Alexander Rossi: IndyCar’s version of Kyle Busch

INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski
INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski
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ELKHART LAKE, Wisc. – Alexander Rossi is a fierce competitor who hates to lose. It doesn’t matter if he finishes second or 22nd, to the driver of the No. 27 NAPA Auto Parts Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series, anything short of a checkered flag is not a reason to smile or celebrate.

His non-winning demeanor is similar to that of NASCAR’s Kyle Busch, according to those who really don’t know the competitive fire that burns inside of Rossi’s character.

Rossi takes that as a compliment.

“I love Kyle Busch,” Rossi told NBCSports.com. “He’s one of my favorite drivers, so that’s fine.

“I don’t care. These guys, the 27 team, they don’t show up at the workshop at 7 a.m. to finish second. We are all here to win, and that is what we expect from ourselves, and that is what we demand from each other. We’ll celebrate at the end of the year if we come out on top.

“We are not here to finish second. If people have a problem with that, that’s too bad. If you look at the sports team, nobody on the Golden State Warriors is happy finishing second in the NBA. That’s a really silly thing for somebody to say.”

Rossi finished second once again in Saturday’s qualifications by the narrowest of margins to 19-year-old Colton Herta. Rossi’s fast time was 1:43.1693 around the 4.014-mile, 14-turn Road America road course for a speed of 140.306 mph. Herta won the pole with a fast time of 1:43.1639 (140.065 mph) in another Honda to become the youngest pole winner in IndyCar history at 19 years, 83 days.

That broke the previous record of 20 years, 90 days when Graham Rahal won the pole at St. Petersburg, Florida in 2009.

Rossi has a chance to break out of his second-place blues in Sunday’s REV Group Grand Prix at Road America.

Watch Road America race at noon, et on NBC

With its very long straightaways and its variety of turns, Road America has all the makings of being an “Alexander Rossi type of track.”

“We had a mechanical failure last year that was independent of anything that happened in the race,” Rossi said. “We qualified fourth and were the fastest in the first two rounds of qualifying. The pace has been there. We’ve had some misfortune here. Some self-inflicted and some bad luck. But on paper, this should really be good for this team.

“We have taken a step forward this year but so has our competition. It’s a track we’ve had circled as one to be focused on because in our three years here, we’ve never come away with a top 10 here.”

Road America is a classic road course but share some similarities to another lavish road course in North America – the beautiful Circuit of the Americas (COTA) near Austin, Texas.

“It’s a high-speed, long permanent road course,” Ross said. “The grip level is a bit different; the surface here is rougher than COTA, but the basic geometry and layout is very similar. Based on the performance at COTA, we should have similar result here.

“I’ve had experience here in Skip Barber. It’s one of the best road courses in the US. We have such a great fan turnout and a beautiful part of the world. Everyone loves coming out here.

“You can tell you are in the land of cheese when you drive up here from Indianapolis.”

Because of the length of the course combined with the 55-lap distance, the strategy options are fairly limited between making it a three-stop race.

“It’s a tough one because it is such a long lap, it’s cut and dry from a fuel standpoint,” Rossi said. “The tires make a big difference. It’s more of what tires do you use? Do you use new Reds versus used Blacks? That makes this race potentially interesting. Firestone coming up with a big discrepancy between Reds and Blacks is what will ultimately make this an interesting race.”

Rossi enters the race second in the standings, 25 points behind Josef Newgarden, who starts fourth in a Chevrolet. Rossi has just one finish outside of the top 10 in nine races this season (22ndin the IndyCar Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway). He has four podiums (top three), seven top-five and eight top-10s.

But it’s a streak of three second-place finishes in the last four races that has Rossi wondering if this is a great season or a lost opportunity?

“It’s frustrating,” Rossi told NBCSports.com. “It’s been for different reasons each time. I think the important thing is the pace has been there. You can be frustrated, but you don’t want to be upset with the fact of getting good results because it’s very easy for things to go poorly in a much bigger way.

“It’s not like we’re upset because we are 12thand not getting the results. We’re second and have been on the wrong side of some misfortune or bad timing but at the end of the day the car has been fast, so we have to take some comfort in that.

“Josef is a champion. He has already proven he can do it, and he’s an American. To me, there is a lot of professional pride in the fact I would like to beat him. But it’s an amazing thing for the series to have American guys at the top fighting for a championship.

“I love Scott Dixon and Will Power and Tony Kanaan, but it’s really cool to give U.S. fans American guys at the top fighting for championships.”

IndyCar has big plans on, off track for first test at Thermal Club: ‘It’s an amazing facility’

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – Quantity isn’t a problem for NTT IndyCar Series drivers seeking source material for their first test on track at The Thermal Club. There’s plentiful video of the drivers making laps on the private track that bills itself as a world-class facility.

It’s quality that’s an issue with trying to do homework for their first (and possibly last) test on the 17-turn, 2.9-mile road course.

Thermal is billed as a motorsports country club of sorts, giving the rich and famous an opportunity to drive and store vintage cars at racing playground that has more than 200 members and $5 million, 30,000-square-foot homes sprouting constantly.

IndyCar’s arrival Thursday and Friday for its first full-field open test in the preseason since 2020 will mark a new era of professional racing at Thermal, which primarily has catered to amateurs (often in a fantasy camp-type setting).

Colton Herta tried doing some YouTube research on Thermal recently but gave up after watching the third lap of “some dude in a Ferrari” navigating the course that is nestled in the Coachella Valley just south of Joshua Tree National Park and north of the Salton Sea.

“It’s difficult to watch some of the onboards because it’s not really professional drivers, and they have like the cones set out on the track, where to turn in and where to get on the brakes, so it’s kind of irrelevant,” Herta said. “Yeah, I watched a little bit before I got too bored and turned away. But the track walk will be important. That’s going to be the biggest thing.”

The track walk happened Wednesday afternoon after two days of wall-to-wall media obligations at the Palm Springs Convention Center.

Conor Daly and Scott McLaughlin were among many drivers who were antsy to head southeast to the ritzy track (where many drivers have been staying in high-end casitas on the 470-acre property this week). Herta said his main concern was having enough runoff area as drivers knock off the offseason rust because “you do tend to drop a wheel here and there, have a spin if you’re getting back in the car for the first time in a few months.”

“I sort of don’t really know where the track goes,” McLaughlin said. “I feel like I’m going to get lost out there.”

With IndyCar increasingly limiting test time, Daly said sessions such as Thermal “are really, really important. We can train all we want, but there’s nothing like getting in these cars to drive to really prepare yourself for the first race. It’s going to be important to try to do as many laps as possible.”

Of course, what makes Thermal even more rare is that it’s not on the IndyCar schedule nor has it been a testing venue in the past. Sebring International Raceway also doesn’t play host to a race, but it’s become a tried and true place for teams seeking to hone their setups.

An IndyCar Series hauler is unloaded Monday at The Thermal Club track ahead of preseason testing Thursday and Friday (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

Thermal will be the first time IndyCar is learning an entirely new track since the streets of Nashville nearly two years ago, but in this case, it’s unknown how applicable it’ll be in the future. Some drivers speculated that it could translate to Portland with its length (lap times are projected at more than a minute and 40 seconds), but it’s an unknown how slippery the surface will be for tire wear (probably 20-lap stints, which are relatively short).

“It’s hard when it comes to just two full days of testing because obviously some people will adapt to it quicker than others,” Daly said. “You might feel like a hero, then the next day you might feel like a zero because some people have caught up.

“But these days are important because hopefully it is an indication for us on all the permanent road circuits that we go: Mid-Ohio, Laguna Seca, Indy GP. Hopefully it’s helpful for us in all those scenarios. We’ll see what happens, I guess. It doesn’t matter to us how fast we go, as long as we get something out of it, right? How do we judge some changes? If that’s great for a certain section of the track, right, that could represent a section of another road track we go to. There’s a lot that we can learn, for sure. Realistically we kind of have to keep ourselves  in check with our expectations.”

Two-time series champion Josef Newgarden said drivers “probably shouldn’t come out of here either too excited or too demoralized depending on how it goes because it is not incredibly relevant when it comes to at-track performance. We’re never going to run here again. Well, I shouldn’t say that. We’re not going to run here this year for a points-scoring race. From that standpoint, it’s not relevant.

“What it is relevant for and what I’m excited about is just being on track. We definitely need it on the 2 car. We have a lot of new people. We’re going to maximize this time by just treating it like a race weekend in that we’re doing all the things we would do on a normal weekend to be fast and work well and efficient together. When we come out of the weekend we’ll have something to look at, what did we do well or not well. We have a good, relevant conversation piece to take into (the season opener at) St. Pete. From that standpoint it’s excellent. If we finish 15th on the charts, yeah, maybe we shouldn’t read too much into that.”

Said Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver Graham Rahal: “I’m not sure how much (the Thermal track) relates. We’re running a Barber tire, similar to the Laguna Seca tire. Who knows what the track grip is like in the desert here. If you look at a lot of the corners, a lot of hairpins, a lot of slow speed corners, but then you’ve got like the end of the back straight is quite a fast left-hander. But they’re varying shapes of corners, decreasing radius, on increasing radius. We don’t have any tracks that do that traditionally.

“We’ve got to pick and choose exactly what we get out of it, but I’m all on board for the Thermal thing, so I don’t want to sound like I’m not. I think it was great to have change. We’ve kind of gone to the same places time and time and time and time again. It’s good to see something new.”

IndyCar also will be measuring the results of the test beyond timing and scoring.

The Indianapolis Star reported there have been informal talks about having a pro-am event in the future. With the test closed to the general public but open to its high-dollar clientele, there could be potentially millions of liquid capital at stake for future team investment if the Thermal Club’s members take a shine to IndyCar.

Thermal was throwing a posh welcoming event Wednesday night that was expected to have drivers, series executives and residents mingling with dancing and drinks.

Simon Pagenaud, who has explored the concept of starting a motorsports country club in his native France, is intrigued by the long-term marriage of IndyCar and Thermal.

“This kind of racetrack — what they do with their members, the passion of cars —  is really something,” Pagenaud said.

Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson likes the appeal of testing in Southern California instead of Central Florida.

“This time of the year, it’s really hard to find places for us to go testing,” Ericsson said. “I’ve only been here for four years, starting my fifth year, and I feel like I’ve done I don’t know how many days of testing at Sebring.

“For me, this is a lot better to come here. I like the idea a lot of having the preseason testing back on the calendar to get all the teams and drivers together.”

Said Alexander Rossi, who will be making his debut in an Arrow McLaren Chevrolet this week: “It’s always a difficult situation in January, February, in the United States to find a track that has the appropriate climate. Not only do we have a beautiful place to come with seemingly good weather, but you’re introducing IndyCar to obviously a demographic that has an interest in racing, with some decent capital behind them. They may not know of IndyCar. They may have known of IndyCar but never seen it in person.

“We’re able to bring and showcase what we believe is the best series in the world in front of people who are passionate about motorsports, participate in motorsports themselves, and maybe haven’t seen it before.”

McLaren teammate Felix Rosenqvist already has been staying at the villas inside the track all week.

“It’s an amazing facility,” he said. “I’ve never been here before. I was really blown away by how neat and tidy everything looks.

“I don’t know if there’s ambitions to race here in the future. That could be an option. I’m just pumped to be in California in January. There’s worse places to be.”