Ten with Townsend: Sonoma and 2015 IndyCar debrief

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Following an emotional roller coaster at Sonoma to cap off the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season, we check in with our NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell for the latest installment in the MotorSportsTalk original series “Ten with Townsend.”

A series archive is linked here and as always, we thank him for his time and insights:

-When you have a tragedy such as we’ve had this week with the loss of Justin, how do you compartmentalize and move ahead while still honoring a fallen friend/great driver and greater man?

As a racing driver, there is no option when you strap in the car: it will force your focus. Perhaps that’s why, in the end, it’s the best therapy for the drivers.

-As you and I were both on assignment elsewhere at VIR instead of at Pocono, was it harder to be away or was it good to be able to come back this weekend to Sonoma and reunite with the IndyCar family?

I had the forced focus going at VIR, but the sweetness of victory was short-lived as I heard the call live on IndyCar Radio on the way to the airport.

-What are some of your favorite Justin memories?

Having him come up to me after the Richmond race in 2008. Flaming mad but uncontrollably polite. I remember thinking… “This is the nicest guy I’ve ever battled against.”

-You said during the pre-race show to watch out for Dixon. Should we call you NostraTownsend now?

No, a simple plaque will be fine.

-All kidding aside, even with as cool and calm as Dixon is, how surprising is it he was able to make up the 47-point deficit? Did double points swing the championship too much in your opinion?

It was the same for everyone. A level playing field and Dixon grabbed the pie and ate it.

(Editor’s note: Townsend wrote this now incredibly accurate line after Iowa: “I predict Dixon and Montoya down to the last lap.. Iceman cometh…as always…”)

-Did Montoya and Penske lose the title, did Dixon and Ganassi win it, or was it a little of both?

There’s a certain twinkle in PT’s eye when he reminded us that this was the seventh time in eight years where Penske has ‘lost’ the title at the final race. It would be hard not to see this one that way.

-When you look back at the season Graham Rahal and RLL had, should they be disappointed it ended how it did or be thankful they enjoyed such a successful campaign?

They punched above their weight and they should be proud of the season. The vulnerability of a one-car team was certainly exposed on the starts and restarts Sunday as the multi-car management took place.

-Sonoma race: Biggest surprise and/or disappointment you had.

Biggest surprise was Rodolfo Gonzalez. Solid all weekend and an impressive result.

Biggest disappointment was watching another great result slip through Josef Newgarden’s very talented hands.

-The 2015 season: Biggest surprises, and/or disappointments you had.

Biggest surprise: Easily Rahal. Didn’t see that coming at all.

Biggest disappointment: Penske. I thought you could make a case for them winning every race this season. In the end their total tally was three!

-Lastly, what are some of your favorite memories of the 2015 season? This was a turbulent year for IndyCar but did you think the series’ on-track product overcame some of the challenges that sprouted up during the year, notably during month of May and then here in the last month?

I think my favorite memory will be Chip “Axl Rose” Ganassi testing the shoulder strength of his Target VIPs. I thought I had seen it all.

It’s nice to see he still has the passion for winning and a much more elegant execution than his Mid-Ohio stage dive after Kimball’s victory in 2013.

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.”