IndyCar

Alexander Rossi came into his own in 2018, all that’s left is to win IndyCar crown

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There’s no question about it: the 2018 season has been a coming of age for Alexander Rossi.

We’re not talking about Rossi’s actual age (although he turns 27 on September 25th). Rather, in 2018 the Auburn, California native has come into his own as one of the most successful and consistent drivers in IndyCar.

The stats he’s amassed this season have more than doubled his overall performances in his first two seasons in IndyCar, 2016 and 2017.

Sure, he won the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 as a rookie. And while that will likely be the pinnacle for the rest of his career – unless he wins the Greatest Spectacle In Racing a few more times – Rossi has gone from curious spectacle after winning the 500 to a legitimate championship contender.

Where Rossi can usually be found in 2018: at the front of the pack.

Consider the facts:

* Rossi earned one win (Indy in ’16 and Watkins Glen in 2017) in each of his first two seasons. He’s already won three races in 2018, with one more race remaining next weekend, the season-ending Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway.

* Rossi had a combined four podium finishes in his first two seasons. He’s doubled that in 2018 with eight podiums in the first 16 races.

* He led 23 laps in 2016, including 14 en route to his win at Indy, and led 99 laps in all of 2017. Thus far in 2018, he’s led 415 laps.

* He had an average start and finish of 14.3 and 11.8, respectively, in 2016. He improved to 8.6 and 9.5 last season. But this season, Rossi has really shined, with an average start of 6.3 and average finish of 5.6.

* He had 11 lead lap finishes in both 2016 and 2017, a mark he’s already eclipsed in 2018 (15). He’s also been running at the finish in every race this season, as opposed to 15 in 2016 and 16 in 2017.

If that’s not a breakout season, what is?

“It’s been great,” Rossi said during a Thursday morning IndyCar media teleconference. “It’s been a continuation of really the second half of 2017 where I think the whole Andretti Autosport organization made a pretty big step forward. It’s been a pleasure to be part of the team and watch the progress that’s been made since I came onboard in ’16.

“The fact that we’ve been able to win three races this year, run towards the front most weekends, has been kind of just the result of a lot of hard work and a lot of very good people on the team.”

Now Rossi will have the biggest race of his career on Sept. 16. Yes, even bigger than his win at Indy.

If the driver of the No. 27 Andretti Autosport NAPA Auto Parts Honda can overcome the 29-point deficit he has to series leader Scott Dixon, Rossi will become an IndyCar champion for the first time – and potentially the first of perhaps several more to come in the future.

Dixon will not make it easy on Rossi. The New Zealander also has great incentive: he is going for his fifth IndyCar championship at Sonoma.

In fact, Dixon has had a very Rossi-like year – or you could say Rossi has had a very Dixon-like year – with three wins, eight podiums, 357 laps led, a 7.9 starting average and the best average finish of all IndyCar drivers in the series at 4.4.

Rossi knows what’s on the line next Sunday. He also knows that he pretty much has to drive the race of his career, yes, even bigger and better than at Indianapolis.

He can’t wait for Dixon to slip up and make a mistake, because that’s a rarity. If Rossi expects that to happen, he could potentially be in for a rude awakening.

Rather, he has to make things happen on his own. And while he has to drive aggressively as he traverses Sonoma, he also has to reign in over-aggressiveness, lest that leads to an incident with another driver that could potentially end his championship hopes early.

“To actually be going into this weekend with a goal in mind of trying to win the thing outright, it’s just a privilege,” Rossi said. “It’s a privilege to be mentioned in the same sentence at Scott Dixon, to be able to race against someone of his caliber week in and week out, hopefully get the better of him.”

Rossi acknowledges that if it wasn’t for a string of fair to mediocre mid-season showings, he might actually be leading the championship battle heading to Sonoma, not Dixon. At the same time, he and his team rallied back hard and fast to be right in the middle of the title bout.

“I think there’s always points in the season which you look back on as a missed opportunity,” he said. “You talk about that, then you look forward, you try and maximize the best that you have. We had three pretty rough weekends in a row with Road America (16th, his worst finish of the season), Iowa (9th) and Toronto (8th). We knew that it was going to take something pretty special to get ourselves back in the fight.

“Going to Mid-Ohio, we just focused on just doing our job on Sunday. We always had a fast car, but we weren’t executing, sometimes making mistakes, generally up and down throughout the whole team. You can’t win a championship that way. I think everyone just really refocused and recentered going into Mid-Ohio. We’ve seen the results of that (he won there and again in the following race at Pocono, as well as was runner-up at Gateway).”

Now with one race left, you’d think Rossi would have at least one advantage over the other three championship contenders: Dixon, Will Power and Josef Newgarden.

The reason: Sonoma Raceway is only about 90 miles from Rossi’s hometown. He considers it his home track and he realizes how many family members and friends will be in attendance next Sunday, cheering him on – hopefully to the championship..

First, the good news about his family and friends being at-track next weekend.

“The past couple of years I’ve had probably a bit more than 75 guests,” Rossi said. “It’s an amazing weekend from that standpoint. Obviously with it being the last time we’re racing at Sonoma (IndyCar will race starting next year at Laguna Seca instead of Sonoma Raceway), we’ll hopefully end on a high personally, because that track has a lot of personal history for me and my family.

“Yeah, we’re just going to try to go out there, put on a show for everyone, make it a pretty awesome season finale.”

Will having so many friends and family there put more pressure or act as more of a distraction for the business at hand for Rossi?

“I don’t really think either,” he said when asked by NBC Sports. “It makes my weekend busier because there’s a lot more kind of meet-and-greets, stuff like that.

“At the end of the day, you don’t really realize, I mean, who is there or what’s there as soon as you get to pit lane, put your helmet on.

“Yeah, it doesn’t really matter to me. I’m really happy there will be friends and family and such there. Hopefully it’s a good enough weekend that we can all have a big celebration Sunday night.”

But even though Sonoma Raceway is his home track, surprisingly, Rossi doesn’t consider it one of his favorite tracks.

“It’s not in the top five,” he admitted. “I don’t know where to go from there. I mean, it’s a great track from the standpoint of it’s in a beautiful part of California, it’s very challenging to drive.

“It’s a track most affected by weather conditions because it’s on the hill. The performance and pace you have in the morning to where you are in the afternoon is drastically different. I mean, it definitely keeps you on your toes.

“No, I wouldn’t consider it a favorite of mine.”

That could change, of course, if he wins next Sunday. But one thing that won’t change, no matter what, is Rossi’s mindset and his team’s strategy going into Sonoma.

“You don’t change your approach,” Rossi said. “I mean, I’m going to win, I’m going to try to beat people, do exactly what we’ve been doing all year. That’s our only responsibility.

“If we win, we’ve done our job right. If it doesn’t happen, that doesn’t really matter. We have to go into the weekend and do all we can do to maximize ourselves, our potential.

“We have had a car in contention to win a race probably 90 percent of this year. There’s no reason to change that now.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500