Andretti Autosport continuing to move upward in IndyCar

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The 1-2 finish by Carlos Munoz and Marco Andretti in the first of the two Belle Isle weekend races two weeks ago was the high point for Andretti Autosport thus far in 2015.

But Saturday night’s 5-6 finish by Andretti and Munoz in the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway may be a bit more representative of where the team will continue to build in the second half of the Verizon IndyCar Series season.

The third-generation Andretti has been on a roll for his grandfather and father’s team of late. Marco has earned three top-fives in the last three races: second at Belle Isle #1, fifth in Belle Isle #2 and fifth Saturday at Texas.

Those were the first top fives of the season for Marco Andretti, who also has four other top 10s in 2015. As a result, he’s climbed to sixth in the point standings (93 points behind series leader Juan Pablo Montoya) and is sporting an average finish of 8.3 per race.

“We were sort of just hanging on to it tonight,” Andretti said after Saturday’s race. “Seemingly lacking a bit of grip and pace to the front runners, so we had to get the top five the way we did it. It was an awesome job by my Snapple guys. We just need to keep hanging in there, that’s all we can do.”

Munoz, currently 12th in the standings (140 points behind Montoya) has Andretti Autosport’s only win of the season (Belle Isle #1). By finishing sixth at Texas, he now has four top 10 (including his win) finishes in the first nine races and has improved his per-race finishing average to 11.6.

“I think I gave 100 percent, everything I could,” said Munoz, who consistently hung in the top seven of Saturday’s race. “We finished sixth – a great position, and I think I did quite good with our stops and pushing hard. It was good for experience, another top 10, and now we’re looking forward to Toronto (Honda Indy Toronto on June 14).”

But as good as Andretti and Munoz have fared of late, teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay has been somewhat of an enigma.

After finishing sixth in the IndyCar standings last season, the 2012 IndyCar Series champ has struggled for much of 2015.

He left Texas 13th in the standings (165 points behind Montoya) and has just one top-five (fifth at Birmingham) and two other top 10 finishes (St. Petersburg and Belle Isle #2).

Not surprisingly, his average per-race finish is 12.1, including finishing a disappointing 18th at Texas due to ongoing handling issues throughout the race.

“Unfortunately, I think there’s something wrong with this car – it’s the same one we had at (Indianapolis) – and we’re going to ‘kitchen sink it’ as they call it, for the next oval race,” Hunter-Reay said Saturday. “We’re just going to come back with a different tub, a different everything because it’s not this difficult.

“There’s no excuse for this. … I’m just glad I brought it back in one piece – it was loose the whole night no matter what we did to it. Meanwhile, my teammates (Andretti and Muñoz) were adding front wing the whole night trying to get the front to grip up.”

SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

Roczen change
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media
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Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.

Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.

But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.

“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”

Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.

Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”

The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.

But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.

“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”

Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.

“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.

“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.

“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”