From Daytona to the desert

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This weekend marks the start of the grind for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Preparing for and running the Daytona 500 is very much like a season in itself. But with “The Great American Race” in the rear view mirror, the fight for the Sprint Cup can truly begin.

The next battleground is decidedly different from Daytona’s sprawling superspeedway. Phoenix International Raceway is shorter (one mile) and has less banking, which will create a much bigger focus on downforce and handling this weekend.

Phoenix will also begin what should be an interesting few weeks of maturation for the new “Generation-6” cars. While it can’t be said that they put on a really exciting show last Sunday at Daytona, the drivers were also understandably playing it safe until the final stages.

“We’ve all crashed so many times and have torn up so much stuff that a lot of that falls on the driver’s shoulders,” said Daytona winner Jimmie Johnson on Sunday. “…I just believe a lot of the competitors just wanted to get to that last pit stop and race for it.”

But we’ve yet to see how the new cars will race on short and intermediate tracks.

March’s schedule has four facilities that fit this particular category: Phoenix, Las Vegas (1.5 miles, variably banked), Bristol (.533 miles, high-banked) and Fontana (two miles, mid-banked). If the Gen-6 cars can put on a good show in these upcoming events, NASCAR should take it as an encouraging sign of progress.

Another thing to keep an eye on: The tempers. One wonders if last Sunday’s post-race Twitter war between former Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano (now with Penske Racing) will continue to play out on the track.

If it does, it wouldn’t be the first time Phoenix has played host to controversy. The last time NASCAR visited in November of 2012, the post-race headlines didn’t focus on Kevin Harvick’s victory, but on a brawl between the crews of Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon after the two drivers had tangled repeatedly during the final laps.

When all the dust settled, track president Bryan Sperber dubbed the race as the greatest in PIR’s history. Talk about a tough act to follow.

Subway Fresh Fit 500k at Phoenix International Raceway
Sunday, 3 pm ET

Track Specs
1-mile oval
Turns 1-2: 11 degrees of banking
Turns 3-4: 9 degrees
Frontstretch: 3 degrees
Backstretch: 9 degrees

Race Distance: 312 laps/312 miles (500 kilometers)

Defending Race Champion: Denny Hamlin

Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing
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To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

MORE: McLaren considering Kyle Busch for Indy 500

“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.


Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”