Rossi relies on teammates’ feedback to score third on the grid at Monterey

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MONTEREY, Calif. – It was during two practice sessions Friday at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca that everyone seemingly was concerned about Alexander Rossi’s slow speeds on the race course.

While others appeared to lose their cool, Rossi was able to keep his composure. He worked skillfully with race strategist and Andretti Autosport Chief Operating Officer Rob Edwards and engineer Jeremy Milless to find a solution.

They found it by working with the other three drivers at Andretti Autosport and the team’s satellite operation at Harding Steinbrenner Racing with Colton Herta.

Rossi was able to advance through every session of qualifications and rank third in the Firestone Fast Six with a lap at 1:10.2105 around the 11-turn, 2.238-mile WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. He starts alongside Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden, who qualified fourth at 1:10.6719 (114.003 mph) in a Chevrolet.

Newgarden leads Rossi by 41 points heading into the double-points Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey.

Watch Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on NBC Sunday at 3 p.m.

Herta won his third pole of the season at 1:10.1405 for a speed of 114.867 miles per hour in the No. 88 Capstone Honda.

For Rossi, his calm under Friday’s duress paid off with a fast effort in Saturday’s qualifications.

With three teammates plus Herta, Rossi’s crew was able to add a little of this and that to the setup, and the end result was a fast car in qualifications.

“Well, you always don’t plan on being last in qualifying,” Rossi told NBCSports.com when asked after the difference between Friday and Saturday. “It’s a new track, so we have the opportunity with such a big team to dedicate cars to roll through tons of different just setup philosophies. As long as you have a couple cars that are on a consistent platform that you know you can go back to and feed off of, I think it makes you more comfortable to do that.

“We made sure we went through everything that we could theoretically come up with that might work, and then, yeah, put it all together. Hopefully we were hoping we could put it all together this afternoon.”

Rossi said the team worked through various setups and philosophies before determining the setup used when it mattered on Saturday.

“We all work together every session,” Rossi said. “You have to when you have that many cars out on track. Everyone is doing a corner a little bit better or different than you, and you’ve got to put the puzzle pieces together.

“You definitely feed off each other for sure.”

There was a backup plan, just in case none of those changes worked.

“My engineer in his setup sheet has something with a drop-down item that says ‘Punt,’ so we punted a lot,” Rossi said with his typically dry wit. “That’s what we were doing.”

Simon Pagenaud, the driver from France who won the 103rdIndianapolis 500, looked quizzically at Rossi because he didn’t understand the term, “punt.”

“Like it’s fourth down and you need to give the ball away, and you just kind of,” Rossi began before saying, “You’re French, so…”

While that repartee drew a good laugh, one thing that is obvious is the top four drivers fighting it out for the championship are the four very best drivers in the series this season. They are ones that have won the most races and the biggest races of the season.

“Well, none of us got pole, so we clearly aren’t that good,” Rossi deadpanned.

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