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Mario Andretti on IndyCar 2016: “It’s better than I’ve felt in years”

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Yesterday, Mario Andretti turned 76.

Of course, age is just a number for one of North America’s greatest ever racing drivers, who remains one of this sport’s living legends and continual true ambassadors.

And, considering he’s seen so many seasons of IndyCar racing, over more than 50 years dating back to 1964 and then to his memorable rookie test at Indianapolis in 1965 taking over for a one Roger Penske, for him to be pretty optimistic about the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season speaks volumes.

Andretti joined son and Andretti Autosport team owner/CEO Michael Andretti and grandson and driver Marco Andretti at this week’s Test in the West at Phoenix International Raceway, not just observing but also driving one of the two-seater IndyCars.

He seems to like the direction the series is going, and some of the recent management changes made by the INDYCAR organization.

“I’m very happy with what I’m seeing right now. It’s been a long time coming,” Andretti told NBC Sports in an interview during the test.

“The staff that’s in place right now is really good, in my opinion. It’s experienced, and I see a lot of common sense. I think we’ll be great.

“Going into this season this year, it’s better than I’ve felt in years. That’s my personal opinion. You know I’ve been very critical in the past. But good things are happening.”

Just in the last two weeks, INDYCAR has hired Bill Pappas as Vice President of Competition, Race Engineering, and confirmed the three-person steward group of Chief Steward Dan Davis and additional Stewards Max Papis and Arie Luyendyk. Jay Frye has also been promoted to President of Competition and Operations this offseason.

The “critical” line Andretti refers to may be an indirect reference to his well-reasoned and memorable critique of Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, with the shortening of the IndyCar season.

In speaking to Andretti at the 2013 United States Grand Prix in Austin, Andretti told me then that the decision to shorten the 2014 season from ending in mid-October to early August was “not plausible.”

Two years later, Andretti’s been proven correct, and with paddock consensus generally agreeing with the point, the 2016 season will end in mid-September instead. Granted, TV ratings have gone up, but the tradeoff was the condensed calendar.

The schedule’s also more spread out this year so it isn’t necessarily a week-to-week thrash, as it was last year from before NOLA Motorsports Park in April through Toronto in June.

Andretti is also particularly keen on the return to Phoenix, where he won his 52nd and last race of his career in 1993 (pictured above).

“It’s huge for the series, because these are some of the venues that have been such a part of the series for so many years,” Andretti explained.

“Phoenix was so good for us. It was so good for IndyCar. It’s too bad we missed it for 10 years or more.

“But to be back is wonderful; we belong here.”

IndyCar teams with NASCAR on IMS road course doubleheader in 2021

IndyCar NASCAR doubleheader 2021
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The NTT IndyCar Series will be sharing Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the NASCAR Cup Series in a race weekend doubleheader for the second consecutive season, but both series will be on the road course in August 2021.

IMS announced Wednesday that IndyCar will hold an Aug. 14, 2021 race on its 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course. It’ll be a day before NASCAR’s premier series runs the same layout for the first time after the Brickyard 400 was contested on the 2.5-mile oval for the first time in 27 years.

This season’s rescheduling of the IndyCar GMR Grand Prix to July 4, 2019 (a day before the Brickyard 400) led to the first NASCAR-IndyCar doubleheader weekend. The Xfinity Series also raced on the IMS road course for the first time July 4 after the IndyCar race ended.

INDYCAR AT IMS THIS WEEKEND: Harvest GP schedule, entry lists

IndyCar will be holding its second race weekend this year at the IMS road course Friday and Saturday with the Harvest GP.

“Our first NASCAR-INDYCAR weekend was a big success last July, with positive feedback from
our loyal fans who watched the races on NBC and from the drivers, teams and participants
involved,” IMS president Douglas Boles said in a statement. “The Xfinity Series’ debut on the IMS road course provided exactly the kind of thrilling action from the green to checkered flags that we anticipated, so we know the teams and drivers of the Cup Series will put on a great show as they turn left and right for the first time at IMS.

“We can’t wait to welcome back fans to see NASCAR and INDYCAR together during this
exciting weekend as we add another memorable chapter in the long, storied history of the
Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”

It also will mark the first NASCAR Cup-IndyCar doubleheader with a crowd as fans weren’t permitted at IMS in July because of the novel coronvavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Over the course of Wednesday, NASCAR is releasing its 36-race slate for next season. IndyCar has yet to release its full 2021 schedule.