Ericsson, Rosenqvist look to follow fellow Swede Kenny Bräck’s footsteps at Indy 500

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The Indianapolis 500 may be an American institution, but the prestigious race is known worldwide.

For more than a century, drivers from around the world have come to Indy with 22 winners from 12 countries outside the United States in the race’s 102 previous editions.

This year, two open-wheel veterans from Sweden are making their first Indy 500 starts. Formula One veteran Marcus Ericsson is behind the wheel of the No. 7 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Dallara-Honda, and  Formula E veteran Felix Rosenqvist is in the No. 10 Dallara-Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing.

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With two Swedes racing in the series full time, the level of interest in their home country has not been this high since Kenny Bräck became the first Swede to win the race in 1999.

“To be honest, IndyCar was very big from the late ’90’s to the beginning of the 2000’s when Kenny was over here and doing very well,” Ericsson told NBC Sports. “I remember watching on TV as a kid, and there was a lot of coverage of it in Sweden.”

Bräck competed in the Indy Racing League and CART full time from 1997-2003. The Swede was one of the most successful drivers at the time, with nine victories (including the ’99 Indy 500). He also won the 1998 IRL championship.

But in the final race of the 2003 IRL season at Texas Motor Speedway, Bräck would suffer serious injuries in a crash that nearly cost him his life when his car locked wheels with another, sending Bräck’s car into the catchfence.

Bräck would recover from his injuries and return to IndyCar one final time in the 2005 Indianapolis 500, but Ericsson said interest in the sport had evaporated in Sweden by then.

But with two Swedes making their debuts at the Brickyard, interest in IndyCar has been rekindled in the Scandinavian nation.

“Obviously, for me coming from Formula One, I had a lot of support from Sweden during my years in there and now I see pretty much all of the fans who followed me in F1 are following me in IndyCar,” Ericsson said.

“With Felix in the series on top of that, it just became super popular in Sweden now. I think all of the motorsport fans in Sweden are following the IndyCar Series now. It’s very good, and I’m very happy to receive that support from my country.”

Like Ericsson, Rosenqvist also has fond memories of watching Bräck race, and he could not be happier finally to have the chance to follow his footsteps.

“It’s something that I always strived to do. IndyCar is always something I’ve loved and followed very closely from Europe,” Rosenqvist said. “It’s definitely been a dream to go to IndyCar.”

“It almost seems like not only are there fans who used to follow Kenny, but there are also a lot of younger, new fans that are really into IndyCar as well. We have a very big following in Sweden.”

Ericsson will start Sunday’s race from the 13th position while Rosenqvist will start 29th. Though Rosenqvist would have liked to qualify closer to the front, he still is enthused to compete in his first Indy 500.

“It’s such a huge spectacle to be a part of,” Rosenqvist said.

“I think as the month goes on, you realize more what it’s all about. You have guys who have been telling you for weeks what it’s going to be like, what you have to pay attention to, and other things. But as you go on you realize you kind of experience everything yourself. It’s one of those races you’ve always wanted to take part of, and now it’s only a couple of days away.”

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Graham Rahal’s ‘Weighty Issue’

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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 lasers 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.

“It takes a long time, I think,” Rahal said. “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. In INDYCAR, drivers are weighed and for the lighter 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.”

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, (crap), 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 Oct. 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.”