Editor’s note: Sage Karam, 3GT Racing Lexus driver in IMSA, a past Indy Lights and USF2000 champion and Verizon IndyCar Series podium finisher, will file a series of blogs for NBCSports.com this month for a second straight year (2016 archive here).
Here’s his second entry, as he recaps a number of pre-practice media activities and the mental preparation for practice week. You can read his first blog of 2017 here. He’ll run the No. 24 Mecum Auctions Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in partnership with Kingdom Racing.
Hey again, it’s Sage Karam. And I am back in one of my favorite and happiest places now, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It’s the greatest racing track in the world for many reasons but, as a driver, you get so pumped up when you drive under the South end tunnel for the first time each year. The place is just so massive and you really have to take in the scene when you return every time.
I’m so grateful to be back at IMS and preparing for the 101st Indy 500.
And I’m grateful to Dennis Reinbold and his whole DRR team for giving me the chance to compete in this year’s Indy 500 with the No. 24 Mecum Auctions Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Chevrolet Dallara. And it’s fun to write about my adventures here for the month of May with NBCSports.com.
I remember the first time I drove at IMS. It was in the Indy Lights class at the Chris Griffis Memorial Test and it was thrilling. It was on the road course, but it was so cool to see the big grandstands, the Pagoda, the scoring pylon, Gasoline Alley and the Snake Pit. It was amazing to gaze around the facility and see everything, such as the museum, the golf course, and more.
It’s a different thrill to take the first lap on the big 2.5-mile oval, the most famous oval in the world. You just are so focused on what you are doing and going that crazy speed. You forget about a lot of things in the car. But, after a while, it gets to be normal to me. Well, as normal as going 230 miles per hour can be.
But once you have a relative perception of the speed and the track, you can slow down your mind to relax and enjoy the ride. It’s funny at times. You can actually take a deep breath and see things differently after you have practiced for some time.
Of course, my first laps back at Indy will be on Monday and it does take a little bit of adjustment for the speed factor. When you’re driving the 3GT Racing Lexus RC F GT3 in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, it’s great. It’s a different kind of speed compared to the IndyCar, because both are so cool and fast in different ways.
The first few days of practice at Indy usually means finding a baseline for the car and yourself and work on the race trip. Conditions change so much at Indy that you have to try a variety of things in practice so you can be ready for them in the race. The heat of the track, the wind, the traffic, the turbulence of the others cars…… they make factors on how to set up the race car.
Last year, we went from 23rd to fourth before I had trouble and hit the wall on lap 93. We had a car to race up front at the Indy 500 and that is all you ask for at this place. Other elements make the difference on winning and losing then, like strategy, luck, quick pit stops. I could go on, but you get the point… it’s more than just having a great car.
This year, though, I would like to qualify better and start closer to the front of the field. That way we wouldn’t have to pass so many cars in the race to get to the front.
Plus, I know I need to be a little more patient throughout the race. But we can discuss that idea as we get closer to May 28 and 200 laps on race day.
Right now, I’m hanging out in the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing garage (B1-3) and watching my fellow competitors compete in the Indy Grand Prix. Sure, I’d like to be out there with them. We know that the bigger prize is the Indy 500 and that is our concentration for the team and myself.
So, I’ll relax little, do some media interviews and sponsor appearances and getting ready for Monday. I’m anxious to get over to the (Indiana State) Fairgrounds on Wednesday to see the Mecum Auction and those awesome cars. Check them out this coming week on NBCSN. It’s worth seeing some amazing machinery for the street too.
The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.
To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.
“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.
“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?
“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.
“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”
The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.
The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.
Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.
“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”
The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.
With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).
“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.
“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”
On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.
Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.
His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).
Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.
Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.
Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.
“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.
“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.
“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”
But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.
“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.
“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.
“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”
Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.
“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.
“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”
Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.
“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.
“It’s pretty good.”
The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.
Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?
“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.
“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?