Chris Jones / IndyCar

IndyCar Season in Review: Rookie field for the ages

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The future of the NTT IndyCar Series will be a bright one, and if 2019’s rookie class was any indication, there will be a lot of new faces in victory lane within the coming years.

Of the 22 full-time entries that ran this season, four of them were piloted by rookie drivers – each of whom showed that they belong in North America’s premier open-wheel racing series.

With his sixth-place finish in the overall points standings, Felix Rosenqvist was awarded the Rookie of the Year title following the series finale at Laguna Seca last month. By doing so, he became the first Chip Ganassi Racing driver to win the title since Juan Pablo Montoya in 1999. 

Rosenqvist’s 2019 performance included a pole position in the IndyCar Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, as well as two podiums – including a close second-place finish to teammate Scott Dixon at Mid-Ohio.

“It was a hell of a year,” Rosenqvist told reporters following the final race of the season. “My Chip Ganassi NTT DATA crew has just been flawless all season, especially the pit crew.

“They’ve just never done any mistakes, just a few slip-ups, but I think we had the most solid crew of anyone this year, and I think they deserve this sixth finish in the championship and Rookie of the Year.”

After completing a very respectable rookie season with the team, Rosenqivst will return to CGR next season to continue driving the No. 10 Honda.

Finishing right behind Roseqnvist in the Rookie of the Year title hunt was 19-year-old Colton Herta, who was the only one of the four rookies to win a race this year.

In only his third career IndyCar start, Herta won the inaugural IndyCar Classic at Circuit of the Americas in March, becoming the youngest driver in series history to win a race at 18 years, 359 days old. 

In June, Herta then became the youngest polesitter in series history when he claimed the top starting position at Road America. He eventually won two more poles in the final two races of the season this year at Portland and the season-ending race at Laguna Seca, where he collected his second win of the season. 

Though a few DNFs hindered Herta’s 2019 performance, he easily proved this year that he can keep up with seasoned veterans.

Herta will have the opportunity to contend for even more victories and possibly even a championship next season as his Harding Steinbrenner Racing team recently merged with Andretti Autosport. 

Santino Ferrucci also enjoyed plenty of success in his first full-time IndyCar season, finishing 12th in the overall standings.

The Woodbury, Connecticut native returned to the U.S. last year after pursuing a Formula One career in Europe, and after four starts in 2018, Ferrucci was ready to run the full schedule this year for Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan. 

Ferrucci’s performances this year, particularly on the ovals, impressed many. His seventh-place finish in the Indianapolis 500 earned him the race’s Rookie of the Year honors, and he finished fourth in the following oval events at Texas, Pocono and Gateway. 

“With Indy, I learned so much,” Ferrucci told NBC Sports at Laguna Seca. “Going back to the Indy 500 next year, I think we’ll be in contention to win the race just based on how we finished and what we were able to do on the ovals this season.”

Though Ferrucci has not revealed his 2020 plans just yet, a return to DCR next season is certainly not out of the realm of possibility.  

Marcus Ericsson was the fourth and final rookie to compete full-time this season, and although he finished 17th in the overall points standings, the five-year Formula One veteran entered his maiden IndyCar season with a vast background of open-wheel racing experience.

Though Ericsson’s rookie campaign was not as nearly as memorable as his fellow ROTY contenders, Ericsson did score three top 10’s this season, with a second-place finish in the second of a doubleheader at Detroit’s Belle Isle circuit. 

Already experiencing a greater amount of success than he had in F1, Ericsson has publicly expressed a desire to continue racing in IndyCar, and with the announcement that he will join fellow Swede Rosenqvist at Ganassi next season, perhaps the 29-year-old can use the experience he gained in his rookie season to put together a solid sophomore performance in 2020.

With the 2020 IndyCar Series season already on the horizon, there will be new names fighting for the Rookie of the Year title next year, and both Oliver Askew and Rinus Veekay remain the top rookie prospects for the coming season.

As the youth movement invades the IndyCar paddock, fans will have several new names to learn and faces to meet. Still, as the years go forward, 2019 will likely be remembered by many as the season that several of IndyCar’s future stars got their start.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter 

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