Markus Niemela on dirt racing: “This is a really, really hard sport to be good at”

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For former Formula Atlantic champion Markus Niemela, poor timing and a lack of a suitable opportunity in either Formula One or IndyCar ultimately stunted his open-wheel path.

He won the 2008 Atlantic title over Jonathan Bomarito and Jonathan Summerton, and the field also included drivers such as James Hinchcliffe, Dane Cameron and Simona de Silvestro among others.

The talented Finn, who raced in GP2 before moving to America, didn’t give up on his racing dreams though.

Shortly after his last Atlantic season in 2009 – the series’ last before coming back under different sanction several years later – Niemela made the switch to dirt racing and running sprint cars.

He was in the news last week after having a scary accident at Perris Auto Speedway, where a freak parts failure led to him somersaulting into the wall. Niemela emerged largely unscathed with only minor injuries.

But it’s worth noting the incident came after a year when Niemela had his best season yet in four on dirt.

He finished second in the USAC West Coast Sprint Car Championship behind Matt Mitchell (659 points to 631), which marks the best season result ever for any European driver in USAC.

That’s no small accomplishment, and that’s very impressive to note for the now 30-year-old native of Rauma, Finland, who has since moved to Santa Barbara, California.

MotorSportsTalk caught up with Niemela over the weekend to touch base on his career shift and to help further explain why dirt racing is so tantalizing, and how he’s developed over four years.

“Shifting to dirt was in all honesty much harder than I thought and I might have started off with a bit too big ego to start with,” Niemela admitted. “I was quite fast right away when the track was in a good shape and logical to drive, but honestly after four years of dirt tracks I still haven’t quite figured out in how many ways the track changes throughout the night. You just can’t have ‘a driving style’ in dirt racing because you need to adapt in so many different things. Almost every lap is different.”

And with that, Niemela admitted there is still plenty that he can keep learning as he continues to grow and develop.

“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned, and the one thing I still need to learn the most, is to change my driving fast enough to keep up with the track, other cars, lapped traffic, etc.,” he said. “Also you need to be very aware of your surroundings all the time because there are cars all over the place, and you don’t have mirrors nor spotters.”

Markus Niemela’s No. 73. Photo credit: Robert Hargraves, via Facebook

Coming from formula cars, Niemela discussed the excitement of dirt racing and how seriously different it is. He spoke of the rawness of the arena, as well.

“Dirt racing is exciting because there is something going on the whole time and the race is not determined by the qualifying result,” he said. “Anything can happen and you always need to be awake. Dirt racing’s biggest plus and minus for me is the same thing: it’s just so raw form of sport. It’s good thing because there’s no bulls—, and also the danger element is kind of exciting for someone coming from formula cars that are very safe in general.

“But on the other hand, the biggest negative is the danger element too,” he added. “When I was racing formula cars I thought the stupidest question to ask a race car driver was about their fears – honestly since I started racing at the age of 6 in karting through all the formula car classes I had not once been afraid or thought I might get hurt or die doing it. Pretty soon after I started racing sprint cars the s— got real very fast and all of the sudden I didn’t feel immortal anymore…”

Unfortunately for sprint car racing, and dirt racing in general, safety has been a hot-button issue the last two years in the wake of Jason Leffler’s fatal accident last June, Tony Stewart’s crash and leg injury last August, and Stewart’s car striking and killing Kevin Ward Jr. earlier this year.

Niemela discussed safety and what dirt racing can do moving forward to continue the improvement.

“The risk for big crashes is in the very nature of our sport and that cannot be eliminated without changing the very fundaments of it and we definitely should not do that,” Niemela said. “The key is to learn to keep the drivers alive despite a big crash.

“Comparing to European racing and formula cars, in dirt racing the safety is left more for drivers and teams to take care of than the sanctioning body to babysit. I can understand it though since it’s the drivers who get hurt if something goes wrong. The safety goes forward and we learn from each crash but unfortunately price for this learning curve can be very high (and I’m not talking about money here).

“That’s why I feel it would be nice to get information from what went wrong and what went right with each crash so that those (drivers and teams) willing to educate themselves could do so. That’s why I find also the posting of my own crash video to be a good thing. We should definitely not push the responsibility to any third party authority but expect the teams and drivers work with safety gear manufacturers and make things even better. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still room for improvement.”

If there’s one thing Niemela would want to see cleared up about dirt racing, it’s that the talent and passion in the sport is immense.

“The biggest misconception is that this dirt racing is just bunch of rednecks having fun and drifting in random, easy circles,” he said. “This is actually a really, really hard sport to be good at. Some of these guys race 120 times per year and have done it all their life.

“Their faces might be dirty, they aren’t sponsored by Rolex and some of their necks might be a little red, but that’s not the point; point is that these guys are the best at what they do, no questions asked.

“I was quite close to landing a F1 deal after my Atlantic title in ’08 and I very much overlooked all the oval track racing and thought it was just plain dumb and easy. After getting constantly lapped by not-so-athletic, old sprint car veterans in local shows during my first year on dirt, my respect has grown a lot and still is growing.

“I think it’s been an big honor to lead the USAC championship most of the season here on the west coast and even if we ended up second in the points I still consider that as a personal achievement; which I never did when I finished second in my previous life in formula cars (or karting).”

We’re happy to see Niemela’s career come to the point where he’s now a bona fide title contender on dirt, and we thank him for his time and candid insights.

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”

Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500