Thursday, Friday Detroit weekend notebook

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DETROIT – Here’s some notes gathered from the paddock ahead of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix Presented by Lear doubleheader this weekend. The second IndyCar practice session follows this afternoon.

The joy of being the Indianapolis 500 champion does come with the side effect of the work required to go on the media tour in the two days that follow.

Takuma Sato has kept his seemingly eternal effervescent smile throughout the tour of New York and Texas, although he admitted to NBC Sports how happy he was to be back in his No. 26 Ruoff Home Mortgage Honda for Andretti Autosport in first practice this morning.

By contrast, Alexander Rossi was very laid back when we caught up with him this morning ahead of his second Detroit weekend in the No. 98 ShopAndretti.com Honda for Andretti-Herta Autosport. Rossi came to Detroit this time last year after winning last year’s 100th running, and was so relieved to be back in the car.

“There’s some things you miss about not winning… and some things you don’t,” Rossi laughed on Friday. “This year, I got sleep this week.”

Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull told NBC Sports he estimated it took more than 350 combined man hours to build up a new car for Scott Dixon this weekend, the No. 9 Camping World Honda appearing for the first time in road course trim with the new signage. The new tub was built up after the previous car was, obviously, written off in Dixon’s savage looking accident last week in the Indianapolis 500.

On another Ganassi note, Tony Kanaan will to have a busy couple weeks after being confirmed Wednesday as Sebastien Bourdais’ injury replacement at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the no. 68 Ford Chip Ganassi Team USA Ford GT.

After he races at Detroit this weekend, Kanaan said he’ll head to Charlotte early next week for Ford simulator work, then to Texas for the next IndyCar race next weekend (Saturday, June 10, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and then straight to France for his ACO simulator work. His first time in the Ford GT on the Circuit de la Sarthe will be Wednesday, June 14.

After missing out at the Indianapolis 500 Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors last week, Dale Coyne Racing had a fun make-up prize for Ed Jones, who lost the honor to Fernando Alonso.

Engineer Craig Hampson then created an in-joke “you did well!” piece, or trophy, and presented it to him on Thursday.

On another Coyne note, the No. 18 Honda chassis that Esteban Gutierrez is racing this weekend was Pippa Mann’s oval chassis last weekend at the Indianapolis 500. The No. 18 Honda chassis run by James Davison at the ‘500 is repairable, but the team’s backup car this weekend.

Gutierrez is set to continue with Coyne for further races this year, although the formal details of which haven’t been finalized yet.

Jimmy Vasser is again here this weekend, with a GEICO hat on. Vasser, unfortunately, joins Sebastien Bourdais in not being able to defend his victories of the last two years here. Bourdais, driving for the Vasser co-owned KVSH Racing, won the 2015 second race and 2016 first race at Detroit.

There have been a couple livery changes this week. Magneti Marelli returns to Andretti Autosport – it was on Carlos Munoz’s car here last year and it will be on Marco Andretti’s this weekend.

Ruoff Home Mortgage has continued as primary sponsor aboard Indianapolis 500 champion Sato’s No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda.

Mark Music, President & CEO of Ruoff Home Mortgage stated, “What you can definitely feel is the excitement that has been built around Takuma’s win at the Indianapolis 500 and we wanted to continue that partnership with Sato and Andretti Autosport for this race. Our 450+ employees, in particular, are extremely excited with the incredible performance of Takuma Sato and are happy to continue our relationship into Detroit.”

The Alexander Rossi car features ShopAndretti.com signage on his No. 98 Andretti-Herta Autosport Honda, and is back in the red and blue colors last seen at Barber Motorsports Park.

DXC Technology takes over as primary sponsor for Simon Pagenaud’s No. 1 Team Penske Chevrolet, now white, black with chrome accents. Helio Castroneves is in the white and black colors of Hitachi on his No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet.

Dixon’s No. 9 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing continues with Camping World signage.

Graham Rahal is back in the No. 15 SoldierStrong/TurnForTroops.com colors as he ran at the INDYCAR Grand Prix. Rahal led first practice.

At Ed Carpenter Racing, JR Hildebrand’s No. 21 Chevrolet is in the green Fuzzy’s Vodka colors. Spencer Pigot returns to the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet after his time with Juncos Racing.

From the “things that make you go hmm…” department, we spotted two Honda Performance Development senior officials outside the Team Penske transporter in the paddock this afternoon.

HPD is strongly hinted but not formally confirmed to be part of Penske’s strongly hinted but not formally confirmed upcoming sports car prototype program set to debut in 2018.

Tire management this weekend is crucial, because of limited sets for the two races. From Firestone, each entrant gets eight sets primary, and four sets alternate for the weekend. Teams must use one new set of primary and alternate tires in each race.

The qualifying format is also different with two groups for both days, rather than the traditional Firestone Fast Six format as is used on all other road and street courses. Today, IndyCar just had two practice sessions and no qualifying sessions.

IMSA

  • A number of drivers will be en route to France for the Le Mans Test Day, which takes place Sunday, following the Chevrolet Sports Car Classic IMSA race on Saturday afternoon. Some of them will be on Cooper MacNeil’s private jet that will transport them to Le Mans from Detroit.
  • Among those drivers planned to go to Le Mans, it includes Ricky and Jordan Taylor, Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen, Cooper MacNeil, Christina Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan.
  • CORE autosport drivers Jon Bennett and Colin Braun and a handful of crew, including Jeff Braun, will depart Detroit for Thompson, Ct. after Saturday’s race for GRC Lites duty.
  • This is the second street race hometown race for 3GT Racing and its Lexus RC F GT3 this year. While at Long Beach, the Lexus cars ran in the shadow of Toyota on the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach weekend, and here, the 3GT team runs not far from its Lansing, Mich. headquarters (about 100 miles away). The team visited the HARMAN North American Automotive Headquarters in Novi, Michigan earlier this week.
  • Don’t expect the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 Gibson to run much if at all this weekend. Kenton Koch and Ryan Lewis’ names were listed on the car on Friday as Jose Gutierrez is in Le Mans preparing for his first test in the No. 22 G-Drive Racing Oreca 07 Gibson (run by DragonSpeed).
  • Lewis had an incident in the morning’s first practice while in his No. 20 BAR1 Motorsports Oreca FLM09, one of the three PC cars entered this weekend. The car was repaired in time for second practice.
  • Not as fortunate was Ozz Negri, who sustained an impact in first practice as well in his No. 86 Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3, and the car was being repaired during second practice after Negri contacted the Turn 1 wall with both the left front and left rear of his car.
  • The PC class hits the halfway point of its final season, and both active team owners here this weekend, Brent O’Neill (Performance Tech Motorsports) and Brian Alder (BAR1 Motorsports) are beginning their respective processes of determining their next steps as a team with the Orecas being retired at the end of this season.

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”