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IndyCar: ‘New era’ of Roger Penske, aeroscreen showcased at Media Day

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AUSTIN, Texas – IndyCar’s annual preseason Media Day is like the first day of school for the racing series. It’s a chance to see old faces in familiar places as well as a few new faces who hope to make the grade.

It’s a day filled with hope and optimism that 2020 will be the year speed and performance will take a driver and team to Victory Lane.

Monday’s IndyCar Media Day at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Austin had all of those characteristics.

But this year’s event was different. It was the beginning of a new era on several fronts.

IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway now are owned by Roger Penske, the most successful team owner in auto racing history. Though Penske was not part of Monday’s activities, his influence over the future and the positive reception to his leadership were certainly a main topic of conversation.

“We all have very high hopes,” Alexander Rossi said. “The Hulman-George family did a great job, but it was time for a fresh set of eyes as a group. Look at what Roger Penske has done in his career, whether it is motorsports or not, and everything is exceptional. To have the capabilities and the passion to make it work is very cool.”

Two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden has special insight into Penske. In addition to owning the series, the man also owns Team Penske, which features Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Newgarden as the drivers.

“Roger is a man who is better than all of us,” Newgarden said. “I can’t think of anyone who can keep up with him. We are very happy that the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are in the best hands of anybody in the world. He has the passion, the knowledge, the capability and the business structure to make sure that place survives for the next 100 years.”

It also was a chance for drivers and teams to give their thoughts on IndyCar’s aeroscreen. The cockpit safety enhancement will give the cars the look of a fighter jet. Several drivers and at least one team owner hope the new look of the cars will resonate with younger fans.

“I want people of our age to know how cool IndyCar racing really is,” said 23-year-old team co-owner George Michael Steinbrenner IV.

Most of the drivers have accepted the safety enhancement, but there have been a few who remain skeptical. Graham Rahal had a message for those who question the aeroscreen.

“I’m comfortable,” Rahal said. “I haven’t even driven it and I’m comfortable. I said this earlier, all these other guys can complain and make it difficult, but we are here to support IndyCar president Jay Frye and the series. We are here to lift up the series.

“We’ve all driven sports cars, and it’s not any different than that. We are going to face the same challenges. We’ve faced the rain in the sports car. We’re going to face those challenges, and we are going to make the most of it.

“It’s a fighter jet on wheels. My other dream aside from being an IndyCar driver was being a fighter pilot.

“Now, I get to mix both.

“That’s part of the evolution of life. We need to be better protected, and when we go to the ovals in particular, it’s going to be nice to be further protected.”

Cars hit the track Tuesday at nearby Circuit of the Americas (COTA) to begin two days of preseason testing.

Rain and cold temperatures are in the forecast for both days, and that has already led to some anxiety among drivers. Because COTA is a road course and IndyCar has rain tires, teams still could hit the track.

“The weather is not ideal, and that could throw a real curveball at us,” Rahal said. “If they mandate that we run or if they don’t, do the test days get shifted? If that happens, it will be a total nightmare over the next three weeks before St. Pete.”

That could throw teams testing into a mad scramble to prepare in time for the March 15 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Running in the rain could give INDYCAR some valuable feedback on the aeroscreen.

Tuesday will be the first time all cars on the track will have the open-canopy screen that will shield the driver from flying debris. Each aeroscreen will be fitted with tear offs, similar to those used on the visor of a race helmet. Because the tear offs are applied in layers, they quickly can be removed during pit stops to give the driver fresh visibility.

“Visibility in traffic will be important,” veteran oval driver and team owner Ed Carpenter said. “All of the testing has been done with one or two cars, and they have not run together for that much or that long. Some of the other oval races, if you are not running in traffic, you won’t know. That is something I need to get comfortable with.

“There is still a lot to learn with the cooling side of it. Visually, it’s no problem. The safety gains of protecting us from debris is great, but I do need to get comfortable with the visibility.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

Robert Wickens shares more positive strides toward recovery in new video

Joe Skibinski/IndyCar
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Robert Wickens has made massive steps since sustaining a spinal cord injury in an Aug. 19, 2018 crash at Pocono Raceway.

Since the accident, Wickens publicly has shared his recovery, often uploading videos of his physical rehabilitation on Twitter.

In his most recent update on Wednesday, Wickens shared a video of him walking on a treadmill. Fellow NTT IndyCar Series competitor Tony Kannan, who competes in triathlons during his spare time, also was visible running on the treadmill behind Wickens.

“When I am @TonyKannan [sic] age, I hope to run as fast as him…” Wickens tweeted. “Today was a good day!”

Wickens, who will turn 31 on March 13, first made his return to the IndyCar paddock in last year’s season opener in St. Petersburg. Since then, he’s made a return to the driver’s seat, piloting a specialized Acura NSX prior to the start of last year’s IndyCar race in his hometown of Toronto.

In September, Wickens fulfilled a vow to his wife Karli, by standing with her during their wedding. The new husband and wife also danced together during their reception.

Should Wickens fully recover to resume racing, Arrow McLaren SP co-owner Sam Schmidt has stated that the team’s No. 6 entry will be available for him to drive. Wickens continues to remain as a “driver coach and consultant” for the team.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter