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The oval baptism of Alexander Rossi

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DALLAS – Alexander Rossi’s description of his first time around Indianapolis Motor Speedway is to the point.

“Scary as shit.”

When you’re maxing out at 243 mph before diving into the six-degree banking of Turn 1, any thoughts of reverence for 105 years of racing history are left in the pit stall.

That’s the reaction of a 24-year-old driver who had never competed on an oval, let alone a superspeedway, before this season.

Since the age of 10 in go-karts through the past eight years in Europe climbing the ranks to Formula One, the California native never found himself anywhere near an oval.

“I was never against the idea of oval racing, it was just very new to me,” Rossi said three days. “I just didn’t know where to begin.”

In February, when Rossi’s ride with Manor Marussia fell through (he remains a reserve driver), he entered a deal to drive the No. 98 for Andretti Herta Autosport just two weeks before the start of the IndyCar season.

“If you had asked me two weeks and one day (before) where I’d be racing, I would have said Formula One,” Rossi said Wednesday at an event to promote next weekend’s race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Suddenly, races on five different oval configurations appeared on his schedule. Rossi’s oval indoctrination began in April at the 1-mile track of Phoenix International Raceway. Rossi started and finished 14th, the last car on the lead lap.

A month later, Rossi was part of a large test at Texas Motor Speedway, the 1.5-mile track that Eddie Gossage built and later dubbed “No Limits, Texas.” So far, it’s Rossi’s favorite oval.

“I was all good to be myself and just drive like a qualifying lap, ‘Yeah, this is pretty good.'” said Rossi, who got “a little taste” of race conditions during a coordinated group run near the day’s end.

“Then you get into a pack and people are going two or three wide. Then you’re like…’uhhh…I don’t know if I’m going to be doing that.'”

Rossi eventually overcame his self-imposed limits.

“But then again, you try it once and then you’re ‘ok, that worked. I guess I’ll try it again and it continues to work’,” Rossi said. “So it’s pretty fun.”

Then came Indianapolis, which was “a whole new level.” This coming from a man who set his sights on Formula One at the age of 10 for one simple reason.

“They were the fastest cars on earth. That was it. They were just faster than everything else. That’s all I cared about.”

The first few laps around IMS, his second time out in the superspeedway aerokit, was a surreal experience for Rossi.

“Your brain doesn’t really want to do it in the beginning,” said Rossi. “It’s difficult to describe. You kind of have to force yourself to do it in the beginning, to be flat-out the whole lap and to continue to be flat-out the whole lap and not just bail out. I don’t know if it’s a good thing, but you get used to it. That transition was pretty cool when Monday afternoon, I got used to the fact that I was OK with being flat and I was OK to take a trim and start taking downforce off.

“That was a cool feeling, because I felt like I accomplished something.”

In the history of auto racing, every joke that could be made about racing on ovals, whether it be in IndyCar or NASCAR, has been told and will be told again by those who don’t know what’s going on in the cockpit.

The transition from road courses to ovals has proven challenging for many drivers, including Rossi. After two months, three tracks and one win, this is what the Formula One hopeful has taken away from his first steps into the oval discipline:

“To be fast you’re putting (the car) into a position where it really doesn’t want to do it. To be honest, when you’re watching it on board (camera), and for me I was the exact same, you look at it and as a racing driver you see it and you’re like, ‘well, that looks pretty manageable.’ But the differences on an oval, the feedback that you’re getting from the car and the sensations you’re getting from the car, are very minute and very, very specific. It’s the same thing with the behavior of the car. When you have a loose car on a road course, you’ll see drivers with opposite steering lock.

On an oval, loose is you go from here on the steering wheel to taking five degrees of steering lock out. But I can’t even explain to you that sensation. Like the rear of the car literally just had a huge wiggle. But you don’t see that in a steering trace, because everything is meant to go left, so you don’t see these huge corrections. If you see a huge correction, you’re in the wall. There’s no coming out of that. It’s a very similar feeling when you use the front. If you have one gust of wind at the wrong time you’ll literally be turned into the corner at 220 mph and the front will just give up, it will start moving up the track and you have to deal with that.

It’s the unpredictability of it and because the cars are so low on downforce the wind plays a huge difference, the track temperature plays a huge difference, so not one corner is the same, so every lap you’re on the tools in the car – bars and weight jackers and everything based on the wind socks, so you’re making decisions based on what you’re prediction of the wind is going to be in each corner. Then you add in 33 other cars and the turbulence of the air that creates and it’s just an incredibly difficult thing because the tolerances are just so much smaller than they are on road courses.”

It took two oval races for Alexander Rossi to get to the front. He led 14 laps and then won on the most famous oval in racing.

After two weeks in Indy, Rossi has begun to embrace the racing form he first explored two months ago.

That doesn’t change the fact that at the end of May, he was still peaking at 243 mph before that first historic corner.

Jokes Rossi, “I still question it.”

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.