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Column: Rossi spoils Wickens’ near-perfect IndyCar debut

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Canadian driver Robert Wickens started from the pole, led the most laps (71), overcame two late cautions/restarts and then wrapped things up by winning Sunday’s IndyCar season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

That’s how the story SHOULD have ended.

Unfortunately for Wickens, making his first career start in an IndyCar race – and what a start it was – his dream weekend ended in a nightmare.

With two laps remaining, Alexander Rossi slid into Wickens in Turn 1, sent the race leader hard into the wall and out of the race – while Rossi continued along to a third-place finish.

The aftermath of contact between Alexander Rossi and Robert Wickens in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. (Photo: IndyCar)

Surprisingly, IndyCar officials ruled no harm, no foul on Rossi’s part, allowing him to end up with a podium finish behind race winner Sebastien Bourdais and runner-up Graham Rahal.

Wickens, meanwhile, after driving nothing short of an exceptional race – and who deserved a win for that effort – was left to go home to Canada with an extremely disappointing 18th-place finish.

And to add insult to injury, Wickens was scored two laps down to the winner, Bourdais.

Wickens did everything right in his IndyCar debut. He picked his spots, made clean passes, let others go by (primarily when he was on pit road), and raced like an IndyCar veteran rather than a series rookie.

It’s a very clear observation from just one race that Wickens is a very cerebral driver, he keeps his emotions in check and will make an excellent teammate to James Hinchcliffe and an equally excellent fit with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports going forward.

But Rossi’s move — whether it was a mistake or not — prevented Wickens from finishing his Cinderella story with what he deserved: a win.

I can understand Rossi was fighting for the spot and contact was incidental to the battle between him and Wickens.

But at the same time, some might disagree with IndyCar officials on the Rossi verdict.

Here’s part of what Rossi had to say in his defense afterwards:

“(Wickens) defended the position, which he has the right to do, but in doing so, in moving the reaction, he put me into the marbles pretty late into the corner,” Rossi said. “It’s difficult with these cars and with how much we’re sliding around in the first place, even on the racing line.

“When you’re put in the marbles, it’s hairy. Super unfortunate. Like you never want to see that happen. I feel bad because I feel like I could have won and he could have gotten second. You never want to see that happen, but nevertheless, it was a great job by the whole team all weekend.”

So, was Rossi’s action right? That’s debatable.

Watch the replay of the incident and after Wickens briefly tried to block before deciding otherwise, it appears Rossi came into the turn too hot, hit the rumble strip, slipped off it and slid right into the right side pod of Wickens’ car, sending him spinning.

When you make an aggressive move – in this case over-aggressive at that point in the race and at that part of the racetrack – that takes out another driver, especially the race leader, it just doesn’t seem right.

Rossi fans will counter that he was trying to win the race and with two laps left, HAD to be over-aggressive. And also that particular place on the track was arguably one of the few (and best) places to pass Wickens.

If the contact had not occurred, we likely would have had one of the best race finishes that the Verizon IndyCar Series has seen in a long time.

Rossi knows Wickens is ticked at him. It should be interesting how the conversation goes when the two finally discuss what happened Sunday – even though it could take nearly four weeks until the next IndyCar race (at Phoenix) for that to happen.

“I will (talk to Wickens) at some point, and obviously express my feelings,” Rossi said. “I’m sure he’s upset, and he has a right to be.

“If you were in the lead of the race with two to go and you didn’t finish, you’d be upset, yeah.”

At the same time, that’s not to discount Bourdais waiting for the right opportunity, seizing upon it, passing Wickens and Rossi and motored on to his second consecutive win at St. Petersburg, his adopted hometown.

Bravo to Bourdais. He let the race come to him. Also bravo to Wickens. What he showed us Sunday could be the sign of a new star in the making for the IndyCar Series.

As for Rossi, here’s how Wickens so astutely put it after the race, “(Rossi) just went too deep, locked the rears and slid into me. There’s really no other explanation to it. The only pity is he carried on to a podium, and I ended up in the fence.”

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After thrilling ‘Evel Live,’ Travis Pastrana back in action this weekend

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It’s been 2 ½ months since Travis Pastrana channeled his inner Evel Knievel in “Evel Live” in Las Vegas on July 8.

The legendary motorcycle stunt rider and rallycross driver successfully replicated three of Knievel’s most infamous career motorcycle jumps, capped off by jumping – some would call it flying – over the fountain at Caesar’s Palace.

All without a scratch or any type of malfunction.

“It was awesome,” Pastrana told NBC Sports’ MotorSportsTalk in an exclusive interview. “Obviously, to do something live, a live stunt which hasn’t been done, is cool.

“And just the nostalgia, to live a day in Evel Knievel’s boots, literally, was awesome. To have the whole Knievel family out there, his three kids, and my mom and dad all out there, it was just a real awesome day.

“And to have the chance to jump the Caeser’s (Palace) fountain, probably the most infamous and iconic stunt location in the world. All that added up to be a really, really great event and I think it came off really well.”

MORE: Travis Pastrana successfully completes all three of Evel Knievel’s most famous jumps

MORE: Travis Pastrana’s goal to replicate 3 of Evel Knievel’s most famous jumps: ‘Try not to die’

LAS VEGAS, NV – JULY 08: Travis Pastrana peforms during HISTORY’s Live Event “Evel Live” on July 8, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for HISTORY)

Pastrana spoke at length about the logistics of setting up the three jumps in two different venues, getting from Point A in one part of Las Vegas to Point B (Caesar’s), and dealing with potential weather concerns.

“That’s the greatest part about Nitro Circus (Pastrana’s company) is having an amazing team so that when an idea like this comes up, we can make it turn into fruition and a possibility,” Pastrana said. “The idea came up less than a year before it was pulled off.

“I couldn’t have been more proud of my team and all the guys there. When we called Caesar’s, we thought for sure they were going to say no. Then they said yes.

“Then we talked to the Knievel family and they said, ‘this is going to be great. Go ahead.’ It was like, be careful for what you ask for because it just happened. And then we had a bike just like Evel’s, although a more modern day (version).”

While Pastrana and his team pulled off everything seamlessly, there was a lot of worry and concern, especially on Pastrana’s part, since he was the focal point of the stunt, which was televised live.

“I didn’t sleep at all the night before,” he said. “And then everything just worked out. It’s what you hope for, for sure. But with every race, every event, everything, there’s always something like a $5 part break in a half-million dollar vehicle. Something always goes wrong.

“The fact that everything went as well as it could – I mean, they were calling for 80 percent chance of rain with wind gusts up to 60 mph (on the day of the event).

“And the storm kind of went 20 miles south, it didn’t get that windy, and you have to think to yourself, ‘Man, that was a live event, and representing Evel Knievel, the stunt man of Vegas, you’ve gotta go for it.’”

Pastrana vowed to perform the stunts rain or shine. But if it had rained, he had his doubts that he’d be able to pull it off.

“Successfully, probably not,” the 34-year-old Pastrana said with a laugh. “That was the thing, what I had said coming up to it.

“When Evel got to Wembley Stadium (to do his infamous 13-bus jump in 1975), he said, ‘Look, the busses are bigger than they are in the U.S., I miscalculated the distance, this bike is not going to go as fast as I thought it would go. I’m not going to make it, but I told you guys I was going to put on a show, and I’m going to deliver.’

“That’s why I wanted to be the guy on this particular stunt. I can’t tell someone else when there are bad conditions or the bike is overheating or something else is going wrong to go, but with Nitro Circus and our history, and his family there, it just has to go, no matter what happens. We were just real fortunate and lucky that it all worked out.”

Pastrana jumped the fountain at Caesars Palace to wrap up a night of replicating three of Evel Knievels most infamous career jumps. Photo: Getty Images.

While he certainly enjoyed doing them, the Annapolis, Maryland native said it’s unlikely he’ll have any more Evel-like jumps in his career.

“This was a perfect storm,” he said. “Everything was just lined up on this one. For me, that was not my last hurrah, if you will, but as far as doing a big stunt, I did my biggest stunt I’ve ever done last year with the double back-flip 360 and kind of realized, you know what, I’ve been lucky long enough, let me just focus on my family.

“But then this came up, and I was like, ‘Put me in, coach.’”

Pastrana returns to the track this Saturday and Sunday for the third annual Nitro World Games at the Utah Motorsports Campus (formerly known as Miller Motorsports Park) near Salt Lake City.

Saturday will feature Nitro Rallycross (NRX) Qualifiers and Heat Races, including some of the biggest names in the sport including Pastrana and rival Ken Block having some “unfinished business,” as well as Scott Speed, Tanner Foust, Patrik Sandell, Steve Arpin, Mattias Ekstrom, Chris Atkinson and Timmy Hansen.

Pastrana and Ken Block have some ‘unfinished business’ in this weekend’s Nitro World Games near Salt Lake City. Photo: Nitro Circus.

On Sunday, the action includes the FMX Best Trick Finals, NRX Semi-Finals and Finals and FMX Quarterpipe Finals.

Among FMX Quarterpipe competitors are Colby Raha, Jarryd McNeil, Axell Hodges, Elijah Aldoff, Corey Creed and Kohl Denney.

And among riders and drivers taking part in the Best Trick Finals are defending champ Harry Bink, along with Pat Bowden, Christian Meyer, Josh Sheehan, William Van den Putte, Blake Williams, and Davi Johnson.

“Having the opportunity to kind of reinvent the sport for the American audience and for the drivers – I mean, we have Talladega-sized berms – right and left turns, dirt and pavement, huge jumps, there’s a triple-crossover,” Pastrana said. “World Games is basically the bigger of international sports. We take the most exciting sports, the biggest air, the least technical … and try to make it even bigger.

“I couldn’t be more excited. I think it’s going to be real exciting for the drivers, lots of options. It’s not a track that’s just built for a one-off event, it’s going to be a permanent place here so people can come out here and practice and keep getting better like European tracks do. So it should be good.”

Pastrana said Nitro Circus does over 70 live shows around the world per year, but he’s also excited about preparing for a lengthy residency in Las Vegas beginning next March.

Given all the things he’s accomplished over his career, Pastrana was asked if there’s anything remaining on his bucket list that he still hopes to do.

“I love racing, I love competing and I feel like I’ve competed in almost everything all over the world,” he said. “But the Daytona 500 is something … and I’ve never done a drag race. So those two would be pretty cool, wouldn’t they?”

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