IndyCar’s winter hibernation coming to an end with plenty to come

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The Verizon IndyCar Series kicked off its promotional efforts for 2017 with its “NEXT” video that launched just after the new year, while more concrete “next” items will come here over the coming weeks.

Chip Ganassi Racing Teams got the 2017 testing underway with all four of its cars running on the Sebring International Raceway short course. From what’s been gathered, the test went very well for the quartet of drivers, now running the Honda aero kit and power unit for the first time in road or street course configuration. It remains to be seen what Scott Dixon’s car will look like commercially speaking following Target’s departure, and whether the No. 9 Honda will have a primary partner by the Feb. 10-11 open test in Phoenix is up for debate.

This was Ganassi’s makeup test at Sebring for its lost day on December 9. Dale Coyne Racing will test on January 24-25 for its makeup days, and that test will provide Coyne rookie Ed Jones his first running with the team in a rookie day on the 24th before his formal first test on the 25th.

Silly season has all but come to an end. Spencer Pigot is all-but-formally-confirmed as the road and street course driver for Ed Carpenter Racing’s No. 20 Chevrolet. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports is yet to formally confirm Mikhail Aleshin as its second driver, even though this has been a widely assumed continuation throughout the winter. Meanwhile with staff reductions having occurred at what was KVSH Racing, whether that team makes the grid in any capacity in just over two months at St. Petersburg is now doubtful.

From an INDYCAR future car standpoint, it looks likely that the process of revealing the 2018 common aero kit will begin this week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. As with most new car rollouts, you’ll generally see a rendering or renderings before the car itself. Forecasting further, from a buzz standpoint, you figure INDYCAR would want to have the kit itself revealed in the month of May when there’s generally the most media attention around the Indianapolis 500. And then the kit’s public track testing would figure to come in the fall.

Speaking of media, an informal media day takes place January 18-19 in Indianapolis for INDYCAR winter meetings. It won’t be a formal media day as it has been the last two years.

IndyCar drivers will be omnipresent at two of January’s bigger race events. At the Race of Champions event in Miami from Jan. 21-22, confirmed drivers include 2017 full-timers Ryan Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan, Alexander Rossi, James Hinchcliffe and Helio Castroneves, along with fellow veterans Juan Pablo Montoya and Gabby Chaves.

Conor Daly has been nominated as a finalist for ROC Factor North America to be Hinchcliffe’s teammate, and has worked to achieve votes to make the race as well. The talented young American’s been locked in a fierce battle with underrated Edmonton native Stefan Rzadzinski, who has raced in all three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires before shifting into the Nissan Micra Cup ranks.

“RHR,” “TK” and “Hinch” are then three of 11 IndyCar drivers who competed at some point in 2016 who will be a part of the 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona. The other eight include Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais, Graham Rahal, Spencer Pigot, RC Enerson, Townsend Bell, Sage Karam and Jack Hawksworth.

Then the calendar kicks into February, more testing occurs and the countdown to St. Petersburg March 12 really kicks into high gear.

Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing
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To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

MORE: McLaren considering Kyle Busch for Indy 500

“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.


Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”