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United States GP Paddock Notebook – Saturday

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AUSTIN, Texas – Let’s face it, today was bad. You can’t really sugarcoat it or attempt to make sense of the situation. It’s just one of those days you’d like to forget very quickly.

A free practice session happened with only a smattering of fans who’d made it in before news came down that Circuit of The Americas spectator gates would be closed until noon local time.

Then a three-hour delay occurred for what was supposed to be qualifying before a decision was announced to push qualifying through to 9:00 a.m. CT and local time (10:00 a.m. ET) on Sunday morning, LIVE on CNBC and NBC Sports Live Extra.

As you’d expect, there’s not too much to recap:

SESSION REPORTS

PADDOCK NEWS AND FEATURES 

THOUGHTS FROM THE TRACK*

Weathering the storm

The asterisk in the lead-in to this section denotes the fact that I opted not to go to the track today. Reasoning? With persistent and continuously extending flash flood warnings, late information close to the start of sessions as to when the sessions would run, the ability to work and follow sessions remotely via both NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra and a not-too-far-but-still-somewhat-far potential drive from my hotel to the track, I decided against going. This marks the first day in 10 years since I started my career in 2006 that I’ve been on site for a weekend, yet stayed back at a hotel. Simply put, the risk wasn’t worth it to drive.

U.S. fans rock

A handful of fans made it in before Circuit of The Americas revealed before 9 a.m. CT and local time that the gates would be closed for safety reasons. Those already present could seek shelter in the main grandstand.

If you were stuck either on a bus or in a parking lot before getting in, the agony would have to be palpable.

If you’re a fan… you have every reason to be a bit, or more than a bit aggrieved at how things transpired.

The surreal experience was that at 10 a.m., seemingly against all common sense or logic, FP3 was running and there were not that many fans there to see it. By the time fans were let in by noon, they were treated to a several-hour delay, and no cars on track. It was at best disappointing, at worst, farcical – something U.S. fans have been through before.

The bright side – if any – came from the teams doing their best to entertain in the absence of running. The blog site WTF1.co.uk has a pretty good synopsis of the hilarity that took place up and down the pit lane in the rain delay.

And then both F1 and COTA came good with this bit of news that has come down in the last hour:

Hopefully it’s not a case of too little, too late, but it’s a fantastic – and deserved – gesture to witness.

F1 fans in the U.S. do care, and the ones that have journeyed to Austin this time around are a dedicated lot. It’s easy to forget at times, but they are the reason this whole thing exists – in my opinion, even more than the sponsors and the manufacturers.

F1’s human side becomes present

For the talk that F1 drivers and teams are corporate automatons, devoid of personality, that notion can be squashed as the emotional and human side of F1 shone through brightly today on a day when there was almost no light.

From Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat’s dancing exhibition, to Lewis Hamilton’s pit lane wave to the crowd, to the surprise emergence of Carlos Sainz and Jos Verstappen matching their sons in Toro Rosso firesuits, to the various races up and down to the pit lane, and all the cheekiness and brilliance coming from all the team and driver Twitter accounts, it was plain to see everyone give their best performance. There wasn’t the standard sponsor plugs, cliches and non-answers. There was proper humanity on display.

A busy day now set for Sunday

Qualifying, a race, and a potential World Championship to be decided all in one day. And yet more rain, although mercifully, not as much as we’ve seen the last day or too. Sunday promises to be a long, crazy and potentially historic day.

***

Qualifying coverage is at 10 a.m. ET (9 a.m. CT) on CNBC, with race coverage starting at 2:30 p.m. ET (1:30 p.m. CT) on NBC and lights out at 3 p.m. ET, 2 p.m. CT, on Sunday.

Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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Honda Photo
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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 NBCSports.com 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 Sports.com. “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