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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 

Donny Schatz edges Kyle Larson for Outlaws victory at Lake Ozark

Trent Gower/World of Outlaws
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Donny Schatz made a last-lap pass on Kyle Larson, snatching a World of Outlaws victory Saturday night at Lake Ozark Speedway.

Larson started on the pole, led 30 of 35 laps and was in control until a caution set up a two-lap shootout to the finish before a limited crowd in Eldon, Missouri.

Schatz and Larson traded the lead twice over the final two laps, but the 10-time champion emerged with his first victory since the NOS Energy Drink Sprint Car Series returned in mid-May from a two-month layoff because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

‘THEY’VE STUCK BEHIND ME’: Kyle Larson comments on future, Outlaws plans

“Man, I don’t know what to say, but Kyle’s a damn good racer,” Schatz, who led five laps, told DirtVision after his 296th Outlaws win. “I kind of had to go where he didn’t. We got that green-white-checkered, and I decided I was going to send it. He decided the same thing.

Donny Schatz celebrates at Lake Ozark Speedway after his second Outlaws Sprint Car victory of the season (Trent Gower).

“I’m glad to get the win. It feels like it’s been forever. I’ve been out here 24 years, and every night is a learning experience still.”

Larson finished second in his fifth start since he began racing with the Outlaws after being suspended from NASCAR.

“Obviously, it would have been nice to get the win,” Larson said on DirtVision. “I figured Donny would rip the middle. The restarts before, he’d almost clear me in (turns) 3 and 4. I should have known to protect and block his momentum. I felt I exited 2 OK. We don’t have spotters or rearview mirrors so you can’t see how close he is or really hear it when the pace is so slow.

“I just didn’t do a good enough job to run a smarter final couple of laps.”

Brad Sweet, Larson’s brother in law, finished third, with Shane Stewart and David Gravel rounding out the top five.

Larson rebounded from a 10th in Friday’s feature at Lake Ozark Speedway, continuing his streak of top-10 finishes in all five of his starts since the Outlaws’ return.

“We got our car a lot better from last night, so that was a plus,” said Larson, who finished second and first in back-to-back nights last week at Federated Auto Parts Raceway at Pevely, Missouri. “These guys are really tough. To be on the podium with Donny and Brad, they’ve won lots of big races and championships, it’s nice. I just didn’t do what I needed to do that last restart.”

Larson nearly had a flawless night Saturday, turning a 11.426-second lap to capture his second pole position this season and won the pole dash to start first in the feature.

Larson, who was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing from his NASCAR Cup Series ride last month for using a racial slur in an iRacing event, said last week that he plans to run several more NOS Energy Sprint Car Series races this year.

Larson remains indefinitely suspended by NASCAR but was approved to race by the Outlaws after completing sensitivity training.