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Indy Lights trio buoyant after maiden IndyCar tests

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MONTEREY, Calif. – Three Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires drivers had their first day in an IndyCar on Thursday, at Sonoma Raceway, to continue to the run on Indy Lights drivers getting to test at the top level of North American open-wheel racing.

Zach Veach tested in Josef Newgarden’s usual No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing, while Andre Negrao took over the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda of James Hinchcliffe and Santiago Urrutia stepped aboard Mikhail Aleshin’s No. 7 SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.

That brought the number of 2016 Indy Lights drivers who’ve tested in IndyCar to 10 of the 19 drivers this year.

The three drivers tested and then made it down to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca this weekend for the Soul Red Finale, where the champions will be decided in all three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

Veach, 21, was seemingly over the moon with his maiden test in Newgarden’s car. The Stockdale, Ohio native is one of the most experienced drivers in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, having competed full-time every year since 2010 (except 2015 owing to injury) between the three series.

Veach noted to NBC Sports how hard the car is to drive, but also said this was the culmination of nine years of work to attempt to get to this level. It’s doubtful he’d be back for a potential fourth season in Indy Lights, but he’s used the IndyCar test as a way to reveal himself and his ability to the paddock at large.

The mistake he made after completing his last Indy Lights season in 2014, he said, was targeting IndyCar and only IndyCar for 2015. Knowing if he can’t advance into IndyCar – much as he’d like to – he’s now smart enough and keen to explore other series as well for 2017.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

The Schmidt Peterson teammates, meanwhile, have very different approaches to IndyCar next year.

Urrutia is hoping to graduate into IndyCar next year if he can win this year’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship. The champion gets a guaranteed three races, including the 101st Indianapolis 500.

He had a tough day with a mechanical issue limiting his running, but it was still cool for the Uruguayan to get to work in an IndyCar.

“The test at Sonoma Raceway was good and it was a great opportunity for me for sure,” Urrutia said. “The IndyCar was great and I could definitely feel a big difference between the Indy Lights car and the IndyCar. I’ve never driven a car with that kind of downforce. I think the biggest difference is in the brakes on the fast corners. With the downforce an Indy car has, you can carry a lot more speed through those corners.

“It was a great day and it’s a dream come true. I really enjoyed it. I was waiting for this day and finally it came. I hope one day I can get more than just the morning session to run in the car but now we just focus on the Indy Lights championship at Mazda Raceway.”

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

Negrao, meanwhile, would be considered a title contender in 2017 in Indy Lights if he returns for a second season.

“First of all, I want to say thank you to my entire SPM team for today. I really enjoyed every second in the Indy car and it makes me want to come back and do it again as soon as possible,” he said.

“I think the team worked well together for today’s test and we accomplished a lot of the goals that we set for ourselves. Thank you especially to Sam [Schmidt], Ric [Peterson] and Piers [Phillips] for working with me to make this opportunity happen. I am focused now on driving more in this car in a few years!”

New study surveys drivers’ opinions on crashes, concussions, more

James Black/IndyCar
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Auto racing safety has continued to improve through the decades, but the sport remains inherently dangerous, according to a new survey.

At the close of 2018, a new organization called Racing Safety United emerged with the intention of reducing drivers’ risk of being harmed.

RSU is made up of more than 30 members including former NASCAR Cup Series competitor Jerry Nadeau, two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Randy LaJoie, NHRA team owner Don Schumacher and motorsports journalist Dick Berggren.

One of RSU’s first initiatives was to determine what current drivers thought of racing safety. The organization developed a 14-question survey and promoted it on select motorsports websites and forums. 

Participants were given the opportunity to disclose their identity or remain anonymous, and those who provided contact information were entered to win a $500 prize (for anonymous participants, the prize funds would be donated to a motorsports charity). 

More than 140 individuals participated in the survey over the course of 12 months. Below are the results of the survey:

Driver status

The vast majority of survey participants (60%) were amateur racers, while 26% of the participants were classified as Semi-Pro/Professional racers. The remaining 14% consisted of other individuals involved in the sport such as team owners and crew chiefs. 

When asked how frequently they race, 58% of driver respondents averaged 10 or more times per year on track, while 42% averaged 10 times or less.

The top five tracks respondents said they raced most often: Road Atlanta (21 votes), Watkins Glen (17 votes), Virginia International Raceway (16 votes), Mid-Ohio (16 votes), and Road America (13 votes).

Vehicular damage, injuries common

Over a third of respondents said they had been injured while racing, and almost two-thirds sasid they had suffered severe vehicle damage while racing

Driver error was cited as the top cause of vehicle damage (42 mentions), followed by concrete walls (26 mentions), mechanical failures (24 mentions), and other drivers (19 mentions). The study concluded those results indicated a need for better driver training/coaching, energy absorbing walls, and more technical inspections.

Almost a quarter of drivers said they had experienced racing-related concussions, and nearly half the respondents said one or multiple concussions would affect their decision to race in the future. 

Drivers primarily influenced by peers 

Roughly half the drivers said they would consider adopting new safety equipment if influenced by another driver (51 total mentions) and/or if recommended by a sanctioning body (47 total mentions). The study concluded those results indicated a need for drivers to become safety advocates and educate other drivers and for sanctioning bodies to mandate safety equipment. 

Drivers concerned with concrete walls

Approximately three-quarters of the drivers surveyed said they believed certain race tracks were more dangerous than others. Nearly half the drivers surveyed believe that concrete walls were the primary cause of damage to drivers and vehicles. 

Drivers willing to help

Just more than three-quarters of the drivers surveyed said that they would be willing to join a safety alliance to advocate for safer tracks. Two-thirds of drivers said that they also would be willing to contribute to a motorsports safety fund.

Click here for the full results of RSU’s survey

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