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DiZinno: COTA, Austin shake off nightmare 2015 with bounce back 2016

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AUSTIN, Texas – The old adage in the restaurant service industry is that good service can often overcome poor food, but good food does not necessarily overcome poor service.

Such an analogy serves as a perfect transition to describe the last two contrasting years of the United States Grand Prix in Austin at Circuit of The Americas, a city where the food itself is actually never in question.

Consider the race weekend on site as a whole the comparative meal, here.

In 2015, call the race the “good food,” and the overall weather and atmosphere the “poor service.”

The race itself was excellent, aided in large part by the mixed weather conditions, heavy attrition, a late Safety Car and a subsequent pass for the lead and win which netted Lewis Hamilton his third World Championship.

But the weekend on the whole felt underwhelming and disappointing, owing primarily to the heavy rain that interrupted the weekend proceedings through Saturday.

As COTA Chair Bobby Epstein said so bluntly about the resulting attendance and financial hit, “I think we’re screwed.”

That left the 2016 version of the USGP weekend having a point to prove: deliver a weekend on par with the first three weekends and seek to overcome the poor fan turnout a year ago with a big bounce back.

In other words, the service needed to deliver more than the food.

In a two-word answer, it did.

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo leads Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo, Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer, Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer and the rest of the grid at the start during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 23: Race start during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

The 2016 United States Grand Prix race – the food here in this analogy – was not a classic by any stretch of the imagination. The quality of F1 racing itself is another topic for another day. But thanks to the collective efforts of the track and organizers in partnership with F1, by the race start time it didn’t need to be to make this a successful weekend on the whole.

This race saw Hamilton pretty much ran away and hide, Daniel Ricciardo lose a sure second-place to Nico Rosberg thanks to a Virtual Safety Car period inadvertently caused by his teammate Max Verstappen, Spanish countrymen Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz Jr. perform some late-race theatrics and Haas F1 scored a point on home soil in 10th with Romain Grosjean. Otherwise, it was a largely forgettable 56 laps, particularly as it lacked that “signature” moment as Hamilton had delivered with passes for the win in 2012, 2014 and 2015.

But why the weekend worked was how COTA, which has often been in the crosshairs over the years for its volatile financials, leadership, staff turnover and possibly inflated attendance figures (I’m looking at sports car weekends in particular, having been to four of them in the last four years), pushed on to create a near-perfect weekend it absolutely had to have after last year’s disaster.

COTA’s push to make Austin 2016 a successful weekend was, to use your stick-and-ball equivalent example, the equivalent of Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary pass for the Green Bay Packers to break the Detroit Lions’ hearts last year or Miguel Montero’s pinch-hit grand slam for the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS this year to break a tie with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

It was not a case where they’d gather a few singles to bring in a run on a sacrifice bunt or assemble a 17-play, 94-yard, eight-minute drive full of methodical three and four-yard run and pass plays.

No, COTA threw down the gauntlet and went big to bring in Taylor Swift, for her first and only planned concert this year. And make no mistake, her “squad” brought it in a big way.

Had she not delivered the crowd she did – which was officially pegged by COTA at 83,000 although reports ranged lower than that by some reporters and higher than that to some members of her fan “squad” – it would have been trouble when she walked in.

That alone generated significant buzz on a day when the qualifying order was all but decided going in, when you knew it would either be Hamilton or Rosberg scoring the pole a couple hours earlier.

I was fortunate to be out walking the grounds Saturday afternoon after qualifying, and seeing the crowds hanging out for the remainder of the day’s races – Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup and Historic Masters Racing were also on tap – as well as prepping for T-Swift were very much present between the grandstands, the bar area, the food trucks and then prepping to get in line to waltz onto the Super Stage lawn assembled inside Turn 11.

Once 5:30 p.m. hit and the crowd was released to get in line, 90 minutes before the show started, the line stretched from the entry point past Turn 7 all the way to the Fly Emirates bridge at Turn 2, with more fans continuing to stream in across the bridge. Mind you, that’s the length of the entire Esses section and then back across the way, into the infield.

Sunday’s crowd was also strong, with fans getting to the track early and already a good number of folks already on hand at the hillside several hours before the lights were out.

Between the old Grand Prix cars and Supercup preliminary races, there was some genuine appreciation there.

Yes, mostly gentlemen drivers pushing 1970s to 1980s-era F1 cars at 60 or 70 percent is not the same spectacle as the actual drivers in their heyday, but for younger fans and students of the sport, it’s vitally important you get that chance to witness – and listen to – living F1 history in motion.

Supercup, meanwhile, provided a tasty appetizer of a race with some clean, fair fighting for the lead between Porsche Juniors Mathieu Jaminet and Matteo Cairoli, a deserving new champion in Sven Mueller, and a great Supercup weekend debut for American Alec Udell in his step up from Pirelli World Challenge’ GT Cup class.

Regarding the announced attendance figure of 269,889, it is worth noting that COTA’s attendance numbers have been called into question in the past, primarily for its sports car weekends. This could be an optimistic number, but if so, it’s not to the same degree as on sports car weekends.

For reference, although I wasn’t at the initial USGP race here in 2012 (more than 265,000), I have been to the last four. This weekend number was pegged higher than the 2013 number of 250,324, and while I would say the Friday number was lower this year compared to then, the Saturday and Sunday numbers appeared higher.

If possible, it would benefit COTA to provide a deeper news release and analysis of the figure beyond just the number itself, to dismiss any potential doubts or red flags. But flying out of the Austin airport Monday morning and seeing how packed it was, with many folks still dressed in team kit, was a sign there was a very good turnout this weekend.

The celebrity presence at COTA, while something of a running joke and perhaps source of frustration among hardcore fans and observers, is actually something to be embraced if I’m honest.

Part of the reason Monaco works – and has worked for as long as it has – is it’s because it’s a glamorous destination that attracts some of the world’s richest, most beautiful and popular people. You can choose to not like that fact, saying it takes away from the action on track, and that’s fine. But the allure of an event is amplified when people with big audience consider it worthy of their time to attend.

AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 22: San Antonio Spurs basketball player Patty Mills watches the action in the Red Bull Racing garage with skier Lindsey Vonn during qualifying for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Lindsey Vonn’s presence among others this weekend was a perfect example. Vonn, the star skier, appears to be a burgeoning racing fan in her own right with her interest piqued by Red Bull, a brand that understands the value of getting stars outside the norm to an event.

The fact Vonn was tweeting about F1 during the weekend (by the way, sending thanks from my colleague Luke and I for a RT of one from @F1onNBCSports) to her hundreds of thousands of followers must be considered a good thing from an “F1 in America actually being taken note of” standpoint.

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 22: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks with actors Christoph Waltz and Rosa Salazar in the garage during final practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 22: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks with actors Christoph Waltz and Rosa Salazar in the garage during final practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 22, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)

Add in the random Christoph Waltz and Rosa Salazar sightings, tennis star Venus Williams (who I almost inadvertently bumped into in the airport this morning), Gerard Butler’s Red Bull podium “shoey,” Gordon Ramsey and Jeff Gordon, and it was a full plate of celebrities here this weekend. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that we didn’t get the obligatory Matt LeBlanc at COTA shot, and unless he was hiding, this would have been the first one he’s missed.

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Actor Gerard Butler does a shoey on the podium with Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing after Daniel finished third in the race during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 23: Actor Gerard Butler does a shoey on the podium with Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing after Daniel finished third in the race during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

If you create a race weekend that people want to go to and make it a proper full-on experience, it can make it a bigger draw to add stability for an event going forward. And if there’s one thing F1 in the U.S. has perpetually lacked, it’s that: stability. Ultimately, that is the key takeaway I have from the 2016 USGP weekend.

Hamilton, who’s more or less adopted the U.S. as his second home, actually has become something of an unofficial ambassador for this race, and this city of Austin in particular.

In the buildup to the race, Hamilton made a big deal about going on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and for good reason. Ellen has massive audience, and it’s not the usual hardcore race fan. And Hamilton, admittedly, isn’t her usual guest.

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 23: Lewis Hamilton (C) of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates with Kirby Bumpus (2nd-L), Gayle King (2nd-R) and Lindsey Vonn (R) during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX – OCTOBER 23: Lewis Hamilton (C) of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates with Kirby Bumpus (2nd-L), Gayle King (2nd-R) and Lindsey Vonn (R) during the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2016 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Then in his post-race interview with NBCSN’s Will Buxton, Hamilton described why he feels the way he does about this country, and the race in Austin itself.

“This is such a beautiful country,” he said (perhaps he hasn’t been following the 2016 presidential election that closely).

“This race, the whole weekend in Austin, with the ambiance and atmosphere, it’s the only Grand Prix I go out to dinner every night. No other Grand Prix do I do that. Since Wednesday, I’ve gone out to dinner every night. It’s great food, great service, and the people here make us feel so welcome.

“The crowd … is almost like the British Grand Prix. There’s the crowd on the whole front straight when we’re on the podium.

“I’m so glad we still have the grand prix here. I hope it continues. I hope more and more people get exposed to it. Being on The Ellen Show the other day, I hope has done so to get more.”

When Hamilton, who’s a student of the sport and has carved his own legacy within it by winning his 50th Grand Prix of his career this weekend, compares a race site in its fifth year to a race that has graced the calendar all but annually since 1950 (Silverstone), it speaks volumes of that race’s place having established a foothold on the F1 calendar.

COTA has now set the bar from a service standpoint to its fans, and done so in spite of the fact the F1 race itself Sunday wasn’t the best showcase of the sport.

It has now set a standard to meet, to keep the full race weekend as strong as it was this year.

For one year at least, COTA and Austin have shaken off the 2015 blues, thus making it harder for haters to hate.

What IndyCar drivers said after the first Indy 500 practice in August

Indy 500 practice quotes
James Black/IndyCar
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A roundup of quotes from NTT IndyCar Series drivers after hitting the track Wednesday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first day of Indy 500 practice.

James Hinchcliffe was fastest in the six and a half hour session that started at 11 a.m. Andretti Autosport had three of the five fastest cars.

There will be two more practices Thursday and Friday before qualifying this weekend for the 104th Indianapolis 500.

Fernando Alonso (No. 66 Ruoff Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet): “Today was good. I think we had the day that we wanted, which was a clean day with no issues and trouble-free. In the morning, we got up to speed with the refresher, and in the afternoon we cut it a bit short to work on the car. We may have potentially missed one run in traffic, but it’s nothing we can’t make up tomorrow. We are working step by step, improving the car a little bit each time. We are working on the balance and getting used to the speed again, more in my case than the team. The team is was maybe more ready than me on this first day. We will grow together and got some good mileage today. We have a good understanding of the car and will hopefully have a good setup ready to go tomorrow.”

Marco Andretti (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “It was all good. Funny enough really, I was more focused on the race car. I was trying to bury myself in traffic on older tires a lot today. We didn’t really focus on fast times. It was kind of nice that materialized, as well. Well, second-fastest time. It’s good that the car rolled off with some pace. That’s always kind of like the first hurdle you have to get over. From there, it’s just working on the car balance. That’s what we were able to do. We were one of the better ones in the pack today. It just seems kind of hard to pass where things are at right now. So far so good. It was a good start.”

Oliver Askew (No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet): “First day here at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in an Indy car is pretty special for anyone. It’s great to feel the magic of the place again and to be around other cars. An extra 20-30 mph compared to an Indy Lights car is quite a big difference at those speeds. It’s a bit daunting at first, but as I got used to it I got very comfortable by the end of the day. I’m looking forward to more running tomorrow and to turn up the boost on Friday. Everyone at Arrow McLaren SP and Team Chevy have been doing a really good job so far. The car feels really nice in traffic, and we will continue progressing in all areas.”

Ed Carpenter (No. 20 United States Space Force Chevrolet): “It was an interesting day. I wouldn’t say that it was the day I’ve dreamed of. We have a lot to learn about this car here at this track with the Aeroscreen on. It’s really changed the dynamic. It’s very, very difficult in traffic, but it seemed like everyone was struggling. It’s always this way the first day; you have to figure out what you need to improve on and go from there. I can’t say we found all the answers today, but I’m ready to get the U.S. Space Force Chevrolet back out there tomorrow.”

Helio Castroneves (No. 3 Pennzoil Team Penske Chevrolet): “Obviously, big credit to the team. Everything was exactly as if I had not left. It was absolutely the same, which makes it much better for me to get comfortable right away. Great combination. I can’t thank Pennzoil, Chevy and Roger (Penske) for making this happen. I am excited, really excited, even though we have less days. I wish the race would be tomorrow.”

Max Chilton (No. 59 Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet): “We just finished our first day back at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and we’ve got two more days of practice to get the car ready for qualifying. We had a really productive day out there. We were able to work through our oval refresher program and get the speeds that we needed fairly easily. Once we got through the refresher, we did some race running and had a few issues with the balance, but we were able to get there in the end, and the No. 59 Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet felt good at the checkered flag. We obviously have more to work through before we’re qualifying and ready, but I’m really looking forward to the next couple of days now.”

Conor Daly (No. 47 United States Air Force Chevrolet): “Obviously, Cole (Pearn, engineer) and I had a lot to learn today, so it was good to get a full day under our belt with the U.S. Air Force Chevy. We ran a lot of laps right up until the checkered flag, which was my goal so I can get used to this car. It definitely has a different feel to what I’ve had in the past, but that’s always the case when I jump in a car for the first time. I think it was a good day. We went through a lot of things that we wanted to, and I think we have a decent amount of speed. We just have to see making it faster and faster, one day at a time.”

James Davison (No. 51 Jacob Construction/Tilson HR Honda): “It was a solid day for the 51 team. Nearly every year for the one-off Indy entries, there is a number of teething issues that needed to be sorted out, so you lose a little bit of track time as a result. However, we ended more or less in the middle of the field on the speed charts. Really, we are no better or no worse than anyone out there, which is to be expected with this aero package. Thankfully, we have a straight car to build on for the next two days leading up to qualifying. It’s a solid platform for us, and I’m excited to see what development we can do tomorrow.”

Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “We had a decent start in the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda. We were trying to get through some items that we have on the list. It’s a pretty extensive list, especially with the condensed schedule. It’s a totally new car for me this year with (engineer) Mike Cannon and with a few offseason projects. I definitely think we’re going in the right direction. First practice, it doesn’t mean anything, we’re just trying to get the car comfortable in traffic and so far that seems to be pretty good. The Aeroscreen when we first tested it seemed like it kind of affected the car a little different aerodynamically. I’d say today actually felt more normal. No real difference, and the vision is good.”

Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I think it was a good first day. We did the program plan and went through some different setup directions that we wanted to try. For me, it was great to get the laps in. It’s been a while since we’ve been at the Speedway. It’s definitely a very unique place, so you need laps to gain confidence, and that’s what we did. The No. 8 Huski Chocolate Honda felt good out there. We have a good baseline to work off. We’re in a good place. Let’s see how tomorrow goes.”

Jack Harvey (No. 60 AutoNation / SiriusXM Honda): “It feels so great to be back here at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Any time you are here it’s awesome. Today was a mix: There were times when I felt like we were doing OK and times when I thought we had some work to do. But that’s pretty much how a normal test day goes at IMS. I think today we found that our qualifying pace looks OK, and we will focus on stepping up our race pace over the next two days.”

James Hinchcliffe (No. 29 Genesys Honda): “Luckily, not a ton of surprises. A couple of new elements, one being the Aeroscreen, but everybody at Andretti Autosport has worked their tails off to prepare for this race. And to have six cars prepared at the level that they do is incredibly impressive, with three of them in the top five after the first day of practice. It’s just practice; there’s obviously a long way to go. But whenever you can kick off the month strong and know you’ve got a decent package, you can kind of work on it from there. It makes your sleep a little better now and between the race.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay (No. 28 DHL Honda): “All in all, it was a promising first day for the DHL Honda team. The guys did a very good job preparing the speedway car over the last few months. I’m optimistic going forward when it comes to our pace for qualifying and as a team. We’ll continue to work on running in groups for race-running, balance and pace. It was a pretty promising day for Andretti Autosport as a whole.”

JR Hildebrand (No. 67 DRR Salesforce Chevrolet): “I felt good with the Aeroscreen right away. Sitting in the pits you can tell it’s a little warmer but not once you are on track – it’s no problem. I felt good in the car. Our DRR team came into this year with a clear perspective with what we needed to do to be competitive in the race. And what we have done so far with our adjustments to the car have checked out. That is good so far. We were focused on trying to answer some of those questions from the last couple of years. Sage (Karam, DRR teammate) worked in traffic more today than we did. He was running in more traffic situations than I was. We don’t have a lot of time this year. And we are moving the right direction with the cars already. Thursday will be a very busy day. So we are prepared to work hard with the cars.”

Tony Kanaan (No. 14 ABC Supply/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Good first day. I think if you’re going to hear everybody’s quote, it’s everybody’s glad to be back here. It took a lot of effort from a lot of people in the Series, in the teams to be here. That shows how important this place is. A lot of mixed feelings this morning driving in and not seeing anybody. Sitting in Garage 1 at this point in the day today, it would be probably 40 people waiting for A.J. (Foyt) outside. So kind of odd day. But as far as track time it was awesome. We had plenty of track time. We had a little bit of an issue at the end of the day, but it didn’t hurt us and we were getting ready to stop. I’m pretty pleased with the car. It was definitely one of our best opening days that we had. The team came really well prepared, and I’m happy. Obviously, still a long way to go, but it’s good to be back.”

Sage Karam (No. 24 DRR WIX Filters Chevrolet): “Today was pretty good for our DRR WIX Filters Chevy. It was much more solid than last year on the first day of practice. We did a lot of good things today, as I did a lot of traffic running. We got in some big groups and went with the good teams like Penske, Ganassi and Andretti. No one was doing anything different from what I could do in traffic. That was very positive. Now we have to find the next step with mechanical grip to move to the next level with this car. Obviously, passing will be very tough, just like last year. Qualifying will be at a premium. Pit stops will be huge, but this DRR crew is always fast on their stops. So I feel good about that aspect. It feels good to be back on the oval. The road course was a good, little challenge for us. It was good for everyone today. Me to get more seat time and the team to get in a few live stops. It is so much fun around this place when the car is working well. We look forward to Thursday.”

Dalton Kellett (No. 41 K-Line USA / AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Finished up rookie orientation, so it’s good to have that box checked off. I did a baseline run at the end on new tires and got a bit of running around some other cars in the draft, so the speed’s getting up there. We started very conservatively, and we’re working through it, taking understeer out of the car. We were taking small chunks out, so it took us a little time to get through everything. I think that analytical, progressive process is going to help us in the end. It feels good to be out on track, the car feels great. The feedback from Tony (Kanaan) and Charlie (Kimball) is that everyone’s pretty happy all around. First day at the Speedway, it’s an amazing place to be, I’m really excited. I couldn’t be happier to be here, so I’m looking forward to the rest of the week.” (About his first lap): “The experience of the first lap is hard to put into words. It’s such a magical place — the feeling of being out on track and you want to take the moment, but you also want to focus on what you’re doing. The first slow stages give you time to get up to speed. The car felt great, and I was just grateful and happy to be here and loving every minute of it.”

Charlie Kimball (No. 4 Tresiba AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “I think it was a really good start to on-track activity at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The car felt really good right away. I was pretty comfortable. The guys have obviously done a great job preparing. There was some uncertainty about when we’d get on track, so I’m glad we were able to get some miles in today. The weather looks pretty good for the rest of the week, but we’ve got a lot to do in a condensed schedule. It’s nice to start with a good foundation. Something we can always come back to as needed, but we’ve got to find a little speed – we’re always looking for speed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – but I’ve got a lot of confidence in the Tresiba Chevrolet team to find that as we get into Fast Friday. Ideally we’re looking to qualify in the top nine and race into the top one!”

Josef Newgarden (No. 1 Shell V-Power Nitro Team Penske Chevrolet): “We had a good day for the No. 1 Chevrolet. I felt like it was nice to get back out on track and getting through the processes. It is great to be back here at Indy. So thankfuI that we are able to run. I think we are going to put on a great show next weekend. That’s what we are working on, trying to make our race car drivable in traffic. It is interesting to see who is fast out of the gate, who’s not. We have a long process here. This is a good starting point for us. See if we can get the Shell car fast enough for qualifying and then work on the race after that.”

Simon Pagenaud (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “It is just great to be back at the Speedway. Today was like Christmas! It is just an amazing place. Super-excited to be back in the Menards Chevy. We worked on two different packages today. I think that we know what direction we want to go now, which is great. We were able to check off the list one of the important items for our program. So very excited about that. I think tonight we are 100 percent sure on the decisions we are going to make tomorrow. So that is a big leap forward. Excited about tomorrow and qualifying on the horizon. So far we have been working in the right space. I got my timing sorted with passing and comfortable around the big speedway here. Just very excited to be in Indianapolis again this year. Hopefully we can repeat.”

Alex Palou (No. 55 Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh Honda): “This is such a different place than the two other ovals I’ve been to. It’s a crazy place, in a good way. That was a lot of fun getting to run with everyone after the rookie orientation earlier today. Right now, running alone is easier than with traffic. I think I got really comfortable in the rookie session and again this afternoon running alone. But then I was just getting up to speed running in traffic. I was able to follow the cars ahead of me, but I’m still working on overtaking them. I’m taking it one step at a time. We have a full day tomorrow and Friday to keep working on that. I think we have a fast car. The Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh crew did a really good job on the setup and preparing the car.”

Spencer Pigot (No. 45 Hy-Vee Embrace Pittsburgh Honda): “Overall, it’s good to be back at Indy. I think we’ve all waited a long time for this so it’s nice to be here. On track, things went pretty well in the first session. It’s cool to be going those speeds again. I haven’t been on an oval since late August last year, so it felt great to go over 220 mph again. The No. 45 Hy-Vee / Embrace Pittsburgh car looks great. I thought we made some good improvements and changes, and the car was feeling pretty good. The afternoon was a little tougher for us. We tried some things on our list, and, even if we don’t go that direction, it was good to get some reads and data on that. We definitely have a good idea of what we want from the car, so hopefully tomorrow we can find it.”

Will Power (No. 12 Verizon 5G Edge Team Penske Chevrolet): “It was actually a pretty good day. I feel like the cars are a little harder to drive now. I feel like the balance of our car is really good now, really good. I feel like we are right in the window right now. We will work on some different philosophies tomorrow. We are in a good spot, so we will try some other stuff to see if we can get it better.”

Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet): “I think it was a solid first day for the entire Arrow McLaren SP team. I think we still have some work to do, but I think we are in a good spot. Today was about running in traffic and trying to create the best package for us for Race Day. We have to keep chipping at it and working at it. We will start off tomorrow where we ended today and keep improving. Thank you to everyone on the team and at Chevrolet for giving us a good starting point.”

Graham Rahal (No. 15 United Rentals Honda): “End of Day 1 here at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and I think it was a solid day for our team. I know that sometimes on the timesheets it doesn’t look like it, though. I didn’t get the big tow, in the traffic on new tires, light fuel and all that sort of stuff. In fact, our goal today was to use as little tires as possible. We ended up running two sets of tires almost two full stints per set, so I’m pleased with that, pleased with the consistency of the car. Obviously, we need to find a little bit of speed, find a little more grip in traffic, and I think every driver here is saying that tonight. And if you saw us on track, it’s definitely quite a challenge, for sure. We’re going to sit down with the engineers and try to work on not only the United Rentals car but also our teammates, and hopefully we can get Takuma (Sato) and Spencer (Pigot) a little more competitive, as well. The team had a long list of things we wanted to get done, and we got those done, so now we can go forward from here.”

Felix Rosenqvist (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “It’s good to be back on the speedway. I think everyone has missed this place a lot. We had a solid first day. We still need to work on our car in traffic a little bit. We started to run in packs in the end to work on getting the car to stay close to the guy in front. I think we made good progress in the last run. We’re hoping to continue progressing tomorrow. We have some good practice coming up the next two days. I won’t say we have time to relax, but we have time to take it slow here and get up to speed. Overall, it feels good in the No. 10 NTT DATA Honda so far.”

Alexander Rossi (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS / Auto Nation Honda): “Opening day wa OK. We were pleasantly surprised that the screen didn’t create too many issues balance- and performance-wise, which was interesting. I think it’s going to be pretty fast with the boost on Fast Friday, which is exciting for everyone. I think on our own our car is pretty good, but we need to work on when we’re in traffic. It’s still early on. I think it’s always kind of like this on Day 1 running in traffic for the first time. It’s a lot more difficult than you remember, but we’ll definitely have to spend some time tomorrow on group running to make sure we’re happy with our car come Sunday next week. Today was more focused on getting reacquainted with the car and what we learned last year, so I wasn’t too aware of my surroundings, but as the week goes on there will definitely be a noticeable difference without having fans here. It sucks. The energy that you get walking down pit lane or through Gasoline Alley really is a motivating factor going into a session whether its practice, qualifying or the race. It’s unfortunate and sad, but this event still carries a lot of weight and is still as important to everyone now as it has been in the past.”

Takuma Sato (No. 30 Panasonic/PeopleReady Honda): “We’re back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and it is a very happy time for us. This is a moment we waited for, for a long time. It’s August, but it is a fantastic feeling. We jumped in the car and went fast, not 230 mph yet because of the boost level today, but it’s a great feeling. We did a number of test items today, splitting over three cars because this year the schedule is compressed a lot. We literally have today and tomorrow for the race setup and then Friday is Fast Friday. There is still a lot of work to be done, but we did a solo run and a group run and were relatively competitive, so it was a very good day.”

Zach Veach (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda): “Really happy with our day. Looked like we were in the top five of the no tow charts for both sessions, but just didn’t get a tow lap to put us up high on the overall speeds. Really excited to get back to work tomorrow. I think we have a great car.”

Rinus Veekay (No. 21 SONAX Chevrolet): “I had a really good first day. I built it up slowly, but we had a lot of time. Especially on my own, the SONAX Chevrolet is amazing. We needed to do some work in traffic, but we made some really good steps, and I’m very confident for the coming days. We’re heading in a good direction with a really strong car and a really strong team.”