INDYCAR Photo by Walt Kuhn
INDYCAR Photo by Walter Kuhn

After thrilling Indy 500, it’s off to Detroit for doubleheader

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MOORESVILLE, North Carolina – Since winning a spectacular 103rdIndianapolis 500, Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske has had a busy week that included Monday night’s Victory Awards Celebration in Indianapolis and a trip to New York on Tuesday for a full day of media appearances.

That schedule may be light compared to what the teams have had to do.

It’s another grueling week for Team Penske and the other teams that compete regularly in the NTT IndyCar Series. After three full weeks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that began with practice and qualifications for the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 10 and the race on May 11, followed by a full week of practice and qualifications for the 103rdIndianapolis 500.

Race week was last week culminating with Pagenaud’s thrilling battle with Alexander Rossi in the final 13 laps of the 103rdIndy 500 on Sunday, May 26.

All but three of the full-time teams in the NTT IndyCar Series are based in Indianapolis. Carlin is based in Boca Raton, Florida, Dale Coyne Racing is in Plainfield, Illinois and Team Penske is in Mooresville, North Carolina.

Pagenaud’s winning crew on the No. 22 Menards Chevrolet were honored at Monday night’s Victory Awards Celebration at the JW Marriott in downtown Indianapolis. Afterwards, they boarded the team’s charter jet, known as “Air Penske” and flew to Statesville Airport in nearby Statesville, North Carolina, arriving very late Monday night.

From there, it was back to work at the race shop in Mooresville early Tuesday morning to continue preparations on the car that will race on Detroit’s Belle Isle street course in this weekend’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

It’s not just one race this weekend, it’s a doubleheader with full races on both Saturday and Sunday.

Following that event, it’s a short week because the teams turn over their street course setup for oval configuration and head to Texas Motor Speedway for a Saturday night race on June 8 at Texas Motor Speedway in the DXC Technology 600.

That means no rest for the weary warriors of IndyCar.

For Team Penske chief mechanic Trevor Lacasse, it’s his second Indy 500 win as a crewmember, but it’s his first in the lead role on the crew of the No. 22 Chevrolet. He was part of the winning crew when Juan Pablo Montoya won the 99thIndianapolis 500 in 2015.

Now, it’s off to Detroit.

“We’re going to try to get Roger Penske some more wins at his race this weekend in Detroit,” Lacasse told NBC Sports.com. “We flew home after the Victory Banquet Monday night, worked all day Tuesday to get the cars ready for Detroit, had a bit of a rest on Wednesday, then we leave for Detroit on Thursday to start setting up for Friday’s practice.”

Because Pagenaud’s No. 22 Dallara/Chevrolet won the 103rdIndianapolis 500, it is now taken out of the rotation. Team owner Roger Penske always puts the winning Indy 500 car aside, where it will be refurbished and become a “museum piece.”

Penske has 18 “museum pieces” for his 18 Indianapolis 500 victory, far and away more than any other team.

“The good news is we get to retire a car, but the bad thing is we have lost a car in the rotation,” Kyle Moyer, Team Penske General Manager, IndyCar, told NBC Sports.com. “We’ll have to move Helio Castroneves’ car into the rotation for Simon to get ready for Texas.”

The car that is being retired was one of Pagenaud’s cars from his 2016 season. It was put into the rotation in 2013 and was number 042.

“It’s been around for a while and has won a lot of races,” Moyer said.

For the rest of the cars in the Indy 500 in the Team Penske stable, the equipment beat the team back to the shop in Mooresville, North Carolina.

“All of Team Penske’s cars besides Simon’s went back to North Carolina on Sunday night after the race,” Lacasse explained. “We got some help from our Sports Car guys and the rest of the crew to get the cars turned around for Detroit.

“That’s the great thing about this team, everybody pitches in and helps each other. On Sunday, we might show up with a different shirt on, but it’s all one team. We have three cars identically built and it’s a team effort.”

The cars and parts left Indianapolis for Mooresville, North Carolina Sunday night. On Monday, the computers and office equipment in the Gasoline Alley garages – Team Penske’s home away from home the past three weeks – were loaded up and carted off.

“We have a group of guys that flew home Monday morning to help get things turned around, while the rest of us got to stay for the banquet,” Lacasse said. “We flew home and were all at work bright and early Tuesday morning.

“We’re in business to win races. As Roger Penske said when we went out to ‘Kiss the Bricks,’ 18 wins in the Indy 500 is pretty good, but he has 20 wins circled in his book.

“Now that, would be pretty cool.”

Moyer is the general manager, IndyCar, at Team Penske. He told NBC Sports.com that the team’s street and road course cars for Detroit were actually prepared last week, to give them a head start on the back-to-back events on the same weekend.

“Having our Sports Car team come in on Memorial Day was a bonus for us because it helps out everybody there,” Moyer said. “Everything has to be loaded and off to Detroit.

“The big turnaround is after Detroit. Then, you have only two days to get ready for that one and you are flipping cars from street course to oval.”

How does an IndyCar team keep the crew fresh during such a demanding part of the schedule?

“The good thing is everybody knows the situation,” Moyer said. “We had Wednesday off and that was really good for the guys. Detroit is two races that go by quickly, then it’s off to Texas.

“Then, we’ll have some time off. After Elkhart Lake, we get a two-week break and I can’t remember the last time we’ve had two weeks off in the season in IndyCar.”

For team owner Roger Penske, it was Indy 500 win No. 18. For Lacasse, it’s Indy 500 win No. 2. For Moyer, it was Indy 500 win No. 8 including one win with Galles Racing in 1992, one with Barry Green in 1995, Indy 500 wins in 2005, 2007 and 2014 with Andretti Autosport and Team Penske Indy 500 wins in 2015, 2018 and 2019.

“I still have two more fingers I can put a ring on,” Moyer said. “We’ll keep working on it.”

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

Graham Rahal Photo
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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