IndyCar drivers, teams impressed with COTA

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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.”

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.