Friday at Mid-Ohio: A busy day before rain stops play

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – There are a lot of things to like about combined Verizon IndyCar Series/Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires/Pirelli World Challenge weekends, primarily the variety of content on track and the flurry of non-stop action from dawn to dusk.

One of the things not to like, though, is the sheer volume of things that come out of each of the three – and when you cover each of the three regularly, it’s easy to get behind.

That being said, here’s an attempt to recap all that’s taken place here today:

INDYCAR

  • There were two practice sessions as noted (Scott Dixon led first practice, Will Power second), although the second one ended early due to rain (I blame myself following my run back from the IndyCar Radio booth…).
  • Have to give a shoutout to rookie RC Enerson, who was seriously impressive in his first full official day at the office. Enerson took what he learned from the test day last week with Dale Coyne Racing and was even more comfortable. He’ll have to adapt to the Firestone red alternate tires in qualifying tomorrow – it’s something that challenges even veterans – but he’s impressing the team with how much he’s taken in that’s getting thrown at him. Seventh in practice is remarkable; we’ll see how well it translates tomorrow.
  • There were also a couple media availabilities during the day. The first was Graham Rahal, defending race winner, for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. We’ll have more on this in the coming weeks, but Rahal made a couple interesting points. One, he addressed the Target departure – he had a sense this day would come even going back to when he was a member of Chip Ganassi Racing Teams in 2011 and 2012 – but said partners are out there, they just need to be found. He also noted how having only one car has hurt RLL this year, given the volume of in-season testing, and the relative lack of data gathered compared to four-car mights from Team Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Autosport. Last year, without that same amount of in-season testing,
  • The Target bit dovetails nicely, perhaps, into Scott Dixon and Chip Ganassi’s media availability – the first for the two since the announcement earlier this week that Target would end its IndyCar relationship with Ganassi after 27 years. Ganassi, who did most of the talking in the 20-plus minute gathering, dismissed the idea that this was an IndyCar-related decision or a TV-related decision. He said it was a pure business decision and that he has nothing but praise for Target for all they’ve done for his team, and by default, the sport of IndyCar racing on the whole. More to follow from this availability in the coming days.
  • We mentioned Honda’s “Christmas in July” camping theme earlier? Now, there’s Santa hats to match
  • Our social team was busy; Conor Daly did a Twitter takeover on the @IndyCaronNBCSN feed (you can view that here; here’s Daly saying thanks), and Rahal also did a Facebook Live video (available to view here).
  • Two memorials were held to celebrate the lives of two amazing women. The first was for NBCSN pit producer Jenny Nickell this morning at the IndyCar Paddock Club (watch video produced by Taylor Rollins, narrated by Bob Jenkins here). The second was at Honda hospitality for Brenda McHale, wife of veteran Honda PR man T.E. McHale, who died earlier this year. T.E. is one of the true gems in the IndyCar paddock and it was great to see the outpouring of support from the community at both events, which were overflowing despite the small tent sizes.

MAZDA ROAD TO INDY PRESENTED BY COOPER TIRES

  • The busiest series of the three today was the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, which held both qualifying and its first race of the weekend. Australian Anthony Martin won both sessions for Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, the latter coming with a pivotal swing in the championship – a cut tire resigned his teammate and prior points leader Parker Thompson to 17th. Martin went from 20 down to nine up going into Saturday’s race two of three this weekend. Victor Franzoni (ArmsUp Motorsports) and Luke Gabin (JAY Motorsports) completed the top three finishers, ahead of Jordan Lloyd and Dakota Dickerson.
  • Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires also got in two sessions, practice and qualifying. Nico Jamin (Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing) has the pole for the first of two races this weekend, courtesy of a new track record (1:18.138) that beats a 10-year-old mark of 1:18.300 set by Ryan Justice in 2006! Aaron Telitz qualified second with Pato O’Ward, his Team Pelfrey teammate, only fifth.
  • The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires only got one practice in with its second session scrubbed due to rain. In the first and only session, Santiago Urrutia (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports led from Shelby Blackstock, with Ed Jones and Dean Stoneman only sixth and eighth. They qualify and have their first race tomorrow.

PIRELLI WORLD CHALLENGE

  • Owing to the rain and the fact they were scheduled when they were, the only session of the day was GTS qualifying from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m. ET. Both GT practice and the GTS first race were scrubbed due to the rain; they were set to run from 4:15 to 4:45 and 5 to 6 p.m. ET, respectively.
  • Here’s how GTS will work: Saturday’s now considered second race of the weekend will be run using today’s GTS qualifying times and be a standing start. The postponed race will be a makeup round at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and feature a fresh qualifying, making that finale now a tripleheader.
  • The other big news of the day? The provisional 2017 schedule is out, and the word “provisional” cannot be stressed enough. The determination of which classes have which drivers, which races fall under Sprint versus Sprint X designation, and which races are standalones versus on IndyCar weekends will all be further explained in the days to come. This release comes on the heels of the SRO announcing its 2017 schedules at the Total 24 Hours of Spa weekend (release here, calendars here).
  • With GT practice scrubbed, so too is the opportunity for fans and onlookers here to see the new Acura NSX GT3 – tested by Peter Kox this weekend – on track in practice. The car remains on display throughout the weekend and a photo opportunity will come on Saturday morning.

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”