Drivers eager for IndyCar return to Phoenix this weekend

Kanaan and Dixon. Photo: IndyCar
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There’s been a lot of anticipation leading into the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Drivers were eager for the season-opening race at St. Petersburg two weeks ago, racing for the first time in Boston on Labor Day Weekend and, of course, the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.

But one race that seems to have extra special anticipation among the open-wheel pilots is this weekend’s return to racing at Phoenix International Raceway.

The last time IndyCar raced at the one-mile oval was 2005, when Sam Hornish Jr. took the checkered flag.

And while waiting 11 years to return has been a long time, drivers are pumped up to return to the Valley of the Sun and Saturday night’s under the lights Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix race.

Here’s what several drivers are saying about the series rising again in Phoenix:

JUAN PABLO MONTOYA (No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, St. Petersburg winner and points leader): “It’s good for the Verizon IndyCar Series to come back to a market like Phoenix, with all the history the series has there. I think it’s going to be a pretty interesting race on Saturday night and our Team Penske cars should be fast there, so hopefully we can make it two in a row to start the season.”

HELIO CASTRONEVES (No. 3 REV Group Team Penske Chevrolet): “I am one of the few guys who ran at Phoenix before and I have some really good memories of the track, including winning there in 2002. We learned a lot in our test there a few weeks ago and it sounds like there’s a lot of buzz in town around the Verizon IndyCar Series coming back to race at PIR. I know I am excited and looking forward to racing under the lights in the REV Team Penske Chevy on Saturday night.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “It’s really great that INDYCAR got such a historic venue like Phoenix back on the calendar. I remember watching PIR races on TV as a kid, so it will be cool now to get to battle it out there. And it will be a battle! Based on what we saw at the open test, it will be a tight race, very physical, very hot …  and I don’t care if it’s a dry heat!”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series champion): “I’m excited for the return to Phoenix. I think the last time I was there was 2005. It’s a tough track and I know it’s changed a bit over the years with some resurfacing, so it will be interesting to see how it handles now. I love the area and Arizona is a great part of the world. There are a lot of fans in the area and I hope they are as excited as we are to return and go racing there again.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet): ” NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing is more than prepared heading into Phoenix. I’ve had some really good results there with the two wins (2003 and 2004) and I felt really good at the test earlier this year. I’m focused and the team is ready for a good result out in Phoenix, so we’re going to do everything we can to make that happen.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 11 Team Hydroxycut – KVSH Racing Chevrolet): “This will be the first time I have raced at Phoenix International Raceway in an Indy car, so that is always different and a bit of a challenge. We tested there about a month ago and collected a lot of data, but the one thing I know for sure is that it will be a very physically demanding race. We are going to be pulling more G’s (G-forces) than we usually do and the racing will be close.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It should put on quite a show for the fans Saturday night. I know everyone is happy to be back racing at Phoenix. It’s an awesome area, home to the Penske Racing museum, which makes it extra special for us and the fans seem very excited, so we look forward to this weekend.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda): “Exciting is the word that comes to mind when I think about Indy cars returning to Phoenix. To go back there where Indy car racing has such a storied past is cool. It’s also cool as my dad won here before, and dominated in 1992 to score the team’s first win. I think we can make a great run of it and hopefully get Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing another victory in the desert. The dusk or when the sun begins to go down behind the stands in Turn 1 will be very tricky, for sure. Getting the right visor darkness on for the race will be key. Physically this will be the most demanding race of the year, I believe, so it’s important to make sure I am hydrated and ready for a lot of G-forces and laps!”

CONOR DALY (No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality Honda): “I think it’s going to be quite a challenge in Phoenix, probably the biggest challenge we’ve faced so far, especially for me as a driver. There’s a lot to learn, a different style of racing to get used to. I’m excited for it. … The cars are super on the limit in Phoenix and it’ll be tough for everyone. It’s a whole new physical set of challenges, obviously the track is very difficult physically and I think patience is quite important in Phoenix as well and just staying in the fight will be the major key for us.”

LUCA FILIPPI (No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda): “I’m very, very excited going into my first oval race, especially since it’s my first oval race in an Indy car, which is something very special to me. Not many drivers have the opportunity to race on ovals, so I also feel lucky and honored to accomplish this. I know it’s going to be a real challenge. It’s going to be something very different from everything else that I’ve experienced in racing, so I expect an exciting weekend but at the same time a tough weekend.”

ED CARPENTER (No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “I am very excited to be getting back in the car for this weekend’s race at Phoenix. It will be my first race since last season and I am chomping at the bit to get back out there. Excitement has been building for this race since it was announced and we are looking for a big weekend with the Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolets.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Devilbiss Team Penske Chevrolet): “We will be trying to build on our second-place finish in St. Pete a few weeks ago. Phoenix is a fast and challenging oval but we had a good test there recently and we feel good going into this weekend. We need to have a strong start to the oval schedule and I think it’s going to be really exciting with our cars there racing at night in Phoenix. You don’t want to miss it.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 27 Snapple Honda): “We’d like to go to Phoenix this week and at the very least improve on the open test there, which is hopefully a podium or win. It’s going to be a physical 250-lap race, but small ovals under the lights are always fun. I’m looking forward to it.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “It’s no secret that I love short oval racing. I’ve been looking forward to this race since the rumors started growing stronger that PIR would be back on the INDYCAR schedule for 2016.”

JACK HAWKSWORTH (No. 41 ABC Supply/AJ Foyt Racing Honda): “(Phoenix) is a circuit that has a huge open-wheel history and has produced some great races in the past. It’s always good to visit tracks that are steeped in history as it gives the place a certain aura. Judging by the turnout at the preseason test, we should get a good crowd and it seems like the fans are looking forward to INDYCAR’s return.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 98 Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian Honda):“This weekend in Phoenix is going to be something completely new to me and my career. My first oval experience is something that I am incredibly excited about. …  And while I don’t really know what to expect, I am very much looking forward to getting started.”

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