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Smiling Through The Rain II: US fans’ resolve shines on Saturday

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Earlier this year, I wrote a piece following the British Grand Prix entitled “Smiling Through The Rain” after a damp weekend at Silverstone that saw Formula 1’s diehard fans stick it out and be rewarded with a breathless race.

So after Saturday’s washout at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, it is time for “Smiling Through The Rain II” (no ‘electric boogaloo’), looking back on one of the most bizarre days in the recent history of F1.

Following FP2’s cancellation on Friday and with worse weather due to hit Austin on Saturday thanks to Hurricane Patricia, most expected the day to be called off without a wheel being turned.

The FIA confirmed that a decision would be taken at 7am CT regarding the day, leaving those waiting to make their way to the track checking emails and refreshing Twitter for updates before braving the roads.

No decision came, though, prompting most to venture to COTA. However, the circuit told fans to stay away, saying that the gates would not be opened until midday – with practice due to start at 10am CT, a decision appeared to have been made.

However, much to chagrin of many of the fans in Austin who had hoped to see cars on track, FP3 went ahead as planned in front of empty grandstands, with conditions only just allowing for the cars to get out and complete some laps, knowing that it could have set the grid if qualifying was also rained out.

With the cars having gone out, COTA told fans to begin making their way to the track as qualifying was expected to start as planned at 1pm CT – when the worst of the weather was due to hit.

So we were left with the situation of fans having been kept out for FP3, be then told to come to the track in torrential rain, only to then have no cars on track and qualifying ultimately be postponed until Sunday morning. Memories of Indy ’05 came flashing back: another disaster for F1 in the USA.

What then followed was a show of F1’s human side, often hidden behind visors and race suits, that rewarded the fans who braved the conditions and kept singing away in the main grandstand donned in raincoats, clinging onto umbrellas that the wind kept trying to tug away.

We had breakdancing Force India mechanics, a Sauber tub rowing down the pit lane, a dance between Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat, and even Alexander Rossi throwing a football around. Nico Rosberg kicked a soccer ball around with Niki Lauda and the Mercedes mechanics. Jos Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Sr. donned Toro Rosso race suits and jumped in their sons’ cars.

All the while, the fans were still there, refusing to budge until qualifying was definitely cancelled.

And when the call eventually came through, in a gracious move from Bernie Ecclestone, circuit chairman Bobby Epstein and Mayor of Austin Steve Adler, they were invited to come into the pit lane to meet the drivers, pose for pictures and get something out of a soggy day.

Saturday had the potential to be another disaster for F1 in the USA, but it actually turned into a remarkably positive experience.

Think Americans don’t ‘get’ F1? Try telling the thousands of fans who stuck it out in the rain at COTA, knowing they may not see a car on track. Try telling those who cheered at every glimpse of a driver in the pit lane. Try telling those who will be back today for more.

Mother Nature is a cruel mistress, but even she couldn’t rain on the fans’ parade on Saturday, in spite of her best efforts.

For those not at COTA, you can watch qualifying for the United States Grand Prix live on CNBC from 10am ET. The US GP then follows at 2:30pm ET on NBC.

Newgarden tries to regain control of IndyCar championship race at Iowa

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NEWTON, Iowa – There are just six races left in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship and Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden has a hard-charging Alexander Rossi closing in on his gearbox. Newgarden’s lead is down to just three points after last Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto.

Newgarden has been the leader in the standings after every race this season, with the exception of the 103rdIndianapolis 500, when he trailed Team Penske teammate and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden by one point.

Is Newgarden worried entering Saturday night’s Iowa 300 at Iowa Speedway?

“I’m confident we have good cars,” Newgarden told NBC Sports.com. “You can have bad weekends here and there. I think we can have a good result the rest of the year. But there are a lot of guys still in it. Rossi is the guy who is the closest, but you can’t count out Simon Pagenaud, Scott Dixon or Will Power. It’s going to be a fight until the end for this championship.

“We briefly lost the points lead after the Indy 500. Simon and I were one point apart. We’ve had better consistency this year. That is what is going to pay off at the end. We’ve been consistent up to this point and we have to continue it to the end.

“Look at all of these championship runs, most of the times it goes to the most consistent driver. You have to have clean finishes for every run. If you don’t, it’s pretty tough to make up the deficit.”

Newgarden has had a remarkably consistent season with three wins, six podiums (top three) and nine top-five finishes in 11 races.

Rossi has nearly matched him with two wins, six podiums and nine top-five finishes in 11 races.

These two drivers are nearly in a dead heat, so as the championship leader, can Newgarden force his fiercest foes into making mistakes?

“I’m a little bit boring,” Newgarden said. “I do the same thing every time. It puts more pressure on guys like Scott Dixon, who has to win races to catch up. They are going to be more aggressive. Our program is boring and that is trying to maximize each race individually. That is what we have to do.

“I don’t know if it is that different than being in a fight with Will Power or Simon Pagenaud or Scott Dixon. They have different tendencies. Alex is the more aggressive of those other drivers. It’s fun going up against all of them. Alex is really good. He has a certain style you have to play against. If it was Scott, it would be just as exciting, but it would be a different game.

“Alex brings a more aggressive side to the conversation.”

That aggressive fight continues to the .875-mile short oval at Iowa Speedway, site of Saturday night’s Iowa 300.

It’s one of Newgarden’s better tracks. He set an IndyCar Series record for leading the most laps in a single race when he was in front for 282 laps in his 2016 Iowa win with Ed Carpenter Racing. That was preceded by two straight second place finishes at Iowa in 2014 and 2014.

Since joining Team Penske in 2017, Newgarden finished sixth that season and fourth in 2018 in a race where he led 211 laps.

“We were pretty good there last year,” Newgarden admitted. “We qualified well, but we were a little shy of what we needed last year. The race didn’t pan out the way we needed it to. Our strategy wasn’t perfect there. But those are things we can clean up. We have a really capable group. I think we’ll have a good car there, again. I feel good about it. We’ve had good cars there in the past, we were just a tick off. I think we will be better there this year.

“We should be fine.”

Short oval racing is a unique form that adds diversity to the schedule as drivers have to get on an off the accelerator and on and off the brake, all while dealing with traffic throughout the 300-lap contest.

It’s that type of close quarter racing that real racers love.

“Iowa, for sure is a racer’s track,” Newgarden said. “It’s very bumpy, with a lot of character. It’s one of my favorite short ovals that we go to. I love that place. A lot of the tracks we go to are racer’s race tracks. There aren’t a lot of bad ones of the schedule. There are tracks with diverse challenges and you like that. Going from Toronto to Iowa to Mid-Ohio, they are all different tracks that require different setups, different driving styles.

“It’s like the championship is a driver’s championship. That is what it demands.”

An NTT IndyCar Series race at Iowa Speedway is a special experience because it’s played out in front of grass-roots racing fans. These are the fans that following auto racing on a regular basis, many of which are regulars for sprint car racing down the road at Knoxville Speedway in Knoxville, Iowa.

“They are all different race fans,” Newgarden said. “Toronto has a bustling city vibe. Iowa is a bunch of farmers. Really nice people who are salt of the earth farmers who come out and enjoy racing. Mid-Ohio is a hybrid. It’s very much a Midwest race but different from Iowa.

“You get these different pockets of different fans, different people, different racers but they all like IndyCar racing and that’s pretty cool.”