Team owner Andretti confident he will re-sign Alexander Rossi

AP Photo/R Brent Smith
AP Photo by R. Brent Smith
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ELKHART LAKE, Wisc. – Team owner Michael Andretti told NBC Sports.com he is “realistically confident” he will re-sign NTT IndyCar Series star Alexander Rossi by August.

Andretti indicated it all depends on renewing NAPA as the team’s sponsor for the No. 27 Honda.

“We are working hard,” Andretti told NBC Sports.com Friday afternoon at Road America, site of Sunday’s REV Group Grand Prix. “He wants to be here. We want him here. We just have to put the package to together. We are working day and night to make it happen.

“NAPA has told me they are happy with the team and with Alex and believe we have been a great value for them with sponsorship. But whenever we ask them if they are ready to renew, they are still talking about it.”

Watch Road America race at noon, et on NBC

Because Rossi’s contract expires at the end of this season, he is the biggest star available for other teams to acquire. A heavy contender for Rossi is believed to be Team Penske, but Andretti believes the entire IndyCar paddock has interest in Rossi for 2020.

Other top teams that have shown interest in Rossi include Chip Ganassi Racing and Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, both Honda teams. Team Penske is a Chevrolet team.

“Technically, he can talk about the contract with anybody, but I’m sure Roger has contacted him and probably everybody in the paddock has given him a call,” Andretti said. “When you are a good talent, people are going to be after you.

“The good news is we all want to stay together, so we have to find a way to make that happen.”

Andretti is more confident he can re-sign Rossi than he was in 2017, the last time Rossi’s contract was up for renewal. At that time, Andretti was considering switching to Chevrolet, but Rossi was so determined to stay with Honda, he had a preliminary arrangement to join what is now Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Once Andretti decided to stay with Honda, Rossi quickly re-signed with Andretti Autosport.

“All sides are working very hard to make it happen,” Andretti said. “If everybody is on the same page, one way or another, we’ll figure it out.”

Rossi was asked if he is already getting tired of media reports about where he will race next season.

“Yes,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “I just focus on what we are doing. The way the schedule works, you don’t have time for down days. It’s spent shutting down one event and moving on to the next event. As a whole team, we are focused on our job. We said at the beginning of the year, we have to win this championship.

“That mental focus and ambition hasn’t changed.”

INDYCAR PHOTO BY JOE SKIBINSKIRossi looks at where this team started and how it has grown together and believes it’s a special part of his career. When Rossi came to Andretti Autosport as a rookie in 2016, he had some acclaim as the lone American driver in Formula One, but at Manor Racing, he never had a chance to show his true ability.

The team and Rossi have developed together.

“It’s been very cool for me to be part of the team’s resurgence,” Rossi said. “They were the team to beat for a really long time. They have always been strong at Indy, but when the aero kits came in 2015, the team had lost competitiveness. When I joined in 2016, there were events where in our view, we were one of the worst teams on the grid.

“To see the improvement every single year and come back to a championship level team has been really cool to witness. I love being part of this organization with Michael Andretti and JF Thormann and Rob Edwards, it’s pretty cool to see what they have done to make sure Andretti Autosport is back at the front of the series.”

Another key factor is Rossi has been extremely loyal to Honda, and Honda has been extremely loyal to Rossi and Andretti Autosport.

“The only relationships I know in this series are Andretti Autosport and Honda,” Rossi said. “Honda has been a great partner of ours. I see where they were in 2016 and what they did last year winning the manufacturers championship for the first time since 2011 and a driver’s championship.

“We are focused on giving that to them again this year.”

IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.