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Thursday saw busy test day for IndyCar, MRTI at three tracks

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This is the last off weekend before the Verizon IndyCar Series heats up with a three-race in three-week stretch at Pocono Raceway, Gateway Motorsports Park and Watkins Glen International.

It doesn’t mean teams from IndyCar nor the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires haven’t been busy though, with Thursday proving a pivotal day across three different venues in preparation for the stretch runs of the 2017 seasons, and the preparation for the 2018 season.

NEW 2018 INDYCAR HAS ANOTHER SOLID TEST IN IOWA

After runs at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2.5-mile superspeedway) and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (2.238-mile permanent road course), the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit had its first run on a short oval Thursday, the 0.894-mile Iowa Speedway. And like the first two runs, it was another solid day for drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Oriol Servia in the Chevrolet and Honda-powered cars, prepared by Team Penske and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and overseen by INDYCAR itself.

“It’s interesting how you can run the same lap time and in one (downforce level) you’re completely flat out and the other one you are lifting (off the accelerator in the turns),” Montoya said in a release. “We’re trying to understand what’s the best way to bring the best racing.”

Servia added, “It was very consistent, especially if we end up going on the lower downforce package. You have to drive it, which is fun. You have to lift and you’re still doing the same lap speed (as with more downforce), which is interesting. Exact same lap speed. I was able to run a decent distance behind Juan Pablo, and the car just loses a little bit of grip but (with) a four-tire kind of slide. It’s not like the front loses a lot of (grip) or the rear loses a lot, which is the problem with the current car.”

INDYCAR’s Bill Pappas, INDYCAR vice president of competition/race engineering, remained pleased with the drivers going through the checklist.

“Again, the idea was to check off boxes and we did all the boxes we wanted to,” he said. “We wanted to analyze the downforce level we’ve been running here the last couple years versus what we thought was a target lower downforce, and both drivers responded favorably to the lower downforce. They thought they were able to drive the car a bit more, rather than hanging on, so that was very encouraging. As far as running in traffic, the car never felt like it was going to get away from them – spin out or have any issues with stability. They were both very happy about that.”

There’s also more here from The Gazette‘s Jeremiah Davis, a local Iowa reporter who was at Thursday’s test.

SEVERAL TEAMS TEST AT WATKINS GLEN

The Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport teams, at least, got a key day of running in at Watkins Glen International ahead of the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen, which takes place Labor Day weekend from Sept. 1-3.

Both Scott Dixon and Marco Andretti, who have been overseas in recent weeks during IndyCar’s couple-week break, were among those testing. Dixon has owned Watkins Glen throughout his career with four wins there, three straight from 2005 to 2007 and then last year in one of his most dominant weekend performances there last year. Andretti finished fifth three straight years there, from 2007 to 2009, and was 12th last year.

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INDY LIGHTS, PRO MAZDA HEAD TO GATEWAY

After the Verizon IndyCar Series had its first test on the repaved Gateway Motorsports Park last week, it was the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires’ series turn on Thursday for an open test – and an important one at that.

Indy Lights has just two races left, Gateway and Watkins Glen, while Pro Mazda has three – the same two venues but with Watkins Glen a doubleheader race rather than a single race.

For Juncos Racing’s Kyle Kaiser, who tested along with Nicolas Dapero, Gateway represents a huge opportunity. The Californian holds a 42-point lead and can clinch the title at Gateway so long as he leaves with a 34-point lead or greater (leaving with a top-five finish should do the trick). Kaiser got his first career win on the flat one-mile oval at Phoenix last year and hopes a similar setup can translate.

“The new pavement is very different and a lot faster,” said Kaiser. “There’s a ton of grip out there. So, everything we had from testing here in the off season, we pretty much threw away and we’re starting fresh. With the smoother asphalt you can run the cars a lot lower, which generates a lot more downforce. Race conditions probably will be similar to today. We’re getting a good baseline and we can work off that for the race.

“But I’m coming in to win this race. It would be a great race to win. I love the track. I feel really quick out there. I think we’ve got the car to win this race.”

Beyond the full-time competitors, Chad Boat was also back in action in a fourth Belardi Auto Racing entry, as he attempts a second crack at his series debut. Boat was meant to debut at Iowa Speedway but didn’t receive medical clearance from INDYCAR after a midget car accident earlier in that week.

USF2000 TESTED AT THE GLEN, AS WELL

Earlier this week, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series tested at Watkins Glen. Rinus VeeKay, who’s chasing Oliver Askew for that series’ championship, had this save.

Chevrolet hoping it finally has edge on Honda in Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Chevrolet engines have powered some of IndyCar’s biggest wins over the last six years.

Their drivers have won three of the first five races this season, four straight series titles and claimed the top four starting spots in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.

So why is there so much chatter about Chevy vs. Honda in Sunday’s race? It’s the one mountain Chevy continues to try and conquer.

“We have more horsepower at the top end but race running’s going to be different because you’re not going to be flat out,” 2016 series champ Simon Pagenaud said. “You’re going to have to manage your tires, you’re going to have to lift a lot and reaccelerate, and the Honda is really strong at that. So I think it’s going to equalize the race and I think there’s a good chance it will show, which is fantastic.”

Pagenaud knows both engines well.

He spent his first four seasons in the series working with Honda teams before switching to Roger Penske’s powerhouse Chevy team in 2015.

Yet as dominant as Chevy has been over the years outside Indy and as good as Penske’s team has been on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.5-mile oval, Honda continues to have the upper hand in the 500. Their cars have driven to victory lane 12 times over the past 14 years, including a run of nine straight (six coming when Honda was the series’ sole-engine manufacturer).

Chevy has two 500 wins since returning to the series in 2012. But the engine battle is becoming far more competitive even at Indy where the disparity from the top qualifier to the last qualifier was cut from 11.083 mph in 2017 to 5.198 mph this year.

Drivers have already noticed a difference on the track and casual fans who only watch the 500 might pick up on the changes, too.

“It’s certainly exciting for the fans, for us, for the teams,” said three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, a Chevy-powered driver for Penske. “It’s all about the end. Right now, we happen to be competitive so let’s see what happens in the race.”

Last year, Honda grabbed four of the top five spots and powered two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso to the race’s rookie of the year award. The problem: Three Honda engines blew during the second half of the race and those still on the track worried they would face the same fate.

This year, some of those same questions could return after Marco Andretti blew an engine just hours before the start of the IndyCar Grand Prix. Still, Andretti has been fast and qualified 12th for the race.

The new aero kits have drivers complaining about handling and passing on Sunday. Practice and qualifying speeds haven’t provided many hints about what to expect, either.

The practice session Monday was the first time everybody worked heavily on race setups and attempted to run in traffic.

The result: Chevy and Honda each had five cars among the top 10, in practice led by 23-year-old Sage Karam at 226.461 mph in a Chevy. Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champ and 2014 Indy winner with Andretti Autosport, was third-fastest at 224.820 – and No. 1 among the Honda teams.

Chevy, however, posted the top three non-tow speeds with rookie Kyle Kaiser leading the way at 221.107. Marco Andretti wound up fourth at 220.407 and was the top Honda car the list.

Four-time series champion Scott Dixon has learned not to read too much into all these numbers. The Chip Ganassi Racing star qualified ninth and is one of only two Honda drivers starting in the first three rows Sunday.

Last year, Honda took six of the top nine starting spots and had four of the top five cars at the finish line.

“I think there’s a lot of good Honda cars. Hopefully this one is one of them,” the 2008 Indy 500 winner said. “It showed pretty good, I think, in practice. But again it doesn’t guarantee you anything. You’ve got to give it your best, put in the effort and work hard.”

And hope for the best.

“I believe, even last year, even though the Hondas were really strong, we were able to fight in the end,” Castroneves said. “It’s all about being a good, balanced car.”