Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Hargrove: Waiting to return to Indy Lights is paying off

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Editor’s note: Scott Hargrove, the 2013 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda champion and current driver of the No. 3 Gap Guard Dallara IL-15 Mazda in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, will be one of two Mazda Road to Indy guest bloggers for NBCSports.com this month. Hargrove’s post-Grand Prix of Indianapolis, pre-Freedom 100 blog is filed below; another Mazda Road to Indy driver blog will follow later this month.

After sitting out last season due to a lack of sponsorship, Hargrove signed with Team Pelfrey in February. Not satisfied to simply drive the car, the young entrepreneur has set about redesigning the soon-to-be released Gap Guard website, the graphics and the product itself. The new graphics – which adorn the team pit cart he recently redesigned – can also be seen on Stefan Wilson’s No. 25 Driven2SaveLives-KVRT entry in the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

After this past weekend on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, it’ll be time to switch focus and driving styles from the road course to an oval. This is another area where the Mazda Road to Indy mirrors the guys in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

You’ll need to be a lot smoother behind the wheel. While I’ve done a few oval races, I’ve never done anything as high speed as this. In the Freedom 100, you just need to be calm and not make mistakes.

Hargrove. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Hargrove. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

But before I do the pre-event test here Monday, I’ll race in a Porsche in the IMSA GT3 Canada series at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. It’s a chance to get away for a bit at a place where I’ve won before. Hopefully, I’ll get another win up there, clear my head a bit, and come back here with some momentum to hit the oval running!

To be honest, it’s been a pretty rough start to the year for us in Indy Lights. Our finish Saturday (ninth) was our second-best finish of the season after scoring a podium at St. Pete, but that’s just the kind of year it’s been. At the same time, it’s been great because I’m driving an Indy Lights car, after sitting out last season. To be back in the car is cool, and you can’t beat being at Indy.

It’s an interesting perspective. When you’ve won and contended for titles before, you’re used to that; but your mindset changes when you’re further back in the championship. From here, all I can focus on is improving and doing the best I can to win races in the Gap Guard car, and then go for the championship next year.

Reflecting on IMS, I look back to the race in Pro Mazda here in 2014, which was a real turning point for my season. I was on the podium in the first few races, knocking on the door, but Spencer (Pigot) was just super quick. I was so happy when I broke through for the win here, after some really crazy racing! I was able to pull away from my competitors and get both victories, which really solidified in my head that we were taking the fight to those guys, that I really did have a chance to win the championship.

After the road course event here, my teammate Neil Alberico and I were saying that had been the craziest weekend of racing we’d ever been a part of. So we were in a rain delay at Lucas Oil Raceway, looking at our on-board video, and I decided to do a video. I worked for about five or six hours and made a “Mario Kart” video. It went viral right away and people still ask me about it! It brought back some childhood memories, since that’s my racing started!

Things really fell my way the rest of the season, including the race at Houston where I had an incident with my teammate, got a drive-through penalty, dealt with the pouring rain, made a pit stop under yellow and came back from 10th to the lead. We endured one of the biggest ups and downs in one race! After that, it was back-and-forth between me and Spencer… and we know how that ended (Pigot edged Hargrove in a dramatic battle for the 2014 Pro Mazda title at Sonoma).

But I remember this time last year, watching the car I had started the season with (Sean Rayhall took over the seat with 8Star Motorsports after St. Pete) being raced around here. I watched the Freedom 100 from home and that pretty much sucked!

Still, it was a great learning experience for me. To come back here with Team Pelfrey this year makes the waiting worth it. My teammate Juan (Piedrahita) told me that I’m going to love race day. Even the laps that we’re going to take next Monday on the test days are going to be surreal.

The crowd is such a big part of it. In 2013, while I was leading the USF2000 championship, the Pro Mazda championship leader and I both got to pace the Freedom 100. It was great to be a part of that race – I led the pace laps, and thanks to the crazy four-wide photo finish, it ended up being the most exciting finish in Indy Lights history!

So this year, the current USF2000 and Pro Mazda leaders will pace us to the green flag.

I can’t believe this opportunity to race the IMS oval is finally happening for me. I’m super, super excited.

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Alex Palou fastest as several go off course during IndyCar practice at IMS

IndyCar Harvest GP practice
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Alex Palou paced the opening practice Thursday for the IndyCar Harvest GP at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

The Dale Coyne Racing rookie turned a 1-minute, 10.177-second lap around the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course in his No. 55 Dallara-Honda.

Jack Harvey was second, followed by Colton Herta, points leader Scott Dixon and Max Chilton.

Qualifying for Friday’s race will be at 6:20 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold.

Will Power, who won the pole position for the July 4 race at the track, spun off course with just more than a minute left in the session after the left rear of his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet made slight contact with the right front of Alexander Rossi’s No. 28 Dallara-Honda.

Power was among several drivers who went off track, but there were no damaged cars during the session. Marcus Ericsson missed the final 5 minutes of the practice after being penalized for causing a red flag with a Turn 8 spin.

Arrow McLaren SP drivers Pato O’Ward and Helio Castroneves, who is driving for the injured Oliver Askew, also veered off course as did rookie Rinus VeeKay and Santino Ferrucci.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was in attendance at the session before racing Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. Johnson will be driving a partial schedule in IndyCar next season for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Literally, the smallest of details, I can pick up on,” Johnson told NBC Sports pit reporter Kevin Lee. “It’s been really nice today just to see how a session starts and obviously to jump on the radio and listen to how the systems work and then obviously you get into the car and the setup and such. I’m at Ground Zero right now, a 45-year-old rookie trying to learn my way into a new sport essentially.”

Fans were in attendance Thursday for the first time this season at IMS, which is allowed a limited crowd of 10,000 for its races this weekend.