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Stability, excitement fuels Rossi’s extension with Andretti

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Within the last couple weeks, Alexander Rossi has really showcased how he’s solidified his stature within the Verizon IndyCar Series, and Friday’s formal confirmation he’ll be back with Andretti Autosport for two more years at least was a great sign of that.

What’s been fascinating to watch this year, as the driver of the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda sits seventh in points going into this weekend’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN), is how well he’s gelled with the three new components of his effort – Andretti Autosport technical director Eric Bretzman, engineer Jeremy Milless and strategist Rob Edwards.

Altogether Rossi is Andretti Autosport’s highest-placed car in the championship – seventh entering this weekend’s race – on the heels of two podium finishes (second in Toronto and third at Pocono).

Rossi has been able to assist Milless, who engineered a Chevrolet last year for Josef Newgarden at Ed Carpenter Racing, in certain areas with the Honda package whereas Milless has brought fresh ideas from what worked on a Chevrolet kit. Milless replaced Tom German as Rossi’s race engineer; German, now at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, sits one spot ahead in the championship in sixth place.

“With the addition of Eric coming onboard, the technical director, he kind of brought everything back into a circle, if you will, which was a positive, improved our damper program. We’ve improved everything from pit stops, car build. I mean, it’s a whole lot of things to making a car fast than just the dampers you put on it,” Rossi said Friday.

“Also with the addition to my engineer, Jeremy Milless, brought another mental philosophy and approach from a different manufacturer, so we got some insight into that, what was working for them.”

For Edwards, he’s taken over as strategist from Bryan Herta. In 2017, Herta’s name still remains part of this entry, the No. 98 Andretti-Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian car, as a co-entrant.

Herta told NBC Sports Friday that he will continue with Andretti Autosport into 2018, but the identity of which car will be the Andretti-Herta entry is still to be determined.

The Rossi entry could still be labeled the Andretti-Herta car, as it has the last two years, or that designation could switch. Herta has moved to Marco Andretti’s pit stand this year as his race strategist. The car number nor team name designation was not identified in today’s Rossi extension.

“We’ll be back with Andretti, and there will be a 98 car with the team,” Herta told NBC Sports.

Edwards, meanwhile, has worked well with Rossi throughout the year. Rossi admitted Friday that the overall combination of the new elements didn’t really click until the month of May in Indianapolis.

“You wouldn’t have seen it, but, I mean, it took us probably through the month of May to really start to be on the same page, which I think is fairly normal and natural,” Rossi said.

“Not because either of us were doing anything wrong, you’re not on the same communication wavelength yet. Under pressure situations and crunch time, being able to kind of take the information I have and relay it in an efficient way, make decisions based on that, that’s something that comes with time. I think we’re at that point now.”

Michael Andretti hailed Rossi when speaking about him on Thursday in the paddock, prior to official confirmation that Rossi would continue for another two years.

“I think he’s done exactly what I thought he’d do (in his second year). He learned a lot last year. He’s put it to good use this year. A lot of places, he’s been our best car,” Andretti said.

Rossi also hailed NAPA Auto Parts, which has now built and cultivated a trio of drivers it backs – Rossi in IndyCar, Ron Capps in NHRA and Chase Elliott in NASCAR – over the last several years. They helped put Rossi’s name more on the map in North America, he said.

“When we did win, it obviously put the entire program under a spotlight for 12 months, thanks to the media tours that the Verizon IndyCar Series puts together, and the national and global exposure that NAPA got, that I got, and kind of my name and brand being developed in the United States, which was something that was severely lacking at the beginning of 2016, because I had been overseas for so long. It really gave us the opportunity to show NAPA, you know, what this series could offer, what I could offer, what Andretti Autosport could offer,” Rossi said.

“They obviously re-upped for 2016 in a slightly bigger role. They’re doing that again for 2018, which was a huge thing for the series. It’s massive to have one of the premier auto parts manufacturers involved in the championship, to have a household name, brand and company put the effort into remaining with us and the team and the series. It’s a huge thing for everyone. It’s a big honor to be able to represent them and try and get them as good of results as possible.”

The advice Rossi gave about how new drivers coming from an F1 or other international series environment should approach IndyCar is simple: leave nothing on the table for every session. It may have stemmed from a conversation at St. Petersburg in 2016, when Rossi made his IndyCar debut, where preseason concern was expressed he might not have full focus on IndyCar.

“To not underestimate any element of the championship,” Rossi admitted. “You really have to bring your best effort from Thursday morning when you get here to Sunday night. That’s not just in the race car.

“I mean, an example that I’ll give, in Mid-Ohio, we led P3. We were really good in Q1. Went to Q2, I made one rear spring change, and I only last half a tenth or a tenth (of a second), but it was enough to not make me advance to the Fast Six. It was one spring change, like one step. It’s not like we revolutionized the car, put on a whole new package. It was one little thing.

“It actually didn’t hurt performance that much, but it didn’t give us the extra tenth we needed. That’s how on it you have to be for every single lap and session. If not, you make that mistakes, you can very quickly — it may be the difference of not only not getting into the Fast Six, it could be the difference of not getting into the top 12, then you’re starting 14th, you have to recover all weekend.

“It’s every decision you make you need to be sure about. I think I underestimated that. I think a lot of guys underestimate that coming in. It’s not just the competitiveness of how good the guys are on the track, it’s the decisions you make in the hours between each session that’s also super critical.”

The extension caps off what has been a stressful few months for Rossi, his family and his team amidst all the silly season speculation, and sees him assured within the same team where he’s laid his groundwork in IndyCar.

“Racing can take the focus away from a lot of people for the task at hand,” he said. “For the next year, you just have to focus on winning races. It’s kind of easy to get caught up in what’s happening. You can start to kind of lose morale at times among the team because there’s just the unknown, right? They know you’re talking to other teams. It’s a difficult situation for everyone involved.”

American Flat Track puts emphasis on fans in building 2020 schedule

American Flat Track
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American Flat Track put an emphasis on fans and feedback from other series while also acknowledging everything is tentative while hammering out its schedule for the 2020 season.

The 18-race schedule over nine weekends will begin July 17-18 at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida, about 20 miles from AFT’s headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The dirt track motorcycle racing series, which is sanctioned by AMA Pro Racing, shares a campus with its sister company, NASCAR, and American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock said the series closely observed how it’s handled races in its return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and also built AFT’s procedures from NASCAR’s post-pandemic playbook of more than 30 pages.

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“I speak personally to the committee within NASCAR that has been put together for the restart, regularly talking to the communications people, general counsel and other relevant operations departments,” Lock told NBCSports.com. “So we’ve derived for Flat Track from NASCAR’s protocols, which I think are entirely consistent with all the other pro sports leagues that are attempting to return.

“Obviously with NASCAR the scale of the business is completely different. There were some times more people involved in the paddock and the race operations for NASCAR than the numbers of people at flat track. Our scale is much smaller, and our venues are generally smaller. So we can get our hands around all of the logistics. I think we’re very confident on that.”

While NASCAR has had just under 1,000 on site for each of its races without fans, Lock said American Flat Track will have between 400 to 500 people, including racers, crews, officials and traveling staff.

But another important difference from NASCAR (which will run at least its first eight races without crowds) is that American Flat Track intends to have fans at its events, though it still is working with public health experts and government officials to determine how many will be allowed and the ways in which they will be positioned (e.g., buffer zones in the grandstands).

Lock said capacity could will be limited to 30-50 percent at some venues.

American Flat Track will suspend its fan track walk, rider autograph sessions for the rest of the season, distribute masks at the gates and also ban paper tickets and cash for concessions and merchandise. Some of the best practices were built with input from a “Safe to Race Task Force” that includes members from various motorcycle racing sanctioning bodies (including Supercross and motocross).

There also will be limitations on corporate hospitality and VIP access and movement.

“I think everything the fans will see will be unusual,” Lock said. “Everything at the moment is unusual. We will roll out processes that are entirely consistent with the social distancing guidelines that will be in place at the time of the event. So we’re planning for a worst-case scenario. And if things are easier or better by the time we go to a venue, it’s a bonus.”

Lock said the restrictions are worth it because (unlike other racing series) AFT must have fans (even a limited number) for financial viability.

“We took a decision fairly early on in this process that it was neither desirable nor economically viable to run events without fans,” Lock said. “I can think of some big sports like NFL or like NASCAR where a huge chunk of that revenue is derived from broadcast, which means that your decision making as to how you run an event, where you can run an event has a different view than a sport like ours, or even like baseball, for example, that needs fans. Because the business model is so different.”

Broadcast coverage is important to American Flat Track, which added seven annual races over the past five years and can draw as many as 15,000 to its biggest events.

Lock said AFT ended the 2019 season with more than 50,000 viewers for each live event, making it the No. 1 property on FansChoice.TV. This year, the series has moved to TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. “We’re expecting a really strong audience from Day 1, particularly with all this pent-up demand,” Lock said.

NBCSN also will broadcast a one-hour wrap-up of each race (covering heat races and main events).

Because the season is starting three months late, the doubleheader weekends will allow AFT to maintain its schedule length despite losing several venues. And there could be more, Lock said, noting that there still are three TBA tracks.

“There may still be some surprises to come from one venue or another of delay or cancellation,” he said. “But we are intending to run as full a season as possible.”

Here is the American Flat Track schedule for 2020:

July 17-18 (Friday-Saturday): Volusia Speedway Park, Barberville, Florida

July 31-Aug. 1 (Friday-Saturday):  Allen County Fairgrounds, Lima, Ohio

Aug. 28-29 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Northeast United States

Sept. 5-6 (Saturday-Sunday): Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois

Sept. 11-12 (Friday-Saturday): Williams Grove Speedway, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

Sept. 25-26 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Texas

Oct. 2-3 (Friday-Saturday): Dixie Speedway, Woodstock, Georgia

Oct. 9-10 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, North Carolina

Oct. 15-16 (Thursday-Friday): AFT season finale, Daytona Beach, Florida