Alexander Rossi shakes off setback from broken bolt in practice

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MONTEREY, Calif. – He laughed about hiding from his family this weekend, smiled at jokes from teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay and sent a lighthearted tweet with a goofy facial expression.

If Alexander Rossi was exceedingly perturbed about a disappointing Friday at Laguna Seca Raceway, the Andretti Autosport driver did a good job disguising it.

“We have a really good team here and a lot of guys who have been through worse scenarios before,” Rossi said when asked about the frustration of being the 23rd fastest of 24 drivers after two practices. “ So yeah, I think it’s a setback, but you deal with it and there’s nothing you can to change it, so you just have to make the most of it with the remaining time.”

Rossi trails by NTT IndyCar series championship leader Josef Newgarden by 41 points entering Sunday’s season finale at the 11-turn, 2.28-mile road course. But the pressure of seeking his first title wasn’t evident in the self-deprecating tweet he sent less than an hour after a pit stop practice session ended.

Rossi ranked 23rd fastest (ahead of only Jack Harvey) in the Friday afternoon practice, which at least was a slight improvement over being slowest in the morning session.

Because of what his team termed “a hardware issue,” Rossi made only four laps in his No. 27 Dallara-Honda that he was forced to exit his team feverishly scrambled to make adjustments to the front end throughout the 45-minute session.

“A bolt broke,” Rossi said plainly when asked about the problem.

The lack of time precluded making a lap on black tires in the first session and resulted in changes on the fly to the game plan.

“We kind of sacrificed the second session to try to get in as many runs as we could to go through the checklist,” Rossi said. “We saved the new reds for warmup session (Saturday morning). We’re getting there. We used yesterday and today to try and run through a lot of things to make sure we leave no stones unturned.

“I think we’ve flipped most of the stones. There’s a couple of more to come tomorrow morning. We’re just trying to make sure we have everything squared away for tomorrow and Sunday.”

WATCH: IndyCar qualifying 4:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN, race 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC

Rossi has a comforting backstop in Hunter-Reay, who was fastest in the second practice and overall Friday. The Andretti Autosport teammates also took turns swapping cockpits of their Dallara-Hondas during a Thursday test.

“Him and I have been joined at the hip for a lot of years now in a lot of ways,” Rossi said of Hunter-Reay. “We feed off each other really well and work well together, and it’s great to have a teammate like that and with how competitive it is, you need to have guys you can rely upon.

“The first one I go to at the end of every session is this guy, so yeah. Hopefully we can put two cars at the front.”

Hunter-Reay is expecting Sunday’s race will put a premium on track position and feature heavy tire degradation. “Qualifying is extremely important, as it always is, and we want to leave here with a win, (Rossi) with a championship, so we’ll do what we can to make that happen,” said Hunter-Reay, the series champion in 2012. “Right now for me I just need to focus on going as fast as we can.”

Rossi said figuring out the right tire compound (on road courses, teams must use one set apiece of a harder, more durable black compound and a softer, faster red compound that wears more quickly)

“We got to be on Firesteone red tire for the first time today, and that’s definitely a stronger tire,” he said. “I think degradation is going to be a big issue on both compounds. It’s just trying to understand which one you’re going to want to try and be on for the race, whether a used red can make it. So that’s kind of the similar conversations that we have every weekend.

“But the magnitude of the deg I think is higher than we’ve seen probably since Sonoma last year.”

American Flat Track puts emphasis on fans in building 2020 schedule

American Flat Track
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American Flat Track put an emphasis on fans and feedback from other series while also acknowledging everything is tentative while hammering out its schedule for the 2020 season.

The 18-race schedule over nine weekends will begin July 17-18 at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida, about 20 miles from AFT’s headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The dirt track motorcycle racing series, which is sanctioned by AMA Pro Racing, shares a campus with its sister company, NASCAR, and American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock said the series closely observed how it’s handled races in its return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and also built AFT’s procedures from NASCAR’s post-pandemic playbook of more than 30 pages.

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“I speak personally to the committee within NASCAR that has been put together for the restart, regularly talking to the communications people, general counsel and other relevant operations departments,” Lock told NBCSports.com. “So we’ve derived for Flat Track from NASCAR’s protocols, which I think are entirely consistent with all the other pro sports leagues that are attempting to return.

“Obviously with NASCAR the scale of the business is completely different. There were some times more people involved in the paddock and the race operations for NASCAR than the numbers of people at flat track. Our scale is much smaller, and our venues are generally smaller. So we can get our hands around all of the logistics. I think we’re very confident on that.”

While NASCAR has had just under 1,000 on site for each of its races without fans, Lock said American Flat Track will have between 400 to 500 people, including racers, crews, officials and traveling staff.

But another important difference from NASCAR (which will run at least its first eight races without crowds) is that American Flat Track intends to have fans at its events, though it still is working with public health experts and government officials to determine how many will be allowed and the ways in which they will be positioned (e.g., buffer zones in the grandstands).

Lock said capacity could will be limited to 30-50 percent at some venues.

American Flat Track will suspend its fan track walk, rider autograph sessions for the rest of the season, distribute masks at the gates and also ban paper tickets and cash for concessions and merchandise. Some of the best practices were built with input from a “Safe to Race Task Force” that includes members from various motorcycle racing sanctioning bodies (including Supercross and motocross).

There also will be limitations on corporate hospitality and VIP access and movement.

“I think everything the fans will see will be unusual,” Lock said. “Everything at the moment is unusual. We will roll out processes that are entirely consistent with the social distancing guidelines that will be in place at the time of the event. So we’re planning for a worst-case scenario. And if things are easier or better by the time we go to a venue, it’s a bonus.”

Lock said the restrictions are worth it because (unlike other racing series) AFT must have fans (even a limited number) for financial viability.

“We took a decision fairly early on in this process that it was neither desirable nor economically viable to run events without fans,” Lock said. “I can think of some big sports like NFL or like NASCAR where a huge chunk of that revenue is derived from broadcast, which means that your decision making as to how you run an event, where you can run an event has a different view than a sport like ours, or even like baseball, for example, that needs fans. Because the business model is so different.”

Broadcast coverage is important to American Flat Track, which added seven annual races over the past five years and can draw as many as 15,000 to its biggest events.

Lock said AFT ended the 2019 season with more than 50,000 viewers for each live event, making it the No. 1 property on FansChoice.TV. This year, the series has moved to TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. “We’re expecting a really strong audience from Day 1, particularly with all this pent-up demand,” Lock said.

NBCSN also will broadcast a one-hour wrap-up of each race (covering heat races and main events).

Because the season is starting three months late, the doubleheader weekends will allow AFT to maintain its schedule length despite losing several venues. And there could be more, Lock said, noting that there still are three TBA tracks.

“There may still be some surprises to come from one venue or another of delay or cancellation,” he said. “But we are intending to run as full a season as possible.”

Here is the American Flat Track schedule for 2020:

July 17-18 (Friday-Saturday): Volusia Speedway Park, Barberville, Florida

July 31-Aug. 1 (Friday-Saturday):  Allen County Fairgrounds, Lima, Ohio

Aug. 28-29 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Northeast United States

Sept. 5-6 (Saturday-Sunday): Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois

Sept. 11-12 (Friday-Saturday): Williams Grove Speedway, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

Sept. 25-26 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Texas

Oct. 2-3 (Friday-Saturday): Dixie Speedway, Woodstock, Georgia

Oct. 9-10 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, North Carolina

Oct. 15-16 (Thursday-Friday): AFT season finale, Daytona Beach, Florida