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.”

Graham Rahal’s “Weighty Issue”

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens
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MONTEREY, California – Graham Rahal admits that he can’t wait until the day he doesn’t have to worry about his weight. Being a 6-foot-2, big-boned individual can have its advantages, but not when it comes to fitting into an IndyCar.

That is why the son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time CART IndyCar champion Bobby Rahal has begun a body shaping therapy known as “Sculpting” that uses laser to trim away body fat.

“Honestly, it is no secret, I’m not shy about this, that I’ve struggled with my weight,” the 201-pound Rahal told a group of reporters during INDYCAR’s Open Test at Laguna Seca on Thursday. “I can guarantee you that from a strength perspective and a stamina perspective, there’s very few guys out here that can keep up with me. I’m just not a super skinny build. It’s never been my thing.

“I’ve tried. We’ve kind of looked around, there was some mutual interest from them to look into trying this, see if it works. I’ll be honest. I was always very skeptical of the stuff. Where I’m at, I’ve done one treatment. I can’t even tell you today if it’s something that really works or not.”

That led Rahal to try out the sculpting process that was invented by a doctor who found it with swelling in kid’s cheeks. The “Sculpture” process uses a laser that kills the fatty cells.

“I’ve done one treatment,” Rahal said. “It takes a long time, I think. It’s going to take multiple I think to get there.”

Watch Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on NBC at 3 p.m.

A race driver needs to be thin, yet very strong to have the physical strength and stamina to compete at a high level in the race car. When it comes to the NTT IndyCar Series, it’s even more important because of the size of the cars and tight cockpit.

Additionally, the extra weight can impact the performance of the race car. The lighter the driver, the less weight inside of the car and that can determine. In INDYCAR, drivers are weighed and for the lighter weight drivers, lead weight is added to the car to meet a requirement.

But in Rahal’s case, the lead weight ballast has to be reduced and that sometimes throws off the center of gravity in the car.

“The facts are it’s not going to work if you don’t work out, too, and eat well,” Rahal said. “It doesn’t do anything. But earlier this year, man, I had given up drinking completely for three, four months. I was working out every day, twice a day on most occasions. I went to a nutritionist, doing everything. I literally was not losing an ounce. It was the most frustrating period of time for me.

“I am the biggest guy here. Is it ever going to be equal for me? No matter what these guys talk about with driver ballast, it’s a whole different thing, where my center of gravity is, so on…”

That is what led the 30-year-old driver from Ohio to study the “Sculpting” procedure. He realizes he is never going to have the metabolism of some of the thinner drivers, but he needs to maintain a weight that minimizes his disadvantage.

“It is a challenge,” he admitted. “Ricky Taylor and Helio Castroneves (on Penske Team Acura in IMSA) weigh 60 pounds less than me or something. There is no ballast there. That’s a big swing, a lot of weight to be carrying around.

“We have to try anything we can. If you’re going to be serious, try to find the performance advantage and the edge, you’ve got to look outside of the box.

It is something new for me. But the fight I guess against being an ultra-skinny guy…

“I fly home with most of these guys after races, I see most of these guys a lot of times, they’re sitting there eating In-N-Out Burger, whatever else. Literally I cannot do it. If I do it, it immediately reflects for me. These guys you see them the next weekend, they’re like this big.

“It’s like, (bleep), it’s not my build.”

Because of Rahal’s height and size, he chose to step away from the endurance races for Team Penske in IMSA at the end of last season. He was replaced at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring by fellow IndyCar driver Alexander Rossi.

Rahal complained that the steering wheel actually hit his legs inside of the Acura, making it difficult for him to drive on the challenging road courses. Since that time, Acura Team Penske has moved the steering column up by a few inches and it no longer impacts a driver the size of Rahal.

For the IMSA season-ending Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on October 12, Rahal will be back in the Team Penske Acura.

“Back in the (Team Penske) shop three weeks ago, I could actually turn the steering wheel, which I was shocked about,” Rahal said. “My head touched the roof, whatever, I’m used to that. Physically being able to steer, which I now should be able to do better.

“So I’m excited about it. It’s another great opportunity obviously with Penske. But more importantly for me is Acura, Honda. It’s a great thing to be back in.

“But that wasn’t a weight thing. It’s purely size. They just don’t build cars for guys my size. I used to talk to J.W. (Justin Wilson) about that. It’s the facts of life. Even the GT cars. You would think a GT car would be big. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a GT car, I was comfortable in either. They’re built for small guys. That’s the way it goes.”

Rahal is taller than his father, Bobby, who is also his IndyCar team owner along with David Letterman and Michael Lanigan.

“I blame my dad,” Rahal said. “I do. You can tell him I said that. I told him, ‘It’s a genetic thing. I got good genes in some ways.’

“I told my wife this the other day, I’m very excited for someday when my career ends just to have a ‘Dad Bod,’ be able to let go for a minute, see how things turn out, because this is getting a little bit exhausting.

“We’re going to stay committed through the winter. I try my hardest every year, but I never tried harder this year to be thin. I weigh about the same as last year, but it took so much effort to get there, I just have to think outside the box.”