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Less downforce, ‘lively’ new car greet Dixon, Pigot in Sebring test

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Arguably the greatest Verizon IndyCar Series driver of his generation, Scott Dixon, and perhaps the flagship driver in Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, Spencer Pigot, had their first chance to test the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit today at Sebring International Raceway’s short course as INDYCAR’s four-day testing program wrapped and manufacturer testing began concurrently.

Dixon ran Chip Ganassi Racing’s all-white No. 9 NTT Data Honda while Pigot was in a carbon all-black No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing while having a busy day of running on Sebring’s 1.53-mile short course.

While Juan Pablo Montoya (Chevrolet) and Oriol Servia (Honda) had handled INDYCAR’s portion of the 2018 car test, and also ran today (along with Josef Newgarden and James Hinchcliffe), Dixon and Pigot had a full day of running apiece as the first two drivers as part of INDYCAR’s manufacturer testing portion that will take place this fall.

For Dixon, who developed a new car per year his first three years in IndyCar from 2001 to 2003 and then was integral in the initial tests for both the Dallara DW12 and then Chevrolet aero kits in 2011-’12 and 2014-’15, respectively, the first bit of running today today provided a first glimpse at what he’ll be adapting too next with the new 2018 aero kit.

Dixon noted the downforce reduction is significant and the braking – now with calipers and rotors both being done with PFC Brakes on both – took a bit of adjusting to.

“I think it was pretty decent. Times were actually fairly decent considering the lack of downforce. It was a quick adjustment to make,” Dixon told NBC Sports.

“The (base) DW12 was actually fairly light, and at the outset this car isn’t too far off of that. From the (Honda) aero kit, having the amount of downforce we’ve had the last few years, this was a big reduction. It made it interesting between braking earlier, and trying to set the car up.”

Pigot, who turns 24 on Friday, now enters his first full offseason of development work with Ed Carpenter Racing since getting confirmed for the 2018 season. He largely agreed with how Dixon assessed the car at first glance.

“It was pretty fun. The car like Juan and Oriol have been saying, it’s more of a handful, moves around more, you arrive at brake zones faster… and you have to be a little more careful on putting power down because the wheel spin isn’t far around you,” Pigot told NBC Sports. “It’s different. It’s livelier, especially at the beginning of the day. We made it better throughout, and it started to feel like a really good car.”

Braking was a key topic both brought up. While a combination existed in 2017 between Brembo calipers and PFC pads and rotors, for 2018 with the new kit, PFC is INDYCAR’s sole brakes supplier. Early issues caused by the combination in 2017 actually hit Pigot at St. Petersburg, when his left rear brake disc exploded prior to a pit stop. But brakes quickly died down as a story line throughout the year, with overall consistency observed throughout the year.

Dixon said locking the rears on the new all-PFC units was something to get used to with the change in braking zone length, but hailed PFC’s work for the combination of all components.

“With the aero kit or new brake package – it’s very easy to lock the rears – so that took a bit to get right,” he explained.

“I think they work a little bit different. It takes a bit to adjust, but the bigger difference is the sheer lack of downforce and drag. The braking will be more difficult to get right. PFC have done a pretty stellar job, now with the calipers. Their discs and pads were always consistent. I think now it’s a full package. It works a lot better together.”

Pigot added, “The brake zones are longer… so you’re arriving faster, and coming in with less downforce, so it’s definitely different. It’ll improve as we get a better handle on it.”

Both have further tests to come in the upcoming weeks. Dixon has one more sports car test this week prior to Motul Petit Le Mans next week in his Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT. Pigot, meanwhile, will have another day of running at Road America in mid-October as he continues his testing process.

For Pigot, having the offseason to test more – especially given the new car – will be a blessing to take advantage of. He’s unsure whether he’ll continue with engineer Matt Barnes, who he’s worked with on the No. 20 car each of 2016 and 2017. Justin Taylor, who was JR Hildebrand’s engineer this year after shifting from Audi’s LMP1 program, won’t return to the Ed Carpenter Racing team next season and may head back to sports cars.

“It’s so awesome. I’m not used to it!” Pigot laughed.

“Before I did my first IndyCar race I think I only had a couple days. And two days this year too. It’ll be nice to test all offseason, not to take 2-3 months or 4-5 months off between runs.

“I’ll be in it pretty regularly. It’s exciting. I really hope it pays off. I think we’ll learn a lot.”

Pigot’s last line is a good description of the upcoming 2018 car tests, now in the hands of manufacturers until the end of the calendar year. Team testing starts in January 2018.

Brian Wayne, @LankyTurtle on Twitter, posted video of test, linked below. 

Are you a racer looking for the fountain of youth? Try NHRA drag racing

Photos courtesy NHRA
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It used to be that many of the big-name race car drivers routinely raced into their 50s, most notably in NASCAR.

Richard Petty raced until he was 55. The late David Pearson was 54 when he last raced in NASCAR.

But these days, we’re seeing the majority of professional racers calling it quits in their early-to-mid 40s – like Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Greg Biffle and most recently, Jamie McMurray.

But that’s not the case for competitors in the National Hot Rod Association. Like fine wine, it seems that the kings of the drag strip only seem to get better and more successful with age.

To them, the “r word” is not “retire,” it’s “reaction time.”

Consider many of today’s stars in the NHRA and their respective ages:

* Funny Car legend John Force will turn 70 in May. And while he hasn’t won a championship since 2013, Force remains one of the biggest forces – no pun intended – in the sport.

Fellow Funny Car drivers still seemingly in their prime include Ron Capps (53 years old), Jack Beckman (52), Tim Wilkerson (turns 58 on Dec. 29), Cruz Pedregon (55) and Gary Densham (62).

* In Top Fuel, the winningest driver and record eight-time champ Tony Schumacher will turn 49 on Dec. 25. Those already on the other side of the 50-year-old line include Clay Millican (52), Doug Kalitta (54), Terry McMillen (64), Billy Torrence (60) and Cory McClenathan (turns 56 on Jan. 30).

Chris Karamesines

And let’s not forget the oldest active drag racer on the NHRA professional circuit (albeit part-time rather than full-time), Chicago native Chris Karamesines, who is still racing a Top Fuel dragster at 300-plus mph at the spry young age of 87 years old!

Yes, you read that right, Karamesines is 87 – but could easily pass for 67 – and he has no intention of retiring anytime soon.

* Ironically, the slower Pro Stock class is not as well-represented in the 50-and-over group as is Top Fuel and Funny Car, with only two regulars who have passed the half-century mark: four-time champ Greg Anderson (57) and Kenny Delco (65).

But that 50-and-above fraternity will add at least one other member next year when former champ Jason Line turns 50 on July 24. And five-time champ Jeg Coughlin Jr. will turn 50 in 2020.

Jerry Savoie

* Even the easy riders of Pro Stock Motorcycle have several 50-and-over competitors: Scotty Pollacheck (turns 50 on Feb. 8), 2016 champ Jerry Savoie (turns 60 on Feb. 23), Karen Stofer (54), Steve Johnson (turns 58 on Jan. 19) and Hector Arana (60).

Granted, drag racers don’t have the same grueling time spent behind the wheel. Their average run lasts from just over 3.5 seconds to maybe eight or nine seconds.

And unlike driving 400 or 500 laps or miles as in NASCAR, a full four-round race during Sunday eliminations for NHRA racers adds up to one whole mile – or less.

Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers only go a distance of 1,000 feet per run, while Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle go a full quarter-mile (1,320 feet) in their respective runs.

In a sense, hitting the 5-0 mark or higher has become somewhat of a fountain of youth for several racers.

For example, Capps won his first career Funny Car crown in 2016 at the age of 51.

The same year, Savoie won his first career PSM title at the age of 57.

And Force won his most recent Funny Car title in 2013 at the age of 64.

Force has already gone on record to say that he wants to become the first major pro champion to win a title at 70 years old – which would also become the 17th championship of his illustrious career as the winningest driver in all NHRA history.

He gets a chance toward doing just that when the 2019 NHRA season kicks off at Pomona, California, on Feb. 7-10.

Follow @JerryBonkowski