Hinchcliffe was playing author support this morning, now driver. Photo: IndyCar

Busy Thursday underway with pressers, Indy 500 practice

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INDIANAPOLIS – There was not much in the way of activity – media or on-track – that happened Wednesday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in preparation for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

And then the first few hours of Thursday happened.

It might be easier to go in chronological order for all the events that have happened here this morning:

A QUARTET OF PRESS CONFERENCES

  • Starting the day off at 9 a.m. ET, Honda hosted a “Meet the Authors” roundtable with Chris Workman, author, “The Spectacle – Celebrating the History of the Indianapolis 500” (foreward by Ryan Hunter-Reay), a young Adult-aimed non-fiction covering the first 100 runnings of the Indianapolis 500, Chris Hinchcliffe, author, “Chasing Checkers”, Young Adult-aimed novel about a driver following his dreams of becoming a professional racer, then Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe themselves. Apex Legends’ Workman, who also authored “Josef, The Indy Car Driver” last year, told NBC Sports it’s good to have a cohesion of books. He’s sold roughly 3,000 of the first one last year. James Hinchcliffe joked meanwhile about his brother Chris that he “inherited all the brain cells” in the family. This authors event came after earlier work from Honda this week utilizing Graham Rahal and Alexander Rossi for STEAM events on the IMS grounds.
  • Next up was two of three drivers from A.J. Foyt Enterprises, Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz, along with team president Larry Foyt. When asked how much Daly has grown as a driver since his rookie run with Foyt in 2013, as he returns now, Foyt deadpanned “two inches, and six pounds.” But when he turned serious, he explained Daly now knows what he didn’t know as a first-time driver and has progressed in a big way from there. As for Munoz, working with just two teammates instead of three or four as he has in years past with Andretti Autosport has proven a change of dynamic, but he’s adapting well to it. He has “unfinished business” from his time finishing second here twice, as a rookie in 2013 and again last year. Daly said the team has made big strides from its test here last month, then joked at the end of the press conference “what, there were no questions about Fernando?”
  • At 10 a.m. the press conferences kept rolling, this time as Road Racing Drivers Club president Bobby Rahal, Roger Penske and David Donohue graced the dais for the foundation of The Mark Donohue Foundation. This foundation will initially help raise funds for the continuation of the RRDC’s SAFEisFAST initiative. Penske made a surprise charitable donation of $100,000 to the foundation right off the bat, with the younger Donohue able to reflect on memories of his father, on some of his race cars, and thank the RRDC for its SAFEisFAST resource. More information is available at rrdc.org and safeisfast.com.
  • A much longer press conference took place from 10:30 (fuller report to come) as John Andretti spoke in a press conference for an update on his condition after being diagnosed with Stage 4A colon cancer. The cousin of Michael Andretti is working tirelessly to be an advocate for getting colonoscopies, via the #CheckIt4Andretti hashtag. While the event started on a serious note, it quickly turned humorous as Andretti proved he’s lost none of his sense of humor throughout the near 45-minute session, and even witnessed IMS track president J. Douglas Boles call his doctor to set up his own colonoscopy. Boles, who joked to me earlier in the week “he sleeps in June,” turned 50 last year and would be due for one himself.
  • There was also an event on the Pagoda Plaza via Crown Royal, where Crown Royal and IMS erected a brick Wall of Gratitude to display the names of military members past and present. More information is linked here via the IMS website. Boles and Graham Rahal were among the speakers at this event.

PRACTICE UNDERWAY

Gasoline Alley was frenetic in the final hour before the six hours of running started for Thursday’s practice session as most teams and drivers were in the process of preparing for a busy day.

With wind having scuppered most of Wednesday’s running, although 21 drivers took laps, only 14 posted representative speeds. A total of 408 laps were run over six hours.

By contrast, by the time of a yellow flag not even 30 minutes into today’s practice, there were already 311 laps turned. Not even an hour into the day, there were already more laps completed on Thursday than there were on all of Wednesday, with 428 laps done by 12:45 p.m.

Most teams are looking to go with heavy race running in the first few hours of the day before beginning qualifying simulations this afternoon. With rain forecast for parts, if not all, of Friday through Sunday, it makes today’s running all the more imperative for both the race and qualifying.

In the paddock, final preparations continued for the Lazier Racing Partners Chevrolet, which will be the No. 44 Tivoli Lodge – Stalk It entry driven by 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Lazier. The team hopes to be out by 3 p.m. today. The crew has already set up its pit assembly in the first pit box entering pit lane.

The No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda of Hinchcliffe should be one of the busiest cars today. Having lost most of Tuesday owing to something that occurred late Monday, then having lost nearly all of Wednesday due to the wind, the defending Indianapolis 500 polesitter is playing catch-up.

Jay Howard in the No. 77 Team One Cure Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda was at 226.744 mph early on in a tow for the fastest lap of the month within the first 30 minutes, while Ed Carpenter took the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet to the early best no-tow speed of 224.051 mph.

As for that certain Spaniard in the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry? Fernando Alonso has in the first 45 minutes of practice dropped a three-wide move on Helio Castroneves and Sage Karam going into Turn 1, and has now improved to a new best speed of the month at 224.641 mph.

More updates will follow throughout the day.

MRTI: Herta standing tall, riding wave of momentum in Indy Lights

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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It would be hard to top the month of May that Colton Herta is coming off of.

The 18-year-old, now in his second year competing in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, enjoyed a sweep of the three Indy Lights races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, winning both events on the IMS Road Course – charging through the field to do so (he fell back as far as sixth and fourth between Race 1 and Race 2) – and outdueling Andretti Autosport stablemates Pato O’Ward and Dalton Kellett to win a frantic Freedom 100.

In short, it was a near perfect month for the young Herta.

“It’s super special to win in Indy and to get do the triple there at a place that’s so nostalgic, it’s a pretty cool feeling,” Herta told NBC Sports about his Indy success.

And all three were thrilling drives in which Herta spent the entire time battling with rivals – Santi Urrutia on the IMS Road Course, and the aforementioned O’Ward and Kellett, and Urrutia as well, in the Freedom 100.

Colton Herta edged Pato O’Ward to win the Freedom 100. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Herta is no stranger to winning – he won twice in 2017 (Race 2 at St. Petersburg and Race 2 at Barber Motorsports Park) – both times in dominant fashion.

As he explained, it isn’t necessarily more challenging to dominate a race versus battling rivals the entire way, but different mindsets are required to survive each.

“It’s a different skill set,” he asserted. “Obviously when you start up front, there’s a lot more pressure to perform, so it’s more about managing the gap to the guys behind. Whereas you’re not as nervous when you’re in the back of the pack, because you can’t go any further back. So there’s less nerves going into the race. And it’s more about attacking the whole time and taking a little more risk.”

In discussing his Indy victories more, Herta detailed that outdueling opponents in intense duels – like the ones at Indy – comes down to thoroughly analyzing one’s opponents and making aggressive, yet smart passes.

“You can see what the guys are doing ahead of you, and obviously if you follow them for a lap or two you can see where they’re struggling and you can make up ground on them,” he explained. “And that’s the biggest thing: going for an overtake that you can make – especially when you’re in the running for a championship fight like this – going for an overtake that you know you can make without taking a massive risk, and kind of seeing the tendencies of the car in front of you and where they’re struggling and when you’re making up time.”

Herta’s run of recent success comes as more evidence of a driver who appears to be more polished than he was last year. While blisteringly fast – Herta captured seven poles in 2017 – there were also a number of errors that kept him from making a more serious championship challenge.

Though Herta began 2018 with a somewhat ominous crash in Race 2 at St. Pete, the rest of his season has been much cleaner. He finished third in Race 1 at St. Pete and second and third at Barber Motorsports Park before his run of victories at IMS.

Still, despite the appearance of a more polished driver, Herta explained that his approach is no different than it was in 2017.

“Not much has changed,” he asserted. “The mindset obviously is still the same because, especially with a (seven car field), you need to win races and you need to win quite a few of them to win the championship. (Staying out of trouble is about) just kind of settling in and knowing that a second or third place, or even a fourth or fifth place, isn’t terrible to take every now and then.”

And because the field in Indy Lights is small this year – only seven cars are entered at Road America – Herta revealed that maintaining a hard-charging style and going for race wins is paramount, in that the small fields make it harder to gap competitors in the title hunt.

“It’s hard to create a gap. On a bad day, you’re still going to be closer (to the guys ahead of you). Like Pato O’Ward in Indy (on the road course) had an awful weekend and finished in the back in both races (fourth and seventh), but I’m only at a (six point) lead. It’s tough to get ahead, so you want to minimize mistakes. It’s tough to make a gap, but it’s also tough to fall behind.”

As such, Herta is most certainly focused on bringing home an Indy Lights crown in 2018, which would propel him into the Verizon IndyCar Series, but he isn’t putting undue pressure on himself to force it to happen.

“In the second year, you have to get it done, and it’s tough to move up to IndyCars without that $1 million scholarship. So yeah, it’s important, but there’s no need to put more pressure on myself for how it is. I just got to keep doing what I’m doing, keep my head down, and if we can replicate what happened in May more and more, we should be in IndyCar next year,” he detailed.

And a potential move to IndyCar is certainly on the minds of Herta and Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, even if the Indy Lights title ends up in the hands of someone else.

“We are thinking about it for sure, and we have some sponsors already committed on this year that I think we could bring up into IndyCar,” Herta revealed. “But, if we win the Indy Lights championship, we’re going to race (IndyCar), whether it’s the four races that we’re given or whatever it may be.”

Herta will look to improve upon his results from last year at Road America, when he finished 12th in Race 1 and third in Race 2.

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