First IndyCar victory was meaningful in many ways for Felix Rosenqvist

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The long wait for his first NTT IndyCar Series victory was followed by a long drive for Felix Rosenqvist.

After winning Sunday at Road America, the Swede made the five-hour trip “straightaway” to his home in Indianapolis for a reunion with his girlfriend, Caroline, whose return to the United States had been delayed because of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic-related travel restrictions.

“She’s been back in Sweden for three months, but she came back in Indy the same day as the race,” Rosenqvist told NBC Sports. “(The victory) was actually the best possible way to celebrate after three months being apart.”

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It was among many reasons that the Chip Ganassi Racing driver savored the breakthrough in the 21st start of his IndyCar career, which made big headlines in his native country’s major newspapers.

Joe Skibinski/IndyCar

Rosenqvist, 28, showed massive potential amidst some major heartbreaks last year for a proud No. 10 team that had gone nearly six years without a victory. He then weathered an agonizing start this season as teammate Scott Dixon opened 2020 with three consecutive victories.

The nadir was a crash while running second with 10 laps remaining in the June 6 opener at Texas Motor Speedway. Rosenqvist spun after forcing the issue on the treacherous outside in Turn 2 while navigating lapped traffic and trying to chase down the dominant Dallara-Honda of Dixon. The move earned a call with team owner Chip Ganassi.

“Obviously it was a situation neither him or me wanted to have,” Rosenqvist said. “We know that we are quick and can do great things, but that whole situation was obviously suboptimal.

“Chip’s very short. He just told me, ‘Let’s try to get the points here. And not do rookie mistakes.’ Because I’m not a rookie anymore.”

Rosenqvist said he appreciated the reminder of Ganassi’s direct and no-nonsense leadership style.

“Even with the tough start we had, he’s been very supportive and hasn’t been any strange feelings or anything,” he said. “He’s just been pushing all of us along. And yeah, I think that’s good with him. He will really credit you when you do well, and then he will try to help you in any possible way when you’re not performing.

“It’s very easy, and it doesn’t take many seconds to have a talk with him because he’s honest. There’s so many people in this business that can say one thing and then mean another behind your back. With Chip, what you know you always will have is full support in trying to accomplish the job and also full honesty. That’s all you can ask for.”

Ganassi’s oft-tweeted motto is “#ILikeWinners,” and Rosenqvist was knocking on the door of becoming one since the March 10, 2019 season opener when he finished fourth and led 31 laps in St. Petersburg, Florida, in his IndyCar debut. Though slower to adapt on ovals, he finished second at Mid-Ohio and Portland en route to sixth in the points standings as the 2019 rookie of the year.

That promise made the mediocre results early in 2020 – his best finish was 15th in three races prior to his victory – even more exasperating, particularly when juxtaposed against Dixon’s hot start.

Felix Roesnqvist won in his No. 10 Dallara-Honda by 2.8699 seconds Sunday at Road America (Joe Skibinkski/IndyCar).

“First of all, I’m happy for Scott because if he does well, everyone is happy on our team, and that’s what drives us forward,” he said. “But obviously it’s frustrating to see the potential the car has, and you’re not able to use it. … When you have your day, that’s when you have to make the most of it. That’s the lesson I’ve learned. Sunday we had one of those days and realized early in the race that, ‘OK, this might be a good chance to win the race, and we have to go get it.’ Every race will not be like that, but the one chance you get, you’ve got to take it.”

It still wasn’t easy as first-lap contact with Graham Rahal damaged the left-front wheel hub of Rosenqvist’s No. 10 Dallara-Honda, costing his pit crew a few extra seconds to change tires on every pit stop.

By running what Ganassi engineer Chris Simmons tweeted were “40 straight qualifying laps,” Rosenqvist still managed to track down Pato O’Ward (who also was seeking his first victory) to make the winning pass with two laps remaining

“That was really big and showed even more what a great race we had that we managed to win it even with that damage,” he said. “I like those kinds of races. You’re not really dependent on other people or how the strategy is. You just get clean air and do what you do best and go fast in the car. That’s what I love. You just go into that rhythm and flow because it’s all going to come down to the last couple of laps and every tenth of a second matters.”

The victory mattered especially to the crew of the No. 10, which won three consecutive championships with Dario Franchitti from 2009-11 but hadn’t been in victory lane since Aug. 30, 2014 in Fontana, California, with Tony Kanaan.

Felix Rosenqvist said longtime No. 10 crew chief Ricky Davis, who has worked at Ganassi for more than 20 years, got choked up Sunday after the victory.

“He has kind of joked that, ‘I didn’t think I would live to see another win,’ ” Rosenqvist said. “He was very emotional about it. He definitely deserves it. Every time we show up he’s just so motivated and ready to go win. That’s why we do it.

“They’ve been fighting so hard for this win. It’s been kind of heartbreaking in the short time I’ve been with the team how close we’ve been, especially with the expectations we had. We felt we can win races. Just hasn’t happened. It was a great monkey off our back. Just a great reminder of how good my crew is. It was so cool to see them celebrating after the race.”

Felix Rosenqvist and his No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing crew celebrated their Road America victory in socially distanced style (Joe Skibinski/IndyCar).

IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.