A good run, but Kanaan, Rossi ready to move from iRacing to real racing

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May is here, and just because there won’t be an Indianapolis 500 this month, a former winner at Indianapolis Motor Speedway still is taking the virtual Brickyard’s sanctity seriously.

After some sloppy practice races, Tony Kanaan called for more decorum in Saturday’s IndyCar iRacing Challenge series finale at Indy.

“I think we got to do a better job,” the 2013 Indy 500 winner told reporters Friday. “It was extremely frustrating (Thursday) to see how some of the guys were driving. Obviously it’s not representative of the racetrack because if we do that, we’re going to have three cars finishing the 500 this year.

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“We have actually two more mock-up races today so we have a chance to dial in and stop hitting each other. I was very frustrated. I actually at the end kind of thought that I needed to just relax a little more because it’s going to happen. We were racing extremely close. I hope we don’t race the way we did yesterday.”

The First Responder 175 will close the six-race virtual racing series with 70 laps around the famed 2.5-mile oval Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

The 33-car field will include all of the big names who likely will take the green flag in the 104th running of the Indy 500, which has been rescheduled to Aug. 23 and will be broadcast on NBC. It also will have Formula One McLaren driver Lando Norris, who became eligible by winning at Circuit of The Americas last week.

Among the former Indy 500 winners competing will be Alexander Rossi, who also was somewhat taken aback by the behavior of some peers on iRacing but seemed more amused than miffed as Kannan was.

“I just find it very interesting how kind of bent out of shape people are getting about it,” the winner of the 100th Indy 500 in 2016 said. “Like, I agree it’s frustrating because everyone puts time into this to kind of perfect their setup in terms of their sim equipment, finding the optimum line for the best lap time. There are little tricks to it you have to learn. Ultimately, I think when people get so annoyed, generally it just kind of spurs the people that don’t really care as much on to continue what they’re doing. I think Tony knows when you have a kid, if you ignore them when they’re trying to get attention, then they stop. If you keep responding it gets worse.

“I think it’s been a long road for everyone. Everyone is itching to get back into a race car. We’re now in the month of May, and we’re racing virtually at IMS. There’s a lot of pent-up kind of excitement to go racing. I think that’s what we’re kind of seeing in the homestretch here. As Tony said, every practice race we’ve done has been challenging in the past. When the actual real thing comes on Saturday, we know we have a responsibility to put on a show for NBC, our sponsors and our team, so everyone bows back a little bit. I’m not too worried about it. The driver commentary is certainly very entertaining.”

It’s been a tough transition to iRacing for championship-contending veterans such as Kanaan and Rossi. Neither was into iRacing much before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic began, and though they both invested money and time in sim rigs, both still are seeking their first podium finishes in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge.

Meanwhile, the real-life calendar provides a sobering reminder of what they rather would be doing in May. Kanaan lamented that he should be running the Indy half-marathon this Saturday.

“It’s kind of a mixed feeling of happy and sad,” Kanaan said. “Happy because we’ll get to experience the Indy 500 virtually this week, and in a way, sad that the month of May (Indy 500 celebration) is not happening this month. To be honest, nothing against virtual racing, but I think we had enough. I had enough of them. I think it’s great to end this.

“Alex and I are sharing the same feeling on this one: try to relax. Actually now we see some of the series coming back, that means there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I’m ready to go do the real thing.”

Though Rossi has gotten more active on iRacing despite some initial hesitation – entering a rally race through his connection to Travis Pastrana and finishing on the podium at Bathurst in a Supercars race – he also is ready to return to the cockpit of his Andretti Autosport Honda to contend for his first NTT Series championship.

“What I’ve learned is, I don’t know if there’s a lot of technique I’m going to develop by doing this, but it’s so hard to just do a lap without crashing that when you get put into a qualifying session and you have like one shot to kind of do your ultimate lap, it’s really difficult,” Rossi said. “The cool thing about iRacing is you have this live reference bar which is your delta to your best lap, your previous lap, whatever. You know exactly if you’re executing each corner well in a qualifying lap. I think the kind of mental just rigidity and ability to go out there and do it over one lap is something I’ve improved on since starting this process.

“Hopefully that translates to the real car, finding ways to not overthink it, just go out and let the lap time flow. We’ll see if it’s translates. I think it’s definitely one positive I’ve taken from this.”

Kanaan, who will be running ovals this season in an A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet, knows there is one thing he hopes doesn’t translate from iRacing to the real world – drivers being able to snipe at each other during a race.

“I’ve learned that we should not be talking to ourselves during the race,” the Brazilian said with a laugh. “That is actually the worst idea somebody ever made. That you can press a button on the radio and you can talk with the other driver. It’s a problem. We were talking about that yesterday.

“I want to see at the first real race we have how many guys are not going to be talking to each other because you have a beef about what happened in the first five virtual races that we did.”

Joking that he has yet to finish a sim race, Kanaan says he does find some solace in a silver keepsake after every disappointing iRacing result.

I leave my sim, look at my BorgWarner (Trophy) and say, ‘Who cares?’” Kanaan said with a laugh.

“It’s OK,” Rossi, who has the same replica trophy, replied knowingly. “Doesn’t matter.”