Briscoe, Hand embrace Ford’s past before this year’s Le Mans

All photos: Ford Performance

Over the weekend, two of the drivers tasked with the opportunity of handling Ford’s factory return to Le Mans – Ryan Briscoe and Joey Hand – got a chance to soak up Ford’s glorious past in Dearborn, Mich.

Briscoe and Hand toured the Ford GT design studio and The Henry Ford (museum) in Dearborn, and received a formal “good luck” from Ford’s senior management, met three engineers from the 1960s GT40 teams and got to see one of their race engines “run” Le Mans on the dyno.

But as both drivers explained, the day was so much more than that.

“We met with Bill Ford, Edsel Ford, Henry… Mark Fields was there. We got to talk to all those guys who are coming to Le Mans,” Briscoe told NBC Sports. “Later we went to the design studio where the car was designed from the ground up. You see the colors and the suit we wear. That’s awesome! There were different iterations of the car and stages.

“Then over at the museum, we met the head engine builder, Mose Nowland, for the ’66-’67 Ford GT winning car. He’s retired, but he is now at the museum working. He takes care of the cars he used to work on. He has stories about being back with (Dan) Gurney and A.J. (Foyt).

“In ’67 after the race, he wasn’t into getting autograph cards or signatures. But he wanted a memento. So he took a French flag over their pits and took it home! And he’s had it all these years… he gave that flag to Joey and myself today. So we’ll take good care of it!”

Photo: Ford Performance
Photo: Ford Performance

Hand added, “It’s difficult to describe, man. It’s definitely a day to remember. The things were incredible – there were so many things I learned, history, places, things I saw. I really checked a lot off the list today.

“One of the things you hit on, we met the engine builder who built the engines in the first Ford GTs. He gave us the French flag he had taken from the race in 67. He gave it back to us. We hope it will bring us good luck.

“He’s had this flag for 50 years, and there in the middle of the museum, right in front of the ’67 Gurney/Foyt winner and right across from Henry Ford’s (car) in 1901 that started it all. It was a really fun day.”

Hand – an integral part of the Ford EcoBoost engine development program the last two years in both its Daytona Prototype iteration and now in the GT – expressed how this moment was part of the bigger Ford-at-Le Mans story.

Photo: Ford Performance
Photo: Ford Performance

“This is a big deal. As racecar drivers, we’re in the racecar, we’re in the car, and we help the car go faster,” he said.

“Driving the Ford GT is ultimately a race car at the track that’s part of a history that is just so much bigger, man.

“There’s so much history with this company. I’m proud to be part of it.”

More on Ford’s return to Le Mans with the four-car GT program – split two cars apiece between the Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK (FIA World Endurance Championship program) and Ford Chip Ganassi Team USA (IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship program) – will follow in the weeks ahead.

This year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans is June 18-19.

IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images

THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.