Preview: Milwaukee IndyFest important short-oval test for IndyCar field

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How will the Verizon IndyCar Series follow up arguably its most exciting, thrilling race in ages?

That is the question first and foremost on the minds of the paddock heading into this weekend’s ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers, or more simply known as Milwaukee IndyFest, at the legendary Milwaukee Mile.

Milwaukee hasn’t necessarily thrown up great races the last few years, but it does reward drivers and teams who unload strongly off the hauler.

Preparation will be key more than ever with what is essentially a one-day schedule, for the race’s third date in as many years (mid-June, mid-August and now mid-July).

There’s a single practice on Saturday afternoon but all of practice two, qualifying and the race will be spread over a 10-hour period on Sunday, starting in the morning and culminating with a 4:35 p.m. local green flag time (live coverage begins at 4 p.m. CT/5 p.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra).

One of IndyCar’s younger drivers, Jack Hawksworth, describes the challenge facing the current field with this de facto one-day show.

“These ovals are so hard for drivers and teams because practice is so, so limited,” Hawksworth told MotorSportsTalk in an interview.

“Look at Fontana. There was a 45-minute practice one, and a one-hour practice two. We had a red for an hour in one and 10 minutes in another. You have to roll off the truck good. With a hiccup here or hiccup there, it’s almost impossible to have a smooth weekend.”

Still, the driver of the No. 41 ABC Supply Co. Honda likes the fact the schedule sets up similar to something his team boss, A.J. Foyt, faced on a regular basis in his driving career.

“Having practice, qualifying and race, all a on the Sunday, it feels like an event which is great,” he said. “From a driver or team perspective, we don’t have time to react. Should we try this or that? We either get it right or don’t.

“It will be a very high pressure situation between qualifying and race. There’s certainly an element of gambling. The scheduling sounds good with a lot going on Sunday, but better than when we’re standing around all day waiting with nothing to do. Like Texas had nothing all day, then we raced. This one will be good.”

So who will be good in the fourth oval race of the season?

It’s not as clear-cut as you might think this time around. It’s the first short oval race with the new aero kits, which will be back to the road course, high downforce setup, after three high-speed oval races.

Penske has been great but Ganassi not as much in recent years at Milwaukee. Will Power dominated a year ago while teammate Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Kanaan had a great battle for second, although both ripped on traffic.

Scott Dixon was a dominant Milwaukee winner in 2009 but hasn’t finished on the podium since. Milwaukee has frequently been Helio Castroneves’ house of horrors.

The wild card team to watch is Andretti Autosport, as Ryan Hunter-Reay took authoritative wins in both 2012 and 2013 but fought through a suspension failure last year. RHR has been better in recent races, with Carlos Munoz also more on form than not. The team’s driver to watch though is Marco Andretti, who has been on a roll of late since Indianapolis and has traditionally raced well at Milwaukee.

Fontana winner Graham Rahal also looks for a follow-up act on the first short oval of the year, a circuit he’s struggled in two previous outings with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. We’ll see how the team gets the No. 15 Honda set up this time around.

Ryan Briscoe should be good for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and teammate James Jakes has been quietly decent with back-to-back oval top-10s in Texas and Fontana. Briscoe won his first career race at Milwaukee in 2008.

Outside that group, CFH Racing, KVSH Racing/KV Racing Technology, A.J. Foyt Enterprises, Bryan Herta Autosport and Dale Coyne Racing may not be fighting for the wins but for decent top-10 positions. CFH has blown hot and cold this year and desperately needs some oval success to match a win apiece on a road and street course.

Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500