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Alexander Rossi, James Hinchcliffe recall first Bathurst 1000 experience

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While NTT IndyCar Series team owner Roger Penske was able to celebrate his first victory in the famed Bathurst 1000, two of the star drivers of the series also competed in the race for Walkinshaw Andretti United.

Alexander Rossi, the 100th Indianapolis 500 winner in 2016 and a perennial contender for the IndyCar championship, and James Hinchcliffe shared a Holden Commodore in the famed endurance contest at Mount Panorama in New South Wales, Australia.

They finished 19th after starting on the last row of the 26-car grid. At one point in the race, they were running in the mid-teens before finishing just inside the top 20.

“I came here with a huge amount of respect for this place and this Series, and I’m for sure leaving with no less,” Rossi said afterward. “We knew this would be a big challenge. We didn’t come into this with an arrogance that it would be easy. By the same token, we didn’t really come here to finish 19th, either, so we are a bit bummed about that.

“Nonetheless, we finished, and we finished ahead of where we started so that’s a positive. I think that’s all we can ask for considering where we started the weekend.”

Rossi admitted it took time to get comfortable with the car, but once he was able to familiarize himself with the Commodore, they made consistent improvement in every session.

The gap between the “Wild Card” entry and the front had to do with overall familiarity with the cars, according to Rossi.

Hinchcliffe is a popular driver from Oakville, Ontario, and became a popular driver in the paddock in his first Bathurst 1000 with his friendly personality and unique wit.

He also proved to be a driver who learned in one weekend how to work with the 650-horsepower Holden Commodore.

“First ‘1000’ in the books – it was quite an experience all around,” Hinchcliffe said. “We had an OK start, but the first stint was honestly a real handful. The track conditions were quite a bit different than what we had pretty much all through practice with it being really cold and overcast and/or wet. So with the track heating up, the balance wasn’t quite there. I was working a lot with the tools in the car, so struggled a little bit in that first stint to get things on the right track.

“Alex jumped in after that, and we started to make some progress on the balance. Track grip started to come up with the rubber going down and he had a couple really good stints. I jumped back in and had a couple good stints. But one of the big challenges at that point, though, is once you’re a lap down, with the blue-flag rules here, you lose so much lap time just trying to let the leaders go by. It’s an unfortunate reality, but if you don’t want to do it, don’t go a lap down.”

Even with as much experience in racing as Hinchcliffe and Rossi possess, it’s a sport where a driver always learns something new. This past weekend in New South Wales, Australia, was one of those times.

“Oh, for sure,” Hinchcliffe said. “I think every lap you do at this place puts you in a better position than the lap before. Over the race distance, you have a lot of things that you experience that are going to be valuable to know next time you find yourself in that position. For sure, there are lessons I wish I could tell my four-day younger self, but that’s the name of the game. You’ve got to go out there and pay your dues.

“We tried to run our race and make as few mistakes as possible. We made a couple little ones, I think that’s to be expected. A lot of more experienced guys made even bigger mistakes than we did, so I think there’s a lot to be proud of from the whole team.”

A main goal was to be running at the finish, and the team was able to accomplish that. With that goal accomplished, Hinchcliffe wants do to more.

“I’m dying to come do it again,” Hinchcliffe said. “It was a ton of fun. These cars are so, so unique, but they are a blast to drive when you get it right. It feels so good when you get a strong lap here. Obviously, we still have a couple of seconds to find, so I can only imagine what that feels like. But hopefully, we’ll get an opportunity to do it again one day.”

Although Hinchcliffe is eager to return, Rossi has to think about whether he wants to return to Bathurst one day.

“I don’t know yet,” Rossi said. “You may have to ask me that again later, I’m still digesting the weekend. I think the whole Walkinshaw Andretti United team did a really good job of helping James and I. We felt really comfortable in the car at the end, but ultimately we’re missing something in terms of pace and performance.

“I think the overall confidence of the car was at the limit. Just sliding around. The high-speed corners I felt really comfortable. So, I think the biggest thing is just understanding the car at its limit. If I was starting all over again tomorrow, that would have made it a much easier proposition.

“Nonetheless, I think we learned a lot.”

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