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It’s back to work for 2019 NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden at Richmond test

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RICHMOND, Virginia – After three weeks of celebration, with various trips around the country to honor Josef Newgarden for his second NTT IndyCar Series championship in 2019, the alarm rang on Tuesday morning and it was time for the Team Penske driver to get back to work.

This time, it was at Richmond Raceway, a 0.750-mile short oval that returns to the NTT IndyCar Series schedule on June 27, 2020 with a 300-lap race. Tuesday was a Firestone Tire test session, and also the first time INDYCAR’s Aeroscreen ran laps at a short oval measuring under 1.5-miles in length.

Newgarden returned to his Team Penske Chevrolet for the first time since clinching the 2019 championship on September 22 at the Firestone Grand prix of Monterey. He was part of a Firestone Tire Test at the 0.750-mile Richmond Raceway on Tuesday. The Chevrolet driver for Team Penske joined five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon in the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda on a test that had three different levels including a tire test, Aeroscreen test and returning to Richmond Raceway.

“It’s nice to get back to work,” Newgarden told NBC Sports.com during a break in Tuesday’s test. “We’ve been enjoying the spoils of this year’s championship. It’s always good to get back going for another season. It’s really early days. We’ve got four or five more months to go in the offseason, but this is step one.

“To get the wheels turning, how we can win another championship? It’s exciting. I love doing this.”

It was the first time Indy cars had been on the track at Richmond since the last time the series raced here on June 27, 2009. That was the 2009 SunTrust Indy Challenge, a 300-lap race won by Dixon.

It had a rather successful run of races from 2001 to 2009.

After 10 years apart, Richmond Raceway President Dennis Bickmeier and INDYCAR President Jay Frye were able to bring the two sides together. That’s important for IndyCar as it returns to a part of the country that includes Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and North Carolina within a few hours driving distance of Richmond Raceway.

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Bruce Martin Photo

“It’s exciting to get a new addition,” Newgarden said. “We’ll treat it like a brand-new track because the cars that ran there back then were different. It’s a blank slate, very similar to our season finale this year at Laguna Seca. People had run at Laguna Seca 15 years ago, but the cars were so different, and teams were so different, it was essentially a new race track.

“That is what we get next year when we come back.”

It was the first time INDYCAR’s Aeroscreen has been tested on a short oval measuring under one mile in length. The past two weeks, the effort spearhead by INDYCAR, Dallara, Red Bull Advanced Technologies and Pankl was tested at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on October 2 and Barber Motorsports Park on October 7.

One more test remains for the driver cockpit safety screen on November 5 at Sebring Raceway.

Newgarden loves short track racing and is a two-time winner at Iowa Speedway, including his win this past season on June 20 when he led 245 of 300 laps.

“Indy cars on short tracks are nuts,” Newgarden said. “That’s why I love short track racing in an Indy car. We’ll probably be doing 185 or 190 miles an hour around here. I wish we could fit in more short track racing with IndyCar. I would be the No. 1 advocate of it.

“I can already tell this is going to be one of my favorite tracks because I like the other short tracks on the calendar. When you get 25 other Indy cars around here, it’s going to be chaotic. Iowa races so well because we can get two lanes going and Richmond has that possibility as well. If we can get two lanes going here, I think the race is going to be fun.

“Turns 1 and 2 you have to turn the car very late. It’s an easy corner that can invite you in, so you want to dive into the corner quickly, but you have to be patient because the exit tightens up. In Turns 3 and 4, it’s the complete opposite. You don’t want to dive into Turn 3, but it opens up on the exit. It gets your mind thinking a little bit. I like that variation.”

Because it was a Firestone Tire test, the important factor for both Newgarden and Dixon was to get consistency so the Firestone engineers could compare one type of tire construction and compound to another.

The tire test is important to help Firestone develop the proper tire for next year’s race.

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So far, however, Newgarden is able to draw favorable comparisons between Richmond and Iowa.

“This honestly feels like a smooth Iowa,” Newgarden continued. “That was my first though, this is a smooth version of that. It feels a little tighter, a little more compact and that makes it feel a little more intense. That’s exciting to have that extra intensity.

“I’m a big fan of short-track racing, specifically with INDYCAR. Iowa is really the only experience I have with short-track racing. I’ve always loved it.

“To get another one on the calendar has been very cool for me. I used to watch these races at Richmond when I was younger in karts. I always thought they were exciting races here.

“I’m excited to be here. Pretty easy morning for the most part just getting going. Like Scott said, we’re kind of just running through a big program for Firestone to make sure that we get everything checked off the list for them.”

If it were up to Newgarden, he would like to add six more short ovals to the NTT IndyCar Series.

“For me, as a first-timer here, I’m really excited about getting a chance to race here,” Newgarden said. “I think it’s going to be a great race on the IndyCar Series schedule.”

Tuesday’s test was also the first time Newgarden has driven a car with INDYCAR’s Aeroscreen. The October 2 test at Indianapolis featured Dixon and Newgarden’s Team Penske teammate Will Power. The October 7 test at Barber Motorsports Park had Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud behind the wheel for Chevrolet and Ryan Hunter-Reay driving the No. 28 Honda.

“It is very different from a perception standpoint,” Newgarden said. “When you get in the car for the first time, which today was my first experience, it feels like a different race car because visually it is quite different. But the more you drive it, the more you get used to it, the more it feels the same. The car feels the same and I’m driving it the same. All of the things that needed to stay the same, did.

“It’s been pretty easy for me to be positive because I don’t have any issues. I can see clearly through it. It took maybe 30, 40 laps, after that you’re used to it. It feels kind of normal at this point.

“It’s the third test of INDYCAR trying to confirm what the Windscreen is, how it can be improved. We’ve found solutions to get airflow better. Everyone at INDYCAR that has worked on the Aeroscreen has done a really good job.”

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