INDYCAR team continues to support Takuma Sato after Pocono crash

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LONG POND, Pennsylvania – Takuma Sato has been roasted and criticized by his fellow NTT IndyCar Series drivers for his role in a first lap crash in Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway.

On Tuesday, his team came to his defense.

The massive crash in Turn 2 was triggered when Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi and Sato went three wide before making contact.

By the time the crash was over, rookie driver Felix Rosenqvist and Sato both sailed into the fence – the second year in a row a driver has damaged the fence at Pocono Raceway. Last year, Robert Wickens suffered serious injuries and was paralyzed from the waist down after his car ran over the top of Hunter-Reay’s, sending Wickens’ Honda into the fence just past Turn 2.

After taking the blame, Sato told NBC Sports.com Sunday night that he had reviewed the onboard video footage that was available to his team and said he never moved his hands and switched lanes. He also showed NBC Sports.com some screen shots to show that he had not changed his lane and Sato believed the contact was initiated between Hunter-Reay and Rossi.

Hunter-Reay, however, posted video from the NBC telecast from Turn 2 that showed he did not change lanes and it appeared from that angle that he was a victim of the other two cars making contact.

After reviewing the incident, Sato’s Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team issued a statement Tuesday night supporting the driver from Japan.

Below is that statement:

“Following the events on Lap 1 of Sunday’s INDYCAR race at Pocono Raceway, we are relieved that all drivers emerged unhurt from the crash. Normally in a situation of this nature it is not necessary for a team to comment but following the accusations levied at Takuma Sato, and after reviewing Takuma’s onboard data and camera, we feel that a clarification is necessary.  The data and video clearly shows that Takuma did not turn down the track into Alexander in this incident and in fact the first steering wheel movement made by Takuma was to the right, as he tried to correct his car after the initial contact.

“This sort of accident is part and parcel of this type of racing and with track position being vital at every stage of each race is, in our view, a part of the sport.  It’s a racing incident and we as a team wish to publicly state that we stand behind our drivers and have absolute faith in their ability to race and perform at the highest level for RLL.

“This was a racing incident which unfortunately may have some championship implications. A crash at Pocono impacted our title aspirations in 2015 while second in the standings so we know the frustration drivers and teams experienced.  As always, we are thankful for the quick response of the AMR Safety Team.”

The drivers involved will be back in action Saturday night at World Wide Technology Speedway near St. Louis for the Bommarito Automotive Group 500.

Despite the race being red-flagged while the catchfence was repaired for the second year in a row and the race was shorted to 128 laps because weather, NBC Sports’ coverage of the ABC Supply 500 from Pocono (2:47-6 p.m. ET) averaged a TAD of 553,000 viewers on Sunday across NBCSN, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app. That was up over last year (548,000) and making it the most-watched INDYCAR race on cable since last year’s finale at Sonoma on Sept. 16 (638,000 viewers).

Will Power’s victory of the weather-shortened race delivered TV-only viewership of 549,000 viewers and a household rating of 0.36.

For 13 races to date across NBC, NBCSN, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app, the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series is averaging a TAD of 1.201 million viewers, up 9% vs. last year (ABC/NBCSN/NBC Sports digital).

NBC Sports’ IndyCar coverage continues Saturday night with the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 from World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway in Madison, Ill., at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

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

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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