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Stability, excitement fuels Rossi’s extension with Andretti

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Within the last couple weeks, Alexander Rossi has really showcased how he’s solidified his stature within the Verizon IndyCar Series, and Friday’s formal confirmation he’ll be back with Andretti Autosport for two more years at least was a great sign of that.

What’s been fascinating to watch this year, as the driver of the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda sits seventh in points going into this weekend’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN), is how well he’s gelled with the three new components of his effort – Andretti Autosport technical director Eric Bretzman, engineer Jeremy Milless and strategist Rob Edwards.

Altogether Rossi is Andretti Autosport’s highest-placed car in the championship – seventh entering this weekend’s race – on the heels of two podium finishes (second in Toronto and third at Pocono).

Rossi has been able to assist Milless, who engineered a Chevrolet last year for Josef Newgarden at Ed Carpenter Racing, in certain areas with the Honda package whereas Milless has brought fresh ideas from what worked on a Chevrolet kit. Milless replaced Tom German as Rossi’s race engineer; German, now at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, sits one spot ahead in the championship in sixth place.

“With the addition of Eric coming onboard, the technical director, he kind of brought everything back into a circle, if you will, which was a positive, improved our damper program. We’ve improved everything from pit stops, car build. I mean, it’s a whole lot of things to making a car fast than just the dampers you put on it,” Rossi said Friday.

“Also with the addition to my engineer, Jeremy Milless, brought another mental philosophy and approach from a different manufacturer, so we got some insight into that, what was working for them.”

For Edwards, he’s taken over as strategist from Bryan Herta. In 2017, Herta’s name still remains part of this entry, the No. 98 Andretti-Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian car, as a co-entrant.

Herta told NBC Sports Friday that he will continue with Andretti Autosport into 2018, but the identity of which car will be the Andretti-Herta entry is still to be determined.

The Rossi entry could still be labeled the Andretti-Herta car, as it has the last two years, or that designation could switch. Herta has moved to Marco Andretti’s pit stand this year as his race strategist. The car number nor team name designation was not identified in today’s Rossi extension.

“We’ll be back with Andretti, and there will be a 98 car with the team,” Herta told NBC Sports.

Edwards, meanwhile, has worked well with Rossi throughout the year. Rossi admitted Friday that the overall combination of the new elements didn’t really click until the month of May in Indianapolis.

“You wouldn’t have seen it, but, I mean, it took us probably through the month of May to really start to be on the same page, which I think is fairly normal and natural,” Rossi said.

“Not because either of us were doing anything wrong, you’re not on the same communication wavelength yet. Under pressure situations and crunch time, being able to kind of take the information I have and relay it in an efficient way, make decisions based on that, that’s something that comes with time. I think we’re at that point now.”

Michael Andretti hailed Rossi when speaking about him on Thursday in the paddock, prior to official confirmation that Rossi would continue for another two years.

“I think he’s done exactly what I thought he’d do (in his second year). He learned a lot last year. He’s put it to good use this year. A lot of places, he’s been our best car,” Andretti said.

Rossi also hailed NAPA Auto Parts, which has now built and cultivated a trio of drivers it backs – Rossi in IndyCar, Ron Capps in NHRA and Chase Elliott in NASCAR – over the last several years. They helped put Rossi’s name more on the map in North America, he said.

“When we did win, it obviously put the entire program under a spotlight for 12 months, thanks to the media tours that the Verizon IndyCar Series puts together, and the national and global exposure that NAPA got, that I got, and kind of my name and brand being developed in the United States, which was something that was severely lacking at the beginning of 2016, because I had been overseas for so long. It really gave us the opportunity to show NAPA, you know, what this series could offer, what I could offer, what Andretti Autosport could offer,” Rossi said.

“They obviously re-upped for 2016 in a slightly bigger role. They’re doing that again for 2018, which was a huge thing for the series. It’s massive to have one of the premier auto parts manufacturers involved in the championship, to have a household name, brand and company put the effort into remaining with us and the team and the series. It’s a huge thing for everyone. It’s a big honor to be able to represent them and try and get them as good of results as possible.”

The advice Rossi gave about how new drivers coming from an F1 or other international series environment should approach IndyCar is simple: leave nothing on the table for every session. It may have stemmed from a conversation at St. Petersburg in 2016, when Rossi made his IndyCar debut, where preseason concern was expressed he might not have full focus on IndyCar.

“To not underestimate any element of the championship,” Rossi admitted. “You really have to bring your best effort from Thursday morning when you get here to Sunday night. That’s not just in the race car.

“I mean, an example that I’ll give, in Mid-Ohio, we led P3. We were really good in Q1. Went to Q2, I made one rear spring change, and I only last half a tenth or a tenth (of a second), but it was enough to not make me advance to the Fast Six. It was one spring change, like one step. It’s not like we revolutionized the car, put on a whole new package. It was one little thing.

“It actually didn’t hurt performance that much, but it didn’t give us the extra tenth we needed. That’s how on it you have to be for every single lap and session. If not, you make that mistakes, you can very quickly — it may be the difference of not only not getting into the Fast Six, it could be the difference of not getting into the top 12, then you’re starting 14th, you have to recover all weekend.

“It’s every decision you make you need to be sure about. I think I underestimated that. I think a lot of guys underestimate that coming in. It’s not just the competitiveness of how good the guys are on the track, it’s the decisions you make in the hours between each session that’s also super critical.”

The extension caps off what has been a stressful few months for Rossi, his family and his team amidst all the silly season speculation, and sees him assured within the same team where he’s laid his groundwork in IndyCar.

“Racing can take the focus away from a lot of people for the task at hand,” he said. “For the next year, you just have to focus on winning races. It’s kind of easy to get caught up in what’s happening. You can start to kind of lose morale at times among the team because there’s just the unknown, right? They know you’re talking to other teams. It’s a difficult situation for everyone involved.”

Mexican GP to go ahead as planned, facilities unharmed by earthquake

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Next month’s Mexican Grand Prix is set to go ahead as planned after facilities at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez were unharmed by the earthquake that struck Mexico City earlier this week.

A 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit Mexico on Tuesday, claiming the lives of over 200 people as well as toppling dozens of buildings in the capital.

The Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is set to host the third-to-last round of the 2017 Formula 1 season on October 29, and will go ahead as planned after facilities were unharmed by the earthquake.

“It’s been inspected twice already from the track surface and also the buildings, and it’s OK,” marketing chief Rodrigo Sanchez told Reuters.

“We’ll continue doing the assessments as we go but so far there’s really no concern. We’ll have a race.

“We’re trying to put out there all the information relevant to how people can help. Right now the concern is really getting everything back to moving from the city perspective and supporting any way we can.

“If things stay the same, we’ll just keep working on what we’re doing.

“The track is fine so we just need to re-focus and get this show done.”

Mexico’s only F1 driver, Sergio Perez, has donated $170,000 to support those affected by the earthquake, while the Carlos Slim Foundation is set to match every donation made five-fold.

IndyCar delivers its second-best season on NBCSN in 2017

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In the ninth year of its 10-year contract with the Verizon IndyCar Series (formerly as Versus and now as NBCSN), NBCSN produced its second-best season on record this year.

With a Total Audience Delivery (TAD) of 507,000 viewers per race, the 2017 season of races on NBCSN was just 1 percent off the best mark of 510,000 viewers per race in 2015.

This season’s viewership on NBCSN, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app exceeded the 2016 TAD of 492,000 viewers by 3 percent (excludes Texas and Pocono races in 2016, which were rescheduled due to weather), and was just 1 percent shy of NBCSN’s record TAD in 2015 (510,000).

TAD measures consumption across multiple platforms, combining the average minute audience (AMA) for television and digital. The 2016 release details are linked here.

Seven of the 12 races aired on NBCSN had a TAD of more than 500,000 with the most coming at Pocono with 624,000. In terms of household ratings, Indianapolis was the top local market with Richmond-Petersburg, Greenville, West Palm Beach and Greensboro coming in the top five.

The full 2017 release details are linked here.

Veach, Andretti, Group One Thousand One able to build for future

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Rare are the words “American,” “young driver,” “multi-year” and “IndyCar” assembled within a sentence in modern day Verizon IndyCar Series racing.

But for young American driver Zach Veach, he’s got a multi-year IndyCar contract at his disposal thanks to Group One Thousand One at Andretti Autosport, and with it, an opportunity to build, grow and develop over that three-year time period through 2020.

It’s hard to believe Veach, the Stockdale, Ohio native, is only 22 considering his history in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires between 2010 and 2016, competing every year save for one (2015) due to injury and a lack of budget.

But throughout that period he gradually improved year-by-year, first in USF2000, then in Pro Mazda and finally in Indy Lights. Over his three years and with two different cars in Indy Lights, Veach grew into a race winner and bulked up from his already slender frame.

Veach is also the first driver in MRTI history to have been with the same team in all three levels, and graduate into IndyCar. He detoured to Belardi Auto Racing in 2016 but otherwise, was part of Andretti Autosport’s lineup from 2010 to 2014, and will now come back “home” for 2018 in IndyCar.

Veach and Michael Andretti before Star Mazda debut, Sonoma, 2011. Photo: IndyCar

“I think he was 14 or 15 when we met the first time… and he looked like he was 10. Now he’s 22, and looks like he’s 15!” Michael Andretti laughed.

“But he’s always impressed me. OK, he’d come out of the box not bad. But the next race, he got better, and you could see it. It wasn’t by mistake. You’d see how he’d work, take the information, study it for hours, and then come back so much more prepared the next day.

“I gotta say, I don’t think there’s as many drivers I’ve known outside the car who’ve worked that hard to make themselves better, and he did that all the way up the ladder system. There’s a lot of confidence in big cars, and now he’ll have more tools and will use them to his advantage. So he might start here, qualify top-18, then it’ll start to go up, up, then qualify top-10 by the end of the year and I believe the next year he’ll be more of a contender. That’s how I envision it.”

Setting reasonable and realistic expectations will be key for Veach, who should look at drivers like Josef Newgarden or Charlie Kimball for inspiration.

Newgarden’s first year with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing was littered with rookie errors, not a single top-10 finish, and ending 23rd in the championship. But knowing he had two more years to build off of, Newgarden was a podium finisher each of the next two years and had leapt 10 spots in the standings. By his fourth year and his second contract in 2015, he was a race winner.

Kimball was the same way with Chip Ganassi Racing. Barely in the top-20 in points his first year with only a couple top-10s, he ascended to podiums in year two as well, and scored his first race win in year three – when he also cracked the top-10 in points.

Given Veach’s years of preparing for this moment, he’s happy to have gotten to IndyCar now, rather than rushing it years earlier.

“I was one of those kids who thought he would be in IndyCar at 18. That’s so dumb! Looking back, I’m so glad that’s not how it happened,” Veach told NBC Sports.

“It’s hard to be patient when you’re young. I know I’m saying that at age 22, but at 15 or 16, all you care about is getting to IndyCar.

“Luckily, life forced me to be patient in some things. I would much rather have this deal at age 23 than at 18, because now I feel I can deliver what these people have put on my shoulders.”

Veach, Towriss and Andretti. Photo: IndyCar

The key person to have come through with the deal is Dan Towriss, CEO, Group One Thousand One. Veach, his pastor and Towriss all connected in the run-up to the Indianapolis 500, with Veach’s program for that race announced at Long Beach with A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

Towriss explained first off that Group One Thousand One is a separate insurance company from Guggenheim Life, which was the presenting sponsor of Veach’s No. 40 Indy Women in Tech Championship Chevrolet in Indianapolis.

“Group One Thousand One is a group of insurance companies based in Indianapolis, and again, we’re growing our business, and we’re excited to be associated with Andretti and with Zach in this newest venture of ours,” Towriss explained.

“His story is one of perseverance and continuing to work hard. It resonates with us very well; helping people help themselves, and so we will help him continue on that journey. During May, we noted the way he was able to persevere, and work with his engineers when things weren’t able to work.”

Veach at Indy 500 this year. Photo: IndyCar

Veach is one of the smallest drivers in the series, at 5 and a half feet and hovering around 130 pounds. But outside the cockpit he’s developed a love of mountain climbing, and has been able to scale several cliffs over the last couple years.

His upper body strength is something he’s focused on building and he has come a long way from his early years in the MRTI. Manhandling an IndyCar is difficult, particularly as they don’t have power steering, but it’s something Veach has been working on.

“I think the first couple of tests will be hard, but they’ll be hard for everyone after the three-month offseason,” he said. “But we’re already 10 pounds heavier than we were at the Indy 500 and I’m proud to say there’s not a lot of fat!

“We’ve been busting our butts at St. Vincent’s to get stronger. Our numbers to now from where we started are night and day. We’ll keep working hard and as we get closer to the season, we’ll shift to more cardiovascular work. I’m at 128, 130 pounds now and I’d like to be at 135 when the season starts. I think it’s well within reach.”

Veach described the challenge of advancing up the ladder despite not winning a single Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship for winning any of the three rungs on the ladder.

Veach (12) with longtime friend Gabby Chaves (7) in 2013 Freedom 100. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s not something I’m proud of. But one thing I am very proud of is that I’ve been very honest,” he said. “I had some success in USF2000, it was hit and miss in Pro Mazda, and in Indy Lights, I really came into my own. I proved to people that I could run up front and win races.

“What got me there was having that work ethic, trying to learn as much as I could from teammates who were quick and put that to use. Working with drivers like Felix Rosenqvist really helped. He showed me just how deep a car can go into the braking zone, with all that Formula 3 experience!

“He’s such a good driver and I hope to see him over here. He’s one of my closest friends and I don’t know anyone who deserves an IndyCar ride more than he does.

“It was a completely different set of skills and I think that’s why we didn’t hit our stride until the last part of the year. We won Road America, but winning at Watkins Glen and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca showed me where I wanted to be all year.

“It wasn’t until then that the team and I felt comfortable with what we were doing. There was added pressure when I became the team leader but that’s when things started turning around because the setups went in the exact direction I wanted them to go. That’s when things really started to click.”

Veach with USF2000 veteran Ayla Agren and Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman at Sonoma. Photo: IndyCar

The final element of Veach’s perseverance was his continued presence at the races. He found a home as a regular analyst and occasional pit road reporter for the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network in 2015, and made regular appearances there in 2016 and 2017 as well. He also drove a two-seater for the Indy Racing Experience in the same time frame.

“I think it was extremely important just from the standpoint of showing people I wasn’t going to go away,” Veach said.

“I think I got a little criticism from others involved sometimes just saying, ‘Well, why are you there if you’re not doing anything and not driving?’ You have to stay relevant, and that’s just what we were trying to do. Luckily enough, IndyCar Radio gave me a great opportunity. It’s the first kind of real job I ever had with them.

“I owe them many thanks, and of course the Indy Racing Experience with the two-seater. Even though it’s a two-seater I still got to run at places I’ve never raced at before. So I’m going to a few new tracks next year. It’s not the same thing but at least I know which way to go. I think that’s going to help us be a little quicker.

“It’s just never giving up on the dream. It’s learning every day. It’s never taking no for an answer.”

Boullier: Honda F1 deal ‘a proper disaster’ for McLaren’s credibility

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McLaren’s three-year stint with Formula 1 engine partner Honda has been a “proper disaster” for the team’s credibility, according to racing director Eric Boullier.

McLaren announced last Friday in Singapore it would be parting company with Honda at the end of the season, switching to Renault power units for 2018.

The confirmation put an end to months of uncertainty surrounding the future of the McLaren-Honda partnership, which has seen the British team struggle towards the back of the field since 2015.

McLaren faces a big task to recover the lost financial support from Honda while also trying to attract new sponsors, but Boullier is confident the decision to change engine partner will help its cause.

“When you look at the last three years, it’s been a proper disaster for us in terms of credibility and getting new sponsors,” Boullier told the official F1 website.

“And then you have to take the long-term view: in the next five years I am absolutely sure that we will go back to where McLaren belongs.

“And with this bouncing back we get our credibility back and it will rebuild our sponsor portfolio. It might take two to three years.

“We are ninth in the championship – with a top engine I think we would be fourth right now and just on the FOM money we could cover the engine side, so it will not be a big risk on the monetary side.

“Thanks to the shareholders who have been brave enough to take a sporting choice and not hurt McLaren. They could have said: ‘Let’s wait until Honda wakes up’.”