Rosenqvist surprised car went over wall during frightening Pocono crash

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Felix Rosenqvist admits he doesn’t recall when he got into the fence at Pocono Raceway during Sunday’s first-lap crash that sent him to the hospital because he “had my eyes closed.”

In an NBCSports.com exclusive, Rosenqvist spoke publicly for the first time since he was part of the massive crash at the start of Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway.

The crash started when Takuma Sato’s Honda made contact with Alexander Rossi’s Honda, sending both drivers into Ryan Hunter-Reay’s Honda.  Hunter-Reay was on the low side of the track, three-wide heading into the tricky Turn 2 “Tunnel Turn” on the triangle-shaped oval.

Behind them was Rosenqvist, a rookie driver from Malmo, Sweden, who saw what was taking place in front of him and he immediately slowed. He thought he was safe.

Chaos ensued.

“I saw when the three cars collided, and the first thing you do is lift the throttle because you think it’s going to be a caution and you see a dangerous situation ahead of you,” Rosenqvist told NBCSports.com Wednesday. “I thought I was past everything.

“He hit my left-rear. Then I closed my eyes.

“I didn’t know I was in the catchfence or the wall or anything afterward until Dario Franchitti told me in the Medical Center. I don’t have any good memories, because I didn’t keep my eyes open.”

Sato’s damaged Honda already had crashed into the fence before his car then started to ricochet to the left. That’s when he made contact with Rosenqvist’s Honda, sending it airborne.

“It was very hard contact, because Takuma wasn’t moving very fast at all at the time, and I was still going 160 or 170 mph,” Rosenqvist recalled. “It shot the car like in a flip motion. My impact with the wall wasn’t that big, but my car had a lot of spinning momentum.

“When it smacked the front in the wall, my head flipped around big-time in the car. I felt a big headache afterwards.

“Otherwise, it wasn’t too bad.”

Rosenqvist said it seemed surprisingly easy that his car got over the wall. Some IndyCar drivers think the walls at Pocono Raceway appear lower than other superspeedways, but Rosenqvist doesn’t know that for a fact.

“One part of my car always touched the track before getting up there,” Rosenqvist said. “Robert Wickens ended up in the fence last year, and I ended up there this year. It seems pretty likely the cars end up there somehow. I don’t know why or the technical reason for that.

“I wish the wall was higher because it seems very easy for them to get up there.”

Rosenqvist got a sharp pain in his head and that kept him from opening his eyes while the car was rotating. He admits he was lucky the rear of the car never got above the wall because the G-Forces would have thrown it into the fence and made the crash even more severe.

“Somehow, it was the luckiest of every outcome that happened to me,” Rosenqvist said.

A raging debate has started about whether the NTT IndyCar Series should compete at Pocono Raceway because drivers have been airlifted out of the facility in each of the past four years, including one fatality in 2015 when Justin Wilson was killed.

Robert Wickens also was paralyzed from the waist down after he crashed into the catchfence in Turn 2 at the start of the 2018 Pocono race.

Defenders will point out that it’s also risky to run in the Indianapolis 500, too. High-speed racing is risky, period, and what happened at Pocono can happen elsewhere.

“All three superspeedways we do are the most dangerous tracks you can run, but when you do Indy, you have a lot of practice running with other cars,” Rosenqvist said. “I felt really ready for the race at Indy, but at Pocono I had barely any running in traffic at all before the race started.

“You leave a lot to chance when you come up on the first lap, and you don’t know what racing other cars is like. It’s always different. You leave a lot in the hands of the driver, and that is more of the dangerous thing than the track itself.

“I believe the wall should be higher, but that goes for all of them.”

Rosenqvist has watched the onboard video on his car and the three impacts with the fence took the front wing and then several chunks out of his tub.

“The tub really did its job, so I had no leg injuries,” he said. “Plus, I’m pretty short.

“Physically, I feel almost fully recovered. I still have a light headache, but nothing big. Another one or two nights of sleep, I’ll be completely ready to drive a car again.”

Rosenqvist underwent a series of tests on Tuesday and has been cleared by INDYCAR’S Medical Staff to return to competition. That begins with Saturday night’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway near St. Louis.

His No. 10 Honda will be sponsored by Monster Energy for the first time.

Rosenqvist has no reservation returning to action.

“I don’t feel any different going into Gateway,” he said. “I was very honest with my feelings at Indy after practice because I lost my confidence. I lost the car and didn’t know how. I thought I had it under control. That is the worst for a driver when you try to figure out what is wrong, and you can’t figure it out.

“But if I get taken out by someone in a freak accident, I’m not going to think any differently going into Gateway. I felt good going into Pocono and have felt good at every oval we have done.

“I think we can do pretty good, to be honest. I expect Gateway to be my best oval because I have done well in testing. Now is the time to get some good results, for sure.”

Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500