Defending Indy 500 winner Will Power talks about ‘Dale Jr. Download’

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INDIANAPOLIS – Defending Indianapolis 500 winner Will Power of Team Penske was NBC Sports analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s guest on the most recent “Dale Jr. Download.”

“I liked it a lot, it was great, a lot of fun, and we got along really well,” Power told NBC Sports.com at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before Wednesday’s rain-abbreviated Indy 500 “Open Test.”

It was the first time Power got to know Earnhardt, though the two live just 7 miles apart from each other in the Lake Norman area north of Charlotte, North Carolina.

“We did an appearance for Chevrolet up in Detroit once, that had a bunch of drivers, but I never knew him other than shaking his hand at that appearance,” Power said. “It was cool to be on his show. I’ve watched Dale, and he is massively popular in the motorsports community. I was really honored that he asked me to be on his show.

“We talked about everything from driving an Indy car to fighting in Toowoomba (Power’s hometown in Australia) to karaoke machines to everything.”

Power has his own unique personality that can often be described as “quirky.” Earnhardt, a former NASCAR star and two-time Daytona 500 winner, remains one of the most popular figures in NASCAR and is currently part of NBC Sports broadcast crew of NASCAR on NBC.

“He is very charismatic,” Power said. “I always thought when I saw him do commercials, that guy could be an actor as good as he is in front of the camera.”

In May, Earnhardt will get to attend the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in his life and will be part of NBC’s inaugural telecast of the Indy 500.

“Dale asked me a lot about the 500 and asked me what the first thing he should do when I get to the Speedway,” Power said. “I told him to stand on the pit wall near Turn 1 and see what it looks like. It’s a pretty cool experience.

“Dale told me he watched the Indy 500 since 1982. It’s pretty cool to have him commentating on it this year.”

Wednesday’s “Open Test” was the first time this year Power has returned to the track where he won the 102ndIndianapolis 500 in 2018.

“I drove into the Speedway today with a big smile on my face and very proud to have that banner of my win up there at the main entrance to the Speedway,” Power said. “I was super proud to win the race. But, you reset. You want to do it again. You understand what a great feeling it is, what an accomplishment it is to win this race and how special the place is.

“It’s such an amazing event with so much history.

“I can’t wait to come out there and see where you stack up. It makes me more determined to win it again. There is no better place in the world than to win it here. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.”

Power and the 29 drivers who hit the track on Wednesday had to dodge several rain delays that limited track activity. That gave Power time to absorb the “Dale Jr. Download” podcast as the track was drying.

“I certainly enjoyed it and would enjoy doing it again,” Power said. “There was plenty of random thought about different things, and it’s not all about motorsports.

“He was shocked that we live so close to each other in North Carolina. Maybe we will go cycling now.”

Graham Rahal tries to get up to speed in IndyCar iRacing Challenge

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Although he’s just 31 years old, Graham Rahal has been driving an Indy car since the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he still a teenager.

When it comes to the virtual world, however, Rahal is an admitted “newbie.”

The Rahal Letterman Lanigan driver hopes to get up to speed in time to be competitive in Saturday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama virtual race. It’s part of the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge and will be televised live by NBCSN at 2:30 p.m.

The six-time NTT IndyCar Series race winner got his virtual racing rig before last week’s American Red Cross Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International but was still learning the nuances of the iRacing platform. He started 12th and finished 14th out of 25 cars in the contest. The first 12 finishers were on the lead lap. Rahal was one lap down.

“I had never done it before,” Rahal said Friday. “At least it probably had been 10 years since I had driven any sort of sim. It’s addicting…rather addicting. Second of all, it’s bad for your marriage, but it’s a great way to kill a day of quarantine.

“But I think it’s been a big challenge just to get used to the way that you feel a car, the way that you drive a car in the sim, it’s all completely different than real life. To get used to that sensation, to get everything set up right is a huge part of it.”

Inside the cockpit of his No. 15 Honda at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Rahal feels at comfortable in his own element. It has taken him time to find that comfort level in the virtual world.

“For me it has been a challenge to just figure out the right settings, what to do from afar, too,” Rahal said. “Obviously you don’t have anybody here (at his home) that plays iRacing or anything to help you firsthand. It’s been a bit of a challenge; but I’ve really enjoyed it.”

Next up is Barber Motorsports Park, which in the real world is a very challenging course but it puts on some of the best road course racing on the real IndyCar schedule. Rahal believes it will also be quite a challenge on iRacing.

“I think Barber is going to be actually more difficult than Watkins Glen,” Rahal said. “The track has a little bit less grip than Watkins Glen did last week. Although everybody was still crashing at Watkins Glen, I think you can get away with more than what you can at Barber. In real life it’s that way, too.

“I’m looking forward to it. I think it will be fun.”

Rahal is married to former drag racing star Courtney Force. Both are playing it safe by staying home by statewide order from Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb. But Rahal still has to find the balance between husband and virtual race driver.

By contrast, some of the other IndyCar drivers are spending 10-12 hours a day practicing on iRacing.

“That’s the challenge,” Rahal said, responding to a question posed by NBCSports.com. “I could definitely spend way more time on it. My line to Courtney is, ‘Just give me two laps.’ Then, one hour and 45 minutes later I’m still sitting there. It’s frustrating.

“As Robbie Wickens said, the frustrating part is you go out, you put in a good lap, then it’s, ‘I need to go beat that.’ You spin and you spin, and you spin. Then you get mad. The competitiveness in you, two more laps, two more laps. You try to go and go and go.

“You sit there for hours and hours and hours.”

Rahal admits he can’t stay away from iRacing for long. He is genuinely curious and interested in seeing what the competition is doing.

“I go on pretty frequently to see what’s going on,” Rahal said. “A lot of guys are on all the time. Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais has been on a load, Tony Kanaan, Willie P (Will Power). I think everyone is enjoying it. But it’s a huge challenge.

“There are a couple of guys that are clearly quicker than everybody else, Will being one of those. I’m trying to figure out where and how to find the lap time. I’m telling you, it’s so different than reality in that way.

“But it’s been fun, man. I’ve enjoyed the challenge. It’s good for the exposure, good because people are paying attention. You can see it on our Instagram. If you look at the clicks or page views in the last seven days, they’ve been doubled since we started to do this stuff. While it’s great for that, it also does help kill a ton of time.”

These are unique times as the world has essential shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As more and more humans are testing positive of the potentially deadly virus, the threat becomes more real.

It has also created a tremendous void as people try to find something to do to pass the long times of isolation.

By giving race fans a few hours of entertainment, even if it is virtual instead of real, then Rahal believes it’s worth it.

“I think a lot of people are just dying for something to do, something to watch,” Rahal said. “The competitiveness in all of us wants to see some sort of sport.

“I know there are other buddies like hockey players that are watching it because they just want to watch something. They need something to do. So, I think that’s a big part of it.

“I think it’s great that NBC Sports is covering it this weekend other than just being online. I think it will be tremendous to see how that turns out.

“This is very realistic. When you see the cars on track, you watch a replay, see the photos, it’s eerily real looking. I did a race at St. Louis last weekend. It was extremely entertaining I think for the drivers that were participating. Other than 400 yellow flags, which happened early in the race, it was really, really entertaining to be a part of. People who watched that race would have loved the show that they had been seeing. I think there’s a lot of realism to it.

“I think it’s also people just want something right now. The desire and the demand is there to log in or tune in and see something competitive on TV.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500