Addition of IndyCar drivers gives Petit Le Mans an ‘All-Star Race’ vibe

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As the IMSA WeatherTech Series wraps up its season in Saturday’s Petit Le Mans at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, the addition of many top drivers and team owners from the NTT IndyCar Series gives this event the feel of an “All-Star Race.”

The 10-hour race is similar to the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona, as the IndyCar stars include this year’s Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud, five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion and 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon, four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais, IndyCar race winner Graham Rahal, 19-year-old rookie sensation Colton Herta and promising driver Spencer Pigot.

But it’s another former IndyCar Series driver who is closing in on the championship in the No. 6 Acura Team Penske Dpi, two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and 1999 CART champion Juan Pablo Montoya. He is one of the drivers in the No. 6 along with Dane Cameron and for the endurance races, Pagenaud. Acura Team Penske’s No. 7 entry features three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, Ricky Taylor and (for this race) Rahal.

Watch all 10 hours of the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship on NBC, NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports App and NBCN. Coverage will begin on NBC at 12 noon ET with three hours of action. At 3 p.m. ET,  it will switch over to exclusive coverage on NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports App. The final five hours of the race will be on NBCN beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET.

NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports App will provide live, flag-to-flag coverage of the entire race.

Coverage of the 10-hour race will feature a cast of 10 NBC Sports commentators, headlined by NBC Sports’ lead IMSA commentating team of play-by-play voice Leigh Diffey, former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver A.J. Allmendinger (analyst), and former IMSA GT driver Calvin Fish (analyst). INDYCAR on NBC analyst and current IMSA driver Townsend Bell will be competing as a member of the No. 12 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus team in the GT Daytona class and also will serve as an analyst for portions of the race.

NBC Sports’ IMSA commentary team will also include IndyCar on NBC analyst Paul Tracy. NASCAR on NBC reporters Marty Snider, Kelli Stavast and Dillon Welch will join IndyCar on NBC reporters Kevin Lee and Jon Beekhuis in providing commentary from pit road.

In addition to Montoya and Acura Team Penske’s pursuit of the Dpi championship, another IndyCar Series team, Meyer Shank Racing’s No. 86 Acura, is leading the championship in the GTP class.

By taking on the world’s top sports car drivers, it gives the current IndyCar drivers and teams a chance to display their skill in a completely different racing discipline.

“I like the uniqueness of it because it bookends most people’s season,” Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull told NBC Sports.com. “You are able to watch drivers from other series race against each other in what should be equal cars. It’s always fun to watch at the beginning of the year and toward the end of the year.

“It might be considered as a throwback, but it’s during the present tense in 2019. It used to be that drivers like Scott and Sebastien would one race one weekend in a sports car, the next weekend in an Indy car, the next weekend in a Formula One car and the next weekend in a Trans-Am car and so on. Scott Dixon and Sebastien Bourdais in particular adapt themselves very quickly and work on drive style to match the features of the race car they drive. It’s really unique to do that.”

It’s also the final race for Chip Ganassi Racing and the Ford GT program in IMSA. The highly successful program concludes with a storied legacy of accomplishment.

“It was a great adventure,” Bourdais told NBCSports.com. “We all wish it wasn’t the end, but it’s a manufacturer deal, and they tend to be that way. It was a fun time and a great era. We’ll just have to find a new chapter.

“It would be great to send Ford out as a winner in its final GT race. We enjoyed some successes in the first couple of years with Le Mans and Daytona. It would be great to add Petit and finish in style.”

Hull has been part of the Ford GT effort at Chip Ganassi Racing since it began in 2016 when it won the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans. With the Ford program concluding, CGR will add a third Honda to its NTT IndyCar Series program with the addition of former Formula One driver Marcus Ericsson, who drove for Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2019.

“You never want things to end when they are going well,” Hull said. “We talked about that with the drivers. In your lifetime in racing, you are seldom able to maintain a talented group of people for the length of time we have where all of them have remained unselfish. That is a big denominator to where we are with the program and why it is difficult in terms of it ending.

“We’ve had great partnership with Ford, and that started six years ago when we started the DP program with them to develop the engine and the engine accessory package and all the things it takes to drive the engine before that engine was transferred into the GT car. We’ve had six years with Ford, and it’s been a fantastic partnership.

“We are a great match. We do what we do well, and they do what they do well. We’ve only tried to get to the next level together with what our strengths are and not where our weaknesses are.

“It’s been a fantastic program.”

Another unique aspect of IndyCar’s participation in the IMSA race is drivers are competing with teams they race against in IndyCar. Although Dixon is the star driver at Chip Ganassi Racing in IndyCar, Bourdais drives for Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan in IndyCar. Graham Rahal drives for Rahal Letterman Lanigan in IndyCar but is part of Acura Team Penske’s effort this weekend.

Herta drove for Harding Steinbrenner Racing in IndyCar this past season but will be part of Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s BMW team this weekend. And Spencer Pigot, who drives for Ed Carpenter Racing in IndyCar will be part of Juncos at Road Atlanta.

It’s a great chance for drivers to learn the processes of how the other teams operate.

“On the Dale Coyne side, we have a relatively small amount of people in the group, and that is the biggest difference,” Bourdais said. “You have projects depending on how many people you have. Chip’s team is a very well-oiled organization with a lot of high-quality people, and it’s a pleasure to work with those guys, and they make you feel welcome right away. They give you what you need to perform to the best of your abilities. I’ve been blessed to work with great teams over my career and very professional ones, as well as small teams. You can definitely tell the differences.

“It’s not lack of trying on either side. It’s the hard truth and reality of racing.”

The ability to bring over Dixon and Bourdais for this weekend is like going to the Baseball Hall of Fame and having them step up to the plate in a Major League Baseball playoff game.

“What’s really great about it with Sebastien and Scott is the measurement of their teammates,” Hull said. “Their teammates are doing the same job these two guys do. If their teammates happened to come from where Scott and Sebastien have come and drove Indy cars, they would be comparable to Scott and Sebastien.

“They are able to read the racetrack together and individually. They understand how you create track position; they understand race craft itself. They understand how to get the most out of the car, and they are unusually gifted when it comes to driving the race car. That is parallel to Scott Dixon and Sebastien Bourdais.

“It’s a terrific mix, and it’s great to view it up close and personal, to actually see how much ability Joey Hand, Ryan Briscoe, Richard Westbrook and Dirk Mueller have. We’ve been lucky enough over the last four years to witness that.

“What is really terrific about it is all six of those drivers have grown in their craft and driving race cars. It’s very measurable and fun to watch.”

Here is a look at current drivers, past drivers and teams that have NTT IndyCar Series and Indy Lights connections that will be participating in the Petit Le Mans:


Current Drivers:

Simon Pagenaud (No. 6 Acura Team Penske DPi)

Graham Rahal (No. 7 Acura Team Penske DPi)

Spencer Pigot (No. 50 Juncos Racing Cadillac DPi)

Colton Herta (No. 25 BMW Team RLL GTLM)

Sebastien Bourdais (No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing GTLM)

Scott Dixon (No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing GTLM)


Past Drivers:

Mike Conway (No. 5 Action Express Racing Cadillac DPi)

Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 6 Acura Team Penske DPi) – CHAMPIONSHIP LEADER

Helio Castroneves (No. 7 Acura Team Penske DPi)

Rene Binder (No. 50 Juncos Racing Cadillac DPi)

Tristan Vautier (No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports Cadillac DPi)

Jan Magnussen (No. 3 Corvette Racing GTLM)

Ryan Briscoe (No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing GTLM)

Townsend Bell (No. 12 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus GTD)

Jack Hawksworth (No. 14 AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus GTD)

Katherine Legge (No. 57 Heinricher Racing with Meyer Shank Racing Acura GTD)

Bia Figueiredo (formerly known as Ana Beatriz) (No. 57 Heinricher Racing with Meyer Shank Racing Acura GTD)


Teams:

Penske (Acura Team Penske – Nos. 6 and 7 DPi) – NO. 6 LEADING CHAMPIONSHIP

Juncos Racing (No. 50 Cadillac DPi)

Rahal Letterman Lanigan (BMW Team RLL – Nos. 24 and 25 GTLM)

Chip Ganassi Racing (Ford Chip Ganassi Racing – Nos. 66 and 67 GTLM)

Vasser Sullivan (AIM Vasser Sullivan – Nos. 12 and 14 Lexus GTD)

Meyer Shank Racing (No. 57 Heinricher Racing with Meyer Shank Acura GTD, No. 86 Meyer Shank Acura GTD, leading championship)

Scuderia Corsa (No. 63 WeatherTech Ferrari GTD)


Indy Lights

Dalton Kellett (No. 52 PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports LMP2)

Aaron Telitz (No. 12 AIM Vasser Sullivan GTD)

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

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