Hargrove: Waiting to return to Indy Lights is paying off

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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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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IndyCar has big plans on, off track for first test at Thermal Club: ‘It’s an amazing facility’

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – Quantity isn’t a problem for NTT IndyCar Series drivers seeking source material for their first test on track at The Thermal Club. There’s plentiful video of the drivers making laps on the private track that bills itself as a world-class facility.

It’s quality that’s an issue with trying to do homework for their first (and possibly last) test on the 17-turn, 2.9-mile road course.

Thermal is billed as a motorsports country club of sorts, giving the rich and famous an opportunity to drive and store vintage cars at racing playground that has more than 200 members and $5 million, 30,000-square-foot homes sprouting constantly.

IndyCar’s arrival Thursday and Friday for its first full-field open test in the preseason since 2020 will mark a new era of professional racing at Thermal, which primarily has catered to amateurs (often in a fantasy camp-type setting).

Colton Herta tried doing some YouTube research on Thermal recently but gave up after watching the third lap of “some dude in a Ferrari” navigating the course that is nestled in the Coachella Valley just south of Joshua Tree National Park and north of the Salton Sea.

“It’s difficult to watch some of the onboards because it’s not really professional drivers, and they have like the cones set out on the track, where to turn in and where to get on the brakes, so it’s kind of irrelevant,” Herta said. “Yeah, I watched a little bit before I got too bored and turned away. But the track walk will be important. That’s going to be the biggest thing.”

The track walk happened Wednesday afternoon after two days of wall-to-wall media obligations at the Palm Springs Convention Center.

Conor Daly and Scott McLaughlin were among many drivers who were antsy to head southeast to the ritzy track (where many drivers have been staying in high-end casitas on the 470-acre property this week). Herta said his main concern was having enough runoff area as drivers knock off the offseason rust because “you do tend to drop a wheel here and there, have a spin if you’re getting back in the car for the first time in a few months.”

“I sort of don’t really know where the track goes,” McLaughlin said. “I feel like I’m going to get lost out there.”

With IndyCar increasingly limiting test time, Daly said sessions such as Thermal “are really, really important. We can train all we want, but there’s nothing like getting in these cars to drive to really prepare yourself for the first race. It’s going to be important to try to do as many laps as possible.”

Of course, what makes Thermal even more rare is that it’s not on the IndyCar schedule nor has it been a testing venue in the past. Sebring International Raceway also doesn’t play host to a race, but it’s become a tried and true place for teams seeking to hone their setups.

An IndyCar Series hauler is unloaded Monday at The Thermal Club track ahead of preseason testing Thursday and Friday (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

Thermal will be the first time IndyCar is learning an entirely new track since the streets of Nashville nearly two years ago, but in this case, it’s unknown how applicable it’ll be in the future. Some drivers speculated that it could translate to Portland with its length (lap times are projected at more than a minute and 40 seconds), but it’s an unknown how slippery the surface will be for tire wear (probably 20-lap stints, which are relatively short).

“It’s hard when it comes to just two full days of testing because obviously some people will adapt to it quicker than others,” Daly said. “You might feel like a hero, then the next day you might feel like a zero because some people have caught up.

“But these days are important because hopefully it is an indication for us on all the permanent road circuits that we go: Mid-Ohio, Laguna Seca, Indy GP. Hopefully it’s helpful for us in all those scenarios. We’ll see what happens, I guess. It doesn’t matter to us how fast we go, as long as we get something out of it, right? How do we judge some changes? If that’s great for a certain section of the track, right, that could represent a section of another road track we go to. There’s a lot that we can learn, for sure. Realistically we kind of have to keep ourselves  in check with our expectations.”

Two-time series champion Josef Newgarden said drivers “probably shouldn’t come out of here either too excited or too demoralized depending on how it goes because it is not incredibly relevant when it comes to at-track performance. We’re never going to run here again. Well, I shouldn’t say that. We’re not going to run here this year for a points-scoring race. From that standpoint, it’s not relevant.

“What it is relevant for and what I’m excited about is just being on track. We definitely need it on the 2 car. We have a lot of new people. We’re going to maximize this time by just treating it like a race weekend in that we’re doing all the things we would do on a normal weekend to be fast and work well and efficient together. When we come out of the weekend we’ll have something to look at, what did we do well or not well. We have a good, relevant conversation piece to take into (the season opener at) St. Pete. From that standpoint it’s excellent. If we finish 15th on the charts, yeah, maybe we shouldn’t read too much into that.”

Said Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver Graham Rahal: “I’m not sure how much (the Thermal track) relates. We’re running a Barber tire, similar to the Laguna Seca tire. Who knows what the track grip is like in the desert here. If you look at a lot of the corners, a lot of hairpins, a lot of slow speed corners, but then you’ve got like the end of the back straight is quite a fast left-hander. But they’re varying shapes of corners, decreasing radius, on increasing radius. We don’t have any tracks that do that traditionally.

“We’ve got to pick and choose exactly what we get out of it, but I’m all on board for the Thermal thing, so I don’t want to sound like I’m not. I think it was great to have change. We’ve kind of gone to the same places time and time and time and time again. It’s good to see something new.”

IndyCar also will be measuring the results of the test beyond timing and scoring.

The Indianapolis Star reported there have been informal talks about having a pro-am event in the future. With the test closed to the general public but open to its high-dollar clientele, there could be potentially millions of liquid capital at stake for future team investment if the Thermal Club’s members take a shine to IndyCar.

Thermal was throwing a posh welcoming event Wednesday night that was expected to have drivers, series executives and residents mingling with dancing and drinks.

Simon Pagenaud, who has explored the concept of starting a motorsports country club in his native France, is intrigued by the long-term marriage of IndyCar and Thermal.

“This kind of racetrack — what they do with their members, the passion of cars —  is really something,” Pagenaud said.

Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson likes the appeal of testing in Southern California instead of Central Florida.

“This time of the year, it’s really hard to find places for us to go testing,” Ericsson said. “I’ve only been here for four years, starting my fifth year, and I feel like I’ve done I don’t know how many days of testing at Sebring.

“For me, this is a lot better to come here. I like the idea a lot of having the preseason testing back on the calendar to get all the teams and drivers together.”

Said Alexander Rossi, who will be making his debut in an Arrow McLaren Chevrolet this week: “It’s always a difficult situation in January, February, in the United States to find a track that has the appropriate climate. Not only do we have a beautiful place to come with seemingly good weather, but you’re introducing IndyCar to obviously a demographic that has an interest in racing, with some decent capital behind them. They may not know of IndyCar. They may have known of IndyCar but never seen it in person.

“We’re able to bring and showcase what we believe is the best series in the world in front of people who are passionate about motorsports, participate in motorsports themselves, and maybe haven’t seen it before.”

McLaren teammate Felix Rosenqvist already has been staying at the villas inside the track all week.

“It’s an amazing facility,” he said. “I’ve never been here before. I was really blown away by how neat and tidy everything looks.

“I don’t know if there’s ambitions to race here in the future. That could be an option. I’m just pumped to be in California in January. There’s worse places to be.”