IndyCar drivers, teams impressed with COTA


AUSTIN, Texas – A long offseason doesn’t appear to have made five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon sluggish as the defending champ was among the fastest drivers throughout the two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” at Circuit of the Americas.

Dixon was fifth-quick during Tuesday’s combined sessions and backed that up with even more speed on Wednesday. For most of the afternoon session, Dixon’s time of 1:47.9003 around the 3.41-mile, 20-turn road course was the second fastest, just behind his rookie teammate Felix Rosenqvist’s 1:47.7559, both in Chip Ganassi Racing Hondas. Later in the session, Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport claimed the second position at 1:47.8565, knocking Dixon down to third.

“It was fun to be out here, it’s a track I’ve seen a lot of cars run on, but I’ve never been to Austin,” Dixon told NBC Sports. “It’s a big track, it has a lot of elevation and you don’t see that on television. That was my first shock, how steep Turn 1 is. Also, the elevation in Turns 3-9, that complex as well.

“We eased into it but all in all, pretty happy with the way it went.

“Racing here, it’s like doing a half Ironman competition.”

Dixon said the elevation is visually striking and noted how there are a lot of twists on the 20-turn course. He believed he needs to improve on his times in the first complex of turns, but the rest of the track will provide some fantastic racing for the IndyCar Classic on March 24.

“I think it’s going to be good,” Dixon said. “Tire degradation will be pretty interesting to see how they cover that. The tires fall off, which we like to see. I think because of the sheer size of the track and the braking zones, it will be pretty good.

“You can pass into Turn 1, you can pass into the last corner, into Turns 11 and 12, but there are also a lot of corners where you can approach it differently and try to undercut. You can get pretty sneaky, here.”

Dixon kept himself sharp by competing in Ganassi’s Ford GT program at the Rolex 24. His only other times in the race car came during a one-day test at Barber Motorsports Park in November and a one-day test last weekend at Laguna Seca Raceway.

During Tuesday’s testing, Dixon was fifth fastest with his rookie teammate fourth quick.

Because this was a test session rather than a practice day, teams work off a test list that have lots of areas and items they want to try rather than go for sheer speed. During a race weekend, teams are trying to look for speed and performance and build for a successful race day.

“The time sheets are reflective of two things,” Dixon’s race strategist, Chip Ganassi Racing Managing Director Mike Hull, told NBC Sports. “One is people getting it done with a setup and the other going back-and-forth in the garage area to actually make it a test day. The Firestone Black Tires (harder, more durable tire compared to the softer Firestone Reds that have more speed, but wear quicker) are really good. A crisp lap-time doesn’t last that long with the tires. You really have to be well-endowed mentally to get the run right with the tires.

“I think this was worthwhile.”

Hull’s test list for Dixon “was longer than the amount of daylight we have.” He estimated the team got one-third of the way through the list on Tuesday and worked off the rest on Wednesday.

“The big deal is to make sure you got the most out of each segment that we ran so that we can sit down as a group and evaluate that,” Hull said.

Josef Newgarden, the 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion at Team Penske, loves how long COTA is and it reminds him of two iconic racing facilities in the United States.

“It’s very different than where we’ve been,” Newgarden said. “It’s a long track, kind of like Road America. It’s very smooth. The facility is really beautiful. It’s kind of like running at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, to be honest with you, because the facility is so immaculate.

“But it’s been tough. I think we need to find our footing a bit better. Our teammates were pretty quick at the end. We lost some ground compared to the morning. We weren’t as quick in the afternoon, but that’s testing. That’s what it’s all about. We got to try things and figure out what’s good and what’s not. This is a racetrack for us. We test sometimes at places we don’t race at, but here, we’re working on race setups and we’re trying to see what works.”

There are only two drivers in IndyCar that have previously run at COTA including Sweden’s Marcus Ericsson and Alexander Rossi of the United States when both were in Formula One.

“It’s great to be here and I’m pretty excited to drive,” Rossi said. “It’s also good to be here with the full field and get an indication of how the offseason development has gone.”

There is a tremendous amount of enthusiasm from IndyCar teams and drivers to have a chance to race at one of the nicest facilities in North America. COTA is the home of the United States Grand Prix in Formula One, and sought to have an IndyCar date in recent years.

The two sides were finally able to make that happen when the schedule was released last year with the first race set for March 24.

“COTA is a terrific facility, the infrastructure and everything here, it’s a proper race track to support what race teams and race fans want to do together,” Hull said. “There is a lot of enthusiasm for IndyCar. Last week, we were at Laguna Seca, the weather was absolutely miserable and the parking lot was filled with spectators.

“The interest with IndyCar is up. Let’s roll with it.”

With throaty roar, NASCAR Next Gen Camaro is taking Le Mans by storm on global stage

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

LE MANS, France — The V8 engine of the NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro has a distinct growl that cannot go unnoticed even among the most elite sports cars in the world at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

When the Hendrick Motorsports crew fired up the car inside Garage 56, NASCAR chairman Jim France broke into a huge grin and gave a thumbs up.

“The only guy who didn’t cover his ears,” laughed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

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France has been waiting since 1962 – the year his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought him to his first 24 Hours of Le Mans – to hear the roar of a stock car at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.

A path finally opened when NASCAR developed its Next Gen car, which debuted last year. France worked out a deal to enter a car in a specialized “Innovative Car” class designed to showcase technology and development. The effort would be part of NASCAR’s 75th celebration and it comes as Le Mans marks its 100th.

Once he had the approval, France persuaded Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear – NASCAR’s winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier – to build a car capable of running the twice-around-the-clock race.

The race doesn’t start until Saturday, but NASCAR’s arrival has already been wildly embraced and France could not be more thrilled.

“Dad’s vision, to be able to follow it, it took awhile to follow it up, and my goal was to outdo what he accomplished,” France told The Associated Press. “I just hope we don’t fall on our ass.”

The car is in a class of its own and not racing anyone else in the 62-car field. But the lineup of 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Johnson has been fast enough; Rockenfeller put down a qualifying lap that was faster than every car in the GTE AM class by a full three seconds.

The Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit stop competition and finished fifth overall as the only team using a manual jack against teams exclusively using air jacks. Rick Hendrick said he could not be prouder of the showing his organization has made even before race day.

“When we said we’re gonna do it, I said, ‘Look, we can’t do this half-assed. I want to be as sharp as anybody out there,” Hendrick told AP. “I don’t want to be any less than any other team here. And just to see the reaction from the crowd, people are so excited about this car. My granddaughter has been sending me all these TikTok things that fans are making about NASCAR being at Le Mans.”

This isn’t NASCAR’s first attempt to run Le Mans. The late France Sr. brokered a deal in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, to bring two cars to compete in the Grand International class and NASCAR selected the teams. Herschel McGriff and his son, Doug, drove a Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey piloted a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.

Neither car came close to finishing the race. McGriff, now 95 and inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in January, is in Le Mans as France’s guest, clad head-to-toe in the noticeable Garage 56 uniforms.

“I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come. And I’ve been treated as royalty,” McGriff said. “This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I’m anxious to see everything. I’ve been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”

The goal is to finish the full race Sunday and, just maybe, beat cars from other classes. Should they pull off the feat, the driver trio wants its own podium celebration.

“I think people will talk about this car for a long, long time,” said Rockenfeller, who along with sports car driver Jordan Taylor did much of the development alongside crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, a former crew chief who stepped into a projects role at Hendrick this year.

“When we started with the Cup car, we felt already there was so much potential,” Rockenfeller said. “And then we tweaked it. And we go faster, and faster, at Le Mans on the SIM. But you never know until you hit the real track, and to be actually faster than the SIM. Everybody in the paddock, all the drivers, they come up and they are, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and they were impressed by the pit stops. We’ve overachieved, almost, and now of course the goal is to run for 24 hours.”

The car completed a full 24-hour test at Sebring, Florida, earlier this year, Knaus said, and is capable of finishing the race. Button believes NASCAR will leave a lasting impression no matter what happens.

“If you haven’t seen this car live yet, it’s an absolute beast,” Button said. “When you see and hear it go by, it just puts a massive smile on your face.”

For Hendrick, the effort is the first in his newfound embrace of racing outside NASCAR, the stock car series founded long ago in the American South. Aside from the Le Mans project, he will own the Indy car that Kyle Larson drives for Arrow McLaren in next year’s Indianapolis 500 and it will be sponsored by his automotive company.

“If you’d have told me I’d be racing at Le Mans and Indianapolis within the same year, I’d never have believed you,” Hendrick told AP. “But we’re doing both and we’re going to do it right.”

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Fans gather around the NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that is the Garage 56 entry for the 100th 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

General Motors is celebrating the achievement with a 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 Edition and only 56 will be available to collectors later this year.

“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we’ve never done anything quite like Garage 56,” said GM President Mark Reuss. “A NASCAR stock car running at Le Mans is something fans doubted they would see again.”

The race hasn’t even started yet, but Hendrick has enjoyed it so much that he doesn’t want the project to end.

“It’s like a shame to go through all this and do all this, and then Sunday it’s done,” Hendrick said. “It’s just really special to be here.”