Fearless Ferrucci proving doubters wrong

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NEWTON, Iowa – Santino Ferrucci gained a new fan in this year’s 103rd Indianapolis 500. It was NBC Sports Dale Earnhardt, Jr., one of the most popular figures in racing from his days as a NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series.

Ferrucci, just 20 at the time of this year’s Indy 500 on NBC, had a fantastic race. He started 23rd and finished seventh. But it was one moment in the race that stood out to Earnhardt, who raved about Ferrucci during NBC’s telecast of the Indianapolis 500.

That came on Lap 177 when a multi-car crash was triggered by Sebastien Bourdais and Graham Rahal in Turn 3 that sent cars scrambling to avoid the mayhem.

Ferrucci drove through the grass to avoid the crash and was able to dodge the shrapnel to continue in the race.

Earnhardt was highly impressed with Ferrucci’s skill to make it through the crash and became a fan of the kid from Woodbury, Connecticut.

Mention that to Ferrucci, and the kid’s face brightens with a smile.

“Dale is not really from IndyCar, he’s a racer, though,” Ferrucci told NBC Sports.com. “He got to look at the way he does it and I got to look at NASCAR and it’s like when I got to know Tony Stewart, he’s got it and he’s got the heart for it.

“Having those words come from Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is meaningful. It really is.”

Ferrucci hopes to one day be on the “Dale Jr. Download” on NBCSN.

“I haven’t reached out to him personally, but I’ve reached out to via email to see if he wants to do something on the podcast,” Ferrucci admitted. “I think that would be pretty cool.

“He runs a pretty sweet show.”

So far in his rookie season in the NTT IndyCar Series, Ferrucci is having a pretty sweet season with Dale Coyne Racing. He is 12thin the standings with four top-10 finishes and one fourth-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8.

Ferrucci finished 11thin Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto and is ready for the challenge of his first short oval race of his career at Iowa Speedway Saturday night.

Watch the Iowa 300 on NBCSN Saturday, July 20 at 7 p.m. Eastern Time.

Ferrucci’s competitors in the NTT IndyCar Series are impressed with the young driver’s skill and talent. Even his rookie challengers are surprised that he is having one of the best seasons of any rookie in the series and is higher in the standings than rookie race winner Colton Herta.

Unfortunately for Ferrucci, he has an international group of detractors who won’t let him forget an unfortunate incident where is was ruled he purposely crashed his F2 teammate at Trident Racing Arjun Maini after the checkered flag of a race at Silverstone in July 2018.

According to reports of the incident, Ferrucci also refused to appear before the race stewards, despite being called upon to do so immediately following the incident. He was also reprimanded by series officials for holding his cell phone in the race car.

According to the official Formula 2 website, “the young American racer was found to be in contempt of violating the FIA’s sporting regulations, further earning him a €60,000 ($70,500) fine for the deliberate on-track action involving Maini. He was also taxed an additional €6,000 ($7,047.34) as he “violated both the technical and sporting regulations for incorrect driver safety equipment and the prohibition of wireless transmission devices within the car.”

The incident ultimately cost Ferrucci his ride. He already had a deal with IndyCar team owner Dale Coyne to help fill in for the injured Pietro Fittipaldi in 2018 to compete in four races. His best finish was 11thin the season-ending race at Sonoma after starting 20th.

So far in 2019, Ferrucci has shown exemplary conduct both on and off the track. He has finished every race held so far this season and has not been involved in a single on-track incident.

Because of that, Ferrucci has a message for his vocal detractors who won’t let the NTT IndyCar Series rookie forget about the incident with Maini in F2.

“A lot of those people that write negative things about me on the internet have never met me,” Ferrucci told NBC Sports.com. “I’m so open to having people come down that don’t know me that have only read certain articles, I would love to meet those people and see if I could change their minds in person.

“It was an unfair judgement, but at the end of the day, you can’t make everybody happy.

“Like Jeff Gordon used to say, ‘If you have 100 people and 40 of them hate you, they are still talking about you.’

“You use that as fuel to the fire.”

In a deeply talented rookie class, there are races where Ferrucci has shined the brightest. His performance in the 103rdIndianapolis 500 earned him the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Award against the likes of Colton Herta, Felix Rosenqvist and Marcus Ericsson.

“Mario Andretti put it best – you can only win that award once,” Ferrucci said. “We did a stellar job all month long. We were consistent and never put a foot wrong. We did the right thing all the way through with a stellar package. All I had to do was listen to the advice from the engineers and Sebastien Bourdais (his IndyCar teammate). I passed a lot of other drivers. Me and Ryan Hunter-Reay fought our way all the way up. We started 23rdor whatever and we ended the race six and seven. We passed all those cars to get up there.

“It was a fun challenge and I look forward to doing it again next year.”

One of his fellow rookies is a driver who knows Ferrucci quite well. That is Sweden’s Rosenqvist, who admits he is impressed with Ferrucci’s rookie season.

“Colton and I have been the fastest rookies, but Santino Ferrucci has been a big surprise and has had the more mature rookie season of all of us,” Rosenqvist said of the 21-year-old driver from Connecticut, who is 11thin the standings. “My goal this year is to get a win before the season is over. Colton has won a race and Marcus Ericsson has finished second.”

Ferrucci turned 21 on May 31 and realizes he still has much to learn. The next step in his learning experience will come Saturday night in the first short oval race of his career at Iowa Speedway in the Iowa 300.

“It’s not about setting your expectations too high,” Ferrucci said. “This year, every track is new to me. I know Portland and Mid-Ohio and that’s it. Going into the short ovals, I got to test at Iowa and that place is insane. I’m taking it a race at a time and not trying to take too much out of it and not trying to expect too much out of it and finishing all the laps that I can.”

Could the rookie driver with the colorful personality join Herta as rookie race winners in 2019?

“Our best opportunity will come in Portland because I know the track and we were fast there last year,” Ferrucci said. “But we have long races, and anything can happen.

“I would love to get on the top step of the podium, but I’m more concerned with the rookie race than a one-off win.

“I think that is more important at this stage of my career.”

IndyCar’s Scott Dixon staying fit during lengthy time off

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During a regular racing schedule, five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing would spend much of his time between races at PitFit in Indianapolis.

The highly advanced workout facility on the northwest side of Indianapolis is run by noted sports trainer Jim Leo. His clientele includes IndyCar Series drivers and other athletes in the area.

In addition to the array of workout machines, Leo’s facility also has advanced equipment to test a driver’s reaction time. These range from a board with lights that rapidly flash, and a driver have to hit the board to turn them off. There are other tests drivers do to keep their skills sharp and reaction time focused.

Times have changed, though.

Indiana is under a statewide lockdown with the exception of essential services only. Instead of going to PitFit, Dixon is working out at his home on the north side of Indianapolis.

His reaction time is being tested by his wife, Emma, throw a tennis ball at him, changing the direction with each toss.

“I’ve gone back to old school, like tennis balls and Emma can drop them or throw them,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “As long as you keep up with basic cardio and lift weights and work on the neck muscles, that’s the harder part to get ready for. “As we get through this transition, we have 8-10 weeks before these things get lifted.

“I had already stopped going into Pit Fit last week. We had not been doing that for a while. Haven’t left the house for 13 days, now. We went to the grocery store once. The rest of the stuff has been delivered.

“We’re locked down, man, trying to do our best for everyone else.”

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Dixon’s home has an impressive array of workout equipment. That allows the 39-year-old racing legend to stay fit during this extended time off that won’t end until the last week of May at the earliest.

“I have most of the stuff I need at home,” Dixon explained. “Some of the reaction stuff, the D-2s and Synaptic machines plus some of the upper-body machines are pretty unique machines. Those are the machines that Jim Leo has at PitFit.

“As far as cycling, running, general weights, skiers and rollers, I have that at home.”

It seems like a lifetime ago when the world was normal. That was before the dreaded COVID-19 outbreak has literally sent society underground and locked in while a solution to this fatal virus is found.

Photo by Chris Graythen, Getty Images

Before this unexpected shutdown, Dixon would go into PitFit to work on specialized equipment on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He would do the rest of his physical workout at home.

“I started skipping that when we got home before the lockdown,” Dixon said. “Before the lockdown, Jim could have stayed open because he never has more than 10 people at once.

“Typically, he would have the drivers spaced out where Tony Kanaan and I would go in at 8 in the morning and Alexander Rossi and James Hinchcliffe would go in at 9:30 and then Zach Veach and Spencer Pigot and Charlie Kimball would go in around 11. There were only about five of us going in at once.”

Two weeks ago, Leo dropped off some equipment at Dixon’s house along with more instructions to focus on his workouts during the layoff.

Sacrifices are being made all throughout the world, including racing.

“You can’t be selfish,” Dixon said. “It sucks for the drivers, but it sucks a lot worse for a lot of other people. Luckily, the school the girls go to has e-learning. It’s school as usual on the computer from 8:30 to 3 and that has been seamless on that front.

“On a personal note, it’s nice to be home with the baby and bonding as well and that is great. But all of us wish everything was back to normal as soon as possible.”

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Dixon is the father of three, including young daughters Poppy (10), Tilly (8) and infant son, Kit.

This is a time to keep his family safe.

“You hear mixed messages about who is more at risk,” Dixon said. “Obviously, older people with underlying conditions. We’re a fairly healthy family, but still it sounds like something can trigger a pretty bad situation. It’s better to be safe than sorry so we are limiting our contact as fast as possible. The quicker everybody locks down, the quicker we will get through the situation. If we stay home, we will see a decline and hopefully get back to normal pretty quickly.

“It’s a new thing for everybody.”

For now, Dixon works out at home, while the girls continue their classes on the computer. Emma spends time with her infant son, Kit, while taking care of the family.

These days of working out at home will be important because once racing is scheduled to return, tentatively set for May 30 at Detroit, it will be flat-out, racing nearly every weekend.

There won’t be time-off in-between races.

“No, but everybody is having plenty of rest right now,” Dixon quipped. “It’s not what anybody wants. We all keep hoping everybody remains safe and healthy. It’s a difficult time for a lot of people and we’ve been very lucky that we don’t know anybody that has had an issue so far. Hopefully, that remains the same.

“Everybody is ready to go. We were ready to go at St. Pete. This will be welcomed greatly.

“Nothing is normal these days. I think what IndyCar and IMS did was probably the best of the situations. You never want to move the dates of the 500, but you always want the people to be relaxed enough they are going to come to the race, too.

“The way they have done the schedule is pretty cool. It gives them enough wiggle room now with Detroit being the kickoff. What is also fun is the July 4 doubleheader weekend at Indianapolis and St. Pete finishing the season.”

Once life returns to normal, depending on what the new normal will look like, race drivers and athletes will once again be in an area they know.

The difficult part of this, however, is nobody knows when the COVID-19 pandemic will end.

“The hard part right now is there are so many unknowns,” Dixon said. “That is what people hate. They could wrap their hands around two weeks, but it could be another six weeks. People will go crazy.

“That is what we are going through right now. The unknown. Nobody knows what the next step is.”

That is why Dixon has a message for all race fans to take these orders seriously.

“Stay safe. Stay away from people. Lock down. Get this period done with,” Dixon said. “Once we do that, hopefully we can crack on like normal and people can find fixes and therapies. As soon as everybody bunkers down, we will get through this sooner instead of later.

“Let’s get back to normal as quick as possible and get back to racing when we can.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500