IndyCar officials, drivers relieved how cars have held up in heavy wrecks

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INDIANAPOLIS – The heavy impacts last week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway even had an IndyCar veteran like Scott Dixon cringing, particularly when James Hinchcliffe slammed the wall in qualifying.

“Some of those crashes, when I saw them, I was like, ‘Oh man, that was a pretty big hit,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “Qualifying can be the worst because your corner speed is so high, if you do lose it in qualifying, it’s going to be massive.

“I was a little worried for Hinch, because I’m like man, that’s going to be a really big hit, much like we saw with (Bourdais, just not as direct head on, but I was really pleased to see him get out and walk around and get in another car a couple of hours later.”

Unlike the Indianapolis 500 qualifying crash two years ago that sidelined Bourdais with a broken pelvis for several months, every driver walked away.

Besides Hinchcliffe, there were jarring impacts in practice that involved Felix Rosenqvist, Kyle Kaiser, Patricio O’Ward and Fernando Alonso.

IndyCar president Jay Frye told NBCSports.com that it’s a validation of several safety enhancements, particularly a crushable impact zone on the driver’s side. IndyCar made the piece less rigid after testing last year.

“Safety is always our No. 1 priority, so the outcome of each of those incidents was good,” Frye said. “Each driver was OK and cleared. When things happen, we analyze it immediately and see how it compares to other incidents over the course of the years. In general, we’re encouraged by the outcomes. We made thousands and thousands and thousands of laps last week, and you ask, ‘Is there a trend?’ We don’t necessarily see a trend.”

If there was some commonality among the wrecks, it’s that four of the cars briefly got airborne.

But unlike Dixon’s terrifying upside-down crash in the 2017 Indy 500 (when the Chip Ganassi Racing driver avoided injury despite his car’s cockpit nearly landing on the inside SAFER barrier), Rosenqvist, Hinchcliffe, Kaiser and O’Ward each escaped having their cars turn over entirely.

The closest was Hinchcliffe, whose Dallara-Honda did slightly more than a half-flip and got up on its side before landing on its wheels.

Frye said the series worked to keep cars on the pavement by moving weight toward the center of the car.

“Not going over is obviously a good sign; that’s the result we’re looking for,” Frye said. “When the cars have turned or got up on the side, what appears to be happening is, because some of the stuff that’s been moved, they pivot right back down. That’s a great result.

“Obviously anyone getting on their side that’s something we monitor of how and why that happened. We feel very good about where this car is at from a safety perspective. Everything that happened here, the result ended up being what we always strive for, each driver got out and walked away. They were immediately cleared and competed again right away. We always look at data. That’s as good a data as you can get when that result happens.”

Frye said IndyCar had no changes planned in part because there can be “unintended consequences” from being too proactive. “The car has done what it’s supposed to do,” he said. “It’s come back down. Anything you do now could possibly have a more negative effect than a positive effect.”

Other IndyCar veterans also credited some floor holes that IndyCar has added to affect aerodynamics and help keep the cars grounded.

“The holes they have in the floor definitely prevent the flips,” Alexander Rossi told NBCSports.com. “I think that’s exactly what we were looking for. There was a period of time where we had these big pieces of body work on that were kind of designed to do the same thing, but they were atrociously ugly and ineffective and inefficient.

“So the fact we have a car that looks the part and performs the way it does but also stands up to the impacts at Indianapolis is a huge testament to what IndyCar has done, and they did a really good job at it.”

Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden said IndyCar had done a good job with mitigating the inevitable at Indianapolis.

“We’re always going to have big hits here; it’s impossible to run around that month and not have someone smack the wall,” Newgarden said. “It’s really easy to do. You see Fernando Alonso, Felix Rosenqvist, Patricio O’Ward, those are all extremely talented people, and they had very capable race teams. The place is tricky, and we’ve continued to evolve safety.

“You look at the cars and the way they hit the wall, the way the airflow starts to shear over the car in a sideways, reverse impact. That’s where (IndyCar) made a lot of gains. In particular when the car gets up on its side, there’s so much surface area on the floor, because the floor is so big on the car, it turns into its own wing, but the way they’ve got the holes in the floor, the way they’ve put the reverse flaps and rear wing, it’s all worked really well. You see people get up, and the wind can catch the underside of the car, but you don’t see it turn into much more than that. So it is encouraging. Everything they’ve done seems to be proving out.”

Said Dixon: “All the guys have walked away, so I think obviously the cars are still getting up a little bit, but it seems the devices they have are thankfully stopping (full flips). I think the next iteration of car or version of car, there’s probably something we can do to help that again. I think getting rid of a lot of the surface area from the wings has really helped.”

IndyCar also has added a new Advanced Frontal Protection device to its cars at Indy to help deflect debris away from drivers in crashes. On Friday, series officials are expected to unveil the second phase of open-cockpit protection.

Alexander Rossi remains the story in IndyCar in 2019

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ELKHART LAKE, Wisc. – Alexander Rossi’s greatness was on full display Monday at Road America.

He started on the outside of the front row, drafted behind pole sitter Colton Herta at the drop of the green flag, pulled out a perfectly timed move to race side by side with Herta going into Turn 1.

By Turn 2 of the first lap, Rossi’s No. 27 NAPA Honda was out front and drove away from the field, easily winning the REV Group Grand Prix of Road America by nearly 30 seconds over Team Penske’s Will Power.

Rossi was so good, it appeared he was running on a different race course than the other 23 competitors. There was some outstanding racing throughout the field with 191 total passes, including 175 for position, but none of those passes were at the front.

According to Rossi’s engineer, Jeremy Milles, there was just one thing kept Rossi’s race from being deemed complete perfection.

“It we had stayed out two laps longer on the last pit stop, we would have led every single lap instead of Graham Rahal leading one lap,” Milless told NBC Sports.com. “It’s good to see when we give him a proper car, he puts it to work.

“He’s not like a lot of drivers.”

Rossi led 54 of the 55 laps in the race and defeated Power by 28.4391 seconds – a huge margin of victory by today’s standards. Back in 1982, Hector Rebaque defeated Al Unser by a full lap at the 4.014-mile, 14 Road America road course, but those were far different times than today’s very deep field in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Although it was Rossi’s second victory of the season and the seventh of his career, the 27-year-old from Nevada City, California, has been the driver everyone talks about in 2019. The win snapped a four-race streak where he finished second three times and fifth in the other.

Simon Pagenaud won the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26, but the fans and media were talking about Rossi’s bold, daring moves, including some wildly aggressive passes down the front straight and to the outside in Turn 1.

Rossi had a fantastic car the next week in the first race of the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle but was burned by the timing of a caution period for a crash as his main challenger, Josef Newgarden, dove into the pit area to make a stop just before pit lane closed because of the caution.

Rossi had to wait until the pits were reopened to make his stop, and that put him behind Newgarden and ultimately decided the race.

After a fifth-place finish the following day in Race No. 2, Rossi was once again standing up in his seat and on top of the steering wheel in a tremendous battle with Newgarden at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8. Rossi tried his best to make his car stick on the outside lane going into Turn 1, but when he discovered the risk was much higher than the reward, he had to begrudgingly settle for second, finishing 0.816 seconds behind the current NTT IndyCar Series points leader.

Rossi left no doubt on his Sunday drive through the Wisconsin woods as he never was challenged.

In just three short seasons, Rossi has developed into one of the greatest drivers in a generation in IndyCar. He doesn’t even have 10 victories yet, and he already had the makings of a legend.

“It’s almost like Juan Pablo Montoya, when he arrived as a rookie, he was great immediately,” Rossi’s team owner Michael Andretti told NBCSports.com after the race. “Juan is one of the greats, and I think as time moves on, Alex will prove to be one of the greats.

“He is very aggressive, very calm, very confident, everything you want in a driver. He wasn’t racing anybody all day; he was just racing himself not to make any mistakes.”

For Andretti, this is a very important time in his relationship with Rossi. The driver’s contract concludes at the end of this season, and he is the focal point of speculation on where he will race in 2020.

Before Pagenaud revived his career with a sweep of the major events at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Month of May, Rossi looked like “Penske Material” as the driver that would take over the No. 22 Chevrolet. After Pagenaud won the Indy 500, team owner Roger Penske assured him he would be back on the team in 2020.

Rossi’s loyalties lie with Honda. Both he and his father, Pieter, share a close relationship with the engine manufacturer that helped the former Formula One test driver at Manor find a full-time home in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Andretti told NBCSports.com on Friday that he was “optimistically confident” that he will re-sign Rossi once a sponsorship agreement with NAPA is completed.

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones

Andretti remains confident after Rossi’s win on Sunday.

“We’re getting there,” Andretti said. “I think we’re getting there. We are feeling pretty good about it.”

There are others, however, that aren’t as optimistic.

If Roger Penske wants a driver, who turns down an opportunity like that? After all, Team Penske is far and away the winningest team in IndyCar history, including a record 18 Indy 500 wins.

Think of these scenarios.

What if McLaren makes a substantial offer to align with Andretti Autosport for a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team in the future after McLaren’s debacle in this year’s Indy 500?

In order for that to happen, though, Andretti would have to switch to Chevrolet, because Honda ‘s parent company in Japan will no longer do business with McLaren.

The last time Andretti considered leaving Honda for Chevy, Rossi was set to leave Andretti to join another Honda team, Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports in 2017.

If Andretti Autosports and McLaren joined together, that would also mean the Andretti-aligned Harding Steinbrenner Racing would become a Chevy operation.

Honda could keep Rossi as one of its drivers by leading him to Chip Ganassi Racing. Five-time Cup Series champion Scott Dixon remains on top of his game, but it’s unlikely he will be racing Indy cars 10 years from now.

Barring unforeseen circumstance, Rossi will still be in the cockpit and winning races in a decade, and that would position Ganassi’s team for the future. The team’s second driver is rookie Felix Rosenqvist, who is currently racing with a one-year contract.

Even Rossi knows his situation for next year is complicated, which is why he chooses not to talk about it. He has developed a strong bond with Milless as his engineer and Rob Edwards (white shirt on left) as his race strategist.

Do both of those key members end up on a different team with Rossi? Edwards is a key member of management at Andretti Autosport as the Chief Operating Officer.

Rossi is as cerebral as he is aggressive. After his victory, when pressed upon his next contract, he concluded the conversation perfectly.

“I have no considerations,” Rossi said regarding his contract status. “It’s in God’s hands.”