INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones

IndyCar’s Scott Dixon ‘annoyed’ he is winless at Barber

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LEEDS, Alabama – Scott Dixon is more annoyed than he is baffled when it comes to his record of near-success at Barber Motorsports Park.

In nine previous starts in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at the 2.3-mile, 17-turn permanent road course, Dixon has seven finishes of third or better including five second-place finishes. From IndyCar’s first race at George Barber’s magnificent facility in 2010 to 2013, Dixon had four-straight runner-up finishes.

He collected another second-place in 2017 when he trailed race-winner Josef Newgarden to the checkered flag by 1.050-seconds.

In nine starts, Dixon has nine top-10 finishes.

But Barber Motorsports Park is one of the very few circuits left on the NTT IndyCar Series schedule where the five-time series champion never has won a race. He is third on IndyCar’s all-time victory list with 44 wins, but none of them came at the track where he has his highest average finish of 3.6.

Baffling, indeed.

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“It annoys me more than baffles me,” Dixon told NBC Sports.com. “Some of those races have been good races, and second was probably the best we had. Two or three of those have also been ones we’ve messed up a little or came up short. I think there was one that stood out where we had lapped traffic in our in lap, and the second-place car jumped us because we lost time on that in lap.

“You have to be in it to win it, and we haven’t had that chance there yet. Nobody’s fault apart from ours.

“It’s nice to have such a great record there. For the first seven or so years, I had only been on the podium. But there was one where Sebastien Bourdais took me out on the first lap, and that is when I didn’t end up on the podium (2016).”

Bourdais and Dixon made contact in the tricky Turn 5 area of the track, sending Dixon into a spin. Both were able to continue in the race and Dixon ultimately finished 10th.

He rebounded in 2017 with another second-place finish but finished sixth last year in a race that was stopped for heavy rain on the scheduled Sunday and concluded on the following Monday morning.

“That was bad,” Dixon said. “I think I was running fourth, and it rained really bad, and I couldn’t see out of my visor. They stopped the race. I actually pulled over on the front straight and went from fourth or fifth all the way back to 10th. They stopped the race on the next lap.

“Then, we were on pace to be second. They continued the race and we were going to a one-stopper and with five or eight laps to go, it rained, and everybody was able to finish.

“It’s been a pretty good run there, though.”

It’s actually been a sensational run at Barber for Dixon; despite the fact he has never won a race there. It seems to suit Dixon’s driving style perfectly, whether it’s wet or dry.

This week’s weather forecast calls for chances of rain throughout the weekend. After all, this is Springtime in the South, and volatile weather is always possible at this time of year.

Indy cars are able to compete in the wet but cannot race in standing water. That was the case in last year’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, when the standing water prohibited any racing and with darkness approaching, the call was made to halt the race.

“That track is actually quite good in the rain,” Dixon said. “It has quite good grip. The racing is quite good, as we saw the end of day two on a Monday last year. It provided quite a very good race. But we’ve also been rained out there, too, where we didn’t race on that day or were postponed. You just hope you get the race in on Sunday, and for the fans, too, because it sucks to be in the wet.

“I think that track is cool. It’s a lot of fun in both conditions. It’s very physical. It’s very tough in the dry. It’s quite technical. And in the rain, it’s really high grip, which is quite fun for our cars.”

An NTT IndyCar Series race at Barber Motorsports Park is action-packed. When IndyCar first tested at that facility more than a decade ago, the general consensus was the track was too narrow. It was originally designed as a motorcycle road course, to provide racing for high-speed machines on two wheels.

Would it work with the high-powered, four-wheel Indy cars?

The answer stunned even the drivers.

“I think for a lot of people, when we first went to Barber, we thought it was going to be one of our worst races ever,” Dixon admitted. “In all seriousness, it’s probably turned out to be our best road course race. The way the tires, Firestone creates degradation and the passing opportunities. It’s one of our best road courses as far as racing and also trying to find speed in qualifying. It’s also action-packed in terms of starts and restarts.

“The race is never quite over, which is interesting. I saw that in a couple of situations where we were second and thought we had it wrapped up and then Rahal passed me on the last lap with massive deg (tire degradation). It definitely throws a lot at you.

“First impressions were it was fun to test at because sometimes they are flat and pretty boring, but that was a track that looked like it would be fun. The racing was a pleasant surprise for a lot of us and we have now come to expect it throughout the years.”

Another surprise was the fan support. Barber and track promoter ZOOM, wanted to offer its spectators a premium experience at the beautiful, tree-lined facility that is reminiscent of golfs “The Masters” at Augusta National in nearby Georgia.

They decided 30,000 to 40,000 would be a good crowd for the facility so that fans could enjoy the experience. The crowds have been every bit of that, with fans bringing their blankets and lawn chairs and lining the hillsides to get a great view of the action in every corner.

It’s also a more diverse type of race fan that comes to Barber, a facility just 40 miles west of NASCAR’s famed Talladega Superspeedway. The two groups of fans couldn’t be more different.

Birmingham, Alabama has become a thriving city of technology. Many of the fans that come to watch IndyCar at Barber are interested in technology. It’s a broad mix in-between the Formula One aficionado and the NASCAR fans.

“It surprised me and me and I think we even saw that from the first time we went to the track, there were a few thousand people that turned up, just for the test,” Dixon recalled. “That’s shocking for any type of test other than Indy or a few exceptions at some other places. But for a track where we had never tested before and with their normal demographic, it was not expected.

“It’s always had a really big fanbase there. The facility, the track, everything is so well kept. I think Barber has a pretty loyal fanbase because of the motorbikes or the diversity it has with the museum, it is one of those one-stop shops that you have a lot to witness.”

Two weeks ago, at Circuit of the Americas, the drivers were allowed to race outside of the white lines and boundaries that are part of the actual race course. That was known as “No Track Limits.” That produced some wild racing as drivers were able to use the paved runoff areas to keep their speed in the turns.

That won’t be the case at Barber.

“I don’t like tracks like that,” Dixon admitted of the “No Track Limit” experience at COTA. “It’s the track you race on. I don’t like tracks that don’t have consequences. COTA is the opposite to Watkins Glen or Road America. It’s kind of silly if you race on the runoff as opposed to racing on the track. I know IndyCar has some fixes for that next year, but personally I prefer tracks that have consequences if you mess it up or get offline. If there is a grass and a wall there or just a wall, that should be a consequence.

“I just think it’s a bit ‘Mickey Mouse’ where you are racing off the track more in some parts than on it.”

Are there consequences at Barber?

“Big time,” Dixon said. “It’s very high speed. The grass and Armco. A couple of areas have some sand but most of the time, it’s grass and Armco. Some of the new tracks have a lot of safety built in with how they are designed, but that creates areas to run off the track.”

Dixon enters the third race of the NTT IndyCar Series season, third in the standings. Newgarden won the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and finished second to then 18-year-old Colton Herta two weeks ago at COTA. Dixon was second at St. Pete and 13that COTA.

Although he is only 36 points behind Newgarden, Dixon believes it’s always time to make up some ground.

“There are lots of drivers you don’t want to get too far ahead, but we have come from massive deficits, almost 90 points at one stage two-thirds of the way through the season with Helio Castroneves when we won in 2013,” Dixon recalled. “Until you are out of it, you still have a great shot.

“They are a great team; he’s a great driver, but it’s two races into the season. You don’t want a driver to get a big lead at any stage, but we still have time.

“The start of the year, you see some pretty crazy stuff,” Dixon continued. “I’m not saying Colton’s win was crazy, but you see the points upside-down a little bit. In all due respect, myself, Alexander Rossi and Will Power would have been a lot further up. I feel bummed for Power, for sure. But that’s racing, man. You have to go with the punches. Strategy killed us at COTA, and the timing of the yellow took some people out of the running.

“It’s something IndyCar and some of the drivers have talked about, that lottery situation with yellows. Maybe one day, they will make it more fair, maybe not because that splits the field, creates excitement and creates some chaos. Once you get through the middle part of the season, you start to analyze if you are in the fight or not and who you are fighting.”

A great place to make up ground comes at Barber Motorsports Park, except the driver he is chasing, Newgarden, has won three times since 2015 at that Alabama road course.

It’s the start of IndyCar’s first “back-to-back” weekend of races. As soon as the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is over, the teams head west for the April 14 Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach – considered the second-biggest race on the NTT IndyCar Series schedule.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).