INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens

Alexander Rossi is ‘determined at Detroit’

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DETROIT – Alexander Rossi proved determination can take a race driver to the next level when he used aggression bordering on anger to nearly win last Sunday’s 103rdIndianapolis 500. This weekend at Belle Isle, the NTT IndyCar Series driver at Andretti Autosport is hoping determination is the key to victory at Detroit.

Rossi was the fastest driver in Friday’s second practice session with a fast time of 1:15.1367 around the 2.35-mile, 14-turn temporary street course at Detroit’s Belle Isle in the No. 27 NAPA Honda.

Rossi dominated last year’s second race in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix when he started on the pole and led 46 of the 70 laps in the contest, his race ended in disappointment. Rossi appeared to be on his way to another victory before his Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay was able to go off-strategy, run laps in the race as if he were on a qualification run, and pressure Rossi into making a mistake toward the end of the race.

Hunter-Reay was successful in getting to the rear of Rossi’s Honda and causing him to lock up the brakes going into the turns. Finally, on Lap 64, Hunter-Reay’s strategy paid off and Rossi’s left front rear went flat and that sent him into the runoff area in Turn 3.

Instead of celebrating a victory, Rossi finished 12th. The previous day, Rossi finished third in the first race of the doubleheader weekend.

“We have some unfinished business here,” Rossi said. “It was really disappointing. We led so much of the race and to have it go away the way it did sucks. We know we have a great race car. We’ve been strong here. We’ll keep chipping away and hope we win tomorrow or Sunday.

“That’s the cool thing about this place, we have two shots at this track every year.”

The last two years, Rossi has dominated one of the other street courses on the schedule, winning the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach from the pole in consecutive years.

But he has never won on the streets of Belle Isle in Detroit in six previous starts.

“There are no comparisons between here and Long Beach other than they are both street courses,” Rossi said. “We’ve had a strong car here, but not a dominant car like we have had at Long Beach. Getting third last year in Race One was good. We should have been on the podium in Race Two, but that didn’t happen.

“I think we have a top-five car. It’s a matter of executing in both races.”

The track surface is also rough and bumpy, giving a driver a jarring ride and taking its toll on suspensions.

“When I first came here, it was quite a shock from all of the other street tracks we come to,” Rossi said. “It’s definitely a unique place. You have to learn to love the bumps. You have to figure out ways to get around them. There are certain bumps in braking zones and in corners that if you have a slightly different line or approach with your driving style, you can mitigate the impact that the bumps have.

“I think you can see a bit of separation at a place like this just for small driving style differences, which is great. At the end of the day, even with all that being said, we saw it’s so close at the top, close throughout the whole field. That’s pretty normal of IndyCar racing.”

That is one reason why Rossi takes a racing line that comes very close to the wall.

“Our MO at all of the places is to get close to the wall,” Rossi said. “It’s tricky. It’s super bumpy. It’s one of the bumpiest tracks we go to. You learn to love the bumps. You can dictate the car based on certain bumps in certain corners.

“It’s a challenge. It’s a lot of fun.”

The Detroit Doubleheader is a bit of an endurance contest to the drivers in the field who have just completed three weeks of action at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway culminating with the biggest race in the world in the Indy 500.

Rossi finished just 0.2086-of-a-second behind Simon Pagenaud in a thrilling duel in the final 13 laps of the Indy 500 after leading five times for 22 laps.

Rossi has not watched the NBC replay of the 103rdIndianapolis 500. It’s an ending he doesn’t want to relive.

“I’m over it,” Rossi said. “I haven’t watched all of it. I’ve watched clips. I haven’t watched the whole Indy 500. I don’t have the mental longevity.

“I roughly know what happened.”

Drivers and crews have to strike a balance between physical and mental exhaustion entering the Detroit Doubleheader.

“Indianapolis isn’t that physical, but from a mental aspect, it’s a long month with a lot of information you are trying to take in, you don’t have a lot of time from a mental aspect to rest,” Rossi said. “We’re on Detroit, so that’s what’s important. We’re going to go try to win two races. There’s weather potentially coming, and we’ll see what happens.

“We’re focused on Detroit. Trying to maximize the weekend here. From a points perspective, it just as important as the 500. This is a really important stretch of races in the championship. Now that Indy is behind us, it’s really our only focus.”

Rob Edwards is Andretti Autosport COO and calls Rossi’s race strategy. The two have developed a very good working relationship that has made the No. 27 car one of the most feared on the race track.

“He’s pretty good when he is angry, that’s for sure,” Edwards said. “He has a sense of aggression on the track, but he has a great sense of humor with the crew. He fits in perfectly with this team.

“He has won at Long Beach the past two years and clearly had an opportunity to win here the last two years. Every street circuit you go to has subtle differences. Long Beach has come very naturally, but here we are working through those differences.”

Long Beach has some long and fast straights. Detroit has shorter straights.

“We have high-speed in Turn 1 and Turn 2 here and the complex in Turns 7-11 and that is similar to the complex with the Turn 4 and Turn 5 area in Long Beach,” Edwards explained. “Here, it’s bumpier and the track surface is different.

“The bumps and the track surface are the two biggest differences.”

When Rossi is driving at his peak performance, he is so good it’s like he is racing on a different track than the other drivers.

It’s like watching Michael Jordan play basketball in his prime.

“That is true of any driver when they are in ‘The Zone,’” Edwards said. “Between the setup of the car, Alexander and track, that’s true. All of that is confidence. He is confident in the car, confident in the engineer and in the group that we have got.

“You have to have that foundation to make some of those decisions.

“When you see the opportunity, you have to take it. And, Alex recognizes the opportunity when it is in front of him.”

The good thing about the NTT IndyCar Series schedule is the losers of the Indy 500 don’t have long to dwell over the outcome. It’s off to the next project and in this case, it’s the only doubleheader of the year.

There is too much work to do.

“We are all disappointed we were second; not first, but we did not leave much on the table,” Edwards said. “It’s hard to look back and think because of this and that, we could have won, but we did not leave much on the table.

“That’s the beauty of racing – there is another race next weekend and the opportunity to win the next one.”

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

Arrow McLaren Racing SP Photo
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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500