Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images
Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images

Richmond Raceway should provide INDYCAR with plenty of action, passing

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INDYCAR officially released its 2020 schedule Sunday on NBC Sports and announced the return of the NTT IndyCar Series to Richmond Raceway for the first time since 2009.

On Tuesday, INDYCAR officials, drivers Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan joined Richmond Raceway president Dennis Bickmeier in Richmond to “officially” announce the series return in front of an enthusiastic audience in Richmond, Virginia.

The NTT IndyCar Series will return to the .750-mile short oval on June 27, 2020 for a Saturday night race. It will feature a night-time practice on Friday followed by qualifications on Saturday and the race later that night.

“It’s great to have INDYCAR come back after a 10-year absence,” Bickmeier said. “If you watched the life stream today, you could see the energy here in the community. Just a great turnout today to welcome INDYCAR back to Richmond Raceway. Just excited to do that.

“It’s been a real burst of energy for all of us here at the raceway. You can see that in our ticket office as well. That’s been a lot of fun for our team up there.

“Overall just the opportunity to have these guys back, diversifying the racing here that we have to offer. Part of that connects to a major renovation that we did last year in our infield. $30 million renovation to the infield, something new and exciting for the fans to experience when they come back here.

“Part of that was to get more racing on the racetrack so more people could come and enjoy that experience. These guys, INDYCAR, is a big piece of that puzzle.

“We got a lot going on here at Richmond Raceway. We’re a multi-purpose facility. But to have a variety of forms of racing, certainly to have INDYCAR back, we’re just really happy about that.”

Getty Photo by Darrell Ingham INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles said it’s important for the series to compete in the Mid-Atlantic Region of the United States. Richmond is very close to major cities Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia.

INDYCAR President Jay Frye was asked by NBC Sports.com if the current package of aerodynamics and engine formula will produce a race similar to Iowa Speedway, or will it closer resemble the racing seen two weeks ago at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway?

“We certainly would expect it to be more like Iowa,” Frye said. “That’s one of the things we talked about a lot today, the difference between 10 years ago and today, the direction we’ve went.

“With this current car, less downforce, more horsepower coming, look at Iowa the last few years in ’17, we still had the manufacturer kits that had the high downforce. We had about 300 on-track passes for that event. In ’18 we had almost a thousand with the current car, current configuration.

“We feel good about the direction. We’re going to come back in October and have a test with Firestone with a couple cars, then March with the full field. We’re going to make sure we give fans a good show. I think we’re going the right way.”

Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images

Both drivers in attendance are veterans at racing at Richmond from when the old Indy Racing League competed there from 2001 to 2009. The cars were much different back then, and that created a single-file race where it was difficult to pass.

Kanaan, the 2008 Richmond winner, and Dixon, who won two times at Richmond, believe the newer cars with less aero and more horsepower will feature a much more competitive race.

“The last time we were here, we didn’t deliver what the fans wanted,” Kanaan responded to NBC Sports.com. “Since Jay and Mark came onboard, they’ve been working extremely hard with Firestone and Dallara to get the right package. I believe we found that. If you guys watched the last two years in Iowa, how the race has been. This track is extremely similar.

“I’m not expecting anything less than 800 passes here when we come back. Hopefully I’ll pass Scott for the lead on the last lap and I’ll win.”

Dixon won the last race at Richmond in 2009.

“We’re going for back-to-back wins separated by 11 years,” Dixon quipped. “I think the ultimate goal is Iowa. We’ll have to see how that progresses. I think there will be a lot of effort that goes in from the tire test in October through to March. Try and create as much margin in that as possible.

“But it could take a little while. We’ll just have to wait and see. The goal is to have a very similar race at Iowa.”

Kanaan believes that less aerodynamic downforce, combined with a different tire compound from Firestone, will make all of the difference in improving the style of racing at the Richmond short oval.

“I think we came here the last year we had too much downforce,” Kanaan recalled. “Everybody was running the same lap time. Once you got a back-marker, you couldn’t do anything about it. That was a combination of a lot of things probably. I don’t think I can point out one thing that made the race like that.

“I remember back here, we came back, we were going flat out, like full throttle around this little place. Then you go to a race, you’re only a tenth-, or tenth-and-a-half from each other, you can’t pass.

“I think we need the tires to go off, you need less downforce, you need the cars to slide, then you’re going to see some passing. I even think the side-by-side, I’m not sure, I don’t think we had a lot of side-by-side this year, people want to see passing as well. I think the passing is the most important thing.

“The year we were here last time, it was just too much downforce.

“We ran around the track, it’s extremely smooth. That is actually quite remarkable. If you go to Iowa, it’s completely the opposite, extremely bumpy. I think it will be easier to run side-by-side here just because the bumps obviously make the grip go away.”

Dixon said on Sunday’s NBC broadcast that he remembers the days when Sam Hornish, Jr. was able to run high all day at Richmond and devour the field. The best way to prevent that is to create two racing grooves.

Scott Dixon in 2009 — Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images

“I think that’s the ultimate goal,” Dixon said Tuesday. “I think a lot of that is the tire. Even Iowa, my race, and many others, too, this year, you’re searching a lot of the time. You find something that works. By the next stint it changes. It’s because the tire is pretty highly stressed and you’re constantly having to maneuver for the change.

“I think Turns 3 and 4 will be a lot easier to run side-by-side. It definitely tightens up a little bit out of two, the banking pulls off. I think that will create opportunities to dive underneath somebody.

“Tony kind of touched on it. I think tire deg is really a big thing for great racing. We see that on road, street and ovals.”

For Bickmeier, this is a major accomplishment to successfully bring IndyCar racing back to a venue that was able to attract fans during its first tenure from 2001-2009. He expects it to be an even bigger success in the second go-round with INDYCAR.

“I think you saw it today,” Bickmeier said. “The turnout of community and business leaders and elected officials who were out here today, just the overall excitement for this announcement.

“I think we’re motorsports country, we’re racing fans here. I think to be the Mid-Atlantic home for INDYCAR is a big deal for us. There are great fan bases in big cities that you can get here really quickly: D.C., Philly, Baltimore, all these places we’re going to market and tap into that INDYCAR audience that’s there, get them down to Richmond.

“Bringing INDYCAR back was a big piece of the puzzle.

“I tell people all the time we looked at our facility as a puzzle, literally we pulled it apart, putting it back piece by piece. INDYCAR was a big part of putting that puzzle back together.”

Newgarden, Rossi ready for a red-white-and-blue INDYCAR finale

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MONTEREY, California – In an international series that personifies diversity from all over the globe, the two main combatants in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship are from the United States.

Josef Newgarden of Tennessee takes a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Northern California into Sunday’s double-points season finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. This year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud of France, is just 42 points out of the lead.

It’s been quite a while since the two drivers entering the final race of the season were both Americans. Four of the top 10 drivers in the series are from the United States. Last year, five of the top 10 were from the USA.

All but one race in the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule is contested in the United States.

Patriotism still matters in IndyCar.

“I think so,” said Andretti Autosport driver Rossi, who is the last American driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. “I know I’ve read a lot of things from other drivers saying, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s not important, no one cares.’

“I can’t really get onboard with that.

“I think me as an American, growing up, being a fan of the Olympics and everything, like you cheer for Americans, right? That’s what you do as a patriotic person. Canadians cheer for James. We see the Swedish contingent that comes to the races for Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist.

Getty Images“I think Americans will cheer for Americans. I would love to see an American to win the championship. I think it’s important for the young kids watching hoping to be IndyCar drivers one day, that they see someone who grew up in Tennessee or California or wherever. It’s like, there’s a lot of relate-ability to that for a young kid with aspirations of being a racecar driver.”

Since Sam Hornish, Jr. won the final of his three IndyCar Series championships in 2006, just two American drivers have won the title – Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 and Newgarden in 2017. During that span, Scott Dixon of New Zealand won four of his five NTT IndyCar Series championships and Dario Franchitti of Scotland won all four of his IndyCar titles.

The last time two Americans had a chance to win the championship in the final race of the season came in 2001 when Hornish won the championship over Colorado’s Buddy Lazier. Connecticut’s Scott Sharp was third and Arizona’s Billy Boat was fourth in the final standings that year.

That was a much different time and place for IndyCar. At that time, many of the top drivers were in CART while the old Indy Racing League featured a predominantly American lineup. Once unification brought the two sides together in 2008, the championships have been fought on American soil, but international drivers were victorious.

The last time two American drivers finished 1-2 in CART was 1996 when Jimmy Vasser of California defeated Pennsylvania’s Michael Andretti for the crown. In 1992, Bobby Rahal of Illinois defeated Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. of New Mexico for the CART title.

Prior to that, the IndyCar “National Championship” was dominated by drivers from the United States.

 

While Rossi openly choose to wrap himself in the American flag, it’s not as important to Newgarden.

“For me, it’s never been something I put a lot of emphasis on,” said the Team Penske driver. “I’m proud to have grown up in such a wonderful country as the United States, but what I’ve always loved about the IndyCar Series is that they bring the best of the best from around the world. That’s always been important to me.

“It means more I think when you have the best from all over the place coming to compete at the Indianapolis 500, during the whole championship. You really feel like you have that in the IndyCar Series. You get the best drivers from around the world.

“To pair with that, I think we need strong Americans running, as well. So for sure, having guys like Alex and Graham Rahal, some young guys coming up like Colton Herta, myself, it’s really great to have young American competition representing as well and running so strongly.

“What I’ve always loved is the great mix of talent from around the world. To me that’s just so important. If it was all Americans running in the championship, I don’t think it would mean as much. I like that we have that great diversity and that great mix from around the world.”

Although these two drivers are both from the USA, they are fierce rivals. They have mutual respect for each other, but they sure aren’t considered close friends.

“Josef and I honestly aren’t that close,” Rossi admitted. “He never lived in Indy when I moved here, or he was just moving. I actually never really hung out with Josef.

“We obviously have a lot of respect for each other. We raced together for a short period of time in Europe. We have a lot of mutual friends.

“Josef and I don’t talk or socialize really. So, it doesn’t have any impact.”

Newgarden agrees that these two men choose to embrace the rivalry.

“I think it’s just really business,” Newgarden said. “He lives in Indianapolis. I live in Nashville. I don’t see him too often outside of the racetrack. We go and we compete. He’s a great competitor. He’s definitely a tremendous talent, has done a great job in his career.

“It’s been a good, competitive relationship I would say.”

With the return of American drivers capable of winning races, championships and Indianapolis 500s, it has sparked a rejuvenation in IndyCar racing. With drivers from all over the world fighting it out for glory, this series that was born and bred in the United States can take pride in featuring some of the best racing in the world as the series continues to grow in popularity.

“I think we just need to continue a focus on our product,” Rossi said. “I think we have the best race product on the planet in terms of entertainment, the variance of winners that we have throughout a season, how many guys are capable, teams are capable of winning races.

“But that’s an ever-moving target. I think IndyCar has done a good job of placing the priority on that. I just think we need to continue doing that and everything will be moving in the right direction.”