and Alex Popow and Michele Beretta in the No. 10 car – both of those are pro/pro entries.
A fourth car, the No. 11 entry, has a lineup still to be determined and not yet confirmed. However, sports car aces Dion von Moltke and Stevan McAleer were posted on the No. 11 car for the Circuit of The Americas entry list.
“Wayne Taylor Racing is excited to step into the 2017 season with such a great list of drivers and to have David Wagener returning on our engineering side,” said Travis Houge, Team Manager, Wayne Taylor Racing.
“We are looking forward to continuing the success of last season. Similar to our other racing endeavors, we have worked hard to build a program that not only wins races but also builds lasting and successful partnerships. We feel we have found that with the Lamborghini Group.”
The Lamborghini ST season begins next weekend at COTA in Austin. The 12-race calendar is spread over six venues: COTA, Watkins Glen International in early July, Road America and VIR in August and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in September, before the season finale and World Final run in Imola, Italy (former site of the San Marino Grand Prix) in November.
The amount of words written nationwide and worldwide about Alexander Rossi’s win in the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil are probably in the millions.
The number of words written about Rossi in two pivotal races leading up to that win at Phoenix and the INDYCAR Grand Prix? It’s probably only in the hundreds, by specialist media only.
Yet it was those two races – at Phoenix’s oval and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course – that laid the groundwork for Rossi’s eventual win at the ‘500 because of the progress he and the No. 98 Andretti-Herta Autosport Honda team made in a finite amount of time.
Rossi didn’t get to test at the series’ official open test at Phoenix in 2016 because his deal was struck with the team so late in February. Outside of a rookie day, his first real running at his first ever oval race came that weekend in April, which was a couple weekends earlier in the month.
Yet Rossi drove smartly in his first ever oval race, climbing from 14th on the grid up to seventh before needing to pit for low fuel under a closed pit lane. A quick washout in Turn 4 near the end of the race from a puncture brought out a full-course caution and left him in 14th at the finish, a result unrepresentative of his pace and performance.
“At Phoenix we were a lot stronger than 14th,” Rossi told NBC Sports. “We were in a position to take the last restart in second or third, but we had the pit miscommunication and we had to start at the back.
“Phoenix was so strong for us – which was a surprise for myself and the team. It gave us a big confidence boost because the next oval was the big one. At the time, I took on what was a terrifying experience and made it through the weekend, to fight through something positive. It took the anxiety away from everyone that I’d be OK.”
The INDYCAR Grand Prix in mid-May then, three races later after tough Long Beach and Barber weekends, saw Rossi take the lead on setup and direction within the Andretti Autosport quartet for the first time.
“Indy GP – that was the first time where it clicked for me in an IndyCar,” Rossi explained. “I was able to lead the team in terms of car setup. We were the quickest Andretti car throughout the weekend. I think we could have been top-five. Considering the start, that would have been a strong result. Those were two of my strongest tracks that people don’t really know about.”
That weekend allowed Rossi to find his footing within the engineering meetings, which has come through in every race since that point.
“Kind of from the Indy GP on, I knew what the car needed – and that was the big thing we needed as a team,” he said. “Prior to that, I didn’t know what it needed for lap times. It was difficult to contribute too much because I hadn’t figured it out myself. But it’s progressed pretty quickly.
“The great thing about this team is it’s such an open book. It’s counterintuitive to a lot of teams. These guys work as well as they do because of that. I struggled at Barber, but it wasn’t down to lack of information. We couldn’t find something that worked for me. It was a lot of brainstorming sessions with the other engineers. Sunday afternoon it clicked, and that’s how it all works.”
But Rossi explained how that accident actually came as a result of a confidence boost to begin building up to the limit, and some sage advice from his co-owner, Bryan Herta.
“The test was actually positive. Day one was really good and what happened in the qual sim was a combo of a couple things, “Rossi said.
“The biggest advice I got from Bryan last year was , ‘If anything feels wrong, just pit.’ And that makes sense, right? It’s so difficult to drive around issues on an oval. Phoenix is the one track where you trim out so much from qualifying downforce to race downforce. The car is on edge.
“I’d never pushed the envelope on short ovals last year, so I didn’t really know how much of an abnormal feeling was OK. I’d never had an incident, so… I didn’t know. But now I know! I felt it was pretty loose on the warmup lap coming to speed. To be up front at Phoenix, the car has to be on a knife edge. Then, it was clearly too much. So in a way, it was almost good it happened, and it was great it happened at the test and not the race weekend to avoid it happening again.”
With qualifying shifting from Friday afternoon to Friday night this year, it figures to mirror conditions much closer in Saturday night’s race (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
“I’ll miss the nighttime practice; that was a bit of a shame,” Rossi admitted. “But night qualifying is great. It’s way easier because the temperatures are down; when you trim out it’s not as hairy. It’s the same conditions as nighttime. You can still learn about the car setup and keep a development direction.”
It’s been a funny start to the 2017 season for Rossi, who moved up from 18th to 10th in points after finishing fifth in Barber last week. Rossi started eighth and fifth at St. Petersburg and Long Beach, while at Barber, he advanced from 18th up to fifth.
“It hasn’t been great because we haven’t had a super smooth weekend yet. Qualifying was good, then the races weren’t. Then Barber it was the opposite. Now, we’re due for one at Phoenix,” he said.
Red Bull Global Rallycross kicks off its season this week from Memphis, a new event on the calendar and the series’ fourth different kickoff site in as many years. It also starts a month earlier than the past, with Barbados (mid-May, 2014) Ft. Lauderdale (late May 2015) and Phoenix (third week of May 2016) having been the curtain-raisers in the past few years.
Race coverage is on NBC network on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.
With the trip down South the first step in the 12-race championship, it again provides a first look at whether anyone can topple Scott Speed and Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross, as the two-time champion looks for a three-peat in his latest iteration of a Beetle GRC beast.
Most of the field is switched; at least one driver or team per entry is different for all teams this year, with the exception of Andretti.
Here’s the tentative field breakdown (field may be subject to change and extra additions):
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” will be the mantra here, as Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross and Scott Speed seek their third straight title. Teammate Tanner Foust arguably had the better 2016 season – he won four races to Speed’s three – but lost the championship in a tough dynamic in the Los Angeles doubleheader, his weekend delayed a bit with the need to run an LCQ and thus losing track position if he’d make the final.
Speed’s enjoyed his time in GRC to this point, as he recounted in his first NBCSports.com blog of 2017, and has become one of the series’ marquee faces. While a three-peat would be good for him, it remains to be seen whether that is in the best interest of the series. Nonetheless, anything less than another round of victories and title contention from Red Bull GRC’s dynamic duo would be a surprise, and a disappointment.
Red Bull GRC’s version of “Name that Eriksson” sees the unrelated pair of Swedes, Oliver and Sebastian Eriksson, racing for the Andreas Eriksson-led team whose success is world renowned in rallycross – except last year. In a rare off year for OMSE, the team spent more time dialing in the setup of it early before contending on outright pace. They got there by the end of the year but despite preliminary wins, never won a main event.
That should well change this year with Sebastian Eriksson the undisputed team leader in now his third season. Having two hungry young chargers alongside in past GRC Lites champions Oliver Eriksson and DeJong, the latter of whom has one Supercars weekend under his belt at Los Angeles last year, will only serve to push this team forward.
Subaru Rally Team USA, Subaru WRX-STi
Two lackluster years and only a handful of decent results have forced a major course reset at Subaru, and one which should see them back on proper race win-contending form throughout the 2017 season. If the enhancements from the team weren’t coming, particularly with a new car, it’s likely they wouldn’t have convinced Patrik Sandell to have left Bryan Herta Rallysport, where he overachieved and won races each of the last two seasons.
Sandell’s an ace and past Subaru World Rally Championship driver Chris Atkinson brought a degree of pace to this program that was lacking previously when he came in for the final events of 2016. The Australian figures to be a frontrunner as well.
Loenbro Motorsports, Ford Fiesta
A change in ownership and branding sees the former Chip Ganassi Rallycross program, which popped up before 2015 and did a two-year entry, now under the Loenbro Motorsports umbrella albeit with nearly all the same staff and crew intact. It is a big step for the company and for driver Steve Arpin, the likable Canadian who now lives in Minnesota, to strike out on their own. Arpin won his first Supercars final last year but may find the sledding tougher against the factory efforts and other privateer teams.
Bryan Herta Rallysport, Ford Fiesta
2-Cabot Bigham (R)
For a second straight year, Bryan Herta will have the fun situation where his name and team are separate in Red Bull GRC from Michael Andretti’s even though the two work together in the Verizon IndyCar Series. In Bigham, Herta’s found a potential diamond in the rough. The Northern California native took a surprise, but well-judged, win in last year’s GRC Lites season and has found the necessary budget to come up to the next level. “The Big Ham” will need to get his feet wet the first couple events but should start playing with the big dogs as the season progresses.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Ford Fiesta
After striking out on his own last year with AD Racing, a year after running under the Herta tent, series CEO Colin Dyne’s son Austin will now work with another IndyCar outfit in RLL Racing, which makes its Red Bull GRC debut this year. The deep field has made it harder for Dyne to stand out – he has just three final round top-five finishes in the last two years – but with the RLL preparation behind him, it should see the series veteran improve this year.
The battle for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s post-retirement services has begun.
And leave it to none other than 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force to be the first to offer Junior a job.
As a Funny Car driver, of course.
Look at the plusses: they both drive for Chevrolet, they both like beer, Junior wouldn’t have to worry about turning left or right (on road courses) any more, he’d be able to stay on the straight and narrow (drag strip, that is) and …
Perhaps the best thing of all, he could ultimately become Force’s replacement as the most popular driver in NHRA drag racing when (or if) Force ever decides to retire himself.
Several current or former Verizon IndyCar Series drivers also took to social media to pay homage to Junior — including another member of the Force family, son-in-law Graham Rahal, who is married to drag racer Courtney Force.