INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owen
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owen

Rahal, Coyne express interest in talking to James Hinchcliffe

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NTT IndyCar Series team owners Bobby Rahal and Dale Coyne both told NBCSports.com Tuesday morning they are interested in talking to popular driver James Hinchcliffe, who has been released by Arrow McLaren Racing SP.

However, both team owners admitted it will be very difficult to find the necessary sponsorship dollars to increase their respective teams to three-car operations this late in the offseason.

Although the NTT IndyCar Series season does not begin until the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 15, 2020, this is the time of year that teams need to have next season’s plans in place. For a team expanding in car count, that means hiring additional crew members and ordering extra equipment.

Both take a significant amount of money.

Rahal phoned NBCSports.com from Italy early Tuesday morning to talk about his interest in Hinchcliffe, a popular driver from Oakville, Ontario, who used to be teammates with Rahal’s son, Graham, at Newman-Haas-Lanigan Racing. Rahal is one of the owners of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, featuring Graham Rahal and 101st Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato of Tokyo.

“I think it’s a shame for James, especially at this late stage, because a lot of teams are set for next year,” Rahal told NBCSports.com. “While we would love to have James at some level, we don’t have the money at this point.

“We’ll work on seeing what is possible if we can, but the odds are not favoring that right now. I’m in Italy, and when we get back tomorrow, we’re going to start to work on this. Again, I think the odds are not in his favor, but that doesn’t mean we won’t try.”

Rahal has known Hinchcliffe since he started racing go-karts as a kid against Graham Rahal. He would like to help him revive his career.

In order to do that, however, it takes money.

“Ultimately, the funding has to be there,” Rahal said. “I like James and I want to help him, but we are at the beginning stages of that. The odds are really against him because it’s so late. The odds are not good, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t want to help him in some way.

“This really puts James in a bad spot because who is out there. He doesn’t have any sponsorship money, so that doesn’t help. We haven’t spoken with James, but I plan on speaking with him when I return from Italy at the end of the week.

“Our third deal may still be out there, but nobody has made any commitments. It could be next week, or it could be in a few months.

“Right now, we just don’t know.”

Hinchcliffe was Honda’s commercial spokesman for both Honda Canada and American Honda. The well-liked driver has a great personality and was the runner-up on “Dancing with the Stars” in 2016, just one year after he was nearly killed in an Indianapolis 500 practice crash on May 18, 2015.

Closer to home, another Honda team that could possibly expand if it can find additional sponsorship is Dale Coyne Racing.

The two-car team features four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais teamed with famed engineer Craig Hampson in the No. 18 Honda in the Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan entry. The No. 19 Honda is expected to be filled with talented 21-year-old Santino Ferrucci of Connecticut, though Coyne told NBCSports.com that deal has not been completed.

“It’s interesting timing, we’ll see,” Coyne told NBCSports.com. “I’m still confident we will have Santino back.

“It’s pretty close. I expect to have it completed by the end of next week. We test next Tuesday at Sebring, so right after that we plan on getting Santino’s deal completed.”

Ferrucci’s engineer, Michael Cannon, left Dale Coyne Racing for Chip Ganassi Racing earlier this month, but Coyne said Olivier Boisson will move over to become the engineer for the No. 19 entry.

Coyne was asked if he had interest in talking to Hinchcliffe about a third entry on the team.

“Yes,” Coyne said. “Craig Hampson has a lot of time for James Hinchcliffe. He worked with him and likes him a lot. I like James, but I’ve never worked with him, and Craig has.

“We have not had any conversations with him yet, but I heard he is going to call us today. I need to have a conversation, see where he is at, what support and sponsorship he has now. I’m sure Honda is supporting him.

“Is it enough for us to make a three-car program work?”

Both Rahal and Coyne were shocked that Hinchcliffe is no longer part of Arrow McLaren Racing SP. That team is expected to announce 2018 Indy Lights champion Pato O’Ward and 2019 Indy Lights title winner Oliver Askew as its drivers later this week.

“Where else is Hinch going to go?” Coyne asked. “It’s us or Rahal. Chip Ganassi already increased to three cars when they hired Marcus Ericsson.”

Ericsson was Hinchcliffe’s teammate this past season at Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports because it merged with McLaren. Ericsson was told at the time of the merger he would not be part of the team and had time to put a deal together with Chip Ganassi Racing.

NBCSports.com contacted Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull to gauge the team’s interest in increasing to a four-car operation to hire Hinchcliffe.

Hull declined comment because he doesn’t want to dissuade any other possibilities Hinchcliffe may have regarding a car in 2020.

“It’s disappointing to hear about the situation, but I’m sure because who he is, someone will sort it out for him,” Hull told NBCSports.com. “I wish him the best.”

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