Road America IMSA weekend musings, notes, observations

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Another weekend at Road America is in the books. Here’s a quick download of some of the items from the latest race weekend for IMSA’s TUDOR United SportsCar Championship:

  • Multiple Road America winners aplenty. Dane Cameron (second straight win), Bruno Junqueira (fourth overall) and Jeroen Bleekemolen (fourth overall) added to their own Road America record books with wins in Sunday’s race.
  • Daly’s disappointment. “I got held up behind the Aston, but I went conservative. When you go conservative, you lose the race.” Such were the words of a dejected Conor Daly in the victory podium area after his latest heartbreak result, spinning from the lead on the last lap, as a first sports car win continues to elude him and co-driver James French this season. At least at Lime Rock, when he and Christopher Haase collided, there was some solace in that it was a racing incident. On Sunday, Daly called it what it was: a gut-wrenching mistake. Here’s hoping there aren’t lingering after effects for the talented young American driver.
  • Porsche’s dominant weekend in GTLM. Yes, the Porsche 911 RSRs received a 10 kg minimum weight break heading into the weekend, but the pace from the two factory cars on Michelins was unmatched in the usually tight GTLM class from start to finish. Arguably, the polesitting No. 912 car could have won, but the No. 911 car of Nick Tandy and Patrick Pilet rebounded nicely from a couple issues throughout the weekend.
  • The GTD title everyone wants to win, even without winning. The top four driver pairings entered Sunday’s race separated by only 10 points, none having won a race. They stayed close coming out, with Christina Nielsen of TRG-AMR unofficially moving into the class lead after her and Kuno Wittmer’s runner-up finish in the aforementioned Aston Martin. Meanwhile the No. 48 Paul Miller Audi, No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari and No. 22 Alex Job Porsche continue their season-long winless dry spells.
  • Great Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge drama. In both GS and ST, there were dramatic finishes on Saturday. Matt Plumb (Rum Bum Racing Porsche 911) held off a hard-charging BJ Zacharias (Doran Racing Nissan 370Z) in GS, while in ST, Spencer Pumpelly’s fuel gamble fell short and the win fell to Ryan Eversley ahead of Owen Trinkler and Eric Foss. The win was emotional for Eversley, paying tribute to NF hero Drew Leathers, and he also ensured to note the job done by Honda co-driver Chad Gilsinger, who took the car from 18th to second in his stint.
  • A weekend of change. I noticed this leaving on Sunday night, but there were signs of the past still very much present at the iconic, picturesque 4.048-mile road course. The Champ Car stickers underneath the tunnel on the walk to and from the infield bring back memories of the last major open-wheel race there some eight years ago in 2007. Now, there will be IndyCar signage when the series comes back next year. Meanwhile, with Saturday night’s announcement that WeatherTech would replace TUDOR as entitlement sponsor of IMSA’s flagship SportsCar Championship, suddenly everything TUDOR United SportsCar Championship becomes vintage in three months. Go figure.
  • Timing is everything. With hindsight, the way IndyCar’s announcement of its return to Road America occurred could have been handled better. Me, in my boyish enthusiastic state that this was actually real, wanted to be giddy as all hell as the lone full-time IndyCar reporter present in the media center at that time. So I ignored the fact that this hastily organized press conference – complete with IndyCar signage on a Road America banner – was essentially trolling the IMSA weekend as it was happening, during a TUDOR practice session. The announcement hit at 11 a.m. ET, 10 a.m. CT and local time, in what was a coordinated strategic effort by IndyCar and the track to maximize exposure on social media and with local reporters. From that standpoint, it worked. But the issue arose with the fact there was nothing to really, properly herald the fact IndyCar and Road America were getting back together after a nine-year absence. There were no past photos or graphics, no videos, no real IndyCar component – just the series’ outgoing president of competition of operations, Derrick Walker, next to track president George Bruggenthies. Walker had only switched from his Falken Motorsports shirt to his IndyCar one minutes earlier. If communication about the announcement was poorly delivered to key stakeholders, then it made for a more awkward presentation than it could have been. Am I stoked that IndyCar is finally returning to Road America? Hell yes, as are many others. But after a couple days to stew on it, I’d have to agree with other opinions I’ve seen that this could have been presented and revealed in a much better fashion, or at a better time. Especially as the sense for weeks has been that this was, in fact, coming, but was just a matter of when.
  • On the subject of awkward announcements… IMSA’s Saturday night “State of the Series” announcement went well, and according to plan, right up until we got to the partner announcement stage of the program. TUDOR and Rolex were announced as having extended for 10 years apiece; TUDOR as the Official Timepiece of IMSA and Rolex with Sebring International Raceway. That’s when things got weird. David MacNeil, founder and CEO of WeatherTech and son Cooper, who races the No. 22 Alex Job Racing Porsche 911 GT America with Leh Keen, and the four WeatherTech girls came on stage. Some awkward introductory comments followed and for those who were on site, they’ll not soon forget what they heard. As above, it’s good for the championship to have a clearly defined automotive brand in WeatherTech take over and hopefully increase activation and the championship’s profile. But the way the introduction occurred was arguably one of the weirdest things I’ve seen in 10 years covering motorsports.

Alexander Rossi ‘fits like a glove’ with his new IndyCar teammates at Arrow McLaren Racing

Alexander Rossi McLaren
Nate Ryan

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – There are more than three dozen fresh faces on the Arrow McLaren Racing IndyCar team, but there was one that Felix Rosenqvist was particularly keen to know – Alexander Rossi.

The driver of the No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet is the most high-profile new hire for McLaren, which has expanded to a third car to pair with the No. 6 of Rosenqvist and No. 5 of Pato O’Ward.

And there is another layer than Rossi just being the new kid. McLaren marks only his second team in NTT IndyCar Series after seven seasons at Andretti Autosport, where he began with a victory in the 2016 Indy 500 and was a championship contender for several seasons.

Rossi is a mercurial talent, and when things go wrong, the red mist quickly descends (and sometimes has led to feuds with teammates). He went winless during two of his final seasons at Andretti and was out of contention more often than not, often bringing out the prickly side of his personality.

Yet there has been no trace of the dour Rossi since joining McLaren. The pragmatic Californian is quick to remind everyone he hasn’t worked with the team yet at a track (much less been in its car), and there surely will be times he gets frustrated.

But it’s clear that Rossi, who made five Formula One starts in 2015 after several years racing in Europe, already is meshing well with an organization whose England-based parent company has deep roots in F1.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Rosenqvist said Tuesday during IndyCar’s preseason media availabilities. “I think Alex kind of has that bad-guy role a little bit in IndyCar. He’s always been that guy, which is cool. I think we need those guys, as well.

“Actually having gotten to know him, he’s been super nice, super kind. He fits like a glove in the team. I think it fills a role where Pato is kind of like the crazy guy, I’m somewhere in the middle, and Alex is the more engineering guy in the team. I think Alex has more experience, as well. He just feels like a guy who knows what he wants.

“Yeah,  good addition to the team and great guy at the same time.”

There are many reasons why Rossi’s transition from Andretti to McLaren should be smoother than his abrupt move from F1 to IndyCar seven years ago. Namely, he no longer is the only newcomer to the team’s culture.

“It’s been kind of a good time to come in because everyone is finding a new role and position and kind of learning who’s who, finding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses,” he said.

But while Rossi might have questions about the team, he has none about the series. Unlike when he arrived at Andretti without any oval experience, Rossi joins McLaren with his IndyCar credentials secured as an established star with eight victories, seven poles and 28 podiums over 114 starts.

Even in his swan song with Andretti, Rossi still managed a farewell victory last July at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course that snapped a 49-race, three-year winless drought. It seems reasonable to believe he immediately could re-emerge in his 2017-19 title contender form.

“I know the series, and I know kind of everything that goes into American open-wheel racing vs. the European open-wheel racing, which is really the biggest transition,” Rossi said. “Certainly it’s the largest kind of team switch. I’ve obviously driven for different teams in the past in Europe, in sports cars, whatever, but never really in my full-time job. I’ve driven for the same organization for a very long time and have a lot of respect and fabulous memories with those people.

“So it has been a big kind of shift, trying to compare and contrast areas that I can bring kind of recommendations and experience to maybe help fill the gaps that exist at Arrow McLaren. Again, all of this is in theory, right? I don’t really know anything. We’ll have a much better idea and plan going into St. Pete (the March 5 season opener).”

He has gotten a good handle on how things work at its Indianapolis headquarters, though, and has been pleased by the leadership of new racing director Gavin Ward (who worked in F1 before a championship stint with Josef Newgarden at Team Penske). McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown also seems omnipresent on both sides of the Atlantic, making appearances at IndyCar races seemingly as much as in the F1 paddock.

“I think what’s very cool about Arrow McLaren is we do have the resources of the McLaren F1 team,” Rossi said. “They very much are being integrated in a lot of respects. It’s not two separate entities. McLaren Racing is one organization that has its people and resources and intellect in kind of everything. It’s been pretty cool to see how that can be an advantage to us in terms of people, resources, simulations, software, kind of everything. We’ve been able to kind of rely on that and use that as a tool that maybe other teams certainly don’t have.”

That will be helpful for Rossi with the methodologies and nuances of racing a Chevrolet for the first time after seven seasons with Honda.

And of course, there will be the relationship with O’Ward, who has been McLaren’s alpha star since 2020.

Rossi was in a similar role for Andretti, which raises questions about how McLaren will handle having two stars accustomed to being the face of the team. But O’Ward said IndyCar regulations should allow each driver to maintain their own style without being forced to adapt as in other series.

“At the end of the day, as much as teammates will help in order to gather data, it doesn’t mean they’re going to specifically help you in what you need because it’s a series where you can really tailor the car to what you want,” O’Ward said. “Rather than in Formula 1, (it’s) ‘This is the car, you need to learn how to drive this certain car.’ In IndyCar, it’s very different where you can customize it to what you want it to feel like or drive like.

“From past experience, I think Alex likes a car similar to what I do. I do think we have a very strong car in certain areas, but I definitely think he’s coming from a car where that other car has been stronger than us in other racetracks. I feel like if we can just find gains where we haven’t quite had a winning car, a podium car, that’s just going to help all of us.”

Though Thursday at The Thermal Club will mark the first time the trio works together at a track, Rosenqvist said he’s hung out a lot with Rossi (both are 31 years old) and deems his new teammate “well-integrated” in the simulator.

“I think the fit has been good with him, me and Pato,” Rosenqvist said. “On a trackside perspective, it’s obviously huge to have always a third opinion on things. Every driver’s opinion is valuable in its own way.”

Said O’Ward, 23: “It’s been great. (Rossi has) been great to have around. I think he needed a fresh start. I think he’s excited to really work with all of us, create the strongest package.”

Ever the realist, though, Rossi still is tempering some of his enthusiasm.

“Again, we haven’t really done anything yet other than some meetings and some team activities together,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done in IndyCar and also their prior careers. I think that we all bring something a little bit different to the table, which I think is really unique in terms of not only personalities but driving styles and experience levels.

“I think we have the ingredients to really be able to develop the team and continue to push the team forward to even a better level than what they’ve shown in the past. It’s been a really positive experience. Really I have nothing at all negative to say and can’t actually wait to get to work, get on track and start working together.”