INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski
INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski

IndyCar teams find Barber Motorsports Park a high-speed challenge

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BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Coming off a “Wild, Wild, Wild West Show” in the March 24 INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of the Americas, don’t expect any lack of intensity in Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park.

Watch the race on Sunday at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN or at NBCSports.com or the NBC Sports app

The differences between COTA and Barber are extreme. COTA has plenty of paved runoff areas on the 20-turn, 3.41-mile road course that were used two weeks ago when “No Track Limits” became one of the most used phrases in the race. That meant drivers could go outside of the boundaries of the white lines that delineate the race course from the runoff areas.

Barber Motorsports Park is a fast, flowing, high-speed, 2.3-mile, 17-turn road course that has consequences for any driver that gets off the racing line. It is surrounded by grass, gravel traps and ARMCO Barriers.

That makes it a “self-policing” race course because any driver that gets out of line will pay a major consequence of running off the course, crashing or getting stuck in the gravel.

“We saw that in the first practice with guys getting offline,” Jack Harvey’s team owner Mike Shank told NBC Sports.com. “Here, there is more penalty to pay. COTA is designed for more open racing with lots of runoff and very little yellows. Here, we had two or three guys in the gravel, just in practice.

“I didn’t mind COTA with the ‘No Track Limits.’ It was kind of ridiculous in some ways, but I didn’t mind it all. This series, you have to race hard and be prepared to make some mistakes.

“Scott Dixon finished 14th. To me, he’s the best guy in the paddock. He finished 14th because it just didn’t go his way that day. That’s a testament how tough this thing is. We have it all here in this series. As a connoisseur of fine racing, this would be it.”

Rob Edwards is the Chief Operating Officer of Andretti Autosport and oversees an impressive four-driver effort that includes drivers Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti and Zach Veach.

Hunter-Reay is a two-time winner of the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama with back-to-back wins in 2013-2014. Rossi is one of the most aggressive drivers in the field. Andretti came close to winning the first race at Barber in 2010 when he led 58 laps before Helio Castroneves went on to victory. Veach is in his second year in the season and tested the limits at Barber in practice, flying off the course several times through the grass and into the gravel.

“There is a lot of consequence here if you get offline and we saw that in the first session,” Edwards told NBC Sports.com. “COTA was great, super entertainment, a lot of debate about it with track limits but it was an exciting race, a good race and got a lot of people talking.

“That’s a good thing.”

Edwards is impressed with INDYCAR’s ability to tailor the rules and procedures to each event, depending on the venue.

“There is a rule book they adhere to, but it’s applied with a degree of common sense based on circumstances,” Edwards said. “I think other tracks in the world that race on similar tracks every weekend looks different than our series and that is part of the challenge – we race on so many different types of venues.

“This is a track where you have a narrow window to work in and that places an emphasis in qualifying more than some other tracks where you have a wider window. This circuit is challenging. It tests the drivers, it tests the engineers, it tests the teams. Invariably, we’ve had some good races here over the years and it gets people excited about coming here.”

Although Will Power led the first 45 laps from the pole before a broken half-shaft put him out of the race on his final pit stop 15 laps from the end, young Colton Herta won the race at COTA. The 19-year-old realizes there are major differences between that track and Barber but has the versatility for both circuits.

“You still had to be extremely precise at COTA because with Turn 19, how bumpy it was, there actually was a preferred line,” Herta explained. “Whether people found it or not, there was a really good line through there.

“And it’s the same here. Obviously, there’s a little bit more risk touching the wall and stuff, so you have that going for you, but both styles take skill, and I think that shows the best ability of IndyCar is how we transfer it from different tracks to tracks and still cope with different situations.”

Simon Pagenaud is a past winner of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama in 2016. The Team Penske driver from France is a strong believer that road courses should have consequences and that is why he likes Barber.

“You want it to be pure racing and you want consequences when you make a mistake,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports.com. “COTA is a beautiful race track, the layout is phenomenal. Here, you can’t make one little mistake or it’s a big shunt.”

Ben Hanley relieved to make Indy 500 debut

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Qualifying for the Indy 500 is never an easy task, especially for a new driver and team, and with 36 cars vying for 33 starting positions last weekend, 34-year-old rookie Ben Hanley knew there was a chance he and his DragonSpeed team would not make the show.

“I wouldn’t say we were very confident, but we wanted to [make the field],” Hanley told NBC Sports. “The biggest thing we were trying to achieve was to not be on track on Sunday in the shootout because it only takes one mistake or one little issue and that’s it, you’re not in the race.”

But Hanley would not have to worry about being bumped from the field. He qualified 27th after making three attempts on Day 1, which was enough to lock the No. 81 team into the show. Not too shabby for a driver and team making only their third NTT IndyCar Series start.

THE 103RD INDIANAPOLIS 500: Click here for how to watch, full daily schedules

“That last run everything just came together,” Hanley said. “We trimmed out a little bit more and found a good balance of trim and grip over four [qualifying] laps and it was enough to get us through.

“It was a huge relief to get through in P27. A massive achievement for everybody involved.”

Indeed it was a massive achievement, as DragonSpeed is one of the smallest teams in the garage, with no corporate sponsors and a tiny team of around 20 personnel. Many of those were picked up by the team just a week before qualifying, when members of the team’s regular crew were denied entry into the United States due to visa issues after leaving a sports car race in Italy.

“It was all down to the team organizing some people who were in and around Indianapolis who weren’t needed for the race weekend,” Hanley said. “Obviously, I don’t think many people are going to refuse the chance to work on a car that’s trying to qualify for the 500.”

Though the team made its first Indy 500 on Day 1 of qualifying, the DragonSpeed team did not spend Saturday night out late celebrating. Instead, Hanley said the extra time was spent preparing for the race.

“We went straight on to race prep then for the car, so Sunday was a good day for the guys to take time to prep the car into the race spec and get everything sorted out in a nice, organized manner.”

Following the Indy 500, DragonSpeed will run two other races this season at Road America and Mid-Ohio. The team is hopeful that a good run at Indy will result in an opportunity to run a bigger schedule next season and attract sponsors.

Hanley stated that though he’s happy to have made the Indy 500 starting grid for the first time in his career, the magnitude of his feat hasn’t hit him yet.

“It hasn’t really soaked in yet,” he said. “I think it will soak in on Sunday when we roll out to the grid.

“It was such a huge relief to not be involved in Bump Day. Even just watching [Bump Day] it was intense, especially with the weather. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to be involved in that.”

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