IndyCar drivers come up a bit short in bid to become an American Ninja Warrior

(Photo courtesy NBC)
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Helio Castroneves was light enough on his feet to win Dancing With The Stars in 2007.

Nearly a decade later, and as a contestant on American Ninja Warrior – which aired Monday night on NBC – Castroneves didn’t reach the finish line, but he certainly gave it a good try.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner was joined on a special edition of ANW by fellow Verizon IndyCar Series drivers Tony Kanaan and Josef Newgarden, as well as NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The episode was taped in Indianapolis for the first time ever in the last week of April. The 41-year-old Castroneves reached the third stage of the challenging obstacle course before being eliminated.

“Wow, let me tell you, I had a great time,” Castroneves said. “I wish I had done it again – or maybe not. It was a lot of fun and very, very difficult. I was so worried about the first and second obstacles that I didn’t (think so much) about the third.

“I couldn’t go more than the third stage, but let me tell you, I had a blast.”

 

Newgarden also reached the third stage before seeing his evening end short.

“Just getting to do something like this was incredible,” Newgarden said. “It was one of those once in a lifetime deals. Personally, I’d like to come back. I didn’t feel like I did good enough. I tried really hard, I was happy to get to where Helio got but I just lost my momentum and really didn’t know what to when I got up there.”

Newgarden, who is recovering from injuries sustained in a crash at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday, was in fine form when the episode was taped. But he also illustrated that race car drivers truly are athletes.

“I hope we showed some of our athleticism,” Newgarden said. “This is obviously a very different sport. The discussion is always athleticism and fitness in racing, is that a thing? For us, it very much is.

“It’s a big fitness sport and you really have to be very prepared mentally and physically to drive an Indy car, but that doesn’t mean we can be football wide receivers. Just because we’re trained well and can drive Indy cars great doesn’t mean we’re Ninja’s. I thought we did alright in representing and showing we had some athleticism.

“This was such a cool opportunity. When do you get a chance to do American Ninja Warriors and complete the course? Personally, I want to come back and really want to try it again with a little more training specific to these type of obstacles.”

Kanaan and Stenhouse both made it to the second stage.

“It’s one of the most nerve-wracking experiences I’ve ever had,” Kanaan said. “It was the unknown, something that I’m not used to. I was definitely more nervous than any of the Indy 500 starts I’ve ever done. It was a great experience.

“Obviously, we’re privileged because of what we do, we get to do some cool things like this. But I definitely found out I’m not a Ninja today. It’s going to be hard to tell my kid that.”

Click on the following links for more highlights from Monday’s episode:

American Ninja Warrior

Helio Castroneves qualifying

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. qualifying

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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
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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.