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IndyCar: What Drivers Said after Friday’s qualifying in Phoenix

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Here’s What Drivers Said after IndyCar qualifying for Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix:

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS, pole winner: “I have to say every time I jump in that car in qualifying trim and stuff, I think (about my crash in qualifying for the 2017 Indianapolis 500). It stays in the back of your mind. You fight yourself more than the car, I think at some point. It was just a good effort. The guys did a really good job. Obviously, qualifying position is pretty big. I knew it was going to take a flat (Turn) 3 and 4. I wasn’t quite sure about Turn 1 and 2 and how much I needed to dig. The car was really solid. That SealMaster No. 18 Honda was really solid. As soon as that track temp cooled off, it just gives you all the grip you need to make it happen. It’s high tension, high pressure. Really listening to the car and making sure you don’t overdo it. It’s a great achievement for the whole Dale Coyne Racing team with Vasser and Sullivan.”

SIMON PAGENAUD, qualified 2nd: “It was fun. What a phenomenal qualifying session for our team. We were mid pack, and I knew we would go faster at the end. When you see the lap time hold on, you hope. The hope was strong. Congratulations Seb (Sebastien Bourdais). Very cool that we have a French front row on an oval. It’s rare. It’s very cool for him, too. He’s obviously having great success right now. Well deserved. It’s good for him, but we’re friends and want to beat each other really bad. He got me today, I’ll try to get him tomorrow. But the conditions were a lot easier this afternoon. This morning was super tough. Very, very difficult, very greasy. The cars were sliding around, which actually I thought was good because driving was really difficult. This afternoon with the temperature going down for qualifying, it got better, everybody got better. It was easier to drive. I would say qualifying was not as challenging as this morning practice. I think the race is going to be quite similar to qualifying. The cars are fun to drive. So far I love it. Hopefully, we can bring another trophy.”

WILL POWER, qualified 3rd: “In practice, the track temperatures were really high and we were having massive lifts. During qualifying, the track was just totally different and the car was really stuck. It felt really good. It is just a very different condition because all of the downforce comes from the floor. When the track gets hot, it loses a lot. I am hoping tomorrow night we can open a second lane because if that happens, it will make the racing great. Otherwise it is a single line and it makes it tough. So hopefully, early on people will go up for a second lane and then it starts rubbering in as the race progresses.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI, qualified 4th: “The Military to Motorsports Honda was good, no doubt about it. There was a big change in track conditions from just two hours ago. It was a good two laps – I’m happy with it. We qualified fourth and had a strong run for the team. It’s definitely a handful out there, I hope the fans get quite the show tomorrow night because we’re working really hard out there.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE, qualified 5th: “A huge credit to the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports guys, because we did not have a great test here back in February. Obviously, things have changed a lot conditions-wise, but we went back, had a big think about it, a big look inside ourselves. I just can’t thank those guys and gal enough for getting us good cars and getting us both up there – it’s awesome. This is a long race, and I think with these new cars, with the way they’ve been driving and the way that they’ve been falling off, it’s going to be a lot more of an interesting race than it has been the last couple years. If we can stay on top of our tires and have clean pit stops, out laps, all that good stuff, I think we’ll be sitting pretty.”

ROBERT WICKENS, qualified 6th: “I had my moment of fame there for a couple of moments (sitting in P1), but I’m pretty happy with the job that we did. The Lucas Oil car was good… it was my first oval qualifying. I was a little too safe on the first lap, especially when that kind of sets the mood for the whole run. I feel pretty good (on the oval). To be honest, that qualifying was the best I’ve felt so far, so I just wish I could give it another go.”

JOSEF NEWGARDEN, qualified 7th: “The grip was good. Simon (Pagenaud) and Will (Power) did good laps, but I had a lot of understeer. I think we had a good shot there.  We tried to do what we could after practice. We didn’t have the best first practice session, but we’ve got speed in this car. As you can see with Pagenaud and Power, they did a great job. Hopefully, they hold on and we will get a Team Penske pole position here, but just missed it there. (Turn) 3 and 4 were really the worst spot for me, so I think if we get that cleaned up and really focus on our race car then hopefully tomorrow we can capitalize.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY, qualified 8th: “We thought we’d be a bit better than eighth. We’ll have to go back and look at it, we were a little bit conservative with our run. The track conditions really improved from earlier today, so it’s interesting. We just didn’t get everything out of it. But tonight’s practice is, I think, the most important session of the weekend – aside from the race. Hopefully, we can make up some ground tonight, set up our car for tomorrow and get the DHL Honda up front.”

TONY KANAAN, qualified 9th: “That was a helluva save, so instead of talking about qualifying, let’s talk about the save. The car’s in one piece. We were expecting the track to change, but it gained more front grip than expected and that’s why we got loose. If it wasn’t for that, we would have been a couple tenths quicker and we would have picked up a couple more positions, but I don’t think we had a car for the pole. But I’m really proud of my guys, we’ve worked really hard. We’re in the top 10, so we’ll take it and go from there.”

PIETRO FITTIPALDI, qualified 10th: “It was great. A first top ten in my first Verizon IndyCar Series qualifying, I’m happy with that. The car felt really good. The engineers did a great job giving me a good car for qualifying. Practice was a lot different than when we tested here in February. The track is a lot hotter and the Paysafe car is moving around a lot more but overall it felt good, I felt confident. The Dale Coyne team has done a great job in getting me up to speed. I’m doing my best and trying to learn as much as I can. I’m really happy overall with everything.”

ED JONES, qualified 11th: “In the first practice today the track was really slippery. We ran into a bit of traffic on our mock qualifying runs but it wasn’t terrible. I was happy overall with the NTT DATA car to that point, but in qualifying it wasn’t an ideal run. My front bar in the car did something odd and I couldn’t make the adjustments I needed to. So we were a bit behind with the car and it’s really hard to attack. So it’s moving on to the night session to try and improve the car for tomorrow.”

GRAHAM RAHAL, qualified 12th: “All in all it was a decent day for us.” (About the difference having a teammate made): “It did make quite a difference. We heard Takuma’s (Sato) report that his car was extremely loose in qualifying, so we adjusted ours. And then mine in qualifying had a ton of understeer, which, I think, limited us a fair bit. Having said that, it’s a powerful thing to have a teammate. We rolled off the trucks this morning we both struggled, but at least we both had the exact same feedback, which gives us a good opportunity to improve the One Cure car as we go through this next session. Twelfth isn’t great, but if you look at it, if you gain a tenth and a half (of a second), you are four or five spots up. INDYCAR racing is the most competitive form of motorsport in the world.  Here is just a prime example: I ran my laps and thought they were going to say over the radio that is was eighth or seventh and they said 11th. I thought ‘No way.'”

TAKUMA SATO, qualified 13th: “It was a challenging qualifying. In the practice session, we couldn’t get things together and we had to change so much on the car for qualifying. I had a wiggle twice over the two laps, but I saved it. It was a bit too sketchy, but I’m relatively happy with where we are. Compared to where the car was in practice, it was much better in qualifying.”

KYLE KAISER, qualified 14th: “I am very happy with the way my first Verizon IndyCar Series qualifying session went. The Chevy engine was super strong.  We rolled out with a ton of power and I was getting used to it. As we got going the track was very different from the practice session earlier, but I felt really great. I personally feel like I may have left a tiny bit on the table not knowing how well the car was going to be during this session. Overall, I’m thrilled, I think we put down a good lap. Now let’s see how the car is during the race tomorrow night.”

SPENCER PIGOT, qualified 15th: “We’re still struggling a little bit to find the balance we had at the end of the test in February, but we made good improvements in qualifying. However, we’re still looking for more for both Fuzzy’s Vodka cars for tomorrow. It’s going to be a totally different animal during the race, with traffic and long stints on the tires. Phoenix is definitely a new challenge for me but it’s an exciting one.”

MATHEUS LEIST, qualified 16th: “The car is good. The first lap was a bit tough because I didn’t know how the car would be. It’s tough too because it’s my first oval track (in an Indy car). Practice was tough because the track was so slippery and then we go right into qualifying. The car was better than it was in practice, which means we made some progress. I’m looking forward to the race. We have 250 laps and it’s going to be a crazy tough race, probably the most difficult race I’ve ever been in. Hopefully, we can get a top 10, or maybe a top five.”

SCOTT DIXON, qualified 17th: “I’m really not sure what happened. We struggled a bit too in the session earlier today with overall grip. We just had a lot of understeer in Turn 4 and the car just wanted to break loose and take off. We just missed the balance with the PNC Bank car, and if you do that on a short track like this you really pay the price in the lap times.”

ED CARPENTER, qualified 18th: “It was tough out there, for sure. The car had been feeling pretty good. I wasn’t quite expecting to get that loose. I had a pretty big wiggle in Turn 1 on my first lap, which probably didn’t help my confidence for the second lap. It’s qualifying, though, you just have to adjust the best you can. It’s going to be tough tomorrow night, but I know we’ll be up for the challenge.”

GABBY CHAVES, qualified 19th: “This qualifying was a big improvement in terms of how the car feels from Practice 1, so that is a major positive. We won’t be starting near the front, but at least we get to take away that we improved the car, and hopefully, we can work on it some more during practice and make even more improvements for the race tomorrow.”

MARCO ANDRETTI, qualified 20th: “Not where we wanted to end up in qualifying. We’re going to work tonight to just get a good race car for tomorrow. Halfway through a stint around a track like this, things are going to get difficult. We need to get the No. 98 comfortable from Lap 15 to 50 on tires. We were a lot too low on our qual run – we weren’t expecting the big pace gain. I was just bottoming everywhere and at the limit of the deck of the car. After qualifying, we found that the skid was pulling down, and we were bottoming in third gear. That caused our struggle and lost time. We’re going to need to make some headway and work our way back in the race. Hoping to put on a good show and get a good result with for our Oberto Circle K throwback.”

MAX CHILTON, qualified 21st: “Short oval qualifying is always a bit hectic – it’s out and within two minutes you’re completely done with qualifying. We went the wrong way with our setup for the first practice and unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time between the first practice and qualifying to change it back. We just had to put a band-aid on the car and get it through qualifying. Now we just need to get the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet back to where it needs to be to make sure it’s ready for race running, which is really what matters tonight and tomorrow.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL, qualified 22nd: “Our qualifying result isn’t where we want to be, but I think we found the direction we need to go after the first practice. Part of it is that the conditions are a little bit easier and everyone is going quicker as the track temps cool down. We didn’t roll off the trucks setup-wise exactly where we wanted to be, so we’re just trying to get the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet back to where it needs to be for tonight’s practice. This last practice is going to be really important for getting ready for tomorrow night’s race with the conditions being similar to race conditions. We just have to keep making forward progress and make the car better, because anything can happen over 250 laps.”

ZACH VEACH, qualified 23rd: “I don’t know what we’ve done from the test to now. At the test, we had a really good car, but since we’ve come back we just haven’t had it. Every time we get into a corner, it feels like I’m saving my life. The guys have been working insanely hard to try and fix it, we just don’t have a lot of time to figure it out with only a one-hour session before qualifying. Hopefully we can work with the teammates and figure it out tonight, but we’re going to have a long day tomorrow working our way back up.”

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Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500