Rolex recap: IndyCar rookie Spencer Pigot’s effort goes up in smoke

(Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

Spencer Pigot is looking forward to his Verizon IndyCar Series debut with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in about six weeks for the season-opening race at St. Petersburg.

If he has his way, the reigning Indy Lights champion will catch fire and smoke many of his opponents.

But hopefully not the way the 22-year-old Florida resident’s day ended early Sunday in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona.

Pigot had just hopped out of the No. 55 Mazda Motorsports Prototype around 2 a.m. ET and turned it over to teammate Tristan Nunez. The other driver on the team was Jonathan Bomarito.

Instead of Pigot’s performance sparking something in Nunez to continue a rally that Pigot began during his prior driving stint, a different kind of spark occurred.

The transmission in the Mazda inexplicably broke and then caught fire. Rescue teams were unable to salvage the vehicle and it retired after 327 laps (of the 736-lap event) and about 12 hours short of its finishing goal.

As a result, Pigot and Co. finished a disappointing 49th out of the 54-car field (although it was 10th in-class of the 13 entries in the Prototype class). It was also not a good day for the other Mazda team (No. 70 of Joel Miller, Ben Devlin and Tom Long), which finished last in the field, bowing out after just 11 laps on Saturday.

Despite the fiery ending, Pigot felt it was a good experience overall and the longest amount of time he’s ever been in a race car.

“The original plan was for me to only do three stints and then they asked me if I felt all right enough to do another one,” Pigot said in a media release. “That fourth stint was a lot of fun; I was finally up with all the DPs and Prototype cars. It was more of the same class instead of always passing GT cars. I’m glad I got to stick around that last stint.”

Pigot can now turn his attention back to his IndyCar duties, including testing in the next couple of weeks. But he’s glad he had the Rolex experience.

“There (was) lots of dust and dirt on the track, there’s a lot of oil on the track,” he said. “A few of us all spun on oil late in my stint there, so that was kind of tricky.

“Just a lot of cars, a lot of traffic. Sometimes you can’t really do much but just wait until the straightaway (to make passes). Way different than what I’m used to, but I really enjoyed it.”

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New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
Joe Portlock - Formula 1/Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images

Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”