Uncertainty awaits INDYCAR championship contenders at Laguna Seca

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As one of only two races on the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule that pays double points, the season’s final race has often been referred to as a “Wild Card.” But in reality, the real “Wild Card” aspect of the September 22 race at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca is just five drivers have ever raced on the 11-turn 2.258-mile road course located a short drive from the Monterey Peninsula on the California coast.

Championship contender Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport has raced there before, but that was way back in the Skip Barber Racing days. Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay have competed on the track in Indy cars during the CART/Champ Car Series days. Simon Pagenaud has raced sports cars at Laguna Seca from 2008-2010 including wins from the pole in 2009 and 2010 but has never raced an Indy car on this course.

This year’s championship race will wrap up on a track that is essentially the great unknown to many battling it out for the title.

“Obviously we’re going into next weekend with a lot of unknowns in the fact that most drivers haven’t raced at Laguna Seca before,” Rossi said Wednesday. “It’s been a long time since IndyCars were racing there. The test that we had in February was fairly inconclusive just due to weather and the time of year that we were there.

“It’s a blank slate for everyone. I think that’s exciting. It will definitely reward the team and the drivers that come to grips with everything the quickest. It will probably reward them in a championship.”

Team Penske driver and 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden has a 41-point lead over Andretti Autosport driver Alexander Rossi with one race remaining. Pagenaud is just one point behind Rossi.

Dixon is 85 points out but would need a lot to happen for him to win his sixth career IndyCar Series championship.

When asked to pick out the passing zones around Laguna Seca, Rossi admitted he won’t know that until hitting the track next weekend.

There is a full day of testing next Thursday. Practice for the race will begin the following day with knockout qualifications set for Saturday, September 21 and the race on Sunday, September 22.

“I have no idea about passing zones because obviously in a test the main goal is to stay as far away from other cars as possible,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “In terms of the challenging parts of it, I think it’s a very low-grip surface. It’s one of those tracks where you’re going to see the cars sliding around a lot, guys working the wheel. There are dirt runoffs, drop wheels, throw dust on the track, that sort of thing. From that standpoint it’s pretty tricky.

“The race-ability of it, I couldn’t tell you. The obvious answer would probably be turn two, the braking zone there. But it’s a pretty narrow corner, so I don’t know unfortunately. I’ll let you know on Saturday.”

In the past, Laguna Seca has been a very difficult track for drivers in terms of passing. If that holds true next week, qualifications could be one of the most tense and pressure-packed sessions of the season.

“I think that’s a very fair statement,” Rossi admitted. “I’ve been saying for a while this championship very well could be decided in qualifying at Laguna. It’s no secret that we’re expecting it to be a challenging race to pass just because of its history.

“It’s 100 percent going to be a critical qualifying session that you’re going to have to be inch perfect and nail it through all three rounds. The guy that’s on pole, if he’s one of the guys that are in the championship fight, it’s going to make their job to win the thing a whole lot easier.”

Rossi admits he doesn’t have much experience actually racing at Laguna Seca, but it is the track where he fell in love with the sport. He used to attend races with his father, Pieter, when he was just a small child.

“That was my first introduction to motorsports when I was three years old,” Rossi said. “My father took me for seven consecutive years after that. That was kind of our father-son trip. It was only a three-and-a-half-hour commute from where I grew up.

“As much as Sonoma was claimed as my home track, it’s just because of its proximity to my hometown. Laguna is much more a place where I kind of cut my teeth in Skip Barber. I had my real first race experience in a race car there.

“I have a lot of laps there, albeit in a car that’s pretty incomparable to what I’ll be driving here in two weeks. Nonetheless, it’s going to be a huge weekend for me in terms of local support, family that comes out. It’s always really exciting. I’m fortunate to have two races in the state of California.”

Rossi admits, some of his memories as a 3- and 4-year-old are quite foggy, but the weekends with his father sparked his career path.

“I was there when Alex Zanardi’s pass happened,” Rossi said of 1996 when he passed race-leader Bryan Herta down the hill out of the “Corkscrew” heading to the checkered flag. “I don’t think I remember it as a three- or four-year-old. What stands out is that’s where I fell in love with just auto racing and cars. The sound and the smell, I mean, back then, they were running methanol fuel obviously. There was a very distinct smell to that. Being a kid, being able to walk through the paddock and everything. I had hats in my room for a really long time that were signed by Chip Ganassi and Max Papis.

“It’s cool that it’s kind of come full circle. It’s my introduction to racing, what really made me fall in love with the sport. It’s a place where I’m coming back to 20 plus years later, kind of racing in the same series that introduced me to the sport.

“There are a lot of neat parallels there.”

Rossi has gained fame by putting his racing machine in areas other drivers fear to tread. He can make passes in areas that previously were “no passing zones.”

One way or another, though, at Laguna Seca, Rossi will probably put on one heck of a show.

“That’s the plan,” he said. “Josef has had a sensational year. Unfortunately, that’s been a little bit better than ours. However, we have the full intention of taking that away from him in the last race, just like old Scott did to JPM (Juan Pablo Montoya) in 2015.”

Latest INDYCAR Aeroscreen test continues to provide feedback; data to series

Bruce Martin Photo
Bruce Martin Photo
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RICHMOND, Virginia – After completing its third Aeroscreen test since October 2, INDYCAR continues to collect valuable data and feedback from the drivers and engineers involved in testing.

The latest test of the Aeroscreen came Tuesday, October 15 at Richmond Raceway, a .750-mile short oval. Five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon has been involved in testing dating all the way back to 2017 at Phoenix with the original “Windscreen.” Tuesday’s test was the first-time two-time NTT IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden was able to test the device that partially encloses the cockpit proving greatly enhanced driver safety.

It was also the first time the current “Aeroscreen” designed and created by Red Bull Advanced Technologies, Pankl and Dallara has been tested at a short oval – a track that measures under 1.5-miles in length.

The previous tests were at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway on October 2 and the Barber Motorsports Park road course on October 7.

“It wasn’t a problem getting in the car today and relearning a new viewpoint,” Newgarden told NBC Sports.com at the conclusion of Tuesday’s test. “It felt like a new viewpoint. It’s still an Indy car. It still feels like an Indy car. The car does a lot of the things it did before. It required some slight tuning differences to accommodate a different center of gravity and different total weight.

“Overall, it still felt like the same Indy car I drove three weeks ago. You get used to that new viewpoint within 30 or 40 laps. It was alien at first but halfway through the day it feels like home again.”

Newgarden’s Team Penske test team along with INDYCAR officials worked on changes to getting air into the cockpit and directing the air to the right place where the driver can utilize it.

“We’ve come up with some solutions that we like,” Newgarden said. “INDYCAR and the teams will continue to fine-tune this. That is why we are doing these tests. The main goal was to figure this out and fine-tune this stuff. We have come up with a lot of good solutions to all of the little things we have talked about that we have needed so when Sebastien Bourdais goes to Sebring (on November 5), it will just be another version.

“We are already close. Because they are such small details, it feels like normal racing stuff and we will come up with solutions for that.”

Some drivers who have participated in the Aeroscreen test has said, they almost feel naked without having the halo-like structure with a clear windshield protecting them on the race car.

“Once we got through a whole IndyCar season, if you took it off, it would feel really strange,” Newgarden said. “People adapt so quickly to a change, what the car looks like. Once you give us a couple of races and a full year, it will feel like home and something we are very used to as drivers.

“It is already starting to get that way. People are feeling more comfortable with it. The field of view is almost identical to the way it was before. Your peripheral vision is identical, the way you look out the front of the cars is identical, the way you see the tires is identical.”

Individual driver preference will allow for shading of the sun and that can be accomplished with the visor strips on the helmet and the tear-offs on Aeroscreen.

Drivers will also have a bit of a quieter atmosphere inside the cockpit. The partial enclosure makes it easier to hear his radio communication and the sounds of the engine in the driver’s car. It partially blocks out the sounds of the engines in the other cars and the rush of wind traveling at high speeds that used to buffet in and around the helmet.

“It has changed the noise level slightly inside the cockpit,” Newgarden said. “For me, it wasn’t super dramatic. It’s a slight reduction in wind noise. You’re not getting the wind directly over your head as dramatically as you would before. All that external noise has just been dimmed.

“You can hear the radio a touch better, things like that. But the engine noise is still quite prominent. It’s bolted directly behind us, so you still hear quite a bit of what’s going on in the car and the engine.”

Dixon was in the car at Indianapolis on October 2 and returned on Tuesday. The Barber test on October 7 included this year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud, in a Team Penske Chevrolet and Ryan Hunter-Reay in an Andretti Autosport Honda.

“The only differences are the openings on the front wing that creates some more airflow around the legs and body and a different inlet in the screen that was in place today,” Dixon told NBC Sports.com. “There were helmet cooling options since the Barber test because on the road course, some of the drivers were getting a little hotter.

“This project has been very in-depth. It hit the ground running very smoothly. There are some alternate options they are trying to create, especially on the street courses where we will experience hot condition. On street conditions, your depth perception changes because of how close you are to the walls, but we should get used to that.”

Two weeks ago, Team Penske driver Will Power said it takes a different style to get out of the race car because of the added height of the Aeroscreen.

That hasn’t been a problem for Dixon.

“That’s easy, man,” he said. “Just go through the hole in the top.”